Four decades ago, when author Terry Brooks published the first novel in his incredibly successful Shannara series, readers probably didn’t know that the story’s otherworldly setting, the Four Lands, is actually a future version of the Pacific Northwest.
That fact is impossible to ignore if you watch the opening frames of MTV’s new fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, which premiered last week and airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the cable channel.
One of Shannara’s earliest frames is an illustration of a fallen, crumbling Space Needle partially propped up on the skeleton of a ruined building. The destruction of both obviously happened in the distant past; all is covered in wild tangles of greenery. This gives the average viewer a sense of reality in its setting.
Seattleites, on the other hand, may see this landscape and wonder whether the fabled Ellcrys tree upon which the fate of the Four Lands hinges could be growing right now somewhere in, say, the city’s Magnolia neighborhood.
Ellcrys? Four Lands? For those not yet initiated into the realm explored in Brooks’s best-selling series, The Shannara Chronicles takes place far in the future, long after an apocalypse has destroyed the world as we know it. And here, there be elves.
That’s right. Elves. Given the heavy presence of tech startups in our city alongside Amazon, Google and Microsoft, the safe bet might have been on destruction by self-actualizing artificial intelligence, giving rise to a race of robots that still would make the commutes to South Lake Union or Redmond nightmarish.
In Shannara’s world, though, technology is dead and magic has returned. Elves have supplanted humans at the top of the food and social chains, and regular humans exist alongside gnomes, druids and demons. The Ellcrys is a sentient tree that mystically protects the Four Lands.
In total fairness, the most popular portrayals of Seattle depict it as the standard metropolis that it is. Seattle is still the home of Meredith Grey and her colleagues at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (Grey’s Anatomy), or the site of a bizarre murder implicating figures in city government (The Killing), or the home of tween web star Carly Shay (iCarly).
These days our city also is home to iZombie’s Liv Moore (Rose McIver), a zombie coroner’s assistant who helps the cops solve crimes and maintains her intelligence by eating brains.
In fact, between iZombie airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on The CW and Shannara at 10 p.m., and Grey’s on Thursdays, Seattle is heavily represented on TV right now, whether as we currently know it or in a more fantastic guise.
As The Shannara Chronicles begins, an elf princess named Amberle (Poppy Drayton), one of a small group of the tree’s protectors known as the Chosen, receives visions of the Ellcrys’s death. Without the tree’s protection, the Four Lands are powerless against hordes of demons. Anyone with a passing familiarity with World of Warcraft or a 20-sided die knows that means it’s quest time.
Amberle is assisted by Wil Ohmsfd (Austin Butler) a half-elf boy descended from a heroic line, and eventually a human girl, Eretria (Ivana Baquero), who is part of a band of gypsy-esque thieves called Rovers. There’s a love triangle. There’s a hot older druid named Allanon, played by Manu Bennett, who along with John Rhys-Davies as the elf ruler Eventine Elessedil, is an alumnus of the fabled Lord of the Rings film franchise.
There also are many verdant forests to run through and rivers to cross because, remember, this is the Pacific Northwest. (By way of New Zealand, where the show was filmed.)
The Shannara novels were introduced to the world in the late ’70s. But in the realm of television history, The Shannara Chronicles is only the latest series to capitalize on the perceived weirdness of the Northwest.
For a show like Shannara, which gives us a world of elves, demons, and human thieves that, for whatever reason, still sport jeans and hoodies, establishing the action in the Pacific Northwest is a no-brainer – and not just because Seattle happens to be where Brooks lives.
“It’s very primeval, in terms of its topography,” explains Shannara executive producer Miles Millar, who spoke to us in Pasadena as part of the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour. “You have those incredible beaches, and landscapes, the forests. It feels like you could go into a mystical world. That’s really most attractive, the sort of the prehistoric feel to it.”
True. Also very telling is the point of view held by Millar’s co-executive producer Al Gough: “Being from the East Coast, it feels like the dark corner of the country, you know what I mean? Where you’re not quite sure what happens there.”
Meaning, it’s perfectly plausible that Seattle could be hiding all manner of supernatural creatures. We do have a huge troll that hangs out under the Aurora bridge. Why not?
More often, though, Hollywood thinks of the Northwest as a den of oddity shrouded in mountain mist and coniferous green. In recent TV seasons, we’ve seen stories such as BBC America’s 2014 series, Intruders, which imagines the upper left side of the country as the home of a secret society that chasing immortality by taking up residence in the bodies of the unsuspecting, bumping their poor souls out in the process.
We’re a hotbed of alien contact, as depicted in the classic “snatch, probe and implant” schemes (USA Network’s The 4400, which ran from 2004-2007).We’re the place where secret organizations hide weird science projects such as a gentle, good-looking teen clone with no navel (ABC Family’s Kyle XY), or releases a post-apocalyptic line of super-soldiers to live among us (Fox’s Dark Angel, which introduced viewers to Jessica Alba).
The Pacific Northwest is favored by serial killers – Dexter Morgan eventually ended up in our backyard – but we’re also a magnet for gifted people who catch them (Fox’s Millennium).
Never forget, we’ll always be the proud home of Log Ladies, damn fine cups of coffee and whatever the heck is happening on Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s 1990 classic that’s returning to television on Showtime in the summer of 2017, and is currently in production in Washington.
All that and now, elves.
Eh, we’re fine with it — sparkly vampires are so over.