History Channel’s new series Vikings has just started, and it looks good so far. To be honest, it is worth watching just for the introduction of early navigation and shipbuilding techniques. The second episode shows the terror of being lost in the mist in the middle of the ocean with no idea of which direction is land, or if there even is land nearby. The lead character, Ragnar Lothbrok, is a famous Norse hero, and Travis Fimmel plays him as a visionary driven to find new lands and kill and loot their inhabitants. I have only seen two episodes but Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson is a deliciously paranoid and small-minded villain.
While the show looks entertaining and I am looking forward to watching it, I hope that it succeeds and encourages a competitor to produce Bernard Cornwell’s series The Saxon Tales, where King Alfred, reluctantly assisted by his warlord Uhtred, the protagonist of the series, resists the invasion of the northmen, including Ragnar’s three sons, and eventually forges a single English nation. I am a big fan of the books, but Cornwell can be a little formulaic at times, so it would benefit from a writing team in the same way that George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire series has been improved as HBO’s Game of Thrones. The series would be a good fit for the BBC.
Vikings is appealing for several reasons. Ragnar’s wife Lagertha (Katherine Winnick) is a shield maiden and their arguments are surprisingly violent. Vladimir Kulich has been wasted since his stunning performance as Beowulf in the sadly unknown The Thirteenth Warrior (1999). Although he is a supporting character, his role will hopefully be expanded. However, the show’s greatest potential is that it presents the viking raids from the northmen’s perspective. Ragnar’s men think nothing of slaughtering a monastery full of unarmed monks. Their pagan beliefs are emphasized, and Ragnar even has visions of Odin on a battlefield. Executive producer Michael Hirst’s first TV series, The Tudors, was saved from being a glossy medieval soap opera by the unflinching portrayal of religious fanaticism and the struggle between conservatives and reformers where each side was treated fairly. A show where the pagan hero happily kills Christian monks is worth watching, and will hopefully offer a different perspective of Christianity.
Following the surprisingly good Hatfields and McCoys miniseries in 2012, this is History’s first scripted series, making it a player in a crowded field that includes HBO, Starz, AMC, Showtime and the BBC. Nice to see some actual history on the History Channel, instead of the usual Pawn Stars, Ice Truckers and American Pickers.