The highly anticipated pirate adventure, 'Black Sails,' centers on the tales of Captain Flint and his men and takes place twenty years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic 'Treasure Island.' Flint, the most brilliant and most feared pirate captain of his day, takes on a fast-talking young addition to his crew who goes by the name John Silver. Threatened with extinction on all sides, they fight for the survival of New Providence Island, the most notorious criminal haven of its day – a debauched paradise teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers, a place defined by both its enlightened ideals and its stunning brutality.
The only phrase aside from 'Produced by Michael Bay' that turns me off more as a potential viewer is, of course, 'Directed by Michael Bay'. But don't let the fact that his name is listed as an Executive Producer on the box cover steer you away from taking a look at 'Black Sails'. While I'm sure his support helped bring this series to television (on the premium network Starz), Bay is nowhere to be found on this release. He doesn't write any episodes. He doesn't direct any episodes. He doesn't even pop up in the bonus materials. This is a good thing.
The concept of the series is that it's a prequel to the events of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel, 'Treasure Island' – but it's much more than that, too. The creators have not only taken characters from Stevenson's book, but have also included real-life pirates from the time period. This mix of the fictional and the factual makes 'Black Sails' a fascinating watch.
From the fictional side of things, 'Black Sails' brings us a number of characters from 'Treasure Island', most notably John Silver (Luke Arnold), Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), and Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), two of whom's fates are already known for fans of the Stevenson novel (and which I won't spoil here). Considering his role in the book, one might expect the John Silver character to be the 'star' of 'Black Sails', but so far (at least in Season 1), Silver takes on a more secondary role and it's Captain Flint who's really the lead in these first eight episodes (the series has been renewed through Season 3 by Starz as of this writing). From the historical angle, the series brings us Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), who was a notorious pirate in the early 1700s. He's joined by Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), a famous female pirate from the same period, as well as her right-hand man 'Calico' Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), a notable pirate in his own right. Additionally, the series creates a number of fictional characters exclusive to 'Black Sails', most notably Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the daughter of a wealthy marketer who winds up being Captain Flint's financial backer in this first season.
Season 1 gets underway with a rousing battle at sea, as Captain Flint's vessel, the Walrus, attacks and boards another ship. While Flint's crew disposes of (i.e., kills) most of the crew, they do decide to keep a young cook – John Silver – on hand as part of their crew. They'll only find out later that Silver has procured a secret page from the captain's records that Flint wants – a page that gives the location of a Spanish ship that is said to hold millions of dollars' worth of gold. Silver will later use this page as a bartering chip both to stay alive and join Flint's quest. While Silver comes off as somewhat weasely in this first season, doing whatever he can to both better his situation and not get killed, Flint is no model hero either, as his captaincy is being questioned by many members of his crew and Flint, too, shows that he'll do whatever it takes to stay in command.
With so many characters to follow (many more than the few I've listed above), is often difficult upon the first viewing to keep track of everyone's relationship to everyone else as the first season unfolds. The good news is that the plotlines are complex enough that 'Black Sails' holds up to multiple viewings. It's the kind of show where you pick up on things you missed and how they tie into the overall storyline the second time through. This being a Starz series, you'd better believe each episode has its fair amount of nudity as well, as taking one's top off frequently seems to be a prerequisite for most of the actresses on this show. Even more notable than the nudity is the almost constant use of the 'F' word by characters – particularly Eleanor Guthrie. I'm not sure how historically accurate the constant use of the word in the early 1700s really is, but to say that these pirates 'swear like sailors' is no understatement.
Potential viewers should be warned that – after that rousing opening battle – the series does become somewhat landlocked for the first half of Season 1. This is almost certainly due to two facts: first, the series would be pretty darn expensive if each and every episode featured a big sea battle; and second, the early episodes are used to introduce us to all the characters, their motivations, and their relationships to one another. Thankfully, thanks to on-location shooting in Cape Town, South Africa, even those episodes with little in the way of action are visually stunning to watch.
I went into 'Black Sails' with virtually no knowledge of the show, not a huge love for pirate movies, and a fear of the influence Michael Bay may have had on the storyline (i.e., he may have made sure there wasn't much of one). I came away as a fan of a series I didn't think would hold much appeal to me at all. While 'Black Sails' isn't a flawless journey across the high seas, it's better than it has any right to be, and one of the best-looking shows playing anywhere on television right now. It's worth both your time and your Blu-ray dollars.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Black Sails' is one of the earliest Blu-ray releases of 2015, but its packaging design may be one of the worst we see all year long. The three 50 GB Blu-ray discs are packed tightly inside cardboard sleeves (each one containing a black and white photo of one of the series' characters) that are part of a larger five-sided cardboard fold-out. The three sleeves have openings on the side of the cardboard instead of the top, meaning it's virtually impossible to pull the discs out without getting fingerprints all over them. What's worse, is that the sleeves are so tight that if you replace the disc too far into the sleeve, you're going to have even more problems getting it out the next time. The five-fold slides inside of a sturdy cardboard slipcase which features a lenticular 3D cover. However, OCD collectors like myself will no doubt be annoyed that the opening of the slipcase is on the left side of the box instead of the widely preferred right.
Disc 1 of the set is frontloaded with trailers for Season 2 of 'Black Sails' and the Starz series 'Power', plus the theatrical trailer for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. There are no front-loaded trailers on either Disc 2 or Disc 3. The main menu of each disc contains a montage of footage from the series, with menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A locked.
'Black Sails' is shot digitally using both sound stages and actual locales in and around Cape Town, South Africa. This gives the series a look and feel that matches very few other series on television right now. Making use of some well-designed sets as well as a number of beautiful locales, the combination of digital imagery and South African location make each episode of 'Black Sails' look wonderful on Blu-ray. The only real downside is that the series has chosen to make use of the notorious 'shaky cam' look in every scene – no doubt making viewers (myself being one) wish they'd just lock those cameras down so we can enjoy the beautiful scenery.
The series primarily makes use of natural lighting (or at least the illusion of such), which means that most nighttime scenes are lit only by use of candles and/or surrounding fires. This sometimes leads to less than ideal black levels, but for the most part, noise and any murkiness in the image is kept to a minimum. The daytime shots are simply glorious to behold, with the bright blues of the waters, lush greens of the tropics, and overall sharp detail really adds to the enjoyment of each episode. There are no noticeable issues with banding, aliasing, or other frequently seen problems.
It doesn't take long to find out just how great the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track is on this series set. The first episode opens with a sea battle between two ships, and it's one of the most immersive experiences I've had the pleasure to enjoy since becoming a Blu-ray watcher. In short, this isn't just reference quality audio, it's among the best of the best that I own.
The tracks for each episode contain just about everything one could hope for in an aural experience: fantastic directionality and imaging, as cannons fired will swoop from front to back or vice versa; great use of LFE, as explosions rock and rumble one's sound system; and a wonderful balance, as none of those explosions or big action sequences ever drown out the spoken word. There's zilch in terms of glitches as well, which makes this track perhaps the best reference quality one Blu-ray aficionados may get their hands on all year. The audio here is quite impressive, to say the least.
In addition to the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD lossless track, 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks are available in Spanish and French. Subtitles in English SDH and Spanish are also included.
Note: In addition to the bonus features listed below (all of which appear on Disc 3 of this set), Episodes II. through VIII. include the option to watch recaps of the previous episode.
'Black Sails' was a delightful surprise and is definitely a series you'll want to check out, especially if you're a fan of high seas adventures or a lover of 'Treasure Island'. While the plot can get bogged down from time to time with numerous characters and storylines, the actors here are very good and the production value is top-notch. The series can be quite violent and profane at times, but if you're not offended by either extreme, 'Black Sails' is highly recommended.