The best of them, Game of Thrones, may be fictional but its influence is obvious. You only have to look to the violence weaved through The Bible to see that. Spartacus, Rome and The Tudors all pre-date it but add to the success of the genre.
Now Michael Hirst, who created The Tudors, has turned his hand to historic Scandinavia for Vikings.
This sprawling Canadian-Irish drama premiered on the History Channel (US) in March and comes to Australia via SBS.
Set in the 8th century, it centres around the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a dashing, bearded warrior and farmer who devises new ways to conquer nearby lands, even when it means going against the traditions of his community, led by local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne).
Lothbrok seeks to lead a tribe of men across the sea to the west, using an early form of a compass. It’s a plan his peers think is bereft, but Lothbrok remains determined and a boat is built. Lothbrok is not all brute, and there are scenes with his young son Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole) who gets lessons in what it takes to become a proud Viking man.
His wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) is no slouch, fending of the advances of some lecherous men with her own brand of domestic warfare. Another Aussie model-turned-actor Alyssa Sutherland will also appear.
Travis Fimmel sure has come a long way from his meteoric rise from Echuca farmboy to Calvin Klein underwear model. Here he is the strong, silent type as Lothbrok. His performance may not win any awards compared to the populist Game of Thrones cast, but he makes his mark as the anti-hero of this saga. I say anti-hero because Lothbrok leads a violent crusade as part of the Viking conquest.
Gabriel Byrne gives a darker performance as Earl Haraldson, a fierce and paranoid leader whose rule consists of beheadings and terror.
For a television drama there’s plenty of work for the costume department, and settings are a mix of vast locations and a dash of CGI.
Unlike The Tudors, Vikings isn’t a sexed-up rock-star romp, and while Fimmel shines in the central role, the pace is somewhat uneven. But given cable television tends to get the lion’s share of these sagas, SBS offers a rare diversion and it premieres with a double episode.
Ironically this is set in Scandinavia on a channel that’s renowned for its excellent Scandi-produced dramas. But Vikings aspires to grander action and there are times it rapes and pillages the small-screen.
Vikings begins 8:35pm Thursday on SBS ONE