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April 2016

Da Vinci's Demons - series 3

cast: Tom Riley, Laura Haddock, Blake Ritson, Elliot Cowan, and Lara Pulver

creator: David S. Goyer
505 minutes (15) 2015
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
2Entertain DVD Region 2
[released 18 April]

RATING: 8/10
review by Christopher Geary

Da Vinci's Demons - series three

Sci-fi and fantasy masquerades as costume drama, with a scientist as the hero, in this television show of swash-buckling Renaissance adventure about outsider protagonist Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley), based in Florence, Italy. As a proper serial in a weird-historical style that demands to be watched from the start, Da Vinci's Demons is a fine example of what DVD box-sets and binge-viewing was invented for.

Top-down corruption at the Vatican forms a sleazy back-drop to political chicanery in conflicts of reason and faith, and immense wealth versus unshakeable honesty. Following Leo's encounters with Vlad the Impaler, a sailing escapade to reach the New World of primal mysteries, the discovery of a mysterious robot with his mother's voice, and our captured heroes' escape from tribal slaughter in a mountain temple, this final season begins in Naples with the maestro's defence of Otranto from an Ottoman army equipt with new cannon. Leo rapidly turns a flotilla into flotsam and jetsam, until wily Turkish invaders deploy their own, albeit stolen, super-weapons that improve upon da Vinci's prototype designs for battle-ships and mini-tanks. Thankfully, before losing his head, Leo is re-united with his trusty sidekick Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin). Zo is often seen as our eratic hero's conscience, saving Leo from the dangers of his avid curiosity and getting lost in his inner life of random musings and cryptographic puzzles.

Meanwhile, in the labyrinths of Rome, gothicult the Sons of Mithras plot a crusade based on their twisted belief that ""without sacrifice, there can be no enlightenment". This is a realm of arch rivalries and cruel betrayals that condemn some to death, and others to the injustice of persecution for innocence. Shock and gore on battlefields matches the agony of victims in dungeons. Da Vinci's earlier employer, Florentine banker Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), is caught up in dire circumstances for his family, and his fortune. He goes missing, and is thought killed by Turks. However, he shows up again, like the proverbial bad penny, and goes utterly psycho in the council hall, as his usual Machiavellian scheming is replaced by a brutal Nietzschean attitude.

Returning to Florence, Leo gets to work on new military projects funded by the arrogant Pope, while a new generation of Medicis have taken charge of state affairs. Their newfound thinking does not last very long as panic and paranoia soon seize the minds of Italian leaders, while Leo tries desperately to 'fix' everything at once. He builds new anti-ship missiles, attempts to cure the madness of his closest enemy, and considers an insane alliance with Prince Dracula ("You trespass at the gates of Hell yet are ill-prepared for confrontation"), while the fate of an empire rests on the spin of a coin, or a game of chess.

Our secular hero has the quasi-power of subjective visions (that include drug-induced alternate worlds and seeing informative ghosts), promising a great future for his own dreamscape legacy, although Leo is also a travelling witness to all the hellish realities that surround him. Drunk on ideas, if not upon ideology, his intoxicated life becomes one unholy but progressive wake-up call after another. A most surprising addition to the cast for this last series, Leo's sister Sophia (Sabrina Bartlett) becomes invaluable as a sounding-board for the maestro's studio innovations, especially devices inspired by the mythical 'Book of Leaves'. A page from this treasured volume details the exotic tech for a practical WMD that "harnesses the power of nature" to focus lightning bolts at enemy armour. After the final, literally electrifying, battle it's clearer than ever that a core theme here is the perversion of science by mankind's aggression. And yet, the show also reminds us that pacifism itself is not passive: "People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them, they went out and happened to things."

While this show matches the soap-operatic chapters of sex and violence that provide adult-style content for rival TV series Game Of Thrones, it relies more upon resonant political and religious intrigues than fantasy character studies, and DVD trumps GOT in its fascinating exploration of genuinely science fictional themes, and it delivers an obviously scathing critique of militarist fascism, celebrating heroic individualism as a laudable ambition. Reinterpreting da Vinci as a superhero is hardly surprising, really. Da Vinci remains an inspiring figure on the cross-genre spectrum and, as the great visionary in this TV drama, he occupies the polymathic space between Merlin and Sherlock. For Star Trek: Voyager, Welshman John Rhys-Davies portrayed a holo-deck version of Leonardo as a virtual mentor for the ethically troubled Captain Janeway. In Jonathan Hickman's epic work for Marvel Comics, da Vinci was re-cast as an architect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation.

A sequel DVD series would be very welcome, especially if it's called Da Vinci's Dreams with a focus on purely utopian sci-fi themes instead of darker fantasy aspects.

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