Black Sails

A charming Luke Arnold sets sail in this matinee romp, but the treasure may stay stuck on the ocean floor.

2014-08-21_1923Oh how cable television loves period dramas. What was it sinking its teeth into before it splashed out on medieval wars, vikings, roman gladiators and Depression gangsters? Now it sets sail with pirates (Arrrr!) in the Starz series, Black Sails.

Filmed in South Africa, the sprawling 8 part saga is produced by Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers). Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg (Jericho) and Robert Levine (Touch), it takes place in the West Indies in 1715, twenty years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As an exotic television backdrop, it’s potentially as escapist as they come.

Fittingly, things get underway with a ship to ship battle. Think swordfights, gunpowder explosions and all manner of bluster. In the middle of it all is the young John Silver (Luke Arnold, sans his INXS crew). Attempting to hide below deck, he has no shame in being branded a coward so long as he avoids meeting his maker.

Leading the charge is Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens), who sails the seas in search of his great whale: Spanish treasure. But he is at risk of his own pirate mutiny, with trouble in the ranks. Silver takes the opportunity to charm his way out of near-death and embeds himself into Flint’s crew, but not without snatching a prize target: a page from the ship’s log book with clues to the riches in the sunken Spanish galleon, Urca de Lima.

In this brutal chase for treasure, the pirates have become the scourge of civilisation. “The laws of every civilized nation declare them hostis humani generis. Enemies of all mankind,” says an opening title card.

Meanwhile the island of New Providence is bustling with port activity and CGI. The aqua blue water looks so inviting, as does an attractive, young tavern owner Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who also happens to be the daughter of the island’s black marketeer. In this most lawless of communities, it isn’t apparent why one so young commands such authority over a throng of scruffy men. Perhaps they are dazzled by her slender figure, much like Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a wench with a French-accent who is having a same-sex relationship with Eleanor. Arrrrr.

Throw in strapping boatswain “Billy Bones” (Tom Hopper), snarling Captain Vane (Zach McGowan) and debonair quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and ye just about have the makings of a matinee romp. Some of them were even real characters.

But why let literary fiction get in the way of television fiction? As a cable series we want excess. So here it is with gory battle scenes, and full frontal nudity (only the females in the opening episodes of course). Several scenes have trouble disguising themselves as little more than shortcuts to tedious lovemaking disguised as nudity. Or is it the other way round?

The best stuff is left to Luke Arnold as John Silver and Toby Stephens as Captain Flint. Stephens is wonderful as the carefree, quick-thinking juvenile lead and our entry point into the story. He’s delightfully adept as a young buccaneer, contrasting the gravitas that Stephens gives as the troubled leader.

But with all its colour and CGI movement it is a somewhat uneven affair that reminds us the sum of the parts does not always comprise a whole. I’m undecided if the seachest of accents is a reflection of international casting or the melting pot of Providence. Either way it has me thinking, which is a bit distracting.

I’m hoping this finds some episodic gold pretty soon or it’ll be well and truly sunk. Arrrr.

Black Sails premieres 9:35pm Tuesday on Showcase.

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