Thursday, 27 November 2014

Black Sails Season 1 (2014)

I cover the first season of Starz’s ambitious pirate drama, chronicling the adventures of Captain Flint and John Silver, 20 years before the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, starring Toby Stephens, Luke Arnold and more.

I’m a massive fan of the pirate genre. I’ll read practically anything set in that time period and watch practically any pirate related drama. The first big exposure I got to Pirates was of course the fun, swashbuckling adventures of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean which unfortunately got worse with every installment, and the next major entry came with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was a complete success, focusing on the life of Edward Kenway as he interacted with all the various historical figures of that era on a quest to find a mythical observatory which promised unlimited power. The game itself was the best of the franchise since Assassin’s Creed II, and got me really hyped up for Black Sails that debuted on Starz shortly after the game came out.

The series itself is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island where Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is one of the most feared pirates of the era. Following a successful raid, he takes on board a survivor as part of his crew, John Silver (Luke Arnold), who naturally, causes more trouble than he’s worth. Flint himself is fighting for the survival of New Providence Island, a home where the King has no power, and a paradise for pirates, prostitutes and thieves. It isn’t long before Flint is forced to ally with Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the daughter of the local kingpin, in a quest to hunt a Spanish ship said to contain untold riches. However, on the way, Flint will have to contend with real-life pirates in the form of Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), as well as suspicion from his own crew.

This eight episode long series, with each episode an hour long, is a bit hit and miss. Its decision to remain mostly landlocked in the first season aside from a few choice deviations lowers the pace for most of the earlier episodes which can often make them a chore to get through. It isn’t really until episode five when the series hits its stride, but when it improves, it really does improve, with some great acting, particularly towards the end of the series and some great action sequences that really work. Its high-budget and high-concept, with the former perhaps explaining why you don’t see a lot of pirate shows on television nowadays. They’re expensive. But it’s safe to say that Starz has pulled it off, at least for the most part.

The pilot episode itself started off strong even if its characters weren’t fleshed out especially well. Again, the series itself struggles to know what to do with them until episode five, when they become more engaging and captivating. The performances and the story improves in general, and it’s safe to say, if you can stick around for that then you’re in for a really good ride. However, sometimes that can backfire, with certain characters falling to the wayside in favour of others, the biggest victim of this problem being Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who starts off as somebody with a major role but it sort of falls away at the end.

The music on Black Sails is pretty impressive as well. The opening theme tune from TV soundtrack legend Bear McCeary is worth mentioning because it just sounds great, and the opening sequence as a whole is one of the best that I’ve seen on TV in a while.

The cast is mostly pretty good, or at least, mostly pretty good by the time Season 1 is wrapped up, but notable standouts include Toby Stephens as Flint, who makes you care about the character even though he isn’t exactly the nicest guy in the world. Zach McGowan also holds a good, intimidating presence as Charles Vane, and also Mark Ryan excels as Mr. Gates, an ally of Flint. There’s even a strong performance from Tom Hopper, who plays Billy Bones.

Is Black Sails perfect? No. It doesn’t match the complexity of Game of Thrones which it’s clearly aiming for.  But it’s certainly the best series on Starz at the moment aside from maybe Da Vinci’s Demons (I haven’t seen Outlander or The Missing yet, both of which have been praised highly), and it’s really just good fun for the most part, with lots of potential for a great Season 2, which will ideally include more seafaring than the mostly landlocked first Season. So this series comes with a cautious recommendation, it’s not for everyone, but if you want to give it a go then you could do far worse.

VERDICT: 7.9/10

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