It’s tough to imagine The Witcher without Geralt of Rivia, mighty monsters, and cowering human bards running around singing impossibly catchy ditties.
However, as the second season of the Netflix show drew to a close, writer Declan de Barra knew that in order to figure out the future of The Witcher, he would need to make sure everyone knew its past – and that’s how The Witcher: Blood Origin was born.
With De Barra at the helm as showrunner, The Witcher: Blood Origin serves as a dive into the ancient annals of The Continent, going back a whole 1,200 years – further than any Witcher fan has been before – to tell the story of the Conjunction of the Spheres.
This is the time of the Elder Races, as elves populate the land with nary a human to be seen – it’s the peak of their empire, but when you fly so high, the only way forward is down.
Unlike the flagship show, Blood Origin has no novels or pre-written stories to fall back on, which is both a blessing and a curse for showrunner Declan de Barra.
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On the one hand, there’s little possibility for deviations that may upset diehard fans. On the other hand, a breadth of new pre-Conjunction era lore has to be thought up that will leave newbies to the franchise scratching their heads as to whether they need to understand it in order to ‘get’ the show.
Though in the show, they’re known as ‘The Seven’, The Witcher: Blood Origin follows not a band of heroes, but more a ragtime Suicide Squad by way of The Wizard of Oz.
There’s Sophia Brown’s Éile, a warrior-turned-bard and Dandelion’s utter opposite; Laurence O'Fuarain’s Fjall, a King’s Guard disgraced after indulging in a spot of royal hanky-panky; Michelle Yeoh’s Scian, a mysteriously ethereal nomad, and Francesca Mills’s warmly unhinged Meldof, infatuated with her bloody hammer Gwen.
Each have been wronged or betrayed by the system they were born into, which is what ultimately thrusts them all together after they discover a Continent-wide coup has taken place following a Game of Thrones-style surprise execution - they may all take it differently, but each is gunning for a cold flagon of revenge.
Gradually over the course of their journey, it becomes clear that one of these four will become the first-ever prototype Witcher – in fact, Blood Origin maybe makes this fate a tad too obvious and misses the opportunity for a fantastic subversion of expectations.
Blood Origin definitely feels like it takes time to truly get going – when it’s fully in gear, it moves fast and delivers some bloody, brutal action alongside trippy nightmare realms, but it feels sluggish in its introductory episode.
As a result, fascinating characters like Meldof and Scian, whose backstories and quirks are worth their own spin-off explorations, are left underdeveloped in the service of Fjall and Éile’s typical enemies-to-lovers arc.
Their systemic disdain for one another, originating due to their background in rival clans, adds a certain fire to their clashes, but once it mellows you soon begin to realise where these characters are headed perhaps before Blood Origin hopes you do.
However, on their own, Brown and O’Fuarain are bombastic badasses, delivering fully realised performances that immediately envelope you into their world.
Both feel as though they’re struggling to move on, with the weight of their pasts weighing on them alongside the land of the Continent fracturing more minute-by-minute. It would certainly be a shame if we didn’t see Sophia Brown again in the future of The Witcher.
Mirren Mack’s turn as Princess-turned-Queen Merwyn is also a delight to watch unfold – it’s sadly rare to see a female character given a story arc like this, and what a wonderful job Mack does with it. She is the Cersei Lannister of The Witcher, her next move unpredictable as she quickly adapts to her dark new world, responding to it with an acerbic brilliance.
It’s a subversive take on a role in medieval fantasy typically relegated to clichés, which Mack deftly avoids, reflecting a stone-cold warrior who keeps you guessing right up until the very end.
Unlike The Witcher, Blood Origin has no otherworldly monsters to fall back on – instead, it has its own knottily-twisted villains to play with. Jacob Collins-Levy’s take on Eredin will be a surprise to many Witcher fans, while Sir Lenny Henry’s charmingly wicked Chief Druid Balor, the ultimate puppet-master, makes you wonder why he hasn’t turned to the dark side more in his career.
The spin-off shifts the ‘true’ antagonist carefully, painting each of its villains with a morally grey brush – even in his moments of greatest control, it’s clear Balor is held back by the very system he seemingly operates.
De Barra’s attempt to turn ‘The System’ into the great villain of Blood Origin is commendable, and it won’t be for everyone – but it’s different from what’s expected, and that should always be celebrated.
Despite it being set 1,200 years before The Witcher, Blood Origin tells us not only about where this world has been, but also where it’s heading next. The humanisation of Eredin, fleshing him out to glimpse an understanding of how he picked up the mantle of Leader of the Wild Hunt, proves these shows are connected deep in their roots.
That, alongside the introduction of a key character from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, who won’t be spoiled here, and their discovery of a very different manner of travel is a tease juicier than a fried groat.
The Witcher: Blood Origin certainly does suffer without the muscular anchor of a Henry Cavill-type, as its writing simply isn’t strong enough for the splintered tale it’s telling. That said, punchy, memorable performers like Mirren Mack and Sophia Brown elevate this origin story to something still worth unwrapping on Christmas Day.