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Series


Following the success of Starz’ super-adult, super-silly and surprisingly engaging Spartacus: Blood and Sand a sequel series was in the cards. Alas, forces conspired against the production (a production that includes Evil Dead, Hercules and Xena masterminds Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi), and a continuation of the storyline was not in the cards. A prequel mini-series called Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was initially set to be a single episode flashback in the second season bible, but when lead Andy Whitfield fell ill with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma the production decided to stretch the story over six episodes in hopes of giving Whitfield time to recover. The new series starts where the old one left off, with Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) being slain by Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and his gladiator buddies. Then the camera zips into his eye and we get to watch as his professional life flashes before his eyes, and we learn the bloody history of Quintus and Lucretia’s rise to power in the House of Batiatus. As this mini-series began I found myself falling behind the narrative, largely because I’m expected to remember the original series, and I simply don’t (beyond some major plot points). The first episode, Past Transgressions is full of knowing camera zooms that say ‘hey, it’s that guy you should remember’, but I couldn’t beyond facial recognition. There’s a funny bit in the first episode where were Temuera Morrison is revealed as a Doctore, and I was happy to recognize him. Then I realized he wasn’t the Doctore from the original series, I just remembered him as Jango Fett. Perhaps there’s just more plot this time around, or at least the writers are more willing to dive headfirst into the thick stuff, which would be less of a problem if I was left in the correct mindset, having just re-watched the original series. Fortunately this wore off quickly enough, and by the third episode, Paterfamilias I found myself once again immersed in the Spartacus world.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Quintus and Lucretia were among my favourite characters in the original series, but given so much more of them I realize that they work much better as supporting characters, and sympathetic antagonists. They’re kind of exhausting as protagonists (well, pseudo-protagonists), and their pre-wealth and power sittings are either too soft (Lucretia), or too bitchy (Quintus). By mini-series end I admit their solidified relationship to each other works, but probably would’ve worked just as well had their spot in the story been minimized. Crixus (Manu Bennett) really should’ve been more of a focal point, as his arc is more substantial here, though even his character is robbed of some of his mystique when we’re given a look at his tragic trail by fire. I assume that if Whitfield had not fallen ill the intended single episode format flashback would’ve been from Crixus’ point of view, considering the fact that he was a little less dead than Quintus or Lucretia at the end of the previous series. Ashur (Nick Tarabay) and Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) are the best utilized of the original cast. Oenomaus, who was the grizzled Doctore of Blood and Sand, displays the most emotional weight as the most tragic character of the whole uprising, while Ashur, who will develop into the loveable weasel, is presented as an almost genuine hero (well, for a while at least). New characters fair better. Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) is a delectably wretched villain, one that isn’t the least bit sullied by a hint of silver lining or empathy. Like Gaius Claudius Glaber in Blood and Sand he’s a joy to love to hate, and balances our generally ambiguous protagonists with his utter immorality. Gannicus is a decent stand-in for Spartacus in terms of charm and appeal without treading the same narrative ground. His romantic angst concerning Oenomaus’ wife Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) is pretty unbelievable, and he lacks Whitfield’s magnetism, but I’m happy to see he’s going to be a part of the Whitfield-less sequel series.

The heavily adult aspects haven’t been softened, but hardened in favour of the harder, faster, stronger feel that usually follows sequels and prequels. The first episode immediately exhibits plenty of graphic sex and violence, set with an even more creative slant, not unlike a slasher movie, or porno film. These remain one of show’s greatest assets, but are kind of awkward too, as if the creators are merely filling out a quota. It seemed as if someone is sitting with a stopwatch in the editing room ensuring there’s at least one boob or spillage of viscera per five-minute interval. Sex and violence are juxtaposed with such regularity that the juxtaposition holds no real emotional sway, and in all become almost satirical. The group sex scenes and forced use of naughty language (which never sounds as eloquently dirty as the stratospheric language of the unfailingly poetic Deadwood) also tend to dip into Saturday Night Live spoof territory, though I do continue to support the series’ cursory treatment of homosexuality, and respect the attempts at making the effects of sex more serious as the season progresses. Perhaps this is just too much of a good thing, but definitely a case of a show losing itself in celebrated excess. On the good hand, however, the lower standing in the gladiatorial community means some pretty down and dirty fights, and I welcome the less slick bloodletting. The fight choreography and stunt work is the one element that has genuinely improved between the original series and this prequel, thought the speed ramping has become even more arbitrary.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Video


Gods of the Arena has a generally less severe look than Blood and Sand did. It doesn’t look ‘realistic’, but it looks more realistic. The palette is sandier and softer, and contrast levels don’t hit such sharp extremes. This makes for a less immediately vigorous 1080p transfer, but one with more subtle pleasure, and occasionally more impressive high points. I do miss the richer reds and harsher blacks, but there’s something to be said for fine textures and details that don’t go missing despite the lack of extreme element disparity. Natural isn’t ever the right word when referring to the series, but for lack of a better word, the details here are more ‘natural’. The comparatively muted palette still features similarly solid, pseudo-cartoonish colours, and a limit of differentiations in the hues. There’s basically one choice for each primary and secondary mix, and these are set against either a reasonably soft yellow (for day), or a smooth blue (for night). Some elements remain quite vibrant, specifically the reds of some of the more lurid sex scenes, and, of course, the blood. Occasionally the black levels are sullied by the green/blue tone of night, but for the hell of it I watched a bit of the show on the Netflix instant stream in standard definition, and the same ‘problem’ persists, leaving me to assume it’s part of the original plan.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Audio


Gods of the Arena comes fitted with a solid 5.1 mix, and is presented in the preferred Starz/Anchor Bay Dolby TrueHD 5.1 codec (are they the only major studio that still skews towards TrueHD over DTS-HD?). There isn’t an excess of surround sound support, but the music and stylized transitions are widely spread indeed. I quite enjoyed the abstract sound that swirls around the room any time Quintus has some kind of out of body experience. Most background ambience is frontal in presentation, but there are cheering crowds, street sound, and storm noises moving throughout the rear channels, throughout the series. This isn’t to say the mix is even close to a waste of the uncompressed nature of the track – there is still plenty of expertly pitched noise, especially during the punchy (excuse the pun) fight scenes, which play the dynamic range to awesome effect. The music, by Sam Raimi favourite (and cartoon series veteran) Joseph Loduca, does stand as the most immersive element, including widely set string elements, sharp echoes, and some directionally endowed vocal effects. The score’s drums tend to give the LFE its best workout as well.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Extras


Have I ever mentioned how dumb it is to not list audio commentaries in the extras screen of a DVD or Blu-ray? It’s almost as dumb as not including them on the set up screen either. The only way you’d know there were commentary tracks on here (besides the back of the box, of course) would be to select each and every episode by itself. Oh, and you have to hit ‘play’ before you’re taken to the screen that describes who is on each track. Anyway, I noticed the note on the back of the box as I was prepping the review page, so I quickly sped through sections of each track. Past Transgressions (extended version) features executive producer Rob Tapert, director Jesse Warn, production designer Iain Aitken and costume designer Barnara Darragh. Missio features writer/creator/producer Steven S. DeKnight and actors Dustin Clare, Peter Mensah and Jaime Murray. Paterfamilias (extended version) features Tapert again, director Michael Hurst, and actress Lucy Lawless. Beneath the Mask (extended version) features DeKnight, and actors Clare, Lawless and Murray. Reckoning (extended version) features DeKnight, writer Brent Fletcher, and actors John Hannah and Lawless. The Bitter End (extended version) features DeKnight, director Rick Jacobson, and actor Mensah. These tracks (the bits I quickly sampled) are largely consistent, both in terms of focus and tone. There’s an excess of blank space, but also plenty of worthy information. DeKnight fills the space best, having worked through the entire process, Lawless is a decent interviewer, and some of the other actors are quite entertaining in that they don’t really know what’s going on (Jaime Murray reacts pretty funnily to every gory bit).

The non-commentary extras, which are all on the second disc of this two disc set, start with ‘Starz Studio: Gods of the Arena’ (14:30, HD) a made for TV EPK featuring the cast and crew talking up the series before it started to air. It’s about as textbook as an EPK can get, and acts as a sales pitch without telling fans much about what to expect besides more of the same, along with the obvious (‘OMG we’ll get to see where they began!’). A nice commercial, but not the best thing for a post air Blu-ray collection. I do give creator Steven S. DeKnight big credit for trying to draw parallels between the series and modern America, though. ‘Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene’ (6:00, HD) runs down the process of the climatic multi-man gladiator bloodbath. It includes more cast and crew interviews, footage from the cast’s ‘boot camp’ training, choreography, and rough behind the scenes footage. ‘On Set with Lucy Lawless’ (6:30, HD) is an amusing look at the lovely actress’ average workday, which is made up of many adorable pranks. It’s quite fun hearing her speak with her natural Aussie accent. ‘Post Production: The Final Execution’ (7:20, HD) is another EPK type piece that covers visual and sound effects processes. Often such things bore me, but I found this one pretty amusing. Other featurettes include ’10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment’ (2:10, HD), a humourous look at some of the gore, ‘Weapons of Mass Disruption’ (2:50, HD), a look at the processes behind stunt and prop teams, including detailed descriptions of the gladiatorial weapons and the damage they cause, ‘Enter the Arena: Production Design’ (3:40, HD), mostly about the sets, ‘Dressed to Kill’ (6:30, HD), concerning the costume design. Things end with footage from the 2010 San Diego Comic Con panel (6:00, HD), Bloopers (5:10, HD), and trailers for other Starz releases.

Those with 3D capable players and TVs have an extra extra in a 3D version of the climatic battle royale.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Overall


Spartacus: Gods of the Arena doesn’t capture the same unexpected charm Spartacus: Blood and Sand did. There are plenty to like about this prequel mini-series, but it stretches a decent story thin, trips into spoof territory with its excesses, and falls to the common curses of most prequel properties – it over-explains already compelling character traits, and lacks any major suspense. It’s quite difficult to tell a story, or in this case, a series of stories when the end has already been told, and since this miniseries was not initially part of the Spartacus plan. The strictest fans of the original show will still enjoy another round with these characters and this universe, though, especially since Andy Whitfield’s untimely (and unexpected based on his original diagnosis) death seems to signify the end of the series as we know it. I have huge doubts about the sequel series in production. Picture and audio are good as expected, and the extras, though skewed towards the advertising side of the coin, are plenty entertaining.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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