How to Train Your Drogon

If you don’t understand the pun above, don’t be confused. Perhaps 30 million viewers in the U.S., and untold millions more around the world, watched every one of the over 70 episodes of HBO’s remarkable series Game of Thrones. The show included eight seasons spread out over nine years, with often interminable waits between them, but the audience still leaves most of the world oblivious to this remarkable achievement. Or perhaps actively avoiding it. I can understand the latter.

The series takes place in a fictional medieval world pitting a huge range of characters fighting for power and the Iron Throne, peppered with fantasy elements like White Walkers (essentially, zombies), Direwolves, witches, and dragons (Drogon is the most important of them, thus the pun). It’s complex to follow, though the world-building expositions are leisurely enough to follow. The show is also rife with violence, plus a fair amount of nudity and expletives. I often refer to HBO at the F&%# and S^@$ network; this isn’t the only time they’ve pandered to build an audience.

It’s been suggested that the plot, from a series of very thick books by author George R.R. Martin, was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, an important chapter in British history between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Two of the leading families in Game of Thrones are the Starks (the “Yorks,” with their seat at Winterfell in the north, just as York is in the north of England) and the Lannisters (Lancasters). There’s enough magic sprinkled in to make it interesting to genre fans, plus high production values and enough action to attract Marvel groupies. But it far exceeds anything from Marvel in the quality of its writing, character development, performances, and sheer epic scope.

Books could be written about this series, and have. It could never be summarized properly in any depth in a short blog. But dragons are key to the plot. They have appeared often in popular literature, films and television; some have even speculated that dragons really did exist in Earth’s distant, pre-historic past. And they did, in a way, with winged dinosaurs, though there’s no indication that any of them actually spat fire!

The IMDB lists 50 films that include or feature dragons (though it fails to list Godzilla, who is technically a wingless dragon!). Even those that feature dragons as a main character can’t equal what we see in Game of Thrones. The others include Dragonslayer, Dragonheart, the three (so far) How to Train Your Dragon movies, The Hobbit, and Reign of Fire. The latter features a wickedly over the top performance by Matthew McConaughey as a crazed dragon-hunter that must be seen to be believed, with poor Christian Bale trying hard to keep things under control.

The films above were limited by the special effects of their respective eras, though a late scene in Reign of Fire from 2002 makes a convincing stab at realism. How to Train Your Dragon’s flying flame throwers are, for the most part, more cuddly than terrifying. And Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit films, is fearsome but in his own way beautiful, though we have to wade through an eternity of padded drama before we see him. And while some of these dragons talk (with the voice of Sean Connery in Dragonheart, they don’t speak in Game of Thrones. The dragons in Game of Thrones grow into nasty, ugly, and totally believable beasts, created with some of the best CGI you’ll see anywhere.

If you’ve never experienced this show, and have an itch to do so, expect a challenging trip of nearly 80 hours. That’s a year and a half at one episode per week — though I challenge you to avoid binge watching with the entire series at your fingertips. But while it’s available for streaming, the best way to experience the show is on Blu-ray, where both the picture and sound will be significantly better. You don’t want the stream to buffer just as the villain of the piece (there are loads of them) is hatching his or her latest scheme, or a key reveal that will alter the entire flow of the plot is about to be made.

Technically, the original photography was very good, and sometimes exceptional, but it isn’t always feature-film, pin sharp from scene-to-scene. The realities of reshoot budgets for a television production likely intruded, particularly in the early years when the show’s future as a super-hit for HBO gold mine wasn’t yet assured. But the special effects, even apart from the dragons, are feature film quality.

While complaints about the show’s cinematography were rare, a key episode from the final season, Battle of Winterfell (no spoilers here) was shot at night in ambient lighting, mostly candles and torches. It raised considerable ire among fans who couldn’t see much of what was going on. A clue for those reading this and will watch the show for the first time: watch it on a good, properly adjusted TV (particularly in Gamma and Brightness), and preferably on an OLED! Even better, a high dynamic range, Ultra HD Blu-ray of this season would help a lot!

Those who’ve read the books seem to have the worst love-hate relationship with the series. The last episodes were heavily criticized by many (again, no spoilers), for either not ending the way the viewer wanted (poor babies!) or how George R.R. Martin might conceive. But the show outran the books; Martin, an exceedingly deliberate writer, is still a good two books short of finishing his saga — though there are no confirmed indications that he disapproves of how the show wrapped it all up.

I currently own the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray, and am looking forward to acquiring Season 8 when I becomes available. It’s listed on Amazon in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos sound. While the other seasons have been remastered in Dolby Atmos (which didn’t exist when the show began) Season 7 is the only one in my collection in Atmos. Now you can buy a boxed set of seasons 1-7 for far less than I paid for the individual releases — the curse of the early adopter. But now why not wait until the full series set, Seasons 1-8, is available? Season 1 is also now available in 4K HDR. But no way will I buy the other six seasons all over again, even if they re-master them all in 4K and HDR. Famous last words.