The opening scene of Starz’ newest original series, Black Sails, shows it’s true promise. An action-oriented, gritty and stylish adventure on the high seas. As the feared pirate Captain Flint and the crew of the Walrus overtake a ship and a fierce open-water battle begins. It immediately capitalized on the recent resurgence of the popularity of pirates, as well as show what this show could truly be. The problem is, the episode that followed this scene, as well as the early run of this series have yet to continue this trend.
That isn’t to say that I don’t really enjoy what has happened in the first few episodes of Black Sails, I absolutely do. It’s engrossing, has great character development and constant conflict. The problem is that this is a pirate story that features almost no adventures out at sea. The first three episodes have taken place almost exclusively on New Providence Island as Captain Flint desperately tries to maintain control of his ship as well as it’s crew, which has been incalculably difficult.
Set as a prequel to the indelible Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Black Sails does continue the trend of quality original programming from premium channels such as Starz and HBO, and looks to be a worthy follow-up to their ultra successful Spartacus adaptation, which just finished it’s run on the network this past year. It is a gritty story, filled with plenty of sex and violence, everything we’ve come to expect from a show like this, and seems to certainly be building to something great, especially considering it is eventually likely to lead into the setting of the previously mentioned classic.
Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is facing a crisis. His crew is restless, they haven’t had a profitable haul from their work in quite some time, and their captain has been hiding his motives from them. While they continue to search for something of which they have no clue, some have begun to question their fearless leader’s ability to maintain the ship and the crew for the long term. As threats of mutiny swell around the ship, Flint remains steadfast in his determination to acquire his prize, which just so happens to be on the ship we saw taken down in the opening scene.
The only problem with this fortuitous news is that Flint is unable to find the item on the ship, seeing as it was deftly stolen by a crew member of the attacked vessel, who has conveniently parlayed his predicament into an opportunity to join the Walrus as the ship’s cook. This crew member is none other than John Silver, played by Luke Arnold. As Silver searches for answers as to why this page torn from his prior ships ledger is so important to Flint, the Walrus makes it’s way to New Providence, which is where we will seemingly be spending most of our time with Black Sails first season.
New Providence provides a wonderful aesthetic to the show. Cape Town, South Africa has been transformed into an island in the Bahamas, as well as a bustling harbor. It also provides most of Black Sails more interesting characters. Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), along with the help of Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) runs her fathers business, paying their clientele (largely pirates) for their cargo and making profit off of the sales of the product. Of course, the beautiful daughter of such a profitable man must draw some attention, and she does in the form of infamous Captain Charles Vane, played brilliantly by Zach McGowan.
Everyone seems to be after Flint in some fashion, his crew wants answer for why they’ve been going after seemingly worthless targets for weeks, Eleanor is loyal to the captain for the money she has made him in the past, despite his recent dry spell, and Vane is simply a rival captain and has his own interests at heart. However, everything does circle back around to John Silver, as he possesses the one item that could change the winds of a war that seems to be brewing. While everyone else seems to be preoccupied with politics and plots, Silver soon learns the value of the item he stole, and decides to sell it himself, with the help of Max, a working girl from New Providence, who happens to be of particular interest to the young Miss Guthrie.
The cast all play off of each other well, and there are plenty of enjoyable characters to go around. Indeed much of Black Sails has been a great setup, I simply feel like I’m waiting for it to progress past this setup and get to the meat of the story. Seeing as this first season is a mere eight episodes, with a ten episode second season already being ordered, I worry that much of the first season will be all build up and very little payoff. It is a bit disappointing to have such a great level of production value attached to a show about pirates and go through nearly 3 episodes with very little action aboard a ship.
There are plenty of moving parts in the plot here, including a particularly brutal fight aboard the Walrus in the first episode, where the prospective mutiny met a bloody and mortal conclusion, the lesson here is not to mess with Captain Flint. The ramifications of this fight and the effect it will have on the supporters of the would-be new captain remain an intriguing subplot, one that I’m sure will come to a thrilling conclusion later in the season.
As the start to a new series, there’s plenty to like about Black Sails, and the promise of much to be loved, as well. With a second season on the way, I can only hope the pace begins to quicken over the final five episodes.