Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Meditating on The Witcher

Let’s talk about the new Netflix show The Witcher. Note: I do not play a lot of computer games, so I have absolutely no knowledge of the game other than it exists. Therefore, I am coming at this purely as a sci-fi/fantasy fan.

Also, Spoiler Alert.

I really wanted to like this. I really did. It has all the fundamental building blocks to be a great show, but the folks who wrote/produced/edited this thing didn’t trust the material, leaned on a bunch of unnecessary crutches and ruined what could have been great TV, let alone great fantasy.

Let me start with the good stuff. From the perspective of lore, world-building, and ideas I can steal to include in my fantasy RPGs there is a lot here to like:

1) The magic system is really fascinating. Spell casters take pure Chaos and shape into into spells, but there is always a cost — a balance. For the most powerful, this involves becoming mutated and becoming sterile. Some have a choice in this transformation, others (the Witchers) do not. Regardless, this sacrifice yields a much longer life than that of a non-spell caster. This reality was a central theme of the show — the choice between the creative power of parenthood vs. the political and physical power that magic brings. Unfortunately, this theme was grossly under developed.

2) The politics of magic is really interesting, as well. There are a couple of institutions that represent magic-use in the Witcher world. One was destroyed (the source of the Witchers) and one is what amounts to a Wizard’s Guild. They find and train all the sorcerers in the world, give them access to their power, give them a family and a home, and then send them out as advisors to various political posts around the continent. Thus, they maintain their own power by influencing the politics. At the same time, they are in a position to mitigate the destructive force of war. Thus, there is a lot of room for good, evil, chaotic and lawful sorcerers to rub shoulders, be friends, allies and political adversaries without the need to kill each other. Fascinating stuff.

3) The Witcher plays with a newer fantasy trope of elves and humans being enemies because the humans learned/stole elven magic and then drove them out of their traditional lands. There is an interesting twist hidden in the lore, however. The humans, being the creative and adaptive beings that they are, learned to use magic better than the elves. This actually helps explain elven level limits in older rulesets of D&D. Humans just do this stuff better. There is also this dark undertow with magic (as represented by some interesting set designs) that all of humanity’s power is built upon the skulls of elves.

4) For those following JB’s meditations on the 1e Ranger class over at BX Blackrazor, the Witcher is a fascinating archetype for the Supernatural Ranger.

5) The Law of Surprise is a really interesting cultural quirk that becomes potentially deadly when backed up by the threat of Destiny, where Destiny is a force that one can follow or resist, but the latter comes with a cost. The Law of Surprise is a favor given to someone who does another a great favor (such as saving a life). The one who invokes the Law of Surprise is owed whatever unexpected windfall next appears in the life of the one owing a favor. This includes children (which is a major plot point).

Unfortunately, all of this fertile soil was left fallow by the creators of this show. Maybe it was fear of the computer game to TV/Movie curse, but they leaned heavily on a bunch of crutches that just ruined the show:

1) Gratuitous violence, nudity, and sex. None of this was necessary. It drove no plot. No narrative point hinged on any of these scenes. It was all done because they could. The problem is two-fold. First, we live in a post-Weinstein and #metoo world. This stuff no longer is titillating, it is down-right uncomfortable. Secondly, it undercut a lot of the themes that are present in the story. Witchers are not supposed to have emotions, so why does Geralt seek out so much sex?

Yennefer wants to be loved and not treated as an object to be sold for a mere 4 crowns. So, why does she so freely sleep around? It cheapened her character to the point of making what should have been one of the most sympathetic characters into one of the most unlikable. This was especially true when later in the show, she was seeking a way to become fertile again so she could have kids. Geralt rightly mocks her because she would make a horrible mother. If, however, all that nudity and sex had been absent and had she been rejected despite the beauty she obtained through becoming a sorcerer, then her quest to be accepted and loved by her own child would have not only been understandable, but relatable and tragic. Geralt’s words would have stung rather than just being the truth.

I daresay, that if the creators of this show had given themselves the challenge to make this G-rated, this show would have been far, far better. The necessary plot points, the violence off-screen, and the creativity required to pull all that off would have had the potential to make this show great.

2) The flashback. I DESPISE the trope of using the first 5 to 15 minutes of a show to set-up an exciting, in-your-face moment to grab an audience’s attention and then spoil everything by doing a flashback to “PICK YOUR TIME FRAME HERE earlier.” I will grant that in the right hands it can work really well, but 9 out of 10 times in just robs all dramatic tension from the rest of the show because we all already know what is going to happen, because we just saw it.

Credit where credit is due, The Witcher tries to play with this trope by neglecting to tell its audience that there is a flashback. Thus, they avoid immediately robbing the audience of dramatic tension. The problem is, telling three tales simultaneously that are 30+ years apart just ends up being confusing. There were several moments when I was completely taken out of a scene because I was trying to figure out if these were the same people I saw die several episodes ago. This feeling was only made worse by introducing a doppelgänger into the “future” timeline.

This show would have been much, much better had they trusted their material and made one of two decisions. The one more easily done with the material they shot for the show would have been to tell parallel stories of Yennefer and Geralt playing on the themes of choice and the desire/lack of desire for love and children. Yennefer wants to be loved and wants children. Geralt largely does not. Yet, it is Geralt who falls in love with Yennefer only to be rejected because Geralt is destined to Ciri because of the Law of Surprise. That would have been awesome. The harder option would have been go chronologically from the opening sequence (which, I assume is going to be the story told in Season 2 coming in 2021).

3) The Serendipity Syndrome. This is a name I have for the romantic comedy trope where two people are shown to be destined to get together, but don’t actually end up together until the last minute of the story. This is exemplified by the 2001 movie Serendipity. Rather than being satisfying and fun, this trope is excruciatingly frustrating. It is easy to keep a destined couple apart. It is much more difficult to write a relationship well. Therefore, this whole trope is more of a cop-out than trope. Geralt and Ciri do not actually meet until the last 30 seconds of 8 hour-long episodes. By the time I got half-way through the series, I was fast-forwarding through a lot of scenes because I just didn’t care and I was increasingly aware that this trope was most likely going to rear its ugly head. If this were a book, I would have thrown it in the trash to save someone the frustration of having to read the thing.

4) Anachronism. Finally, we come to the character of Jaskier the Bard whose introduction is a blues riff being played on a lute. This stuff just completely ruins the suspension of disbelief and every time he showed up on the screen I was taken out of the show. If you are going to have a bard character, take the time to place that character inside the world, instead of ours. This character was not only awful, but succeeded in getting me to hate the bard class even more than I already do.

That’s my take on the show. I can’t bring myself to recommend it, despite being a fount for a lot of good FRPG ideas and inspiration. My guess is that you would be better served just playing the computer game or spending some time looking through a Wiki.


JB said...

So, I happen to know that when the show runners were developing The Witcher, they lifted much of their material from the Mike Pondsmith RPG, or at least used it for the "series bible." How much of the world-building material is Pondsmith's and how much is from the video game...that I can't say; but if you LIKE the setting material you might check out the RPG, at least for its notes.

As for the gratuitous ugly: I haven't watched the show, but my initial thought was that they're probably just copy-catting shows like Game of Thrones (which achieved popularity in part due to its intersection of fantasy and smut). Then I read up on the original Polish video game and it appears the protagonist's sexual conquests were actually a large part of game play (though that in itself may have been an appeal to the lowest common denominator).

I know you've written before about your frustration with the lack of entertainment programming (in film and TV) that fails to match your values (or promote values you can laud); I'm kind of surprised you're still trying to find something to recommend...and I appreciate your willingness to do so. I hope SOMEthing comes along that floats your boat...for all our sakes!
; )

Happy holidays, Padre. May the joy of the season fill your heart and carry you into the New Year with gladness!

FrDave said...

A Merry Christmas to you too, JB. I will have to look into grabbing a copy of the RPG. Thanks for that tasty tid bit.

I grew up loving movies and TV. They are a powerful medium. For that reason we all should be critical, and by critical I mean to do what I hopefully do when I write posts like this one — explain how something fell short so that someone can learn from the mistakes.

BTW, values are not always a make-or-brake for me. One of my all-time favorite films is Alexander Nevsky — a Stalinist propaganda film if I ever saw one. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to suppose that I do not have a very high opinion of Stalinism.

If this show really wanted to pay homage to the original Polish version of the game, fine. Give me a good reason to believe that a guy who would rather not choose a lesser evil, that puts his own life at risk in order to prevent killing when it isn't necessary, and has lived long enough to know the kind of damage one night stands can do to a young woman's life (especially in a medieval context) would engage in that activity. Make me believe.

Violence and nudity can be powerful tools in telling a visual story. Mel Gibson makes stunning use of both in Passion, for example. I just ask that folks who make TV and movies use them well.

JB said...

I’m right there with you.

Troy said...

I would say they hedged their bets porting a video game (which is based on a book) because there was some IP issues over the year or so between the video game company and the author.

The author loves the Geralt actor so that’s saying something.

FrDave said...

I agree with the author, Henry Cavill did an outstanding job of making what could have been a very unlikable character relatable and sympathetic. He is the main reason I kept coming back to watch the show.

Ifryt said...

Very interesting thoughts, FrDave (as usual :)
For your consolation, the books as much worse in regards to violence, sex and anachronisms. The TV show toned it down actually. I'm Pole and fantasy fan, and Sapkowski's books are real popular here, but because of these issues I never liked them much.

Unknown said...

Three things:
1) Sex is something people don't seek only due to love, or whores would have been out of business instead of a (semi) successful business model for millennia. So the answer to "why are people who can neither procreate nor feel much sleeping around so much" is "because they find it pleasurable". Most of us do, too.
2) At least in the books, Geralt kinda points out that it seems his mutation hasn't quite worked to dull him in the emotion department. It's possible that no witcher is actually unfeeling and it's just part of the legend and their training, which yes, does aim to transform then into (monster) killing machines.
3) Violence and the horrors of it is a huge part of Sapkowski's work. So if you felt revolted: good job for the show. You were meant to.

That said, I don't know whether any of those have been pointed in the show. I gave up on it due to it not respecting, IMO, the source material. So I do agree with your final estimate (drop it), just not with the reasoning.
...which is, amusingly, a typical nerd thing to do.