February 12, 2015

Winter Dragon drags on

Early on Monday morning, when most of us were sleepily finishing problem sets and cramming for the last round of midterms, a TV “pilot” slipped past the radar on FXX.  The show, titled Winter Dragon, was mostly unremarkable: low production values, no recognizable names besides star Billy Zane (the designated bad guy from Titanic), and... wait.  Based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series? Some quick thoughts:

Wait, what?

You mean THAT Wheel of Time?  The tent-pole, contemporary fantasy series that didn’t get the HBO softcore treatment?  The one that institutions no smaller than NBC have tried and failed to adapt in both film and television?  Yeah, that one.  After years of failure, Winter Dragon dropped inauspiciously at 1:30 a.m. EST.  As of this writing, there is not even an IMDB page, leaving potential viewers with many questions, among them, “What’s FXX?”, “Is Billy Zane still alive?”, and, “Is it actually any good?”

No, it is not.

The pilot is a straight adaptation of the prologue from the series’ first entry, The Eye of the World, wherein Lews Therin Telamon (Zane), a.k.a. The Dragon, is visited by ancient foe and generic, cloaked villain Ishamael, the Betrayer of Hope.  If you’re not keeping up with these terms, don’t worry; the characters will repeat them at least 11 times.

The show itself seems to have been written and shot in the most economical way possible.  Most of the dialogue is ripped directly from the book and all of the action takes place in what is essentially one large room.  Dialogue is filmed in elementary shot-reverse-shot and virtually everything else is some variation of a long tracking shot following Zane around a room as he calls for his dead wife.  This makes a fair amount of sense; according to director Seda James’ Twitter, virtually the entire 22-minute episode was shot in one day.  For readers who might not realize, that’s akin to writing a novella in a day.  The result is not going to be pretty.

Billy Zane is still alive.

I literally cannot think of a single relevant production Billy Zane has been a part of since Titanic, and this one does not break his streak.  He pretty much meanders around the set wearing fancy clothing and reciting even more meandering lines. The character he is playing is meant to be insane, but if I didn’t know the dialogue from the book, it might look like he was just ad-libbing. He is so totally out of it.  But no one wants to see an actor and his dreams die out, so it’s cool just to see him work.

This has to be some kind of tax fraud scheme.

Actually, that’s not too far off. While author Jordan was alive, the TV and film rights to his series were purchased by Red Eagle Entertainment, which proceeded to do nothing with the property while Jordan succumbed to terminal illness and HBO turned A Song of Ice and Fire into one of the most important pillars of cable television.  The Game of Thrones envy is pretty clear in Winter Dragon; the title sequence and music is a pretty direct, if low-quality, reproduction of the former’s iconic introduction, and the set and costume designs try and fail to evoke the same aesthetic.

While Game of Thrones airs in the Sunday primetime slot on creative juggernaut HBO, Winter Dragon premiered in the early-morning hours on FXX, the spillover channel for FX, which itself started out as an outlet for Fox’s pet projects.  After some poking around, it became clear that Red Eagle may well have wanted this to fly under the radar.  There’s a term in the industry called “ashbinning,” wherein a poor product in an established franchise is created exclusively for the purpose of maintaining development rights.  This can take the form of a professional production (such as this year’s Fantastic Four) but more often than not it means a hack job made in a week to hit a deadline.  In this case, the deadline for the Wheel of Time rights was this past Wednesday.

A Wheel of Time adaptation is farther, not closer.

Red Eagle has shown no ability to adapt Wheel of Time, so the fact that they have successfully made this pilot to hold on to the rights actually decreases the chances of a proper adaptation.  Jordan’s wife hinted at legal action this week; coincidentally, pilot director Seda passed away suddenly following a car accident.  No one knows what Red Eagle hoped to accomplish by holding onto these rights; somehow I don’t think we’ll see a Billy Zane-headed show coming this fall, certainly not on a budget approaching anything like Game of Thrones.  But I wouldn’t mind watching a half-hour variety show of Zane rambling at no one in particular.  At this point, that looks more likely than a proper adaptation.