HISTORY Channel’s first scripted series—Vikings—conquered the cable channels, capturing 4.6 million total viewers, making it the most-watched cable series in the hour. Created and written by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors), Vikings is packed with conflict, warfare and bloodshed.
The family saga follows the adventures and conquests of Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and brother Rollo (Clive Standen). Deeply frustrated by the unadventurous policies of local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) and his wife Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig), Ragnar and Rollo set out to invade the British Isles. Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) keeps the home fires burning, fending off foes with admirable skill. Representing the conquered is Athelstan (George Blagden), a young, innocent Christian monk captured by Ragnar on his first raid on England.
In this one-on-one interview, Dirk Hoogstra, History Channel’s EVP of Programming and Development provides some key insights into the genesis of this groundbreaking new series.
Vikings has some similarities to Spartacus—the violence, the epic nature and historical drama of a period series—yet, in many ways, Vikings stands apart. How was the concept of Vikings created?
Dirk Hoogstra: It was borne out of the creative mind of Michael Hurst. He is a lover of history. He literally devoured every book he could find on the Vikings. He tried to bring their world to live, a world not many people know much about. The Vikings didn’t have their own written language or ways to document their won history. A lot of their history comes from what the monks wrote about them. Of course, they had an agenda that kind of demonized them. So Michael thought that no one had ever done this from the Vikings’ perspective—seeing them not just as raiders and pilagers, but what they were like as human beings. And that’s what we got really excited about as a completely unique offering.
It appears you have a delicate balance between making the characters sympathetic and not. They strike against the monks, who are basically innocent people, then they go into a church and they kill those people.
DH: Absolutely. We had to be true to who they were and what they did. At the same time, we show their family life, and you get into that grey area, rooting for someone who’s about to kill innocent people and take their stuff. It’s definitely a delicate balance and we knew that we wanted the viewers to be rooting for the Vikings, for Ragnar and Lagertha. So you can’t look at them and say, these were pure, heroic, always morally correct people. There’s ambiguity there, but I think that’s what feels authentic about it.
Ragnar has this conflict with his brother. Why was that created?
DH: There were rivalries and a concern that your sons would be more famous than you. Michael just wanted to incorporate the things that we know about these people. The family rivalries were part of their culture. Being the most famous, having the biggest adventures, and being recognized by the gods was important to them. You have to build conflict otherwise you won’t have a great story. That rivalry with Rollo was something that Michael could really exploit in the series.
Will Ragnar become more sympathetic as the series moves on? Will he do some good deeds?
DH: His ambition sometimes clouds his judgment. Because he believes he’s descended directly from Odin, he thinks he’s destined for great things, that he’s owed some sons. He’s also a curious guy. He wants to know about these other places and other gods, so he’s really driven by that quest for knowledge and adventure.
Will Ragnar settle down in a British Isle or always return to his homeland?
DH: That hasn’t been written yet. Michael has already started working on future scripts, even though we haven’t officially green-lit a subsequent season. That said, we wanted to know, where would your take the story. He’s already started working on that part of it. But it’s still a little early to know where Michael’s head is when it comes to the destiny of Ragnar.
What about Ragnar’s wife? What’s her storyline going to be?
DH: Hard to talk about it without revealing too much. But there will be some conflict ahead for them.
Will Ragnar have an ongoing conflict with his brother, or will they learn to get along?
DH: That also proves out toward the end of this season. If we get into the next season, that conflict will be at the forefront of what I’ve seen so far.