David S. Goyer might be the only writer in Hollywood capable of coming up with great ideas and then finding a way to write them back into mediocrity. Yes, he's wildly heralded as the writer for all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but he's also responsible for giving us the stories for the rather lukewarm Man of Steel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and Jumper. The last time he delved into television wasn't much of a success either, giving us the short-lived 'FlashForward'. Almost everything on Goyer's resume has an interesting idea behind it, yet almost everything also suffers from Goyer's tendency to make stories more complicated than they need to be. He might be the only writer in Hollywood who can ruin a good tale by trying to make it more intricate.
Goyer is not only the main writer, but he's the creator and executive producer of 'Da Vinci's Demons', and also the director of the first two episodes. In other words, unlike much of his other work, the success or failure of this series lies primarily with him. Yet, once again, we get a product that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Historical drama? Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Middle Ages serial? After watching Season 1 for a second time (I have also been blogging the series for HDD's The Bonus View), I'm still not sure what the show wants to be, nor am I sure that Goyer knows what he wants the series to be. The result is a very uneven 8-episode season, with as many low points as high points.
Looking at the series from a historical standpoint, it's pretty entertaining, even though Goyer plays fast and loose with some of his dates/events/relationships for the sake of his characterizations. Da Vinci (played by Tom Riley) finds himself as both a consultant to and friends with the Medici family (headed up by brothers Lorenzo and Guiliano, played by Elliot Cowan and Tom Bateman, respectively) as well as a secret lover to a woman who also happens to be Lorenzo's mistress as well, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock). During the course of eight episodes, the Medicis square off against both rival families and the Church in Rome, headed up by Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) who uses his nephew, Count Riario (Blake Ritson) to wreak all kinds of havoc against Da Vinci and the Medicis.
As written here, Da Vinci himself is like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who (he doesn't have a Tardis, but he does have a collection of young companions). He's constantly tinkering with new inventions and new ideas, many of which save the lives of himself, the Medicis, or both in several of the episodes. Where the series goes wrong (and, honestly, gets quite confusing) is an ongoing plot involving a mystery man known as 'The Turk' (played by 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig) and the search for something called 'The Book of Leaves' which is supposed to hold secret knowledge that…well, frankly, I'm still not sure what exactly it's supposed to hold, but it seems pretty darn important to Da Vinci to find.
The best episode of Season 1 is surprisingly the one that on paper must have read as the most silly. It's the episode entitled 'The Devil', and it finds Da Vinci and his companions going off to spend the evening in the castle of Prince Vlad. That's right, it's Da Vinci versus Dracula! Now, there's no historical evidence to suggest the two men ever met, but since both were alive at the same time period, it's an interesting hypothesis to put these two men together, and it's the kind of episode one hopes we'll see more of in the seasons to come (yes, 'Da Vinci's Demons' has been renewed for a second season, something of a miracle if you're at all familiar with the frequency at which Starz cancels their series).
While there's a lot to like about Season 1, there's an equal amount of dull, confusing, and at times even just downright bad storytelling. Had Starz not decided to pick this up for another year, my inclination would be to tell readers to pass this one by, but since it is coming back and I think there's the possibility that things might be a little more focused in Season 2 (the last several episodes of Season 1 proved to be better than the first-half), I'm giving this the slightest of recommendations.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Da Vinci's Demons' arrives on Blu-ray in some pretty attractive packaging from Anchor Bay. The set consists of three 50GB dual-layer discs housed in a sturdy and glossy digipack with plastic holders glued to the backing to hold all three Blu-rays inside. A slightly embossed slipcover that matches the cover of the digipack fits overtop. The trifold digipack contains a list of episodes and their writers and directors on the inside flap. Disc 1 of the set contains front-loaded trailers for Spartacus: War of the Damned and Vikings. There are no front-loaded trailers on the other discs. The menu consists of a video montage of footage from the series, with menu selections along the bottom of the screen.
Although I found Season 1 itself to be a mixed bag, there's little arguing over the quality of the video, which looks stunning on Blu-ray, with a few minor exceptions.
'Da Vinci's Demons' was shot digitally on Alexa cameras, providing a very sharp and detailed look to the series, particularly in exterior daylight scenes. Skin tones look properly balanced throughout, and every line, pore and whisker on faces can be made out. The costumes of the series show remarkable detail as well, as you can see the fibers and threads of every outfit. While black levels are strong and give off that inky appearance that one desires, some of the details tend to go a little softer when the series is in dimly lit rooms or during nighttime sequences – which unfortunately makes up a big chunk of 'Da Vinci's Demons'. Not enough to take away from the overall great look, but just enough to prevent the video quality from getting a perfect score.
I did note some very minor instances of banding and aliasing here and there (particularly in the pilot), with the latter almost always having to do with less-than-realistic special effects renderings. Still, these are so few and far between, most will not even notice them, and they really don’t take away from how great the transfer looks otherwise.
Like the video, the audio quality is also quite impressive and falls just short of a reference-quality perfect score. The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track has a lot of fun with directionality and providing the immersive kind of experience that adds to the enjoyment of each episode. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and properly mixed with the soundtrack and background noises. Dynamic range is also very strong, with natural-sounding high-ends and low-ends that provide plenty of 'oomph'.
In addition to the Dolby TrueHD 5.1, a Spanish mono track is also available, as are subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The biggest problem with 'Da Vinci's Demons' is that it's a series that doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a serious historical drama? A science-fiction show? An action-adventure series? A medieval soap opera? It's all of those things in Season 1, and as a result the series lacks the focus it needs to be a 'must see' show week in and week out. Still, I like many of the characters and the actors that portray them, so while I can't recommended potential viewers to go out and spend their hard-earned money on this release, I do think it's worth a look for fans of fictionalized history. Give it a rent.