Starz delivers a gripping look at 18th Century pirates in this solid, new action series
Every premium cable channel wants a prestige project to draw viewers in the right demographics. HBO struck gold with Game of Thrones, a critically acclaimed series that also drew big ratings. Starz attempts to wade in those waters with Black Sails, a grounded pirate series that crosses Game of Thrones with Pirates of the Caribbean. The adventure series has rich production values in its first season. It is an ambitious attempt to pull off a layered portrait of piracy with some depth, set in a realistic version of the 18th Century. This season is a solid beginning to its saga.
A prequel to the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, Black Sails is a pirate adventure that centers on the tales of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). It’s 1715, the golden age of piracy. Captain Flint and his motley crew fight for the survival of New Providence Island — a debauched paradise teeming with pirates, prostitutes, thieves and fortune seekers. Aligning himself with Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), daughter of the local kingpin, he hunts a rumored Spanish treasury ship worth $5 million dollars. But standing in the way are rival captains, Eleanor’s intrusive father, and perhaps the bigger obstacle of all: John Silver (Luke Arnold). Silver is a young, fast-talking sailor recently added to Flint’s crew, holding the only map to this treasure.
The storytelling and characterization in Black Sails are far more ambitious than expected. There is less focus on action and high adventure in its eight episodes for something intended for Starz. That is not to say there is no action – you still get classic pirate sieges on the high seas in all their glory. The series does follow the normal premium cable model of gratuitous nudity and excessive violence. Maxine and the other prostitutes are a fairly integral part of the overall story-line, especially the complicated relationship between Maxine and Eleanor.
Black Sails has a deep, structured story that focuses on the shifting internal politics in the island’s controlling elite and maneuverings within Flint’s crew. Quartermaster Gates is Flint’s effective right-hand man, ensuring the crew doesn’t abandon him for another captain. Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) is the most respected member in Flint’s crew of pirates, a reliable person that begins to question Flint’s motives as he discovers more about Flint’s past. Who is the mysterious Mrs. Barlow and what does she mean to Captain Flint?
Another unexpected trait of Black Sails is how much of an ensemble it becomes in this first season. While Captain Flint and his desperate dealings are the nominal focus, Eleanor Guthrie drives more of the actual plot. A young, brash woman in charge of all trading on the island, she brutally runs her business with a former slave, Mr. Scott. Black Sails scrupulously avoids diminishing her character in importance as a romantic female lead. For a series that tries to err on the side of history, her role does feel like pandering to a certain extent.
Everything in the production looks authentically great. My biggest complaint is the extended length of each episode, all nearing an hour. While a few shows have enough material for a full hour, Black Sails feels drawn-out and padded at that length. The season stalls a bit in its middle, meandering around until the action gets going once again with an epic sea battle. More grounded than something like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Black Sails provides a unique and in-depth look at the dangerous lives of pirates. With just enough action and adventure to spice it up, the series is worth hunting down.
Black Sails: The Complete First Season is gorgeous, a simply outstanding video presentation with incredible location cinematography. Distributor Starz has given it a top-notch treatment that preserves every pixel of its glorious resolution in an unprocessed transfer. The eight episodes are spread over three BD-50s, allowing a generous AVC video encode with flawless transparency.
Framed in a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer at 1080P resolution, this video is pure demo material of the highest caliber. Featuring a pristine digital capture, the high-contrast, high-resolution video has impeccable depth and dimensionality. I have rarely seen its equal on Blu-ray – the action practically leaps off the screen with its inky black levels and stellar projection.
The unfiltered, razor-sharp detail exudes constant precision throughout Black Sails, the laser-like focus produces incredible close-ups. This is the epitome of unprocessed digital footage, one with as much resolution as there is possible on Blu-ray. This set could be the new reference standard for video quality. Few productions are capable of matching its inherent perfection.
Black Sails has already won an Emmy for its audio, the pirate series comes with an impressive 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. This is an intricate, layered surround experience that pushes everything to the max in key action scenes. It also comes with deep, thundering bass as the pirate ships launch cannonballs. Composer Bear McCreary adds a nice instrumental score. While the series is probably more dialogue-driven than what you would expect, the audio is an essential part of its success.
The dense mix has a cacophony of interesting and varied directional cues, especially as its setting shifts to the high seas. Everything is delivered in crisp clarity, spreading action across the entire soundfield with skill.
Spanish and French dubs in 2.0 Dolby Digital at 192 kbps are provided as secondary choices. Optional English SDH and Spanish subs display in a white font.
I am of two minds on the unique packaging used for Black Sails. The cover includes an incredible lenticular slip, one sure to drive collectors and fans wild. What I don’t like is the set’s flimsy interior design, wedging all three discs in cheap cardboard slots. It is definitely a package intended to be as slim as possible, but its usability is not particularly great. The discs are wedged so tightly that constant use will almost certainly wear it out. This Blu-ray has been a retail exclusive at Best Buy for the past month, it should now be available on a wider basis.
Starz includes an UltraViolet copy for the entire season.
This batch of special features are a tad disappointing, they aren’t much more than EPK publicity featurettes intended for promotion. A couple of trailers for other Starz programs precede the main menu of disc one.
Black Sails: An Inside Look (09:03 in HD) – The one featurette with any depth, this takes a look at the historical reality of pirates in the 18th Century. Most of the cast pop up in brief answers, commenting on the series as a whole. The show was intended to be an unflinching look at a pirate’s life, including how violent and dangerous they had it.
Dressed To Kill (01:44 in HD) – Wardrobe and make-up are covered.
Pirate Camp (02:23 in HD) – The actors cover the mini-boot camp they experienced in training to be pirates.
Folklore is Finished (03:26 in HD) – Explores the conventional imagery of pirates and where Black Sails deviates from that tradition.
A Place In History (01:32 in HD) – Mr. Scott and the role of slavery are discussed.
Building the Behemoth (03:05 in HD) – Ship building is covered and what compromises were made to film the ship.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.