The Witcher review: Brimming with potential
Mike Williams | On 20, Dec 2019
The is a spoiler-free review of The Witcher Season 1, based on the opening episode.
With Game of Thrones leaving a bigger hole than a Viserion ice blast to The Wall in both our personal lives and modern pop culture, TV fans have spent the past six months yearning for something – anything – to fill that unmistakable void. Of course, a Henry Cavill-led fantasy show based on a series of novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and a trio of award-winning video games, does not guarantee an instant answer nor odds-on successor to George RR Martin’s epic, but showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich does lay down some strong groundwork for The Witcher after a wobbly start.
There are a few ways audiences will absorb The Witcher – either possessing first-hand experience of both game and book, or, like this writer, completely lacking context to dive straight into its strange world for the first time. The show should, in theory, cater for both if it wishes to avoid the pitfalls of other cancelled-too-soon series, so it’s imperative that newcomers aren’t alienated while the fanbase isn’t patronised. A tricky balance, for sure, but have its creators managed to appease every demographic or none at all?
A dark, murky beginning sees Geralt of Rivia (a chisel-jawed, hench Cavill) do battle with a fairly tame river beast. It’s not the most explosive of intros, even though he emerges with little more than a wet mane of glistening hair. The opening 20 minutes is scene setting: characters are somewhat nonchalantly introduced, contextual tidbits are thrown into dialogue-heavy conversations, and we are privy to the various locales around an enchanting and somehow familiar-feeling world.
For anyone demanding to be hooked from the get-go, don’t expect to be entranced immediately: there are substantial blocks of quite lengthy talks between people of whom we know little but for anyone who entered Game of Thrones blind (again, this writer) it is much the same feeling of having virtually no grasp on names, places, or historical events one bearded face recalls to another.
But the struggle, at least for the opening half hour of The Witcher, is to connect with Cavill’s emotionless, genetically enhanced human. Despite his sterling effort in Mission: Impossible Fallout, we’ve yet to see him flex his acting credentials as much as we have his biceps, and here the stone-cold drabness of Geralt is an obstacle at first. As it moves along – albeit at a snail’s pace – it becomes easier to see a personality beneath the initial beefcake devoid of humour or charisma.
The other central character Episode 1 hones in on is Ciri (Freya Allan), a naive and particularly vulnerable princess, with, we sense, far more to her than initially meets the eye. While being a world away from the wilderness inhabited by Geralt, you can’t help but assume these two will inevitably cross paths and forge a protagonistic pairing that forms the crux of the show.
But it’s not all merely about characters talking, even though that occurs a little too frequently. While the series is often sluggish in getting from point A to point B, a healthy splattering of violence is never far away and we get glimpses into the bloody potential The Witcher has to offer. (It appears to be inspired by Thrones when it comes to sword-fighting and any sort of battle sequence and, to its credit, performs strongly.)
The biggest issue with its debut episode, then, is it’s not terribly engaging. It’s all rather serious and lacks any genuine personality to begin with and, for the uninitiated at least, that’s a problem when it comes to compelling a Netflixer in 2019 to see a series through. Despite it taking its sweet time to unravel its intent, though, we are gifted with a hint of a promising story towards the opening episode’s conclusion. In no hurry in getting where it wants to go, the overall takeaway is that after the credits roll there is just enough intrigue for us to want to see where it goes – and see how certain characters will inevitably cross paths and wreak havoc on their oppressors.
The Witcher: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.