Fantasy series have a way of growing limbs rapidly. Aggressive expansion is understandable for a series like Netflix’s “The Witcher,” because after all, what’s the use of creating a vast narrative universe if you don’t actually explore it? So it can be hard to tell whether a fantasy spinoff series is a worthwhile journey that deepens appreciation of the original, or a perfunctory effort that trades on the show’s reputation without capturing its essence. “The Witcher: Blood Origin” falls in between, but leans closer to being a lackluster brand expansion. Not only is the four-part prequel missing Henry Cavill, but it’s also missing a sense of greater purpose.
“Blood Origin” leaps back 1200 years before the original series — even before 2021’s animated prequel “Nightmare of the Wolf” — to explore some of the most tantalizing elements of “Witcher” mythology. It promises to explore the creation of the very first Witcher, an event brought about by the Conjunction of the Spheres, the collision of disparate worlds that forced mortals, monsters and mages awkwardly to cohabitate in an interconnected multiverse.
The first episode starts out in the middle of a splattery battle sequence, and the first line of dialogue is a fusillade of F-bombs. Not many of the franchise’s characters could pull off the line, which sounds as if it was cribbed from an early Diablo Cody screenplay. Luckily, it comes from fan-favorite Jaskier (Joey Batey), whose spectral vision of Seanchai (Minnie Driver) forms the show’s larger structure. She appears to Jaskier at a highly inopportune mid-bloodbath moment to share with him the Witcher’s origin story and its populous cast of characters.
First up is Éile (Sophia Brown) who has defected from her royal guard post in favor of becoming a traveling musician. (Her tunes are decent, though there’s not a “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher”-style banger to be found.) She crosses paths with Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain), another royal protector drummed out of his job following a major indiscretion . After an inauspicious first meeting, Éile and Fjall team up on a mission of revenge with the goal of toppling Princess Merwyn (Mirren Mack), a puppet monarch installed after a violent coup.
The two cobble together a classic, seven-elf crew to help take down Merwyn, each with their own motivation for joining the cause. Most intriguing among them are Scian (a regal Michelle Yeoh), a swordmaker fighting on behalf of her dwindling tribe and Meldof (Francesca Mills, excellent here) a savage killer whose thirst for vengeance often looks a lot like nihilism. The quest clips along at a decent enough pace, but there’s a gaping hole in the show without Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia — or an equivalent-value substitute — to anchor the ensemble.
What should be the two greatest strengths of “Blood Origin,” the cast and the snack-sized length, ultimately prove to be liabilities. With so many characters to serve, and too much time invested in Éile and Fjall’s tepid, unconvincing romance, the most intriguing characters are crowded out. Even considering the small portions, the show is better off having cast ringers like Yeoh and Driver. But their presence quickly becomes frustrating once it’s clear they won’t be given nearly enough to do.
As for the length, four hour-long episodes seems appropriate for a prequel series so nakedly presented as a high-protein snack to hold fans over until Season 3 of “The Witcher” drops next year — Cavill’s last season before Liam Hemsworth replaces him going forward. (“Blood Origin” drops Christmas Day, literally taking over the holiday time slot in which both “Witcher” seasons came out.) But the four episodes are all that remains of the show’s original six-episode order, a downsizing the producers have attributed to a post-production epiphany about condensing the middle hours of the show. That sounds reasonable enough in theory, but it’s hard not to conclude from the show’s frequent dead ends and general lack of focus that “Blood Origin” is 10 pounds of “Witcher” crammed into a five-pound saddlebag.
There are fleeting thrills to be had in “Blood Origin,” like the deftly edited fight sequences and an early heist sequence. Battles are easier to enjoy than ever thanks to a jump in visual effects quality, an incremental improvement over “Witcher” Season 2, which was itself a step up from Season 1. The visuals still aren’t as clean as they could be, but they’re never distracting or immersion-breaking, which is more than can be said for early “Witcher” episodes. But overall, “Blood Origin” is to “The Witcher” television show as a slapdash downloadable expansion pack would be to the massively popular “Witcher” video games. Only completists need to apply.
“The Witcher: Blood Origin” premieres on Netflix on Dec. 25.