HBO’s signature series Game of Thrones makes its 4K debut with Season One. But is it worth the upgrade?
The Production: 4.5/5
Note: This review contains excerpts from Cameron Yee’s review of the Complete First Season DVD set.
For decades, Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean) has ruled over the northern region of Westeros in service to his king, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). When the King’s Hand, Baratheon’s closest advisor and the Seven Kingdoms’ practical governor, suddenly falls ill and dies, Stark is asked to take his place. While no doubt a position of high honor, Stark and his family have heretofore been left alone in the harsh wilderness of the North, giving them a measure of freedom, if not autonomy. Moving to the capital in the South puts Stark in the heart of the kingdom’s political scheming, intrigue and backstabbing, as well as under the contemptuous eye of Baratheon’s wife, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), and her twin brother, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The proposed marriage of Stark’s impressionable daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) to Baratheon’s psychotic son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) promises to further bind the families together, a prospect Stark looks at with diminishing enthusiasm the longer he stays on.
Back in the North, Stark’s wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and eldest son Robb (Richard Madden) carry on the governance of Winterfell and its lands, and strive against another member of the Lannister family, the dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), brother to the Queen. Though the man known as “The Imp” has shown a notable kindness to one of the Stark children after a life-threatening incident, the Lady believes Tyrion responsible for the injury, and intends to have justice. Meanwhile, Stark’s bastard son Jon (Kit Harington) has joined up with the Night’s Watch, a special army tasked to defend the northernmost region from encroachment by less civilized “wildlings.” The barbaric people live outside of a massive retaining wall built of ice and rock, but reports of other beings thought long extinct have Northerners trembling from more than just the cold.
In warmer climes, across the narrow sea in Erros, the son of the deposed king Aerys Targaryen schemes to take back the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Arranging the marriage between his sister, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), leader of a fierce warrior tribe named the Dothraki, Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) envisions marching into the Seven Kingdoms’ capital with a Dothraki army at his command. But his once subservient sister turns out to be no mere bride to the Khal, instead embracing her new life and becoming a full blown khaleesi, or queen, to her people. The Targaryens may indeed take back rule of the Seven Kingdoms, but not in the way Viserys – nor the people of Westeros – ever imagined.
Based on the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Game of Thrones is another feather in HBO’s TV-producing cap, diversifying the network’s already impressive stable of historical and family dramas with its first epic fantasy. The casting of Bean as the show’s honorable protagonist is an obvious “get” given his past role as Boromir in the “The Lord of the Rings,” but the involvement of seasoned British character actors, some impressive newcomers like Merchant, and consistent talents like Dinklage and Headey give the show the legs it needs to make Martin’s dense narrative convincing (unfortunately I can’t help thinking of plastic wrap every time I see Addy’s King Robert). High production values in the cinematography, production design and costuming also give the show a cinematic credibility normally lacking in TV fare.
Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season includes the 10 episodes that aired on HBO between April and June 2011:
1. Winter is Coming
2. The Kingsroad
3. Lord Snow
4. Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things
5. The Wolf and the Lion
6. A Golden Crown
7. You Win Or You Die
8. The Pointy End
10. Fire and Blood
3D Rating: NA
The first season of Game of Thrones was captured in 10-bit 1080p resolution on ARRI Alexa cameras at high bitrate HDCAM SR. The completed episodes have now been upscaled to 2160p with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 high dynamic range. The result is a modest increase in both color depth (the previous Blu-ray edition was 8-bit color, this new 4K is 10-bit) and fine detail. The major improvements are increased contrast ratio, yielding deeper blacks with better shadow detail and the occasional banding issues that were a minor nuisance on Blu-ray are gone.
This new 4K UHD Blu-ray edition contains the same Dolby Atmos track found on the current Blu-ray edition (limited edition steelbook and recent Blu-ray re-issue). I have upgraded to Dolby Atmos since reviewing the limited edition Season One steelbook, and still agree that the Atmos tracks provide a more active surround and low-end presence. With the exception of thunder and wind localized effects, the overhead channels were used for ambient music (soundtrack) and background effects and successfully created a more immersive sound field than typical 5.1 or 7.1 configurations. Dialogue is often directed to the center channel, and remains clear and distinguished throughout, never getting lost amongst the major sound effects and score by Ramin Djawadi. My only real complaint is that unsuspecting viewers who do not have Atmos will allow their player to choose the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track by default, and not the Atmos, which contains a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 lossless track. HBO should have included Dolby TrueHD 7.1 as a selection from the menu or defaulted to Atmos, regardless.
Another odd little thing about these discs – the menu is in lossy DTS 5.1 at 768kbps, but the only English options are lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 (at 640kbps) and lossless Dolby Atmos (with Dolby TrueHD 7.1 compatibility).
Special Features: 4/5
This set is 4K UHD Blu-ray only – there are no Blu-ray discs included (although Digital HD codes are supplied). Video-based features can be found on Disc Four.
Audio Commentaries: All commentary tracks from previous editions have been included for all 10 episodes. The good news is that HBO finally corrected the mistakes made on previous Blu-ray releases by not authoring them as Bonus Audio. This means you do not have to change any settings on your player to listen to the commentaries.
Character Profiles (1080p; 30:38): Originally produced for the Web, the actors take a moment from filming to describe the characters they play.
Arya Stark played by Maisie Williams
Bran Stark played by Isaac Hempstead Wright
Catelyn Stark played by Michelle Fairley
Cersei Lannister played by Lena Headey
Daenerys Targaryen played by Emilia Clark
Jamie Lannister played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Jon Snow played by Kit Harington
Khal Drogo played by Jason Momoa
Ned Stark played by Sean Bean
Petyr Baelish played by Aidan Gillen
Robb Stark played by Richard Madden
King Robert Baratheon played by Mark Addy
Sansa Stark played by Sophie Turner
Tyrion Lannister played by Peter Dinklage
Viserys Targaryen played by Harry Lloyd
Anatomy of an Episode (1080p; 60:31): An in-depth look at episode six with a picture-in-picture commentary.
Making Game of Thrones (1080p; 30:00): Describes the genesis and development of the show, from the optioning of the novel, casting, location scouting, scoring, production design, special effects, stunts, costuming and more. The piece is brief considering the number of topics it covers, but it’s well made and ultimately interesting to anyone who enjoys the show.
From the Book to the Screen (1080p; 5:14): Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and author George R.R. Martin talk about adapting the source material into a TV series. Unfortunately, the material is just a re-hash of the early parts of the “Making” documentary.
Creating the Show Open (1080p; 5:07): The creators describe the inspiration and challenges of the impressive (and evolving) CGI title sequence.
Creating the Dothraki Language (1080p; 5:27): Language creator David Peterson explains how he developed the language, the process of incorporating it into the scripts, and coaching the actors to speak it naturally.
The Night’s Watch (1080p; 8:06): Describes the history of the Wall, and the mission and history of the Night’s Watch Order.
Histories & Lore (1080p; 69:04): Previously known as Complete Guide to Westeros, the exhaustive compendium provides descriptions of the show’s numerous characters and locations, organized by noble houses and Westeros regions.
Cast Auditions (10:37): Originally part of the Easter Egg known as Hidden Dragon Eggs, six auditions are presented in a small window in the center of the screen.
Digital HD Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem digital copies thru UltraViolet and either iTunes or Google Play Movies. The latter is not documented on the insert.
If you already own the latest Blu-ray edition of Season One that includes a Dolby Atmos mix and are not currently set up for 4K, there really is no major need to upgrade to this set, as there are no Blu-ray discs included. Recommended for those who have 4K UHD display and player and do not currently own this season on Blu-ray with Atmos.