Recently I watched the first season (twelve episodes) of a new Amazon Prime “original” series, The Legend of Vox Machina. I say “original” because Amazon didn’t originate it and, according to Wikipedia, the first ten episodes were funded by a Kickstarter campaign, so it seems Amazon didn’t really even pay for it.
On the other hand, by acquiring the rights and putting it on their streaming service, they allowed this animated series to be decidedly adult (which, in the USA, means over-the-top violence and gore with some bits of coy T&A because Americans wallow in blood and are scared to death of (yet obsessed with) sex… which is a weird definition of “adult” given it’s what I remember about being 12 years old).
That said, it has some good bits and nothing that really pissed me off.
It reminded me of the Amazon “original” series Invincible on two counts. Firstly, most obviously, because of all the bloody violence. Secondly, in being an alternate take on a well-established trope. On the other hand, I gave Invincible some props for its deconstruction of the superhero trope and high marks for its originality and freshness (such as when “Superman” brutally murders the rest of the “Justice League”).
Vox Machina didn’t seem very original (let alone deconstructive), but it was still fun to watch (not everything has to be cutting edge). After some reading on Wikipedia, I see why, though. The show descends from the Dungeons & Dragons culture, which has been around for quite some time (and has even more ancient antecedents).
In general, I think it’s hard to find a medieval fantasy story that isn’t derivative of Tolkien (although I can name a few, starting with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series). Full disclosure, I’ve never played, nor had any interest in playing, D&D. Role playing just isn’t my cup of tea. (I did sometimes, long ago, play Moria.)
Vox Machina began public life in 2015 as the web series Critical Role, in which professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. What’s referred to as Campaign One consists of 115 episodes and features the group Vox Machina. The web series is rooted in an actual game of D&D done to celebrate Liam O’Brien’s birthday, and everyone had so much fun they kept playing. For two years.
Then they were approached about turning the game into a web series. Critical Role went on to campaigns two and three, with different parties in each and the latter apparently still airing. Meanwhile, in 2017, there began an irregularly published comic series, Vox Machina Origins, that has put out (only!) 15 issues and is apparently still extant.
Which is all to put the double-quotes around “original” Amazon series. (For that matter, Invincible is based on a 114 issue comic book series that ran from 2003–2018.)
The above should not be taken as a complaint. It’s just history, but it does explain why I didn’t find The Legend of Vox Machina terribly fresh in terms of story. The general vibe has been around for almost half a century.
Which also should not be taken as (much of) a complaint. What matters is whether a story appeals and engages. While it didn’t set off fireworks for me, I did enjoy it, and it has some nice beats that I especially enjoyed. There are plenty of laughs and some very touching moments. Overall, I give it thumbs up and recommend it for those who like medieval fantasy and aren’t put off by language, violence, and gore.
One thing that especially redeems it is being animation rather than live-action. Animation provides a distance and a surreal nature that allows what is actually complete surreal nonsense to land better. The nature of such stories demands animation.
[We now have a canonical example of what I mean. The anime Cowboy Bebop is one of the best animated stories ever told. There are some anime movies that compare, but I can’t think of a TV series that touches it. The Netflix live-action version, though, immediately suffered from being live-action and got the quickly canceled fate it richly deserved. (I bailed after three episodes. Being live action by far wasn’t the only problem.)]
The story involves a band of seven close-knit friends seeing adventure, wealth, and a good time. On the other hand, they’re a bit inexperienced and often mess things up. They’re prone to hard partying and getting into fights. Given their druthers, they’d rather be drinking.
The band consists of:
Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Taliesin Jaffe), human. He is the scion of Whitestone, but he barely escaped a takeover by the evil and magical Briarwoods in which his family was brutally murdered. He has vowed vengeance, especially for his sister. His weapon is a gun he invented (although there turns out to be a bit more to that story).
Vex’ahlia “Vex” Vessar (Laura Bailey). She’s a half-elf ranger who has studied dragons after her mother was killed by one. She also has vengeance in her heart towards that dragon. She is twin sister to Vax.
Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), a gnome and cleric of the goddess Everlight. Her arc regarding the conflict between her spiritual and adventuress natures was one of the story beats I especially enjoyed. She finds that what matters is who you are in your heart.
All-in-all, quite the merry band.
The series consists of a short arc (first two episodes) that brings them to the attention of the leaders of the realm, Tal’Dorei. Their (surprising to everyone) success against a mysterious and very deadly foe earns them a place as the heroes of the realm.
But at a banquet meant as a celebration and meeting of other rulers kicks off an arc that covers the remaining ten episodes. It all begins when it turns out that two of the invited guests are the Briarwoods who murdered Percy’s family and took over Whitestone.
A fight between Vox Machina and the Briarwoods (who kick their ass and take their leave) gets the heroes in deep hot water with the rulers. The group is confined to their quarters, but all Percy can think about is going after the Briarwoods.
And, of course, they do, both for vengeance and to clear their names.
The narrative follows the expected path without major surprises (although there is a small one that I won’t reveal). But it’s a pretty solid story with plenty of action for excitement and laughs for fun. (I very much prefer the leavening of humor in stuff like this. It brightens what would otherwise be too dark and depressing.)
There are the epic long-running battles familiar to anime fans, as well as some familiar anime animation tropes, especially regarding the characters’ suppressed romantic feelings. The foes they fight seem almost unbeatable, but the group manages to rally and find a way. And with only twelve episodes, the battles don’t run on as they do in some anime series (I’ve seen single battles that lasted ten episodes or more).
The language (which can be crude) is entirely modern as are many of the references. For example, when Scanlon hears that the group will be acting as rebels against the rule of the Briarwoods, he’s hopeful he can wear a beret (he even sings about it).
For another example, a spell that goes: “Disgusting mud and spit; turn into some healing shit!” This is not a show one can (or should) take too seriously.
With only twelve half-hour episodes, it’s not much of an investment, so I’d say it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something fun. If the first episode doesn’t grab you, though, the rest of the season won’t. For those who stick with it, be assured a second season is in the works (which is good considering the rather huge cliff they’re hanging off at the end).
Speaking of live-action shows, I tried Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, but bailed after two minutes. I could tell it was going to be one of those “woke” shows pushing THE MESSAGE, and I want no part of that.
There is a saying, “Get Woke, Go Broke,” which we’ve seen play out time and again (very recently with Doctor Who, a show that used to be a favorite of mine but which now I can hardly stand to watch).
Let me be as clear and specific as possible: This has absolutely nothing to do with the motivations for waking up to very real social problems. I’ve been onboard with that since the 1960s civil rights and feminist movements (and we have so far to go).
But when you corrupt art with politics, when your stories reek of it, you are turning out worthless pointless crap. The good stories, the ones people remember, are always the ones that burned in the storyteller’s heart, that demanded to be told. When politics and social messaging become part of the story, the story becomes a lecture, and lectures are boring.
It’ll be interesting to see how The Wheel of Time fares. It’ll be especially interesting to see how another Amazon attempt at social messaging fares, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. What I’ve been hearing isn’t good, and apparently there has been a huge fan backlash regarding the corruption of Tolkien’s great works.
The trailers have apparently been “ratioed” — getting far more Dislikes than Likes — and Amazon has been caught creating fake propaganda that attempts to promote the show.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional medieval fantasy, I do have high regard for Tolkien’s work. As I mentioned above, most fantasy since derives from his work. I don’t quite have the level of umbrage the long-time fans do, but I stand with them.
I only hope the series goes the way of the live-action Cowboy Bebop, a quick death that sends its own message: Respect great art!
Stay respectful, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.