Any illusion I had that I was the only human being watching the new History Channel drama THE VIKINGS was shattered walking into a fully occupied large capacity convention hall, already packed fifteen minutes before the panel actually started. The description for the panel stated that some of the cast members would be there, but in fact, all three of the main cast members appeared, moderated by journalist Kate Hahn, and joined by History Channel EVP of Development and Programming Dirk Hoogstra.
And by the way, there are no aliens or Nazis in THE VIKINGS, at least not yet, but there is plenty of reasonably seasoned research into early medieval languages, cultures, and locations. The titular Vikings of the show are presented, refreshingly, as the protagonists, though the darker side to their pillaging lifestyles are equally represented. Visually stunning, the show’s on location shooting in Ireland and Northern Europe is one of its big selling points. The others virtues are strong acting and just telling a ripping good story of ambitious Ragnar Lodbrok as he seeks new territories to terrorize and vies for authority with a resentful and scheming local Earl. The strength of the show’s writing in the hands of Michael Hirst of THE TUDORS is also particularly apparent.
The panel opened with a season recap so far, highlighting Ragnar’s motivation in life. “Odin gave his eye to acquire knowledge but I would give far more”, he tells his twelve year old son. This quest drives the series and illustrates with plenty of axe swinging the maxim “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”.
The impatient crowd were delighted when dynamic leading man Travis Fimmel appeared (Ragnar), but ecstatic when he was joined by female lead Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha) and the triad of central characters was completed by George Blagden (captured Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan). Despite the simple entertainment value of hearing from the main actors on the series, the panel also revealed a lot about the research behind the series and the development of characterization for the central roles. Hoogstra mentioned the “struggle” the show faced in casting the key role of Ragnar until they met Fimmel, who “clicked” for them immediately, the difficulty of developing a “believable” mother/warrior role for “shield maiden” Lagertha, and constructing the character of Athelstan as a “go between” for the two worlds of pagan and Christian Europe.
When asked why they agreed to play their respective roles, the actors replied with personal anecdotes. Travis said, “I’m a bit of a kid at heart. You get to run around with an axe. Who wouldn’t want to be married to this lady?”. Travis was particularly animated and had the audience amused with his commentary, seeming to slip in an out of character. Winnick, a martial arts expert, said she was drawn to the strong writing, historical characters, and a fascination with Viking culture and mythology.
Some highlights from the panel discussion included Fimmel’s narration of working on replica Viking boats, one on the open water and one on a sound stage being battled by simulated storms, and Blagden’s very personal story of visiting the ruins of Lindisfarne, the monastery sacked by the Vikings during the show, and home to Athelstan, for character research. The actors displayed an impressive degree of enthusiasm and knowledge of the show’s subject matter, and spent plenty of time joking amongst each other about how their characters interact on screen, especially about sexual tensions.
The audience, particularly, wanted to know if the show would be renewed for future seasons, and Hoogstra said that he wasn’t able to comment on that yet, but that so far THE VIKINGS is a big success. Though the audience was sad to see the panel end, a preview of a tense, upcoming episode displaying some spectacular escapes by the diehard Ragnar consoled them. The rampant fandom displayed for THE VIKINGS at WonderCon was one of the most surprising panels of the show for sheer media wow factor.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.