They are akin to astronauts or Silicon Valley pioneers — except they lived 1,300 years ago, and it was the high seas that demanded navigation, not space or the Internet.
The Vikings, who like those later explorers were driven by curiosity and armed with the latest innovations, also set out to conquer an uncharted world, the breadth and possibilities of which could not be entirely conceived.
Their struggles, internal and external, are extravagantly brought to life in Vikings, the History channel's nine-part drama series from Michael Hirst, creator of The Tudors. It premieres Sunday. Propelled by the tale of the legendary Norse adventurer Ragnar Lothbrok, his family and his followers, the lushly produced, effects-enhanced series dazzles with evocative scenery and dynamic displays of superherolike derring-do and stamina.
With its first scripted episodic series, History is following up on the spectacular ratings success of its scripted Hatfields & McCoys miniseries last spring and at the same time reaching out to an action- oriented young male demographic weaned on spectacular, sophisticated gaming.
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"We're putting everything behind it that we possibly can," said Nancy Dubuc, president for entertainment and media for History's parent, A&E Networks.
Dubuc said "two stars aligned" when the subject matter turned out to be a passion project for Hirst, who, in addition to Showtime's popular series The Tudors and The Borgias, has to his credit the well- received 1998 film Elizabeth and other historical dramas. He had an interest in the Vikings dating back to a script he wrote about ninth-century English monarch Alfred the Great, who fought off those seaborne invaders.
For the elaborate History project, which began filming in Ireland last summer, Hirst immersed himself in what had been written about Viking culture — basically documentation by outside observers since theirs was an illiterate society. He found the material limited and biased.
"They're always the guys who break in through the door, slash up your house, and rape and pillage for no good reason, except that they enjoy the violence," he said. "I wanted to tell the story from the Vikings' point of view because their history was written by Christian monks, basically, whose job it was to exaggerate their violence."
Not that brawn, brutality and blood don't play a central role. Well-muscled bodies abound, and battles are frequent, vivid and skillfully choreographed. When the Vikings aren't being beheaded or gruesomely punished for running afoul of the local chieftain (Gabriel Byrne), Lothbrok (Australian actor Travis Fimmel) and his men are leading savage slaughters on foreign villages and monasteries. Women in the cast (led by Katheryn Winnick as Lothbrok's wife) can wield their shields, too.
Despite History's mantle of preserving and purveying an accurate picture of the past, hewing to the letter of historical accuracy wasn't possible in the case of a dramatic series based on fragmented documentation.
Precise accuracy proved evasive on many levels. The production designer, Tom Conroy, relied on Scandinavian museums for many of his visual references but still found he had to piece a lot of things together.
Metal works from the Vikings' post-Iron Age culture have survived, Conroy said, but he was hard put to replicate authentic fabrics and woods. One of the biggest challenges he faced, he added, was improvising lighting sources for Viking homes and halls, which had no windows, making engaging photography of a strictly realistic interior setting impossible.
The role of high technology — in this case a matter of a crude compass and ships capable of navigating violently churning oceans as deftly as shallow inland rivers — is a particularly germane facet of Vikings, lending the series an unexpected resonance in today's society grappling with the cyberfrontier.
"The Vikings had no pottery, they didn't read, they didn't write," Hirst said. "At the same time they were way ahead of other people in boatbuilding and navigation. They discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus. They had the technology to build a boat, but it wasn't about the boat. It was about: Where is it going to take you?" Today, he said, "people are pushed out to sea not really knowing how to cross the technological ocean."
Premieres at 10 p.m. March 3 on History