Heroic or medieval fantasy has never had an easy time on the Tube. The related genres of horror and urban fantasy have done just fine: Thriller, Twilight Zone, Buffy are the mostobvious examples. But the particular problems of filming a fantastic world - costumes, SFX, elaborate sets - have led to sword and sorcery of the low budget camp variety, such as Xena: Warrior Princess or Merlin.
That we now have two shows dealing with medieval fantasy that actually have large budgets is due to two trends; the critical and financial success of cable adult oriented drama series such as Deadwood and the The Wire, and the terrifyingly lucrative Lord of the Rings series in cinema. Not only did Peter Jackson demonstrate how much cash could be made in the heroic fantasy genre, he also used special effects in an unprecedented way to make the world and creature building affordable.
HBO’s Game of Thrones and Showtime’s Camelot are both fairly large budget fantasy series that have some points in common; intrigue over rulership of a warring land, sweeping shots of real and CGI landscapes, nudity (mostly of the nubile female variety), sudden violence, and as a sign of the dark ages none but the prettiest of the leads use hair conditioner. The series part ways in content, writing, and direction.
Camelot often seems to be shot with a shaky cam - as if hand-held cameras provide verisimilitude in the fifth century A.D. The sets vary from fairly convincing to a village in the first episode which resembled a low budget renaissance faire. The CGI castles have those Ridley Scott style CGI birds fluttering around them. The dialogue is often a bit too modern. And the acting varies wildly. Joseph Cambell Bower’s Arthur and Peter Mooney’s Kay play as if they have a real relationship. Joseph Fein’s Merlin often speaks in short growly sentences of one word. At. A. Time. Like. This. His quiet noshing on the scenery should be more fun than it is, and it isn’t. The standout is Eva Green as Morgan. She’s found the exact right tone in the midst of the hyperbolic action going on around her, and even her overacting appears calculated to manipulate the characters around her, rather than the audience. If the show were better, she would be looking at an Emmy nod.
A few weeks ago, on March 22nd, William Shatner turned 80, followed closely by Leonard Nimoy, who had his 80th birthday on March 26th. A reminder to science fiction fans who remember the original Star Trek series, or watched it in syndication, of our own aging, and a reminder as well of how long science fiction has found fans on the tube. This also may be a marker of how little we’ve progressed with science fiction on TV.
Shatner, ubiquitous, often ironically egotistical, strangely charismatic, much parodied, is obviously now a TV icon. His career on the fantastic screen began with a role in an episode of the Twilight Zone in 1960 titled “The Nick of Time,” which was fantasy. In 1963 he starred in one of the classic science fiction TZs “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” as an aviophobe who spends a terrified flight watching a gremlin tear apart the wing engine of his plane. It’s a touchstone of TV horror, and it’s an excellent performance by Shatner. (And yes, the gremlin looks sort of like a tele-tubby on the Twilight Zone DVD - a result of the DVD makers brightening the image too much. Turn down your brightness and turn up the contrast when viewing.) Shatner also starred in The Outer Limits episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.” In this fairly limp entry of the usually excellent anthology series Shatner plays an astronaut who has been possessed by a Venusian, who resembles a giant Sea Monkey, and is saved by a sauna and the power of love...
In the first sequence of the first episode of The Walking Dead, deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is searching abandoned cars along a deserted road for gasoline when he spots a little girl moving among the vehicles. He calls out to her, and she approaches, a zombie child, bloody, torn face, exposed teeth, and pale eyes - moppet as monster. She staggers towards him hungrily and Grimes, wincing, shoots her in the head. It’s a graphic and bloody scene, and one of the most shocking cold opens in the history of T.V. It contains so many of the elements of the zombie genre - the isolation of a last human, the post-apocalyptic landscape scattered with abandoned artifacts of human existence, the search for resources, the monster as someone we would normally protect, and the breaking of social taboos. The unease of seeing taboos subverted - cannibalism on the side of the zombies, almost all other social conventions on the side of the humans - is a chief appeal and an important source of unease in the zombie narrative.