House of the Dragon got off to a pretty uninspirational start, I thought: no major characters brought to a shocking and premature end; no bone-chilling spookiness like that White Walker opening scene in the frozen woods; far too much dreary, half-inaudible talking round long tables in ill-lit halls. If this hadn’t been the long-awaited prequel to Game of Thrones, I doubt I would have bothered watching the second episode.

But I did and guess what? More dank, chiaroscuro interiors; more old men out of Shakespeare history plays mumbling into their beards; more complicated, almost-impossible-to-follow-unless-you’ve-read-the-books disquisition on inheritance, lineage...

House of the Dragon got off to a pretty uninspirational start, I thought: no major characters brought to a shocking and premature end; no bone-chilling spookiness like that White Walker opening scene in the frozen woods; far too much dreary, half-inaudible talking round long tables in ill-lit halls. If this hadn’t been the long-awaited prequel to Game of Thrones, I doubt I would have bothered watching the second episode.

But I did and guess what? More dank, chiaroscuro interiors; more old men out of Shakespeare history plays mumbling into their beards; more complicated, almost-impossible-to-follow-unless-you’ve-read-the-books disquisition on inheritance, lineage and succession. The difference is, though, that by this point you’ve had two hours to allow the actors to bed into their roles and to get a handle on the characters they’re playing. Still not a great deal has happened, but now you’re excited rather than disappointed: it’s all shaping up nicely for some truly epic scheming, betrayal and bloodletting.

Easily the best character so far — at least, the one you’re most rooting for — is snubnosed Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by well-cast Australian actress Milly Alcock). She’s like a less self-righteous and worthy version of the Mother of Dragons — fearless, quick-witted and, of course, so handy with her pet dragon that I think it’s unlikely she’ll die any time soon because dragons pretty much make you invincible.

My only complaint about her so far is that she’s a bit of a cliché: the empowered, confident, feisty young woman who would obviously run the kingdom so much better than her weak but well-meaning dad King Viserys (Paddy Considine). Female leads like this have been the stock-in-trade of every fantasy, sci-fi and action drama since at least Alien (1979).

I’m more bothered, however, by the treatment of the Seven Kingdoms’ first major black character, Corlys Velaryon. He looks very striking with his silver dreadlocks and, though he struck me as a bit bland in episode one, Steve Toussaint is now transforming him into a muscular, villainously attractive contender for the Iron Throne. But the script has pusillanimously chosen to duck the issue of his race, which is just bizarre. This, remember, is a cod-medieval world absolutely obsessed with bloodlines. A black nobleman in King’s Landing would be a big deal for an otherwise white court and would be commented on all the time, much as the Venetian court cannot help but notice Othello’s skin color.

None of these quibbles is going to matter once it gets going, which I suspect will be by the third episode. The first two, necessarily, have been about establishing the various rivalries for the succession to the Iron Throne, which King Viserys clearly isn’t going to occupy for much longer because he’s just too damn nice and reasonable. Really, he’d do much better if he were like his repellant brother Daemon, who is cunning, ambitious and brutal.

Daemon is played by Matt Smith who has given him a David Cameron-style assured upper-class drawl and deliciously menacing smirk. It was a canny move to cast him against type because even when you know he’s utterly evil you half want to like him because you remember what a pleasant, amusing fellow he was when he was playing Doctor Who.

Halfway through the first episode we got an intimation of the horrors to come in the form of some unwatchably excruciating birth sequences and a deeply unchivalric tournament in which no quarter was given or expected, and where there was far too much close-up detail of faces mashed to a pulp. It was a reminder of what I both loved and hated about the original Thrones: that each episode was more an ordeal to be endured than it was relaxing entertainment, because you never knew which of your favorite characters would suddenly get it in the neck and because George R.R. Martin’s vauntingly godless universe is so savage and utterly devoid of pity or redemption.

That’s why, as everyone is saying — and rightly so — it could rather do with some of the light relief that was provided by the “Imp” Tyrion Lannister, and also by the effete eunuch Lord Varys. Everything at the moment is a bit overearnest and, at times, discomfitingly creepy, as in the scenes where the aging, visibly decaying Viserys is encouraged to marry girls about a quarter of his age. The battles and set-pieces are going to be great, for we can see already that lots of money has been spent on even incidental panoramas like a beach full of shipwrecked sailors being eaten alive by crabs. A few more laughs wouldn’t do it any harm, though.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.