“My father told me about these men, about their natures. All I knew were the stories I was told of monsters and the valiant men sworn to slay them. I fear the stories I’ve heard may have been clouded, the truth more than clouded. It would seem these monsters are men, sons, brothers, fathers. And it would seem these men face their own monsters…”
Move over, Captain Jack Sparrow. There are some tougher pirates on the block, and they sail into our living rooms from Lionsgate on Blu-ray in Starz’ Black Sails. The high seas adventure series combines historical people and places with the fictional characters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island. I am a little disturbed that Stevenson gets no mention in the credits for having created many of these characters. What’s up with that, Starz? Likely the material is in public domain, but credit where credit’s due, yes? They certainly acknowledge him in the extras.
That’s right. Long before Uncle Walt even dreamed of the ride that would lead to the film franchise starring a certain eccentric pirate, Robert Louis Stevenson had created a work of fiction that established most of the pirate conventions that still exist today. From the peg-legged captain to the rum-drenched chests filled with pieces of eight, it all began in that epic story. It introduced us to the likes of Billy Bones and Long John Silver and the infamous Jolly Roger black flag. It was one of the first novels I ever read, and somewhere I still own an early edition of the work. Black Sails expands upon that universe, telling an origin story of sorts that is one of the more exhilarating shows on television.
If you are not familiar with the show, I strongly suggest you begin with Season 1. I’ve also had the chance to talk with two of the main stars. You can listen to those interviews with Captain Flint (Toby Stevens) and Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New).
“I seen you. I seen you before you was Long.”
There are several stories at work here. The series is fueled by the quest, recovery, and protection of a five-million-pieces-of-eight treasure. The gold itself weaves its way through most of the characters of the show. There are plots and betrayals with so many alliances and deception to fill 100 episodes of Survivor. Everyone wants to get to the gold.
This is also the story of 1715 Nassau and an attempt to create an independent nation for the pirate community. This is an inspiration for Captain Flint, played with an incredible intensity by Toby Stevens. He’s as brutal as they come. He’ll kill or destroy even those things and people he loves to see his dream fulfilled. In Treasure Island he is the man who left the treasure that features in the story. Here we see his relationship begin and develop with the book’s own Long John Silver, played by Luke Arnold. We also meet Billy Bones, played by Tom Hopper. Billy is the kind of man who is easily liked by any crew and uses Silver’s name to instill fear in the community that dares to challenge the pirates. It is he who creates the myth of Long John Silver. These three actors and characters carry a good part of the four years and 38 episodes. The chemistry between them is incredible, and you believe in this world mainly because you believe in these characters.
There are strong females in this world, as there were in real life. Pirates had the most egalitarian and democratic culture of the time. There was no racism or sexism. A person was judged by their honor and fighting skills. Pirates received pensions when they grew too old to sail or were disabled. Crews could vote to change captains, and women could be just as treacherous and capable as the men. There is another triumph here with the women. Hannah New plays Eleanor Guthrie. Her father started the trade business in Nassau, and she reigns almost as a queen. She sells the pirate booty for the ships and wields a great deal of power by being their money source. It is her dream along with Flint to create an independent Nassau. Max is a whore who works her way up to a position of power. Jessica Parker Kennedy plays Max, and while her performance is quite good, her fake French accent is the most grating thing on the show. It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me, and I cringe every time she speaks. Finally there is Clara Paget, who plays the real-life Anne Bonny. She’s been the lover and partner of Captain Rachman, played by Toby Schmitz. He survives by a different kind of wit and owes his life and success mostly to Bonny.
“Now let me tell you what happens next.”
Each season takes us closer to the book. The war for independence sees characters change sides and betray each other with a regularity that eventually becomes very commonplace.
We also get to glimpse flashbacks to Captain Flint’s earlier life. We learn why he became a pirate and how his relationship with Miranda Barlow (Barnes) began. I’m not exactly happy with one of those developments, but the entire story is an important one. It not only helps us to understand Flint much better, but it will lead to yet another bold move to attempt reconciliation between England and the pirates. It all leads to Charleston, where his attempt to return the daughter (Young) of an important man from his past turns tragic.
The series is also an origin story of sorts for Treasure Island‘s Long John Silver. He becomes quite the unexpected advocate for Flint and earns power among the crew by his ability to tell compelling stories. For now, he’s used them to assist Flint. Readers of the classic novel know what he’ll use those powers for in the future. We learn how he gets the famous peg leg. Luke Arnold and Toby Stevens have developed quite the chemistry with these two characters. They have become quite compelling to watch and are used in clever ways to turn the story in unexpected directions. In many ways this has become the heart of the show’s storytelling.
Even with so many interesting characters and inspired performances, you simply can’t overlook the production designs on this series. They’ve actually built most of these sets, and even the ships. Of course, there’s pretty heavy use of CGI for extensions and many of the pirate battles, but a lot of this is also real. There is an incredible attention to detail here that truly brings you into this time and place. The cinematography makes excellent use of these carefully designed sets to deliver some of the highest production values on television. You will be amazed at how real this all looks and feels.
This collection features all 38 episodes in two cases, the first two seasons and then the third and fourth. The episodes are close to a true hour, and they aren’t jammed so much so that quality suffers. I’m happy with the 2-4 episodes per disc. This is one of the better shows out there and belongs on your video shelf.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. This high-definition image presentation is nothing short of spectacular. Colors are bright and vivid when it comes to bright daylight or the high seas. The water is a brilliant mixture of blues and greens with a depth that just draws me in. Black levels are deep and true. There is much to be found in the shadow world of this show, and pirates don’t exactly dress in bright garments. Midnight attacks on ships reveal wonderful shadow definition that allows you to see detail even under the blackest of conditions.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 track brings the amazing image to life even more, if that’s possible. The surrounds are particularly impressive on the ships. You’ll be surrounded by the smooth smash of water against the hull and the creaking of rope lines and wooden planks. Darken your room and you can place yourself within the bowels of one of these ships. Dialog is always clear and well placed. The score often rivals that of a film. All of these factors combine to make this one of the most atmospheric television experiences you’re likely to have.
All of the features from the season sets are included here.
The final episode is a mixture of good and bad news. The action and story are tight and a wonderful payoff…that is, until the final 20 minutes. That ending isn’t worthy of the 37 hours that came before it. It’s mostly talking instead of showing, and it cheats the fans who have been in love with the show for so many years. It’s a common problem. Great shows with weak endings. There’s nothing to love about these 20 minutes, and I’d rather like to believe the show ends with the face-off on the island that would become the focus of the book. We’d know how it ended, because we know who survives into the story. I’m happy with that. All of that aside, this has been one hell of a great ride. Black Sails makes the case that you can deliver wonderful high-seas action on a television screen. You can give us compelling characters and stories. Black Sails makes the case that television is no longer the cinema’s unspoken-of stepchild. “The evidence has been delivered.”