Viewer stand-ins in historical series

I recently purchased the first season box-set of the ‘Vikings’ series. There’s been a bit of chatter about it recently, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. FWIW, yeah, it was OK. The concept was decent, and the art department really knocked it out of the park, but I felt that it was let down a bit by the actors accents occasionally slipping, and the fact that some of the writing was pretty poor. For example, check out the first twenty-four or so seconds of this clip.

I’m going to write it out so you can savor the full awfulness of the exchange.

RAGNAR: We have someone special to visit. His name is ‘Floki’.
BJÖRN: ‘Floki’… Like ‘Loki’? The god?
RAGNAR: Yes. Only different.
BJÖRN: How is he different?
RAGNAR: He’s not a god.

Is it just me, or does that really suck? I mean, if you’re going to name one of your characters ‘Floki’ to remind the audience of that well-known mythical character ‘Loki’, FFS, don’t then have two of your characters spell it out in pre-school terms! In the UK ‘Vikings’ is an 18. Please, credit your audience with some intelligence! On top of this, Loki isn’t even a god. He’s a frost giant who is held hostage by the gods, something a viking would have known.

The real shame is that this series was written by renowned historical screenwriter Michael Hurst – the guy behind ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Elizabeth the Golden Age’, ‘The Tudors’ and ‘The Borgias’ to name but a few. Jeez Mike, where did it all go wrong?

But anyway, I’m not here to grief Michael Hurst any more than I already have done. What I really wanted to talk about is the role of Björn and the Anglo-Saxon monk, Athelstan. They both play the role of viewer stand-ins. Throughout the series, both repeatedly have things explained to them. For Björn, this is because he comes of age right at the start of the series, and doesn’t understand how things are done. Athelstan is a foreigner, and is constantly questioning the way that the society works.

As a storytelling device, this is pretty fucking weak. Most adults prefer to learn from observance than from being told. No-one wants to admit they don’t know something if their peers think they do. This is doubly true if they think they are going to be mocked for not understanding – as both characters are.

David Benioff, one half of the writing team behind Game of Thrones, first came to prominence with his debut novel ’25th Hour’. It was subsequently turned into a film by Spike Lee, with Ed Norton in the lead. He explained one of the secrets behind the gritty dialogue came from listening to real conversations. IRL there is no pretty question-and-answer pattern. What one person wants to get out of a conversation will be very different from what their buddy wants to say.

In historical drama, there is a real need to convey the strangeness of the situation. But viewer stand-ins are not the solution. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the mantra of the storyteller, and I think series like ‘Vikings’ will always fall short of the mark if they don’t go balls-out at the writing stage.

What do you think? Have I got beef for all the wrong reasons, or is this something you have noticed in other series?

2 thoughts on “Viewer stand-ins in historical series

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s