Third-episode verdict: The Last Kingdom (US: BBC America; UK: BBC Two)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

In the US: Saturdays, 10/9c, BBC America
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC Two

It seems that it’s not just US TV that’s fallen for this season’s “crap first episode, much improved second episode” rule – UK TV in the form of The Last Kingdom is doing the exact same thing. True, it’s a co-production between BBC America and BBC Two, but it’s interesting that this seems to be the new rule on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps it’s time for the return of the ‘pilot movie’ to give shows enough time to both establish the ground rules and then settle down to telling the story?

A dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon Stories’ (how much did he want to call them the Saxon Chronicles, I wonder?), The Last Kingdom tells the story of how King Alfred managed to defend England against the Vikings and set the foundation stones for a future unified England. Unfortunately, episode one was a tedious, uninvolving mess that made all the mistakes of modern TV historical drama but without having any of the virtues. In particular, it had a desperately uninteresting hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), a Saxon noble raised by Danes, who discovers in adult life that neither side really likes him.

I was very tempted to give up after the first episode as a result, but as King Alfred was a no show in the first episode, I decided to hang on in there until he made his appearance. And I’m glad I did, because Alfred is the show’s saving grace – a very different portrayal than we’re used to of the wise king who moonlit as a shoddy locum baker.

Here, he is a coldly calculating yet pious man who also suffers from terrible pains and David Dawson gives a blinding performance as the invariably cleverest nobleman in the room.

The trouble is that while Dawson’s great to watch, taking Alfred in an unsuspected direction, and Cornwell’s characterisation gives him a lot to work with, the rest of The Last Kingdom is considerably less interesting. Indeed, the show is almost the mirror image of Vikings in that as soon as we start dealing with anyone even slightly Scandinavian, the show becomes terribly, terribly stupid and trite. As I said when I reviewed the first episode, the show could really have benefitted from watching Vikings, just to learn how to make them interesting and not complete idiots – and to learn the sunlight really isn’t the enemy of good drama.

That’s meant the second and third episodes have varied in watchability as we’ve seen increasing amounts of both our hero and the vikings. The second episode was the superior of the two, as we also had Alec Newman (Frank Herbert’s Dune, Spooks, Star Trek: Enterprise, Rogue, Waterloo Road, The Bastard Executioner) as Æthelred, Alfred’s elder brother, who is as well drawn and portrayed as Alfred is himself. Unfortunately, episode three was more interested in Uhtred and his girlfriend Brida.

The Last Kingdom is at its best when dealing with Alfred and to a lesser extent the Saxons, where it’s fascinating and engaging, at its worst when it’s dealing with the vikings, when it becomes eminently missable, hokey and historically dodgy. I can only hope that as the show progresses, Uthred simply becomes more Saxon, since he might then be interesting. Until then, though, I’m equivocating. I want to see more Alfred, but I’m concerned I’m just going to get loads of Uthred, worrying about whether he’s going to get some land. I’ll let you know next episode how it goes.

Barrometer rating: 3
TMINE prediction: Probably won’t make it to the second season, since it’ll offend historical purists with its frequent distortions, and offend regular viewers who quite fancied a new Game of Thrones. But BBC America and BBC Two don’t place as much of a premium on ratings as other networks so it might get a stay of execution.