“The New World” is saved by lavish production and spot-on casting but hasn’t established its own identity just yet.
This The Spanish Princess Season 1 Episode 1 recap for the episode titled “The New World” contains spoilers.
Starz’ new eight-part miniseries The Spanish Princess is part of an anthology that also includes The White Queen and The White Princess, all adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novels. As a whole, and in theory, the series is about women of history who toiled in the shadows of their husbands; stories that shine an overdue light on how their ascendency to the English throne impacted where we are today, as all history must. And I lead with this rather easily-accessible and I suppose mundane information because, at least based on the premiere episode, it’s integral to the show’s identity and purpose as a rather dour and dry historical recounting.
Being a Starz show, efforts have obviously been made to spruce things up. There are attempts to be sexy and suave, and the lavish production design is undeniably impressive. But The Spanish Princess seems content to lean against fact at the expense of fiction; an opposite problem to that of Mary Queen of Scots, but a problem nonetheless, since narrative fiction doesn’t play by the same rules. Real events couldn’t — and shouldn’t — be glossed over or outright ignored, but they also shouldn’t provide most of a series’ dramatic structure. One of the greatest lessons of history, after all, is that it isn’t comfortable or accommodating.
Then again, neither is Tudor England, where Catherine — played well by Charlotte Hope — finds herself after being betrothed to England’s heir-apparent Prince Arthur (Angus Imrie), strictly for politically-convenient reasons. “The New World” is taken quite literally; Catherine is wrenched from the sun-kissed and exceedingly wealthy climes of Spain and deposited after a rickety boat journey into a drab and treacherous court where it’s always cold and wet. Most of her entourage — including her East African handmaid Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) — make pointed comments about the weather, which is basically a rite of passage in England and probably part of the reason why its royalty find her suspiciously exotic, and therefore dangerous.
This cultural clash — a lot is made of Catholicism and Islam, and which of the one true Gods is the one-est and truest — is what’s most interesting about The Spanish Princess at this early stage, and “The New World” admittedly shows an intention to get some mileage out of the idea. But with so much history to churn through, it remains to be seen if The Spanish Princess will spare enough time for what presently seems like subtext. It’d also be nice to see more of the strength and resourcefulness Catherine is feared for; in “The New World”, she’s mostly reduced to a whiny newcomer who has little to do beyond complain about her new surroundings. It’s probably coming, but it’d be helpful if it arrived sooner rather than later.
Still, don’t let me put you off. Tackling the plotting and paranoia of the Tudor court from the perspective of women and mistrusted minorities is a compelling idea, and despite a somewhat lackadaisical pace, eight episodes don’t seem like overkill for one of Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. There’s more to this story, and the truth about how a gluttonous legacy was sneakily defined mostly by the women who were consumed by it. I just hope The Spanish Princess isn’t too content to let history speak for itself, and is able to find a voice of its own.