A strain of unnerving dread permeates every corner of 'Fortitude's first season. The disquieting murk that settles over the inhabitants of the fictional Arctic settlement of Fortitude is something else indeed. Small towns with dark secrets are nothing new. However, when Simon Donald's 'Fortitude' adds permafrost and polar bears to the mix everything seems new, inventive, and fresh.
When things go wrong in the seemingly quiet town of 'Fortitude' they go really wrong. Running a hybrid of socialism and capitalism, the frozen town of the north certainly has some odd rules and customs. Everyone in the town is employed in one way or another, creating a community with virtually no crime. It would have been interesting to see the village before we start observing it, because once we enter the picture everything's gone to hell.
The town's governor (Sofie Gråbøl) is just about to reveal extensive plans for a hotel hewn from the glacial ice outside city limits. It's a deal that could bring money and prosperity to the townsfolk for years to come. Though, in a pristine wilderness such as the Arctic, nature isn't always so accommodating. Two men, Ronnie (Johnny Harris) and Jason (Aaron McCusker) find something – mammoth remains perhaps? – thawed from the permafrost. Word of their mysterious discovery is taken to Prof. Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), one of the town's researchers. If it is indeed a mammoth, or some other ancient animal, the plans for the hotel will be put on hold, or worse, canceled.
So, while that discovery is certainly the crux of the show's storyline, there are a myriad of other players and subplots that only add to the unsettling intrigue. Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) is the my-way-or-the-highway town Sheriff who is obviously hiding something. Elena (Verónica Echegui) catches the eye of many of the men in town and certainly has ulterior motives of her own. Frank (Nicholas Pinnock) is cheating on his wife Jules (Jessica Raine), while their son is sick with an unknown illness. Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon) is a wildlife photographer specializing in polar bears, who stumbles upon a town resident getting eviscerated by one of the great white beasts in the first few minutes of episode one. He's haunted by the image throughout the course of the season. Finally, there's DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci), an American, working for the British police force, who has come to investigate one of the town's rare murders.
Ben Frost's musical score underlines the eerie nature of the surroundings. He creates music that makes you feel just as isolated as the town's residents must feel. The cinematography also aides in the effort, providing visuals that recall those of 'Fargo.' White snow fields lacking horizons, blinding white outs, and a complete sense of remoteness in just about every single shot. The plot provides the force for the story, but it's the bleak expanse of white and cold that give it necessary context. Stick this story somewhere else, almost anywhere else in the world, and it doesn't work half as well as it does here. There's this feeling that these people, living in constant frigid conditions are already one step away from death. They don't need extraneous circumstances helping exacerbate their problems.
Yet, here they are. Stuck in a seemingly God-forsaken frigid tundra with a murderer (or two) on the loose. The head police officer may be the most demented soul of all, and he's the only one keeping order in the whole town. The cast is extraordinary and not just because familiar faces like Eccleston, Gambon, and Tucci are in the mix. Everyone is exceedingly apt in portraying whatever tortured character they're asked to play, and believe me these people are tortured beyond belief. How anyone ends up surviving this mess is beyond my comprehension, but it sure will be fun to watch them try.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Here we have a 4-disc Blu-ray set, which comes in a standard keepcase with annoying packaging. That's because even though there are four discs you're asked to double-stack them in single disc hubs. The packaging, therefore, is less than ideal. A slipcover is also provided.
The 1080p presentation portrays a crisp, detailed picture that sports some dynamite contrast. With all the stark white snow presented it's critical that contrast work near flawlessly here, and it does. I was very impressed, most of the time, with the show's lifelike high-def look.
Detail is striking. Faces feature freckles, age lines, stubble, and any other fine detail one would think should accompany a face. Individual snowflakes drift in and out of frame as snow is almost consistently part of the scenery. Even when the snow is blinding it's still beautiful. There's a shot where a truck is driving through the snow, and all you can see is the truck in the middle of whiteness. It's actually a really nicely done shot that illustrates the artistry of the series as a whole. The white-out conditions present some visuals that could've been dicey if there had been sign of compression artifacts. Thankfully, any artificating is kept at a minimum.
The digital filming does have some difficulty with presenting nighttime scenes with absolute clarity, however, it's more of a problem with the recording source than the transfer itself. I didn't notice any banding, blocking, or aliasing issues. Which, when you consider that this is a British production distributed by PBS, is quite something. You never know what you're going to get with these kind of release, sometimes they arrive on Blu-ray in 1080i and exhibit all sorts of technical snafus. 'Fortitude' is one of the great ones though.
This is where you run into the “well that's strange” portion of this release. Like I said above British-produced programs distributed by PBS often are accompanied by weird technical choices. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is one of those weird choices. 'Fortitude' is ripe for exploiting surround sound and instead it's complacent with throwing all sound front and center and calling it a day.
The blizzards, soundtrack, and expansive emptiness could be conveyed wonderfully through a well thought out 5.1 mix. That's just not the case here. What we get is an extremely cluttered mix of sound that is confined to two speakers.
Dialogue is clear considering the limitations. Music is a bit too loud and not prioritized correctly in line with the other audio elements. Wind whipping across the tundra doesn't have the oomph it might have had in a more aggressive mix. It's slightly disappointing any way you look at it.
As far as procedurals go, 'Fortitude' definitely packs in enough distressing secrecy to keep it interesting. The characters are developed enough as to not seem like simple cardboard cut-outs filling up space. The plot is genuinely engaging and the mystery is sincerely intriguing. The release has some strong video, and decent, if not slightly underwhelming, audio. Even despite 'Fortitude's egregious packaging (seriously, stacking discs is just the worst) the series is still worth a look.