Arts

‘The Witcher: Blood Origin’ Is TV’s Latest Big Fantasy Prequel

Producers of hit series have long used spinoffs to keep the stories going (and the ad and subscription dollars flowing). In our I.P.-obsessed era of pop culture universes, the desire to preserve — and ideally expand — popular TV franchises has only intensified. And more often than not these days, going forward means looking backward.

This year, the biggest new series have been prequels, with “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and “House of the Dragon” being set long before the events of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.” “Andor” is a prequel for a movie, “Rogue One,” that was itself a prequel for other “Star Wars” films. This month “Yellowstone” added “1923,” another prequel to join last year’s “1883.”

Now on Sunday comes “The Witcher: Blood Origin,” a Netflix mini-series that takes place 1,200 years before Geralt of Rivia started slaying ill-minded creatures and thoughtfully pushing back his signature white mane in “The Witcher,” which premiered in 2019 and returns next summer for its third season.

Based on stories by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, the franchise is named after monster hunters, of which Geralt is the most famous. It is set on a continent (conveniently named the Continent) where witchers rub elbows with elves and dwarves, powerful sorceresses and power-hungry nobility.

A spinoff was probably inevitable for a title that has conquered every platform it has encountered: The streaming adaptation of “The Witcher” followed popular game and comic book versions, and it has become one of Netflix’s most-watched shows ever.

For the creator and showrunner of “Blood Origin,” Declan de Barra, the initial motivation was the opportunity to expand on clues or allusions in Sapkowski’s books, including by introducing new characters. Foremost was a desire to focus on the Continent when it was dominated by elves.

“My favorite part of the books was identifying with the elvish story,” de Barra, 51, said in a video conversation. “You could see that they were a post-colonized sort of species, they could barely reproduce and they’re pre-agrarian, but yet they have this mythology that’s sort of hinted out in the background. What happened before? What was their Rome before the fall?”

As a writer and co-executive producer for “The Witcher,” de Barra had begun mapping out what he thought happened before the Conjunction of the Spheres — the cataclysm that allowed both humans and monsters to travel from their own worlds to the Continent. So when the original series’ creator, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, asked him to draw up a spinoff concept, de Barra was ready. For his story engine, he picked one of the oldest and most tested: A group of mismatched individuals must team up to save their world, in this case from rampaging overlords and one demented wizard.

“I just imagined a group of people who would hate each other if they turn up at a party, and put them in the crucible together,” he said. “People who are all different and have reason to have beef with each other but have to work together.”

Henry Cavill, the monster-slaying star of “The Witcher,” has said he is leaving the show after next season.Credit…Jay Maidment/Netflix

This being the “Witcher” franchise, some of them also find reasons to have sex with one another. And yes, there is just as much jarringly modern profanity in “Blood Origin” as in the main show, along with the goofy irreverence that sets the franchise apart. (Last year’s special, “The Witcher: Fireplace,” is an hourlong shot of a crackling fire.)

“What’s great about Declan is that he’s very energetic and he has a very raucous, naughty sense of humor — and he brings that to ‘Blood Origin,’” Lenny Henry, who plays the plotting Chief Sage Balor, said in a video chat. “So you get all the heightened Shakespearean arias from some of the characters and then you get that low side.”

Balor plays a crucial role in the “Blood Origin” universe, setting in motion a series of events that will ripple through time and space. Among the characters most affected are Éile (Sophia Brown) and Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain), two warriors from rival clans who end up fighting on the same side as part of the main superteam. (How super? The mighty Michelle Yeoh is a key part of it.)

In a way, Éile is “The Witcher” in a nutshell: a fierce fighter who both comments on and drives the action with song — this is, after all, the rare fantasy series that has spawned a cult hit, with “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” from Season 1. This is an essential element for the Ireland-born de Barra, who used to front a hard-rocking band and who is the co-writer of several numbers for both streaming “Witcher” properties.

“My favorite songs are ones that end really short,” he said by way of explaining the decision to cut the prequel down from its planned six episodes to four. He also draws connections between epic Celtic ballads and Éile’s tunes, including “The Black Rose” — a direct reference to the 16th-century Irish song“Róisín Dubh.”

“I wanted her to be writing rebel songs for the people,” de Barra said. “I knew there would be nods to Irish mythology as well as Eastern European mythology, because Sapkowski does that himself with some of his places and people, like Skellige Islands and stuff like that.

“He has a potpourri of all sort of European mythology and he pulls the stories and puts them together and bakes his own cake,” de Barra added. “So I felt very comfortable doing that.”

Offscreen, Brown, who is Black, has been at the center of the kinds of caustic discussions, regarding race and how it relates to source material, that have occurred within other fantasy fandoms. (You might recall how the sight of Black elves in “The Rings of Power” threw some viewers into a tizzy.)

“If something new is coming into a space, people are always going to think ‘Oh, that’s not right,’” Brown said. “I got some difficulty when the casting came out, but I’m not new to the industry, and I’ve worked very hard to be here, so it didn’t waver my knowing I was meant to be there.”

Henry — who is also Black and who played the harfoot Sadoc Burrows in “The Rings of Power” — chose to laugh at it all. “What you have to say to those guys is, ‘You will believe an Upside Down where there’s a big weird creature made out of corned beef threatening children, but you won’t believe a Black elf?’” he said. “It’s all pretend — anybody can be what they want to be.”

Angst about Éile’s function in the “Witcher” mythos is also related to what some fans have decried as drastic departures from the books and video games in the original series. These complaints have grown louder online since Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt and who has been an outspoken fan of the Sapkowski stories, announced, with little explanation, that he is leaving the show after the upcoming season.

The series follows a makeshift team trying to save the world, including Éile, a warrior elf played by Sophia Brown.Credit…Lilja Jonsdottir

De Barra said any adapter of the “Witcher” stories is “never going to be able to satisfy everybody,” explaining that dedicated fans of the books and the games will all have their own differing views of what the characters and the world should look like.

“No two people are ever going to agree on it,” he said. “The core that was important for me was just telling a story that I believed in and that could work on its own whilst honoring the books.”

The TV shows integrate Sapkowski’s vision and broaden it, and this dual approach is particularly apparent in “Blood Origin.” As the title suggests, we meet some familiar characters and there are plot developments that will bear fruit generations later, in the timeline of the main series. But de Barra cautions viewers against drawing too many conclusions.

For example, in one scene a seer — who is well known among “Witcher” fans — says one of Éile’s descendants will be very important in the future, but the show doesn’t indicate whom it will be.

“We can’t spell it out, not now, but it will be spelled out later,” de Barra said. “Most people are saying. …” He trailed off. “Anyway, I’ll leave it for now.”

Such comments will be cryptic for those new to the “Witcher” universe, but they should not worry: While some plot points will be endlessly dissected on “Witcher” subreddits, “Blood Origin” stands on its own. “I hope we can introduce many new fans to the show and then they can pour into the marquee series and fall in love with fantasy,” Brown said.

“I’ve watched things when I was younger that made me want to be an actor and made me want to escape and see the world in different ways,” she continued. “So I hope people can see the world differently through seeing our worlds.”

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