The Last Dragonslayer on Sky 1 was a proper Christmas treat and should have been on everyone’s list to watch instead of the Doctor Who christmas episode, shown at the same time. In this reviewer’s opinion Doctor Who has been limping along since the unfortunate Peter Capaldi took over. The sooner we see new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s work in 2017 the better, although it’d take a miracle to lure me back. Anyway I digress…
This much more satisfying slice of fantasy was served up by novelist Jasper Fforde. I’ve read quite a few of Fforde’s weird postmodern literary stories but never realised he’d branched out into young adult fiction. Happy to report that while retaining his own odd identity (more on that later) this shared elements with classic YA stuff like the Harry Potter series, Rincewind’s adventures in the Discworld and the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
This is a full review, so if you want to avoid spoilers go watch it now and come back later.
The producers had put in the work to find a host of great actors and comedians for this show. It has a ridiculous number of talented people on screen. Protagonist Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell) is an orphan adopted by magician and scientist the Great Zambini (Andrew Buchan, most famous for playing messed-up and grieving Dad in Broadchurch series 1 and doing a bang-up job of playing messed up Dad Joseph in BBC’s The Nativity, recently repeated for the festive season). They live in a world where dragons are an endangered species and the power of magic is on the decline. Wizards are making ends meet by doing DIY jobs (they specialising in electrical work, but if it goes wrong your house may end up upside down). Jennifer is to be Zambini’s protege. She decides she wants to help the dragons long before she is told in no uncertain terms that she is destined to be the dragonslayer, whether she likes it or not. Either way, this strong and resourceful girl is destined to be a hero.
Ricky Tomlinson is great as a kindly crazy old wizard with a biscuit obsession, but it’s not really a stretch from his famous Royle Family character. I did enjoy the casting of Matt Berry as a vain, pompous and rather violent king. Very Toast.
It’s an enchanted fantasy world like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It seems to be mid-way through an industrial revolution; part medieval, part Victorian and with neon signs dotted around like Las Vegas. People are riding around on top of cars used as wagons – the beautiful Citroën 2CV looks amazing but can’t be comfortable to ride on since the roof is just a piece of cloth. This zany mixed-up world with references from all over the place is typical Fforde. He’s been freewheeling through literature for decades – his literary detective Thursday Next galivants through the works of Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, and that’s just the first two books. Nothing is sacred and everything is completely absurd.
Like Terry Pratchett, Fforde is a little heavy-handed with his distaste for modernity. People are delighted dragons are dying out, because of obvious health and safety reasons but also because they plan a land grab to build chain stores and factories. “My only chance for land!” shouts a woman in the crowd, “I’ve always wanted a pay-by-the-hour car park!”.
Poor Jennifer has no guide books and no mentor, as Zambini goes missing very early on in her dragon slaying/ dragon saving career. There’s no Scooby Gang back-up on offer or librarian style wisdom as seen with Buffy and Giles. She has to rely on her own sensible nature and work out what to do based on scientific experiment, with support from her wizard employees. She is given an adorable assistant Gordon (took me a while to recognise Sam from Game of Thrones despite initially being a very similar character) who is as efficient as Jeeves but turns out to be a sinister turncoat with loyalties to Stuff Co, the evil supermarket chain behind all this upheaval.
This story is very much a lefty parable, and welcome in these dark times. It is firmly anti-modernity and anti-corporations. The offensive military invasion of the dragon’s country is broadcast with glee on rolling news tv while Jennifer is offered celebrity endorsement deals. Sounds familiar? With a little luck and a tonne of initiative Jennifer discovers that the historic pact that was meant to let humans and dragons live in peace was so flimsy as to not exist and the dragons were tricked into building their own prison. Closing the borders has extremely dangerous long-term consequences for humanity. Dragons and humans have to co-exist or magic will die out and the corporations will take over. Told you it was a bit heavy-handed.
John Bradley-West gets to gleefully undermine his bumbling Game of Thrones character. His charming little face disguises his competence in wielding swords and firing guns at his dragonslayer boss. The dragons themselves look good, at least as real as any of Khaleesi’s brood, but problems in realistic flight seem to be common to most tv shows however expensive they are.
Jennifer defeats the evil forces with bravery and compassion. She frees the dragons and rescues magic, but is well aware of the dangerous consequences. There are dragons in the skies once more and Stuff Co will rise again. This is not a nice neat ending. She does get some proper father/ daughter wish fulfillment at the end, but this is the first of a trilogy so is setting up a continuing quest to rescue her adopted father from an evil magician and an all-powerful supermarket.
This was original and refreshing, proper Christmas entertainment. And it was so detailed and gorgeous to look at I could happily watch it all over again. More please Sky 1, as Jennifer says – I insist!