As a self-confessed fan of Starz’s other ‘historical’ televisual offerings, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Da Vinci’s Demons, it is fair to say that the announcement that they were to turn their hands to the pirate genre was one that filled me with glee – especially when I learnt that it was to be a quasi-prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
There has been a vogue, especially in relation to televisions shows in the last few years, to produce what would best be described as series that are ‘mature’ in their content. Game of Thrones really brought this into the mainstream and Starz, through Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons, have continued to push the envelope. Indeed, it could be said that the aforementioned shows focused almost exclusively on its sex, violence and expletive-filled language – often to the detriment of the shows themselves [at least in my opinion].
That isn’t to say that Black Sails doesn’t follow in this tradition [because it undoubtedly does], but that it seems to be a lot more careful in its use of them [with the exception of swearing - after all, this is about pirates!]. Which means that, unlike Spartacus which often felt like a sex and violence fuelled show that required some kind of plot to link those scenes, Black Sails’ pilot felt like a plot-driven show which required bouts of violence and sex. It is a subtle difference, but one that I – personally – was grateful for.
As mentioned before, the plot itself is set-up as a prequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with Captain Flint’s ship the Walrus on the hunt for a Spanish treasure galleon carrying unimaginable riches. As the plot for a pirate adventure this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, and it is fair to say that Black Sails could never be called amazingly original.
Although, to be honest, this is something that could be levelled at the Starz channels stable as a whole [Spartacus was basically Gladiator and Da Vinci's Demons was frighteningly similar to Assassin's Creed II]. Similarly, Black Sails borrows liberally from the pirate oeuvre as a whole, and comes suspiciously quickly on the tail of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
But what made Black Sails so enjoyable for me [as a fan of pirate history and lore] was the manner in which the fictional was blended with the historical – although I stop short of claiming any of it to be factually accurate! So, we find Captain Flint, Billy Bones and John Flint [here sans peg leg and parrot and very much in possession of a lustrous fall of pre-Raphaelite locks and some of the brightest pearly whites that ever traversed the Seven Seas] rubbing shoulders with Charles Vane, ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and Anne Bonny. Which made the childish part of me that used to while away hours playing with my Playmobil pirate ship and make tea-stained treasure maps resurface for the hour of the pilot episode…
Added to this, the Michael Bay-produced series has fantastically high production values [other than one early 'panoramic' ocean view, which appeared to have been made on an incredibly budget laptop and was so singularly laughable that I had to re-watch it a few times]. The sets look impressive and immersive, and there seems to have been a conscious effort to tone down the pirate stereotype language / mannerisms that could have had the potential to turn this into a farce.
As a pilot, it moved along at a brisk pace, packing in fights, bawdy drinking scenes, torture and culminating in a suitably bloody duel, in which Captain Flint was forced to face down a would-be-challenger to his captaincy – and ends with the challenger getting his head beaten in with a cannonball.
That’s not to say that there weren’t mis-steps in the pilot episode. At times, the need to introduce new characters led to some rather clunky dialogue, and some slightly forced and unrealistic scenes. And it certainly didn’t feel like the most original fare to hit the small screens. Nevertheless, it had a suitably gritty quality, and managed to avoid the seemingly obligatory Aaarghs and parrots that populate most piratical adaptations post-Treasure Island. And I didn’t see a single eye-patch, peg leg, or hook-hand in the whole of the episode – which must be a turn-up for the books. On the flip-side of that, I think that even TOWIE possesses less fake tan and shiny teeth than the pirates of Black Sails – apparently dentistry was ahead of its time in the eighteenth century!