House of the Dragon: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first episode of House of the Dragon.

It’s been a little over three years since Game of Thrones went off the air. That show’s disappointing final season and conclusion did a lot of damage to its brand – and may be a contributing factor to the delay in concluding the series of novels upon which it was originally based. As I wrote once, the incredibly negative reception to the way that Game of Thrones ended effectively killed any residual support the show had and removed it from our collective cultural conversation. The show’s legacy is the reshaping of the world of entertainment, with high fantasy enjoying a renaissance, multi-season serialised stories coming to the fore, the “disposable casts” of characters who could be killed off at any moment, and more besides. But Game of Thrones itself isn’t the phenomenon it once was.

The rise of big-budget fantasy and genre shows in the wake of Game of Thrones has led to projects like The Rings of Power, which will premiere next month, as well as The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, and even to an extent shows like Star Trek: Discovery, which has brought into the Star Trek franchise some of the tenets of storytelling in this post-Thrones world. All of these projects, and others like them, mean that there’s intense competition for viewers in this space.

Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen on a promotional poster for House of the Dragon.

This is the environment in which House of the Dragon has premiered. Undermined by the evident failures of Game of Thrones’ final season and no longer a singular phenomenon, the series has to attempt to carve out a new niche and demonstrate that it can bring something at least superficially different to the table. More of the same won’t cut it for fans who were left disappointed by Game of Thrones, and with ever more big-budget shows in the fantasy space, House of the Dragon has a lot of work to do. Based on its premiere episode, I’m not sure it will be up to the task.

House of the Dragon needs to define itself, to stand on its own two feet and demonstrate how it can be something new and different rather than just “more Game of Thrones,” and in its premiere it did nothing of the sort. The story outline feels incredibly familiar, with a focus on quarrelling aristocratic factions as they vie for the throne. The aesthetic and feel of the series have scarcely moved, with the same costumes, sets, music, and even cinematography clearly trying to emulate what has come before. It brought back as much sex, violence, and gore as it could fit into its premiere episode, too – all hallmarks of Game of Thrones, and elements that helped that series to stand out from the pack in its early seasons.

A jousting tourney was the stage for one of several violent clashes in the series premiere.

House of the Dragon introduces us to an ageing, weakened king, a young Targaryen princess, a mad Targaryen prince, and even has the audacity to dump in some foreshadowing of the Night King, the Long Winter, and events we saw unfold in Game of Thrones in a particularly ham-fisted sequence that laid on the exposition with some pretty clunky dialogue. I guess some kind of overt connection to Game of Thrones was inevitable – but it didn’t need to come in the premiere, and it certainly could’ve been toned down or at least worded less clumsily.

In terms of visual effects, I again felt House of the Dragon did not excel – particularly when considering the sky-high budget afforded to the series by HBO. There were too many moments where the blending of CGI with real actors and sets was noticeable, such as during long establishing shots of the jousting tournament. Visual differences between what the camera picked up and what the artists and animators imagined were noticeable enough to pull me out of some sequences altogether. Some fully-animated sequences, such as a flyover of Kings Landing early in the episode, likewise strayed into the “uncanny valley,” and when we’ve seen lesser shows with lower budgets pull off similar sequences much better, House of the Dragon has definitely come up short.

Animation work in House of the Dragon wasn’t fantastic.

This one is purely a personal taste thing, but I don’t like the refurbished throne room set. The iconic Iron Throne is now framed by a small forest of foam-rubber swords that neither improve its look from Game of Thrones nor come close to recreating its appearance as described in the original novel series. The effect looks cheap, and while I’ll credit the creative team for doing something to try to differentiate the series from its predecessor, for me it doesn’t work.

So far, I see no evidence that HBO has truly taken to heart the criticisms fans had of Game of Thrones as that series came to its end. “More of the same” isn’t going to cut it, and House of the Dragon feels like the second coming of Game of Thrones – and that isn’t for the better. If it was 2010 all over again, maybe it would indeed be good enough. But in a television landscape that has completely changed over the past twelve years, House of the Dragon has to do more than that. When compared with other offerings in the same genre on other networks or streaming services, House of the Dragon manages to feel aggressively average.

The new look of the Iron Throne – complete with additional foam-rubber swords – isn’t doing it for me.

The Rings of Power is hot on the heels of House of the Dragon, and despite also taking place in a long-established world, that series feels newer and fresher, somehow, than House of the Dragon does. I can’t escape the feeling that we’re going to get a story that will ultimately feel rather samey, and while that doesn’t mean there won’t be twists, turns, and excitement along the way, I’m not convinced that that will be good enough. House of the Dragon has a legacy to live up to – but it also has a legacy it must surpass. When it comes to the latter, there’s no evidence that it’s even willing to try – at least, nothing of the sort was forthcoming in the series premiere.

Familiar musical stings, recycled sets, and character archetypes who harken back to the “glory days” of Game of Thrones’ early seasons can’t be all that House of the Dragon has to offer. The series needs to have the ambition to go beyond what its predecessor achieved and set a new benchmark. Moreover, trying to pluck those nostalgic strings really won’t take House of the Dragon very far with fans who came away from Game of Thrones feeling let down. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether the series is worth pursuing; whether this time a decent ending has been planned out with a roadmap to get there that keeps the entertainment value going. That’s where Game of Thrones came unstuck, so if House of the Dragon’s sales pitch is just “we’re doing Game of Thrones again!” then I’m out. I won’t make it past the first few episodes – because what’s the point?

King Viserys sits on the Iron Throne.

For now, though, I’ll stick with House of the Dragon to see what comes next after this underwhelming debut. I can forgive a degree of looking backwards in a series premiere that aims to reach out to an audience that it hopes to bring back; casual viewers who may not follow fantasy but who showed up in droves for Game of Thrones. If House of the Dragon can begin the task of differentiating itself and standing on its own two feet in the episodes ahead, that will be a greatly positive thing and something that will certainly hold my attention.

House of the Dragon will continue to face stiff competition for as long as it remains on the air. Rising to meet that competition is the task the series now faces – a task that, arguably, its predecessor didn’t have to deal with. The shadow of Game of Thrones looms large in more ways than one, and time will tell whether House of the Dragon truly has what it takes to convince audiences that the world of Westeros is deserving of a second look.

House of the Dragon is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States. The series is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom and on the NOW TV catch-up service. House of the Dragon is available internationally via a patchwork of different channels and/or streaming platforms. House of the Dragon, Game of Thrones, and other properties mentioned above are the copyright of HBO and Warner Bros.-Discovery. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

This Sceptred Isle – is it in poor taste?

Well that didn’t take long! The first major television drama about the coronavirus pandemic was announced recently, and is currently scheduled to debut on Sky here in the UK next year. But surely, with coronavirus still raging as the series is being filmed, it’s far too soon for this kind of show. Isn’t it?

This Sceptred Isle is billed as an examination of the UK government’s response to the “first few months” of the pandemic. And in many ways, such a story is worth telling. The UK government did not handle the pandemic’s arrival particularly well, being slow to put measures into place that were already being taken by other countries, in particular Italy. As a result, the UK’s per capita death toll has been higher than many comparable western nations, and despite the success of the vaccine rollout – I got my first dose of the vaccine last month – that remains a stain on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Promo picture of Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle.
Picture Credit: Sky TV.

But something about This Sceptred Isle just rubs me the wrong way. It feels like it’s in incredibly poor taste to create a fictionalised drama series based on something so significant and that has cost so many lives while it’s quite literally still raging on. Not to mention that planning for the series, writing scripts, hiring producers, and so on must’ve been going on for months already – pre-production on any show takes time, and for This Sceptred Isle to have begun filming at the end of February it must’ve been conceived at the latest by last summer, with plots and storylines already prepared.

What I fear will be the case is that the series will have an axe to grind, and rather than making any real attempt to faithfully retell the events of the early weeks and months of the UK’s pandemic response, it will instead descend into a farcical and utterly fictitious portrayal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government. I’m not a political person, and the electoral fortunes of Mr Johnson are not my concern. But a series like this presents itself as factual, or at least fact-based, and I seriously question how it can be.

This Sceptred Isle is being produced by British satellite broadcaster Sky TV.

No major government figure has broken ranks since the pandemic began to tell “their side of the story.” Actual verifiable information of what went on behind closed doors in Downing Street in the first half of 2020 doesn’t exist; at best This Sceptred Isle will be based on hearsay. When a series is trying to bill itself as having at least a basis in fact, that’s not acceptable.

One of my favourite miniseries of the last few years was HBO’s Chernobyl. Like This Sceptred Isle, Chernobyl took a factual event – the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – and dramatised it for television. As I noted once, some pretty significant changes were made, including the creation of a fictional “composite” character. However, the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster were well-established by 2019, with books written about the subject, involved persons having given frank first-hand accounts of what took place, and decades of historical analysis of the precise details of the disaster and its consequences for the creative team at HBO to draw on. The result was one of the best pieces of television made in the last few years, and something which is as accurate as can be for a dramatic work.

HBO’s Chernobyl earned widespread acclaim… but was produced years after the events it depicted.

All of that was possible because of the series’ distance from the events it depicted. Almost a quarter of a century had passed since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the passage of time allowed for more information to be available, making the show more accurate. This Sceptred Isle is filming now, right in the middle of the pandemic. Despite some signs of progress in some parts of the world, the pandemic is not dying down nor going away, and we can’t say what the state of affairs will be in six weeks or six months from now, let alone by the second half of next year. That context is crucial to a series like This Sceptred Isle, and will be entirely absent from the production.

How we reflect on the pandemic’s early days will depend entirely on what course it takes over the remainder of this year and into next year. Will it die down with the rollout of vaccination programmes across the world? Or will it adapt, flare up, and continue to wreak havoc? Without knowing the answer to that question, This Sceptred Isle may very well end up on the wrong side of the argument, either being overly-critical of a government that did its best, or by being too lenient in retrospect. It’s an impossible line to walk without knowing what happens next.

This Sceptred Isle aims to look at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic – but the pandemic (and his handling of it) are still ongoing.

In short, This Sceptred Isle is trying to produce a television series based on an unfinished story. We don’t yet know how or when the coronavirus pandemic will end, nor what all of the consequences will be. There will be political fallout from it, that’s all but certain. But without knowing which way to lean, without crucial information that won’t be heard in public for several years at least, the show will be little more than straight-faced pantomime, stabbing in the dark trying to tell a compelling story without the necessary facts or information to do so.

If its objective is to criticise the government and convince people not to support them, maybe the creative team will consider This Sceptred Isle a success. If they don’t care about creating a fact-based depiction of events to begin with, they naturally won’t be bothered by such criticism. But blindly attacking the government at a dangerous moment is not a good thing, and I’m concerned that if This Sceptred Isle is nothing more than a teardown of everything the government has done, it will have implications for the country. If we’re in a position when the series is broadcast where more vaccinations are needed, or where there are still some rules or restrictions in place, a savage attack on every aspect of the government’s handling of the crisis could lead to people ceasing to abide by the rules or become unwilling to get vaccinated.

Could there be unintended consequences if This Sceptred Isle goes too far in its attacks on the UK government?

I’m positive that there was a mad rush on the part of television producers to be the first to make a major drama series based on the pandemic, and Sky jumped the gun and managed to get in ahead of everyone else. But in this case, patience may be a virtue. If This Sceptred Isle is shown to contain scenes which are demonstrably false, that will harm its reputation and damage Sky’s brand.

A series like This Sceptred Isle is important and necessary – but not yet. Right now it’s too soon, and with people still sick and dying both in the UK and around the world, it seems aggressive and downright ghoulish to try to dramatise the pandemic for money. Not only that, but because of the lack of clear and verifiable information about what’s going on in the real world, the series will be inaccurate at best – and completely and utterly wrong at worst. Maybe that’s what it’s designed to be; Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party are not well-supported in the entertainment industry as a whole, and this could simply be a way to attack them. But when the entire offering is based around telling a story grounded in the truth, that’s not good enough.

Art and entertainment will dine out on the pandemic in the years ahead. There are so many different kinds of stories that can be told about it, from the exciting and tense to the wholesome and sweet. Some projects can be timely, considering the effects of things like refusal to wear a mask or vaccine hesitancy. But a project like This Sceptred Isle, with its inclusion of characters based on real people and claiming to depict real events, comes at the wrong moment. It’s too soon – and that makes it feel as though it’s in very poor taste.

This Sceptred Isle will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK in “Autumn 2022.” International distribution has not been announced at time of writing. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.