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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Vikings: Season One Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Vikings follows the adventures of the great hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Viking chieftain seeking to fulfill his destiny as a conqueror, alongside his ambitious brother Rollo (Clive Standen) and loyal wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). Throughout his quest, Ragnar faces a path of betrayals and temptations to protect his freedom, family, and life. When Ragnar teams up with his boat builder friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to craft a new generation of intrepid ships capable of conquering the rough northern seas, the stage is set for conflict. Journey to a thrilling ancient world in this epic new series about history's bravest and most brutally fearsome warriors...Vikings. Ragnar, a would-be Viking chieftain, longs to fulfill his destiny as an explorer and conqueror, alongside his ambitious brother Rollo and loyal wife Lagertha. But as Ragnar leads daring raids in distant realms across the ocean, treacherous forces in his Norse homeland conspire against him. Faced with shocking betrayals and the temptations of a mysterious seductress, Ragnar must wage war on the battlefield -- and within himself -- to protect his freedom, family and life.

Show (4 out of 5 stars)

Considering how much I love The History Channel, I'm not sure how I missed this show.  I wasn't even aware that they had veered away from their usual historical ventures into original scripted fare with the exception of their very successful original mini-series "Hatfields and McCoys."  So when I heard about this show, and how good it was, I knew I had to check it out and I'm glad I did since I wasn't that aware of Viking history.  I don't know how accurate the history presented in this show actually is, but it feels authentic and realistic to me.

The central figure in "Vikings" is a young farmer named Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) who is based on a real Viking, who was a chieftain but little else is known.  Life in the viking community is ruled by Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who rules with an iron fist despite making token gestures of democracy.  Haraldson owns all of the ships and most of the wealth in their village so the others have to do what he wants which doesn't please Ragnar.  Ragnar believes that the ships should sail west where it's rumored to have plenty of wealth for the taking and he publicly disagrees with Haraldson  which doesn't endear himself to his Earl.

After being threatened by Haraldon, Ragnar decides to go west anyway and he uses his own money to have a new boat designed and built by his friend Floki (Gustaf SkarsgĂ„rd).  Ragnar secretly gathers a group of men to join his expedition including his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) (and later his shield maiden wife Lagertha) (Katheryn Winnick) and they make their first journey into uncharted territory only armed with two new navigational tools that Ragnar obtained from a wanderer.  Against all odds, Ragnar and his men discover England and they take advantage of the element of surprise   and slaughter a group of monks at a monastery.  The vikings show no mercy to the priests and the few that survive the attack are taken back to Scandinavia as slaves, including a young priest named Athelstand (George Blagden).

Ragnar's success in England does not go unnoticed by Haraldson who's very aware of Ragnar's popularity and views him a threat to both his position and his authority.  To put Ragnar in his place, Haraldon takes all of his spoils of war for himself, leaving each man only one item to pick from from their loot.  Ragnar surprises Haraldson by picking the priest Athelstand as his prize to keep because he wants to learn more about England from his slave.  The discovery of this new opportunity in the west puts Haraldson in a tough situation as if he ignores the chances for wealth, he will look bad in front of his people, but if he sanctions further raids against England, then he would be validating Ragnar's position which he opposed.  That conflict will continue to grow and will end in bloodshed and destruction by the season's end.

"Vikings" is an interesting show that takes its time building up the characters and the world and it's unlike pretty much anything else on television which is a good thing.  It does an excellent job recreating a lost world that really captures life as it was at that time and the scenery and settings in the show are incredible.  Filmed in Ireland, the show brilliantly takes advantage of its surroundings and it's very impressive to see.  The cast is also very good in their roles, especially the main players including Byrne, Fimmel, Standen,Winnick, and Blagden.

One of the great things about this cast is the fact that you can never tell what they're going to do next.  All of them are predictable and being vikings, they may kiss you or they may lop your head off with an axe.  Standen's character in particular is impossible to pinpoint, as he is a rapist who spares sick old men and a serial cheater and he may or may not betray his brother at every point. The show takes a very adult approach so don't be surprised at the gore, sex, and nudity.  If you are looking for something different and enjoy shows set in the past, then this is an easy show to recommend.  I'm looking forward to the next season as the finale left a lot of things up in the air.

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The episodes span three discs and are presented here in 1080p with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and each of them looks fantastic.  Although the image has been deliberately desaturated to give it a historical air, the images look sharp and detailed.  Colors in particular look vibrant, especially when the blood starts to splatter which it does often.  The locations used in Ireland look beautiful here and this show has to be a calling card for other productions just based on what has been included in these episodes.  The indoor scenes that are lit by candlelight look better than you'd think as the black levels are solid and dark.  This is a fine presentation that fans will enjoy. 
Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

"Viking's" DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also excellent and it really helps sell the viewing experience too.  From the opening song "If I Had a Heart" by Fever Ray to the rest of the brooding score by Trevor Morris, you'll know that you're in for a treat.  The sound effects sound realistic and their directionality is accurate.  I especially liked hearing the sounds of the storm that plagued Ragnar's first voyage to England as well as the sounds of battle.  The dialogue is also clean and intelligible and never drowned out by the music or the effects.

Extras (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

I was happy to see extras included on this release because all of the other History Channel releases that I've reviewed didn't offer any kind of special features.  Another bonus is the fact that all of these are in high definition.
  • Extended Versions: - Each episode contains the broadcast version of the show and an uncensored "extended" edition that contains more nudity, gore, and violence.  I always prefer the intended edition that has it all.
  • Season Mode: This feature allows the viewer to stop the show at any point and be able to resume it later.  It also allows you to swap discs and pick right up at the following episode which I really liked. 

Disc 1:

  • Commentary for "Rites of Passage" - An audio commentary featuring series creator and writer Michael Hirst and star Jessalyn Gilsig.  Hirst talks about how the show came about and what he wanted to do with it while Gilsig talks about it from an actor's point of view. 
  • Deleted Scenes - Three deleted scenes are included that were cut for time from the first episode.

Disc 3:

  • Commentary for "All Change" - An audio commentary with Katheryn Winnick and Clive Standen who talk about playing Lagertha and Rollo respectively.  Winnick goes into detail about the making of the show while Standen offers an interesting perspective about viking history.
  • Deleted Scenes - One deleted scene is included from episode eight.
  • A Warrior Society: Viking Culture and Law - Almost twenty-one minutes long, this featurette focuses on the viking society and their culture.  We hear from experts who talk about how the historical aspects of the people influenced the show and society at large.   Series creator Michael Hirst and members from the cast also offer their opinions too. 
  • Birth of the Vikings - Michael Hirst and the main cast talk about the show and how they approach the characters and their motivations.
  • Forging the Viking Army: Warfare and Tactics - A little over seventeen minutes long, this featurette covers the massive training it takes to make the show look this realistic.  We see plenty of footage from the fight rehearsals along with shots of the finished footage to show us how the final result looked.  We hear from sword trainer Richard Ryan, stunt coordinator Mark Henson and some of the cast as well. 
  • Interactive Blu-ray Exclusives - We get two bonus interactive learning opportunities with "The Armory of the Vikings" which gives us a breakdown on all of the weapons used in the show including a look at the cool viking boats.  The other one is "Conquest and Discovery: Journeys of Vikings" which allows us to journey along a map to the various places the show goes.  Both of these were interesting and well done and hosted by historian Dr. Jochen Burgtorf who share his knowledge with us.  It's also nice that both of these features have a "play all" option. 
Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

"Vikings" is a well made show whose uniqueness and attention to detail is impressive as is its effort to be  as authentic as possible.  The cast is fantastic and the locations are beautiful to look at which really looks great on Blu-ray.  The video and audio quality are top notch and the extras are pretty good too.  If you are looking for something a little different or want to escape to a different time and place, then you should check this out!

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