Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a six episode long prequel series to the hit television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Both series were created by Steven S. DeKnight (who also serves as one of the series writers). The production was planned due to the unforeseen illness of Andy Whitfield (who was the leading star of the series). As of the time of this writing, it has been announced that he has passed away of lymphoma at the very young age of 39. Fans will undoubtedly miss him and his family will miss him even more. There is no easy way to fully express the passing of someone. May his fans pray for his loved ones and may he rest in peace.
Gods of the Arena focuses on a number of returning characters and a couple of new ones. The prequel places its largest emphasis on Batiatus (John Hannah) as he tries to come into power and earn the respect of his father in the process. Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) is the wife of Batiatus and together the pair will change the tide of the arena battles with the constant winner Gannicus (Dustin Clare) fighting for his own sense of honor and freedom. The House of Batiatus becomes well known amongst the other houses and brings greater success to Batiatus with the help of the mysterious Gaia (Jaime Murray), who forms her own unique relationship with Lucretia. Can the House of Batiatus rein supreme? Can Gannicus remain the champion of the arena? These and other questions are explored in the six episode arc.
The writing is undoubtedly one of the greatest strengths of the entire production and one of the reasons why viewers keep coming back for more Spartacus. The storylines can be a bit hit and miss from time to time (at least at first glance) but the dialogue and well-developed characters manage to keep things intriguing. Some of the plot-lines do seem a bit over the top (and could seem right at home on a soap opera -- although that is somewhat doubtful considering the content). The biggest surprise is that the storylines actually build in a way that seemingly unnecessary moments become very important in later episodes and affect the entire show. This element makes the entire experience of listening to this story a bit more satisfying by the time the series has concluded than how it might even seem while viewing a given episode on its own individual merits.
Another element of the series behind-the-scenes that plays a dramatic role in its success is the series direction. Each director brings a unique sensibility to how to tell the story while also maintaining a consistent enough vision that the series flows as a whole and doesn't seem creatively out of tune. The stylistic approach to the series is definitely more artistic than standard television fare as each episode feels more like a mini-movie (or even like a chapter of a longer film). The acting remains uniformly great (a definite sign of the solid direction), while the pacing and visual approach is appropriate for the series and quite compelling.
Joseph Loduca manages to impress as the series composer and each episode seems to have many interesting themes that fit both the characters and thematic relevance of the material. Great television music seems to be quickly becoming a more common phenomenon. This is another example of fine musical qualities improving the scope and scale of a TV show.
As a production, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena stands as one of the most ambitious on any channel on television. The production design clearly demonstrates how large-scale the entire effort has been for everyone involved. The sets are detailed, the costumes seem authentic, and the make-up is always well-done. Each episode is also complimented by amazing special effects work that adds greater detail and depth to the already impressive set designs. This is a production that consists of strong work from many individuals in so many different departments of film-making. It's clear that a strong team effort is often emphasized on the show.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is not always the easiest series to watch. The violence and sex is quite frequently graphically depicted and it will no doubt disturb many viewers (as many elements did for this particular viewer). The violence on the show, in particular, is often bloody and disturbing. While the fight sequences were designed to be large in scale - which they are - things are sometimes just a bit too gruesome and it will detract for many viewers. It's a shame considering the intricate plot-points would be worthy of even more viewers than the show already pulls in.
The series works as both a prequel to the previous Spartacus series and as an introduction to new viewers. There are a few elements that might be spoiled as a result - one particular element is a major one - but the show works on its own in a way that it does allow for new viewers to begin here. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena won't appeal to everyone but for fans and interested audience members it might just surprise as a better made series than one might expect. The series has elements that are actually thought provoking (which is always a plus). The acting on the series is phenomenal. It may very well be the best thing about the entire show. In the end, there are many elements that succeed during this Spartacus prequel and that helps to make it worth watching despite some shortcomings and qualms that some viewers may have.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena arrives on Blu-ray in High Definition 1080p using the original television broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This AVC MPEG-4 encode is a showstopper that offers viewers great color reproduction, solid black levels, crisp photography, and a stirring highly stylized look that seems right at home on the High Definition format. The show was clearly filmed using great technologically advanced cameras and it looks almost as pristine as the format will even allow. In a word: Superb.
The audio is no slouch either and will satisfy serious aficionados with a robust Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround sound offering. The sound mix is well developed and it will immerse viewers into the sounds of the arena and all the other aspects of this action-drama. Each episode of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena features strong audio clarity that properly reproduces the dialogue in a way that is easy enough to understand and follow while allowing for the surrounds to highlight the music score by Joseph Loduca and the wide array of audio effects. Spanish Mono is also included as an audio option. Subtitles options are also provided in English for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired and in Spanish.
There are a ton of bonus materials on this set and it's difficult to imagine any fan being disappointed by the offerings. Each of these six episodes contains a commentary track featuring cast and crew members in addition to the following High Definition bonuses:
Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena (14:35) is a general making-of feature that contains a large supply of interview materials with the series creator, actors, and crew. It's a good look at the thoughts and opinions of many of the artists involved in making this series but it isn't a particularly detailed piece that can actually cram in surplus amounts of knowledge in the short run time. This is one extra for fans to make sure to watch either way. The interviews are fun.
Weapons of Mass Disruption (2:53) gives some brief answers and explanations for some of the weapons featured on the show. It's not that detailed and probably won't appeal to viewers unless they already want to know more about the types of props used in the series.
Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene (5:58) gives a rundown of one of the climatic scenes in the series and the way in which the entire sequence was filmed and created. It's a quick but entertaining behind-the-scenes piece that is fascinating to watch.
On Set With Lucy Lawless (6:29) is the most entertaining of the bonus materials (at least for fans of Lucy Lawless!), as getting to tour the set with her for a while is pretty cool. She throws in some nice jokes for fans too and is just as cool as she always has been. Neat!
10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment (2:14) is a silly and annoying video that is sort of self-explanatory with a title like that - it features video from the series and gives some details on the how/why. Definitely wish extras like this one weren't present on the set.
Post Production: The Final Execution (7:17) is a wonderful look at the post production process for the series and it features interviews and footage with some of the crew that is responsible for bringing the show full-circle post-filming. Anyone interesting in this process should give this extra a look.
Enter the Arena: Production Design (3:39) covers the production design of the show and the only disappointment is the short run time. It's a good inclusion for an important aspect of the show.
Dressed to Kill (6:28) features discussion over the costumes used in the series (with both the actors and designers). It's a perfect bonus feature for anyone who likes costuming and is curious to hear a few words from the people responsible for making the show's costumes authentic and worthwhile.
Convention Panel (5:57) is a short edited segment featuring footage from a Spartacus Comic Con 2010 panel. The piece features a few questions and responses from the fans to the creator and actors of the show. This is exactly the type of bonus feature more TV series sets should contain and it's a delight to see this footage preserved on this release.
Arena Bloopers (5:13) is a blooper reel (as it sounds) but it isn't actually all that funny - maybe because the series itself was never really comedic to begin with. This is one worth skipping.
Trailers are included for Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Spartacus: The Game, The King's Speech, and Sons of Anarchy.
3D Battle Sequence - A sequence presented in 3D for those who can support playback.
It is worth noting that the best extra is the fact that extended episodes are presented on this release. Fans should absolutely take notice of this.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a surprising series on many levels. It's a bit too extreme in its depictions at times (which will turn away some viewers), but it's also a well crafted tale of human struggles: corruption, greed, and survival. It's not always easy to watch but it is well made and the writers have told the story carefully so that there is a payoff for watching the entire run of episodes. Fans of the previous Spartacus series will obviously want to give it a chance but what's surprising is that the series can also serve as an introduction for viewers (barring one major spoiler). The set contains excellent PQ/AQ and a good assortment of bonus materials and is housed in a fancy DigiBook-style package. Recommended.