This time it’s really about dragons. Fantasy junkies who championed Game Of Thrones have always insisted that the mythical fire-breathing monsters were the real stars of the show.
Nudity, brothel scenes, rape and brutality towards women were all an unfortunate necessity imposed by the sexual excesses of writer George RR Martin’s epic novels.
It was never a very convincing defense. It’s one thing to suspend your disbelief in witches and demons, it’s quite another to accept that a generation of teenagers has advanced rapidly through Queen Cersei’s naked walk of shame so that they can move on to the next scene with dragons.
Now that theory is being put to the test. There’s very little medieval rumpy-pumpy in House Of The Dragon – and what there is, you’ll wish you never saw.
There are however, as the title suggests, a large number of 80 foot lizards with crocodile teeth and eagle talons. Plus, the infographics are surprisingly compelling. When a dragon slips out of its dungeon into a gladiatorial arena and grills an unfortunate goat with a single roar, it’s as thrilling as any sequence of lions chasing wildebeest in a wildlife documentary.
But what sets this lavish soap opera, designed as a prequel to Games Of Thrones, apart is its radically different treatment of women. They are the real power in the kingdom.
When Cersei (Lena Headley) was sentenced to this humiliating march through streets lined with mocking crowds, it was for an episode screened in 2015.
Since then, the MeToo movement has transformed television production. Another Thrones star, Emilia Clarke, who played future Empress Daenerys Targaryen, has complained that she was brought to tears by some of her nude scenes a decade ago. These would not be filmed today, she says.
Instead of portraying women as frequently submissive and sexual objects, House Of The Dragon has the rivalry between two powerful female aristocrats at the heart of its story.
We can guess, from the moment we see best friends Alicent and Rhaenyra together, that they’ll soon be at each other’s throats – and their feud could drag their kingdom into civil war.
In the opening scene, the king’s daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (newcomer Milly Alcock), descends from her dragon Syrax after an aerial tour of Westeros that proves the filmmakers’ ambition to create an entire world in CGI.
Rhaenyra’s best friend and the daughter of her father’s chief adviser is Lady Alicent Hightower (played first by Emily Carey, then by Olivia Cooke, brilliant as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair).
Miss Hightower doesn’t look terribly impressed with Dragonery, which tells us everything we need to know about her. Never trust a woman who doesn’t like a fire-breathing cross between a dinosaur and a juggernaut.
If you balk at those names, by the way, don’t even think about persevering. Even more than the original show, this one is obsessed with the twisted details of Martin’s imagination.
It’s based on a 2018 column called Fire & Blood, written in the style of a 1950s history textbook, with very little dialogue or description and a preponderance of lofty family trees.
The television version evokes it with a three-minute proclamation, beginning: “It is now the ninth year of the reign of King Viserys I Targaryen, 172 years before the death of the Mad King Aerys…”
Much of the first episode continues in this vein, dumping information on the viewer in droves. Several early scenes feature the king’s council chamber, where the lords take turns bickering over long memories of their kingdom’s recent past.
All of this is delivered in the Shakespearian language of cod with a large number of “mayhaps” and “mine lieges”.
Rhaenyra, who starts out 15, is supposed to be waiting at her father’s table, filling goblets with wine. It’s a useful crash course for her in Targaryen politics, even if it means Milly Alcock doesn’t have much to do for the first hour other than hold a jug of wine and practice looking like Emilia Clarke’s twin.
Disputes over his father’s succession to the Iron Throne quickly give the character more depth, with a connection to every dimension of the plot. Game Of Thrones worked as a collection of separate stories, slowly converging, but this prequel has a more conventional structure – with Rhaenyra at its center. Later in the series, as the princess grows older, Emma D’Arcy takes over the role.
D’Arcy identifies as “non-binary” and asks to be called “they” rather than “she”. In this, the star is like namesake Emma Corbin, who played Princess Diana in The Crown. It’s perhaps a strange thing that non-binary actors so often portray princesses, that most feminine female archetype.
Rhaenyra’s vapid father, King Viserys I, a man who makes Frank Spencer look decisive, is played by Paddy Considine. He wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Game Of Thrones, where even popular characters had the chance to experience more than three episodes.
House Of The Dragon has a different beat and Viserys survives for a time, but not entirely intact. That doesn’t mean this show lacks a taste for blood.
Torture, mass executions and fights to the death are depicted in psychotic detail. In particular, there is an obsession with childbirth. The opening episode, with Sian Brooke as the heavily pregnant queen, turns into a horror movie remake of Call The Midwife – the Texas Midwife Massacre.
A jousting tournament turns into a free-for-all brawl where the camera zooms in to replay each hatchet through the skull in bloody slow motion.
And when the City Watch, commanded by the King’s scheming brother Daemon, launches a crackdown on crime, the “zero tolerance” policy is taken to extremes.
All the scum of King’s Landing are gathered to be punished. Petty thieves have their hands cut off. Thieves have their heads cut off.
When a sex offender is caught (and aren’t half the men of Westeros sex offenders?), something else is cut, in clinical close-up.
That brings us to the show’s biggest name – Matt Smith, who plays Daemon in a silver wig with his ears sticking out like a pair of dragon wings.
Smith features in the two sex scenes that punctuate the first episodes. Viewers who grew up with him on Doctor Who should be warned that a shot reveals a naked demon, from behind, with his pink rear end looking like two slices of pork on a butcher’s counter.
His friend, whose favors he has bought, notices his lack of enthusiasm. “What troubles you, my prince?” she trills.
When he turns around, careful camera angles hide the worst, though this attempt at modesty has an unfortunate effect: Matt appears to have no genitalia, like Barbie’s friend Ken.
Believe me, if I could hijack a TARDIS and travel to a time when I hadn’t seen this, I would.
In another scene, shortly after his hopes of becoming king have been lifted and then dashed, Daemon hosts an orgy. His heart isn’t in it – he doesn’t even bother to undress, which we can all be grateful for.
Instead, he indulges in Westeros’ main pastime and delivers a speech. All the naked orgiests hold their poses, like a lustful tableau at the old Windmill Theatre.
One thing is certain, fans of this lavish and spectacular fantasy show will never have to protest that they aren’t watching the gross bits.
This time, if someone insists to you, “It’s the dragons I love”, they will tell the truth.