Sunday, 28 December 2014

Review: The Musketeers First Season

The Musketeers is a BBC series based on the characters of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, but taking the story to new directions and re-imagining the characters and history itself with relatively free hand. But, what could have been a confused mess and as uncomfortable to watch as the similarly envisioned Young Blades from ten years ago, actually turns out to be rather a decent adventure series. For a history enthusiast, it has quite a few problems, of course, but - then again - every film and TV series set in historical era usually does.

Feeding from Dumas' novels, the series is set in the year 1630 (around ten year later than the first novel) and the familiar quartet of musketeers take the centre stage. A notable change from the original novels and historical fact is that the company of King's Musketeers does not consist of those of noble birth - rather, Porthos and d'Artagnan both come from humble backgrounds.

d'Artagnan is the musketeer-wannabe, but instead of travelling to Paris to join the King's esteemed company, he is looking for his father's murderer (for some inexplicable reason the killer identified himself as Athos, which leads d'Artagnan directly to the Musketeers). Aramis is quite the ladies man and seems to carry a cross around his neck, but we do not really see his religious inclinations during the first season. Athos is also his familiar brooding self and he does, indeed, have a past with a lady known as Milady. Porthos is perhaps the most changed, and not only because the actor has a darker skin than the Porthos of the novels. Whereas the original is fun-loving and rather a vain character, the Porthos of the series is more brooding and has a darker past. However, the actor's skin colour is a fine testament to that of Alexandre Dumas himself and I respect the producers for that decision. The changed background is also a product of this change and I liked it well enough.

The individual episodes tell more or less separate "stories of the week" and the overarching plot is weak at best. The stories are very much focussed on adventure and action and the plots introduce their fair share of groan-inducing holes and inexplicable turns, but there are only three or four really troubling episodes in the series of ten in this regard. Overall, the episodes do good work of introducing the characters and their traits to the viewers and you grow to like them more and more as the series progresses. Also some excellent guest stars are introduced, such as Bonnaire in the third episode, a rogue and and adventurer played by James Callis. The two final episodes really begin to show what the series may be capable of with plotting and character development in future seasons.

It is also great to see weapons that are true to the period: Wheellock pistols that are tilted sideways when shot to ensure the perfect working of the lock mechanism, rapiers and other sword types that have good cutting edges etc. So, it is all good so far, yes? Well, yes, but then there are the annoying little details that kind of bug you. And it's got most to do with the costumes:

First, the King's Musketeers do not wear their familiar tabards with the fleur-de-lis. Instead, they carry what can only be called leather shoulder pads on their right shoulder. I actually joked about it, saying that it must be the replacement for the tabard until they actually gave one to d'Artagnan in the episode in which he finally joins their ranks. Another fault is the general nature of their outfits: they all wear dark colours and predominantly leather outfits. In reality, colourful cloth was the thing to go for if you belonged to this esteemed company - leather and dull colours were for those with lesser means. Finally perhaps the most visible and annoying problem: the hats. The wide-brimmed felt hats of the era are still there, but they are, for some inexplicable reason, shaped to resemble western hats. This includes brims turned up on both sides and crowns with sharpish creases on the front. Although historically I can imagine some people customising their hats in various ways, the designs on the show are too uniform to be just whims of individuals: they are, for some reason, the chosen look of the show.

Lesser infractions include references to "uniforms" where there were no real military uniforms until later in the 17th century and everyone usually just wore the garbs that they could afford or scavenge. The King's Musketeers merely wore their tabards on top of their personal gear - but, as was said, the series has done away with the tabards in favour of lots of creaky leather.

Despite these faults, I ended up enjoying the first season, though I had to let out an obligatory groan every now and then at the hats and silly twists of plots. The second season promises to include more sex and violence, as the producers aim for the more mature 9PM timeslot. A downside is that there will be no more Cardinal Richelieu, since the actor (Peter Cabaldi) moved to play a doctor of some sort in another TV series - but we'll get Comte De Rochefort to replace him, so it may prove to be interesting nevertheless. And, admittedly, it will also help with the silly "Richelieu is evil" tropes that the first season was riddled with.

The Musketeers is definitely recommended for any fan of the three musketeers, so long as they do not expect them to be Alexandre Dumas' musketeers and drop any expectations of historical accuracy at the door. Whereas I could never watch more than a couple of episodes of the Young Blades, I realise that I actually look forward to the second season of The Musketeers.