Here Be Dragons
Game of Thrones in Atmos!
Why on earth review Season Five of any TV show? We know that ‘Game of Thrones’ is one of the finest TV shows ever made, but let’s be real — if you agree with that assessment then you will already have watched the first four seasons, and watching Season Five is a no-brainer. And if you don’t agree, you probably stopped way back in Season One, or never started.
The reason for the review is that this is a first: the first TV show released on Blu-ray with Dolby Atmos sound. Atmos adds a height dimension to traditional surround sound, and scales itself automatically to your speaker set-up (whether or not it includes height speakers) for optimum sound. And if there’s a TV show that warrants the very best surround sound, this is it.
But first, the show. What we have here are 10 episodes in the continuing murderous adventures of the Houses Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, Tyrell and Targaryen. As is made clear by a two-part featurette, it is inspired by, rather than loosely based on, the 15th century Wars of the Roses and many of the players therein... but with a smattering of the supernatural and, of course, dragons. The moral standards are, if anything, even lower than that period of history. And several contenders for the Iron Throne continue to strive in the most brutal ways possible.
The only other thing I will say about the story is that I enjoyed this season even more than the previous ones. (I should note that I have not read the George R. R. Martin novels.)
Now, as to the sound: be careful. The disc actually defaults to the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. At 640kbps, this sounds very good, and can yield some very good height-included surround if played back in the new Dolby Surround mode. But if your system supports Dolby Atmos, select it explicitly.
It is clear that the producers didn’t just tick a box in providing the Atmos. There is great use of surround sound — movie-level surround — throughout. It is atmospheric, particularly in the cold winds north of the wall or the crowded streets of King’s Landing. One especially fine part was when wights (undead raised by White Walkers) were scrambling on the roof of a wilding meeting house. Our point of view is from inside, and it was rather creepy as they clambered around overhead.
The picture quality is, as always, gorgeous. This is despite a higher level of video compression than on some of the earlier seasons, the first three of which were presented on five discs. This one and Season Four use only four. The first two episodes get around 25Mbps. The next three score 18Mbps (there are three each on Discs 2 and 3). The final two get around 17Mbps, because they share space on the fourth disc with a lot of extras — more than three hours worth, in full HD.
The extras were excellent. For example, each episode can be played
with an ‘In-Episode Guide’. This is normal playback mode, except that a banner descends from the top right corner of the screen, with up to three options that may be selected: Characters, Location and History. This is slightly animated, sliding further to the right when nothing is available, and it seems to be implemented as a Secondary Video stream (aka PIP) which runs at a steady 1Mbps through all the episodes. Selecting one of the icons, when available, will give a list of things about which there is some information. This is typically a short panel of text. It can be particularly useful in sorting out which characters are which.
Then there are 15 animated shorts that provide a lot of history and background on people, places and history which is kind-of assumed to be understood in the main story. I imagine this stuff was made explicit in the novels, so it’s useful and dramatically effective presenting this information in this way.
Finally, all but one of the episodes come with commentaries — indeed one episode has two and another has three. So GoT fans will not be disappointed. But if you’re new to it, of course, you will want to start with Season One. Happily for those potential binge-watchers, a boxed set of Seasons One through Five has also been released.