History takes a backseat to melodrama, bloody action, and video game quest mechanics in History’s Knightfall, whose 10-episode first season premieres on Wednesday. Being paired with the network’s long-running and far-superior Vikings, Knightfall is an attempt to replicate Michael Hirst’s enduringly successful blend of historical drama and spectacle, but Knightfall creators Don Handfield and Richard Rayner have produced something that feels in almost every way second-hand.
If Vikings’ strength (after the magnetic Travis Fimmel) is its deep and convincing evocation of its Norse protagonists’ world, the 12th-century intrigues of the Knights Templar and the French court in Knightfall are liberally cribbed from sources as varied as The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure series, other court-based historical dramas like The Tudors, and even the Assassin’s Creed games, as much as any historical record. For its faults (such as an increasing reliance on supernatural storytelling elements), Vikings feels lived-in. Knightfall, with its dull lead, splashy, would-be shocking violence, and pedestrian production design and direction throughout, also doubles down on the mystical while failing to populate itself with memorable characters.
The Knights Templar of Knightfall are engaged in a search for the Holy Grail (which they lost while being driven out of the Holy Land some 15 years before the main action of the series), and the coveted Last Supper drinking vessel here is loaded down not only with its symbolic and religious value, but all manner of supposed powers—both healing and apocalyptic—that transform the show’s historical trappings into mere pretext. Sure, all themed cable channels suffer some mission drift, but, compared to the occasional liberties taken in Vikings’ storytelling, any history History viewers take away will be largely accidental. Knightfall seeks to serve both the “prestige historical epic” and “goofy action-adventure” masters, and emerges as a sluggish, conflicted mess.
Set in 12th-century Paris (portrayed indifferently by the Czech countryside and sets built for the series Borgia), Knightfall is centered on Landry (Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen), a member of the Knight’s Templar (“the Pope’s private army,” as we’re told). After the crusaders finally fled from their last stronghold after their various campaigns to liberate (as they saw it) the Holy Land, the warrior-monks have settled into their numerous strongholds throughout Europe, their autonomous city-states both a welcome source of protection (and finance) and a constant worry to those suspicious of a heavily armed force loyal only to the Catholic Church within their borders.
For the stalwart Landry, his position in Paris is complicated not only by his friendship with the French King Philip (Ed Stoppard), but also the fact that he’s engaged in a clandestine and vows-defying affair with Philip’s headstrong Queen Joan (Olivia Ross). Meanwhile, Landry’s mentor and Templar leader Godfrey (Sam Hazeldine) sets out on a mysterious journey whose disastrous outcome hints that the Grail was not, in fact, lost in the depths of the Mediterranean, but lies hidden somewhere near Paris, a fact which spurs the involvement of a shadowy group called the Brotherhood Of Light.
The history of the Knights Templar is a complex one, inextricably bringing together elements of religious zealotry, medieval religion and politics, and high fantasy, but Knightfall’s presentation of the order, as embodied by the sullen, tortured Landry, is anything but. Or rather, the Templars’ true nature is complex here in the intensely silly manner of conspiracy theories and fictional fancies, with a healthy dose of stainless Christian warrior hagiography tossed in. A subplot involves the mistreatment of Paris’ Jews, a profoundly fraught element of European history Landry and Godfrey denounce solemnly before the simmering bigotry of the Paris Christians is pawned off on the 12th-century equivalent of a false flag operation. (False banner operation?) Similarly, under Landry’s stolid leadership, the Knights Templar vaguely espouse an all-inclusive ethos that sees him clenching his bearded jaw every time he must kill nonbelievers in the name of recovering the Grail.
It’s in its action elements that Knightfall’s incompatibly bifurcated nature is most glaring. On the one hand, the quest for the Grail is plotted with the lockstep puzzle-solving logic of a video game version of a Dan Brown potboiler. Discover MacGuffin A in a secret compartment. Travel to place MacGuffin A inside MacGuffin B to unlock next clue. Repeat. In addition, the series’ action is simultaneously frenetic and dull, occasional, indifferently directed sword melees punctuated with heroic slo-mo and exhibitionistic gore effects. (There are two graphic mouth-stabs in the first few episodes alone.) There are crossbow bolt-cam glory shots worthy of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves’ dippy legacy, wildly impractical action setpieces that depend on numerous interlocking elements going just so, and if there’s a secret conversation going on somewhere in Philip’s palace, you can be sure someone’s spying through a handy peephole. And all that’s not counting the intermittent appearance of what can only be described as “Muslim ninjas,” who pop up to cause mayhem with some acrobatic knife-throwing and chain-fighting.
This should all be a lot of fun, but the whole enterprise is enervated both by a leaden and perfunctory script and performances from virtually everyone involved that pitch every conversation and action in a somber register completely incompatible with the series’ fantastical elements. Cullen is the chief offender, his Landry an alternately murmuring and bellowing hero whose inner conflicts emerge in a deadening, clenched monotone. Stoppard’s Philip is a similarly pinched and unimpressive monarch, whose authority, to be fair, is undermined by the fact that Landry and Joan’s affair is so ineptly concealed that he comes off as preternaturally unobservant. (Knightfall’s palace intrigues are so perfunctory that Joan and Landry cast guilty glances at each other over Philip’s shoulder literally every time they speak, while any secret, whispered communication, no matter how sensitive, is invariably undertaken the second everyone not involved moves off-camera.) There’s a grieving young peasant, Parsifal, whose entry into the Templars should mark him as our d’Artagnan-esque entry point into the show’s world, except that Bobby Schofield’s performance is an undifferentiated series of whimpers and heedlessly impulsive and foolish actions.
The only performers who seem to be having any fun are Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, playing Pope Boniface VIII as a wily, avuncular, menacing old gargoyle, and especially fellow Downton Abbey alum Julian Ovenden, whose mustache-twirling wry villainy as royal advisor De Nogaret at least nods toward an awareness of the cliché he’s portraying. (De Nogaret is the one constantly peering through peepholes.) And while the advisor’s utilitarian atheism is depicted as part of his depravity, De Nogaret’s fanatical allegiance to the crown is at least, as they say, an ethos. Knightfall’s muddied, dull clash of warring religious nonentities never commits to any aspect of its tale, which renders this newest period piece as dramatically inert as it is historically valueless.