Not long ago, History (the TV channel) was more or less thought of as the channel for middle-aged dads fascinated with tales of the hard fought battles that had helped win World War II, as told by the people who had participated in the protracted conflict, and thus became known as "The Greatest Generation." At that time, History made its name by offering educational, informative, but still entertaining programs built around the idea of the channel's name – i.e., they each carried with them an historical element – regardless the subject they covered. Then, as the demands of cable television and the shifting interests of an already niche audience dictated, History discretely shifted its focus from the trials and tribulations of the second "War to End All Wars," and history in general, to programs about rural folk and any mildly ostracized university anthropology or astronomy professor, who was willing to discuss on the record his or her search for either extraterrestrial life, or proof of the existence of Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, or any other monster that has eluded capture or surveillance for as long as its legend has persisted. To put it plainly: History wasn't so much about history anymore.
But the larger cable television audience is a fickle beast whose tastes and preferences remain one step ahead of TV executives and creative types like some elusive, hairy ape-man roaming the forests of the Pacific Northwest. So, after watching while other networks that traditionally offered other forms of entertainment – like AMC, A&E, IFC and Sundance – began working with the idea of developing their own scripted television series, History did the only logical thing and followed suit. Technically, the network's most ambitious effort would have been the multiple-award-winning miniseries 'Hatfields & McCoys,' but it's first scripted and ongoing drama series went to the equally ambitious sounding historical drama 'Vikings,' from writer and executive producer Michael Hirst, whose previous credits include: 'Elizabeth,' 'The Tudors' and the short-lived Starz fantasy series 'Camelot.' So, with a resume like that, if anyone was going to be the right fit for a television program based on some of the world's earliest trans-oceanic explorers, it would probably be Hirst.
Unlike Hirst's other efforts – television or otherwise – 'Vikings' isn't based on the a real-life character who is well known, or has had his or her story taught in schools or depicted in various forms of popular culture. Instead, the series focuses on the real-life Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (also: Lodbrog, Lodbrok, depending on the source) who, despite having many of his exploits become the thing of legend, isn't exactly as well-known a figure of history as, say, Queen Elizabeth or King Henry VIII. So, with that in mind, Hirst's newest drama has a bit of freedom with regard to its subject and the dramatic approach the series takes toward the world it chooses to play in.
That world and its subject is headed up primarily by Australian actor Travis Fimmel, who ably presents Ragnar as smart, ambitious and deadly. But he's also quick with a smile, loyal almost to a fault and the proud father of two children with his wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). Fimmel – who bears a striking resemblance to English actor Charlie Hunnam ('Sons of Anarchy,' 'Pacific Rim') – plays Ragnar with a great deal of low-key intensity, which makes him prone to keeping his head down, while looking up at whoever is talking to him with only his eyes. It's an interesting characterization that speaks to Ragnar's belief in himself as someone destined for greater things, and hints at why those in power like the Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) take such a disliking to him, and why those like his brother Rollo (Clive Standen), are desperate to emerge from Ragnar's shadow.
This depiction of a man whose story is the stuff of legend could easily translate itself into a rather thrilling adventure series. And yet, as 'Vikings' and Michael Hirst display early on, that story is not one they're necessarily interested in telling with the usual kind of television urgency. There is a peculiar pace to the first two episodes of season 1 – 'Rights of Passage' and 'Wrath of the Northmen,' respectively – that comes remarkably close to dragging the entire season down as the weight of early character development and exposition become almost too much to bear.
But as soon as the season rounds the corner on episode 3, 'Dispossessed,' it becomes clear Hirst (who is astonishingly the sole credited writer on all nine episodes of season one) was loading the front end of this story, so that the middle section could be spread out exploring the ramifications of Ragnar's illegal explorations west and his progressively worsening relationship with Earl Haraldson. Bifurcating the narrative elements in such a way manages to generate considerable interest on both sides of Ragnar's story, as his early expeditions to Northumbria not only allow for an introduction to shipbuilder and all around strange dude, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård, 'Kon Tiki') and result in his acquisition of an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of Athelstan (George Blagden), but they also demonstrate this young upstart's penchant for earning the ire of superiors by first enraging Northumbrian King Aelle (Ivan Kaye), while back home, Haraldson plots against Ragnar for fear he will lose his dwindling power and influence to Lothbrok's rising star.
To its credit, 'Vikings' manages these competing elements quite well, and actually burns through one major storyline quite quickly and in captivating fashion. With only 9 episodes to tell its story, season 1 handles shifting priorities by pushing the narrative in directions unheard of for a first season. In that regard, Hirst's storyline is reminiscent of FX's intense, but sometimes confounding on-the-border crime drama 'The Bridge,' which also wrapped up one of its key storylines early in the season, so that the back end could work to set up the continuation of the story. By episode 7, 'A King's Ransom,' we are already looking at the next phase of Ragnar's evolution, and come the season's end, the series has introduced a whole new conflict for its protagonist that cuts much deeper than the petty jealousies of an aging Earl, or fishy sibling.
In the end, 'Vikings' managed to become a gripping mix of high adventure and character drama that, like Ragnar Lothbrok, carries hints of greater things to come. It's a testament to Hirst's experience and his writing ability that he was able to emerge from some fairly rough waters early on, to ultimately prove his ship was seaworthy.
'Vikings: The Complete First Season' comes as three 50GB Blu-ray discs containing all nine episodes, as well as previews and special features. The interior of the set's insert contains episode titles by disc, as well as a description of the special features. All episodes are available to watch as "Extended Versions." These extended elements are generally things that wouldn't fly with the U.S. censors, so some scenes have been changed to include more graphic depictions of violence and some graphic nudity. Story elements, however, remain the same.
Presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, 'Vikings' looks very much like the kind of high end program you would expect from HBO, or even Showtime. Although the premiere has some questionable use of CGI elements in the opening sequence, the remainder of the series generally eschews such effects for stunning cinematography that makes frequent use of filters to good effect. There are some spots where the series uses CGI to depict Viking ships crossing great expanses of water, and the HD image tends to make that particular effect look a little shoddy, but overall the image works to elevate the story at hand.
Color is put to interesting use in the series, as much of the atmosphere is given a bluish tint indicative of the cooler temperatures in the north, and the wet climate of Northumbria. Against that steely blue tone, the frequent use of blood – either in battle or in ritual – stands out tremendously, and winds up looking terrific. There is one scene in particular where Fimmel's character sits on a beach amongst his fallen comrades and the red on his face contrasts against the intense blue of his eyes in a particularly striking fashion.
If nothing else, this is a series that is as concerned with its visual composition, as it is the narrative one and the attention to detail is represented quiet well on each disc. Fine detail is present in not only the character's faces, as sometimes facial and other bodily scars play tremendous role in defining them, but also in the intricate layers of their costumes, the trinkets that adorn their bodies, or the modifications that are made to their skin in the way of tattoos and the like. Similarly, detail helps to create a real sense of place, as the villages Ragnar and his people live in are drastically dissimilar to the walled castle in Northumbria, or even the elaborate setting of the season's climax.
Contrast plays a significant part in the picture as well. Black levels are superb throughout and the image never appears hazy or washed out. The image can be a little dark in some places, but that mostly appears to be a stylistic choice. Otherwise, there is an incredible amount of depth in certain scenes – especially during close-ups on the faces of Fimmel or Standen – which seems to have been created through a terrific balance of cinematic style, and technical prowess.
Overall, this is a very nice looking image that is typically very sharp and precise. It occasionally teeters on being too dark in a few instances, which keeps it from being one of the best images presented for television in recent memory.
'Vikings' is, at heart, a very cinematic adventure program and it would only be natural for the series to have the soundtrack to match. Luckily, its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track comes as close to delivering perfect atmospheric sound as possible.
The mix displays a tremendous dynamic range, as sounds emerge from all channels with such deliberate attention to balance and directionality that every episode is an immersive experience unto itself. There is a persistent atmospheric effect in nearly every shot that is indicative of some element off-screen that indicates to the viewer where the scene in question is taking place. The crackles and pops of wood on a fire point toward season and temperature, while the sounds of the wind or crashing surf in the distance is a reminder how close they are (or not) to the coastline. These continual audio cues manage to become a part of the show's character, and the audio in this instance does a terrific job of handling that important aspect of the program.
While the dialogue is typically very good, there are some occasions where actors' voices could be clearer, or be balanced better with the other elements of the series, like sound effects or the score. Thankfully, there are only a handful of instances where the listener might not get precisely what the actor was saying (there are a few moments where Rollo is speaking directly into Ragnar's ear, and, despite its significance to the plot and the characters, it almost seems as though the show wants that conversation to remain private).
On the whole, this is a good sounding disc that offers up some unique atmospheric elements that help sell the series as more of a cinematic endeavor.
Although some of the financial burden was taken off as a result of it being a shared production between several entities, 'Vikings' still had a lot riding on it in terms of the next phase of in the expansion of History as a purveyor of original content. Overall, the series could have easily worked for any number of networks, but its unique content makes it perfectly suited for a role on a niche network like History. Michael Hirst has done some good work here in transitioning the storyline during the first season to better segue into season 2. In the end, the series managed to surprise more for how it progressed and sumptuously some of the episodes were composed. This is a terrific set with great picture and sound and some fun extras that makes 'Vikings: The Complete First Season' recommended.