Netflix’s release of the “The Witcher” in December 2019 was a welcome — and genuine — surprise for TV fantasy fans made cynical by a decade of “Game of Thrones” and mostly failed “Game of Thrones” wannabes. This series was fun, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it managed to avoid all the pitfalls other would-be successors to the Iron Throne had fallen into. It didn’t overload on sex or violence, and it delighted with ear-wormy tunes like “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.”
Sadly, “The Witcher: Blood Origin,” Netflix’s new spinoff, is a disappointment. Unnecessarily violent, it seems to have forgotten what made the original such an effective escapist treat. It’s a bad sign for the franchise, already suffering from the coming loss of star Henry Cavill.
Not that the original “Witcher” wholly depended on Cavill as its titular lead. The series wisely transformed into an ensemble creation, decentering legendary witcher Geralt of Rivia, a classic heroic white male. By elevating Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) to leads in their own right, the series seemed to be building a solid foundation. But Cavill’s enthusiasm remained a key part of the series’ charm, as much as his Superman-esque physique. (The man really filled out a bathtub.)
Netflix has already attempted one spinoff, “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf,” an animated feature film that came and went with barely a headline. “Blood Origin” is the first live-action spinoff, a prequel deep-dive that chronicles how witchers came to be.
For the four-part series, showrunners rounded up a bevy of talent, with Michelle Yeoh headlining as part of her ongoing career renaissance (Yeohnaissance?) alongside British up-and-comers Sophia Brown, Laurence O’Fuarain and Mirren Mack. The series also features significant names such as Sir Lenny Henry and Minnie Driver, along with original fan-favorite Joey Batey, best known as the bard behind “Toss a Coin.”
Part of the problem stems from the show’s chosen narrative — a group of disparate warriors come together to fight a growing evil. The show even acknowledges how many fantasy films rely on this “Avengers-like” story line. But “The Witcher” is also based on old school tropes. Season one featured Geralt having adventures based on classic Eastern European fairy tales, the same ones Disney has been telling and retelling for decades (albeit in neutered form). Season two was a hero’s journey straight out of the Joseph Campbell playbook. There’s no reason these stories cannot be given a fresh retelling (again).
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Unfortunately, “Blood Origin” doesn’t do much with its excellent pieces. The four-part format feels too short (one of the few times I’ll say that about a show), like a movie that was divided into quadrants. The relationship between Brown’s character, Éile, and Yoeh’s sword master, Scian, is a perfect example of the problem. Éile is the protege of Scian, but rather than explore the relationship between these two warrior women, the series leans too heavily on the classic “master-and-student” relationship. Worse, it seems to believe the women must earn fans’ respect through violence, as if spilling extra blood is a balance equation for gender. It’s incredibly disheartening.
And, of course, there’s the prequel problem. By making “Blood Origin” only four episodes, there’s not nearly enough time to try to build a world that existed 1,200 years ago. As a result, the time and place seems far thinner than the show it’s derived from. On the other hand, too much time is spent trying to tie the prequel events to the main series, as if every action must have an equal and opposite reaction in the first two seasons of “The Witcher.”
“Blood Origin” is only the latest in a slew of super high-priced fantasy prequels; both “House of the Dragon” (a “Game of Thrones” prequel) and “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” debuted earlier this year. Both of those stories — perhaps because they are coming years after their parent shows finished — are at least treated as if they are worth watching for their own sake. “Blood Origin” just feels like a side quest, something that’s only worthwhile for superfans. Perhaps that’s all Netflix believes it needs to keep the franchise going. But few viewers will think it worth tossing coins to this installment.