Vikings S1 (2013) [Blu-ray]

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Vikings is a curious show, which despite its swaggering subject matter appears to suffer from something of a crisis of self-confidence. What else other than a serious inferiority complex could explain quite why it’s so determined to fly so resolutely under the radar and in the safety of the deep shadows cast by other, bigger, better-promoted television series?

In the UK, Vikings is perhaps best known (if it’s known at all) as one of the very first shows that Amazon picked up as an exclusive offering for its LOVEFILM online streaming service in the wake of the seismic disturbance of the market caused by Netflix’s House of Cards. Despite this, it’s hardly as if Vikings came with any fanfare that might have made it a subscriptions-driver. It’s more a case that Amazon realised they needed to have something – anything – with which to parry Netflix’s content strategy, even if Vikings is in reality just another bit of bought-in content from North America where it was originally created for the Canadian cable network History.

In appearance, Vikings gives the impression of being commissioned because of its visual similarity to HBO’s blockbuster series Game of Thrones, a comparison made only stronger by the odd timing of the release of this first season on DVD and Blu-ray just a couple of weeks before that of the latest boxset chronicalling the continuing hostilities between the Starks and Lannisters that will doubtless once again ensure that Vikings will be quickly shouldered to one side by anyone who might have contemplated trying it out in a quieter time of the year. There’s less of a fantasy element to Vikings of course, but the mid-medieval, militaristic Viking stylings have a strong sense of the world of Winterfell nonetheless, not least because it shares its stunning Irish locations (in this case doubling for Scandinavia rather than Westeros.)

To be sure, Vikings lacks the sweeping, epic sense of dynastic plotting that Game of Thrones has made its own. Rather than a sprawling multi-protagonist point of view, in Vikings we essentially follow the fortunes of one young Scandinavian farmer and his family. In Norse history, Ragnar Lothbrok (played exceptionally well by one-time Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel) occupies the same sort of place as King Arthur does in English culture. He’s a mythic figure, more likely based on a real person than Arthur but still something of an amalgam of different important figures of the day. With Norse history of the time (c. 850AD) mostly kept in the oral tradition, much has become lost or confused over the intervening period – which gives creator/writer Michael Hirst a lot more leeway to be creative than was the case in his previous notable success The Tudors, which despite the inevitable concessions to the needs of prime time mainstream entertainment was actually kept remarkably honest and true to the facts by the writer. Once again Hirst manages to produce a series that sticks as close as possible to the known facts of Viking history even while also taking some liberties in pushing the speculation to give an effective, rounded sense of the culture and society of the age.

In the first season of Vikings, Ragnar develops a new way of reliably traversing open water that allows him to go west and discover the previously unplundered lands of northern England which prove rich in pickings and also completely unprepared for violent raiding parties striking from the North Sea. Ragnar’s success leads him into escalating conflict back home with the paranoid local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne at the top of his game) and the consequences soon explode with devastating effects for all, including Ragnar’s wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), his children Bjorn and Gyda, and brother Rollo (Clive Standen) along with Ragnar’s group of raiders which include the slightly unhinged boatbuilder Floki (a thoroughly scene-stealing Gustaf Skarsgård.) Despite the crossings to England, the series is kept surprisingly tight and intimate and is set mainly around Haraldson’s fiefdom, a setup betraying little sense early on of how the little local difficulties will end up shaping the history of Northern Europe for centuries to come.

At this point you might be thinking you have little interest in watching a series about a bunch of violent savages living in primitive huts, speaking in near-comedic sing-song accents (with the exception of Byrne who gets to retain his natural Irish brogue.) And to be honest, I was of much the same mind before getting my hands on the first of the three-disc Blu-ray boxset. Much as I was quickly won over by Game of Thrones’ prologue, so the first five minutes of Vikings had an immediate impact: it’s the aftermath of a huge battle – we know not who between or why – and as the lone survivor stands on the battlefield amid dozens of corpses, he sees – or imagines – his god Odin reaping the souls of fallen warriors deemed fit to be taken to Valhalla. It’s a creepy and effective opening to the proceedings, one that says “we might not be a fantasy series like George RR Martin’s opus, but history can actually tell even bigger and stranger tales” after which you might just be hooked and want to see where it’s going to go. (Norse mythology will be familiar even to those who know nothing of the historical period, as it has influenced everything from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Klingon culture in the Star Trek franchise.)

Hirst is a great writer in terms of shaping and pacing his plot, although he does like to take his time and the series has been criticised for being too slow which I can understand if not agree with. The slow pace does mean that the show has time to gradually open out its cast of characters and make them interesting and believable human beings, albeit ones from a very different culture. Wisely, Hirst brings in the character of Athelstan (George Blagden, Les Misèrables) who is a young monk abducted and kept as a slave by Ragnar during an early raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne: he quickly becomes the audience’s main point of identification, the person through whose eyes we see this alien society and who asks the questions about the Northmen’s cultural norms that we also need to understand. It’s just as well as have Athelstan around, because Ragnar and his men do some things that would otherwise be unconscionable to modern Western eyes, such as slaughtering innocent priests and raiding a Christian church for its valuables. All the while, Ragnar watches on with a huge grin of near-insane glee on his face at the mayhem he’s unleashing. Hirst certainly doesn’t water down the sense of barbarism of the Viking pillaging as seen through English eyes of the time, although he does draw a line when we get to the raping: the one character who does take this route is swiftly and permanently dispensed with.

In a similar sense, the show contains a lot of sex and violence, but unlike the typical HBO outing it backs away before we get too near the knuckle rather than overstaying and glorying in the moment. Yes, there are some brutal fights with blood spraying every which way; but the actual kill is largely kept away from our eyes. While Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead cheerfully decapitate characters with centre-of-frame explicitness, here the act is usually just off-screen; a sequence where one character is tortured for information sees the camera almost coyly slip away from the actual deed to focus instead on the flow of blood dripping onto the floor. Make no mistake, it’s still very gory and there’s still the occasional bit of nudity and implied sex, but its nothing like we’d get from HBO land with its almost pathological mission to shock at all costs. Whether that’s praise or criticism of Vikings will depend on the individual viewer’s sensibilities.

The Blu-ray disc has excellent sound and visual quality – the detail of the sets and costumes that the high definition transfer picks out is almost of a match to that of the peerless Game of Thrones releases, and it never falters even in difficult low-light conditions indoors where scenes are illuminated merely by flickering flames. With minimal fantasy elements there is less need for overt CGI: the Irish locations are spectacular enough in their own right not to need much augmentation, but where it’s required for narrative purposes (such as the voyage across the North Sea) then it all looks very impressively rendered indeed.

The rest of the Blu-ray offering can’t quite live up to the levels set by HBO, but does include two commentaries and a few deleted scenes, together with some interesting featurettes explaining the reality of Viking culture, law, arms, warfare and tactics as well as one 17-minute behind-the-scenes peek. By most standards this is a perfectly robust offering, it’s just that it pales somewhat in comparison with Game of Thrones to which all roads inexorably lead.

Yes, we’re back to that whole overshadowed/inferiority complex thing again. Whereas HBO decided to go all-in on their audacious gamble that the world was ready for a big budget, prime time fantasy blockbuster TV show, the executives behind the marketing of Vikings seem to have decided early on that this was never going to amount to more than a niche effort. Which is a shame because while they were busy managing their own expectations, the production team, writer and actors were off producing a genuinely top quality, compelling piece of drama that succeeds in the old Reithian ambition of both entertaining and educating at the same time. That alone puts it head and shoulders above so much tepid fare to be found via the usual channels these days, and means that I thoroughly recommend you give it a try given the opportunity. You might just be very surprised by how good it turns out to be.

Vikings S1 is available on both DVD and Blu-ray (click on the images above to go to the respective pages to purchase.) The second season will also be available for streaming via LOVEFILM from the end of February 2014.

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