Why Netflix’s new Witcher prequel could be a canny piece of pandemic production

Fans of Henry Cavill’s smash-hit fantasy are shocked to see it get a spin-off so soon – but from Netflix’s perspective, it’s just good business.

Henry Cavill the Witcher

It took Game of Thrones eight seasons, nine (and counting) years and millions of worldwide fans before the on-screen world of Westeros even began to be expanded into spin-offs – but in a shock move, Netflix have already announced that its hit series The Witcher will have its own prequel after just one season of the flagship series has aired.

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Called The Witcher: Blood Origin and set 1300 years before the main series (when elves ruled The Continent and humans were only just beginning to arrive through a cosmological event), the new six-part drama is set to explore the story of the very first Witcher, centuries before Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia was even a glint in a mutated cat’s eye.

And while many fans expressed surprise and trepidation about Netflix returning to the Witcher well so soon after the first season, in uncertain times this new prequel looks like a canny business decision for the streamer – and not just because it’s bound to have a lot of curious fans eager to see how the strange fantasy world began.

Though of course, the amount of eyes on-screen is a crucial factor. While Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, The Witcher season one was reportedly one of their most popular releases ever, only following Stranger Things (and ahead of The Umbrella Academy) after a buzzy debut last winter.

The Witcher season two is such a priority for Netflix that filming in the UK will restart this August (after previously being shut down during the COVID-19 lockdown), with the company rumoured to have spent a fair bit of cash to make the set safe and underwrite the production in case of a second shutdown.

Clearly, The Witcher is popular enough for Netflix to think it’s still cost-effective to spend that money, and it follows that a spin-off could end up being a similar success – but this commission may go deeper than that. As social distancing measures on sets remain and the prospect of another lockdown looms this winter, it wouldn’t be surprising if Netflix were trying to bet on a sure thing, rather than risk increasingly limited time and money on a new property that might not be as successful.

Henry Cavill in The Witcher (Netflix)
Henry Cavill in The Witcher (Netflix)

To put it simply, Netflix’s usual approach of green-lighting hundreds of originals might not work as well as shoots take longer and cost more, making the prospect of a “surefire hit” (like a prequel to an already-popular show) more appealing.

And there may be other production concerns involved in the The Witcher: Blood Origin’s commissioning. While season two is set to complete filming on already-built sets, it might be that assembling the cast and building new locations for season three will be more of a challenge in the longer term, making Netflix keen for a show to fill the Witcher gap that’s easier to produce.

This October, season 11 of The Walking Dead has been delayed and will be replaced by spin-off Fear the Walking Dead in the usual slot, so it could be that Blood Origins will fulfil a similar placeholder role if the main series becomes more challenging to make. After all, Blood Origins is shorter – just six episodes to The Witcher’s eight – and may tell a slightly less grand story with fewer large battle scenes (though this is just speculation without more information about the series).

Anya Chalotra, Henry Cavill and Freya Allan as their Witcher characters (Netflix)
Anya Chalotra, Henry Cavill and Freya Allan as their Witcher characters (Netflix)

Even filming could be easier, with Blood Origin potentially able to film on lightly redressed sets and locations used for The Witcher season two rather than create costly and non-social-distancing-friendly new worlds. Notably, the story is an original only alluded to author Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books, so there’s nothing to say that the series creators (Declan de Barra and The Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich) couldn’t choose to write the show in a way that made use of these existing sets.

Overall, it’s hard to imagine that at least part of The Witcher: Blood Origin’s, er, origins don’t have their roots in problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and it should be fascinating to see this new series develop. If nothing else, we can’t wait to see what incredible songs end up breaking out from this series…

The Witcher streams on Netflix

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