While one or two later series (with bigger budgets) of Game Of Thrones top season one for spectacle and story sophistication, there’s something about Season one’s rawness, unflinching brutality, and world-building cleverness that still makes it my personal favorite season to date. Especially as it’s also the only season where we get to spend serious time with Ned Stark, who provides a constant tragic heart to all the mayhem that no other season can boast.
It’s interesting looking back at it now, too, to remember afresh just how groundbreaking it was in 2011 in terms of how far it was prepared to go to ensure that seriously unpleasant stuff happens to the most pleasant people.
In fact, I’d say the 4K Blu-ray release has arrived after just the right time to make revisiting the opening series feel completely fresh again.
One last thing I had to admire as I revisited the series for this review is just how quickly and effectively it establishes the memorable tone that will endure throughout Game Of Thrones’ subsequent six series. By which I mean there are two beheadings in the first 15 minutes.
What you get: Four region-free 4K Blu-ray discs, digital download code
Extra Features: Audio commentary tracks on many episodes by various cast and crew members; ‘Making of’ documentary; Creating the show open featurette; Creating the Dothraki language; 15 character profiles; From the book to the screen; The Knights Watch; Cast auditions; Animated history and lore interactive feature; Anatomy of an episode feature
Best soundtrack option: Dolby Atmos
Video options: HDR10, Dolby Vision
Key kit used for this test: Oppo UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player, Samsung QN65Q9FN TV, Panasonic UB900 4K Blu-ray player, LG OLED77C8 TV
My very first experience of Game Of Thrones was watching Season One on HD Blu-ray. So I feel reasonably well qualified to say that the step up in picture quality delivered by this 4K Blu-ray release goes way further than I’d imagined possible.
Making this particularly surprising is the fact that aside from a few bits in the pilot apparently being shot on 35mm film, so far as I know the first season of Game Of Thrones was only shot at 1080p. So what we’re seeing on these 4K Blu-ray discs must just be 4K upscales. But I can only report what I see, which is that the picture routinely looks higher in resolution than the HD Blu-ray.
All those outdoor shots of rugged landscapes and dour stone walls look stunningly real and tangible versus the HD Blu-ray, and the extra resolution enhances the sense of depth and scale in these shots too.
Close up work if anything looks even more startlingly full of detail and sharpness. Be it in the pores, blemishes and freckles of the actors’ faces; the rich luster of all the manly leathery coats; the sheen of horses; or the hairs of the series’ endless collection of beards, pony tails and fur collars. It’s honestly like seeing the show again for the first time.
At which point I should say that while the increase in apparent detail is remarkable, the application of HDR to the picture has an even bigger impact.
While it’s not the most aggressive HDR upgrade I’ve ever seen, it’s definitely one of the most effective and sensitive. Black levels have been taken down to gorgeously rich, inky levels without shadow detail being crushed, while contrasting bright highlights – candles, reflections on metal and skin tones, beams of sunlight – have been given a beautiful boost in brightness and intensity.
Daylight exteriors look much more life like too – and again this enhancement is delivered sensitively enough to stop the image from looking unnaturally stretched or making dark foreground objects look like empty silhouettes.
Colors have been enriched too, but usually only to the extent that they look more natural; more like they would, in other words, if hit in the real world by the sort of increased amounts of light the HDR regrade has introduced.
Put all these HDR and color-expanding strengths together and you get pictures that often take on an almost painterly beauty – no matter how harrowing their content might be.
This is especially true for anyone able to watch the show in Dolby Vision, which does a lovely job of adding even more dynamism to the show’s many high-contrast shots, while also delivering a more controlled and consistent look to colors – especially skin tones during dark interior sequences.
The picture isn’t quite perfect. A few mid-dark scenes suddenly look a bit grainy for no particularly obvious reason. Also, the occasional exceptionally bright exterior, such as the sequence where Joffrey is bitten by Arya Stark’s direwolf, can look a touch strained, and/or suffer with some very slight color banding in skin tones. Some of the very brightest parts of the picture can look a little bleached of detail, too.
For the most part, though, the picture quality of the Game Of Thrones Season One 4K Blu-ray release is good enough to give you all the excuse you need to start watching this epic show again from the start ahead of the final season hitting our screens later this year.
Although the 4K Blu-ray defaults to a Dolby 5.1 mix, if you head into the Audio menu you can switch to a new Dolby Atmos mix for every episode. And for the most part I strongly recommend that you do this, as these Atmos mixes you a much more full blooded sound stage than the 5.1 originals. Bass extends much deeper, and the sense of height and ambience is clearly increased.
That said, while it sounds excellent for a seven-year-old TV show, maybe because of the original tracks they had to work with in putting the Atmos mix together, it’s not exactly a reference grade effort.
Voices sound a little clinical, so that they sometimes sound slightly dislocated from the rest of the mix. The densest parts of the soundtrack – including the opening title track – can sound a little soupy, too. Also, the rear channels aren’t used as much as they might have been for adding ambient effects.
At least when the rears are actually used in anger, though, the effect steering is precise, and can deliver genuinely dramatic effects – such as the way the cawing crow that arrives on Bran’s window in episode three shifts position from the front speaker to the rear right surround as the camera changes its point of view.
The extras on this 4K Blu-ray release are the same as those delivered with the previous HD Blu-ray release except that, sadly, they don’t include any ‘in-episode guides’. These let you watch each episode on the HD Blu-ray with a menu down the side offering supplemental information, and I definitely missed having them on the 4K Blu-ray.
And before you start thinking you can just watch these in-episode features on the HD Blu-rays, if you didn’t notice earlier in the release details section, you don’t actually get the HD Blu-rays of Season One in the 4K BD package.
The highlight of the features you DO get is the series of commentary tracks delivered by a variety of different cast and crew members. The idea of using people from different aspects of the production for each commentary is a masterstroke, ensuring that each one feels fresh and gives another perspective on the production and story.
The 30-minute ‘making of’ feature is pleasingly substantial too, and while other featurettes – covering such stuff as the creation of the Dothraki language, the opening credits sequence and the process of adapting such a huge story for the screen – are much briefer, they still add up to an informative set of goodies overall.
While the in-episode guides may have gone, there is still one strong interactive feature on the final disc that lets you explore the history, lore, Houses and geography of Westeros.
I honestly hadn’t expected much from this 4K Blu-ray release of Game Of Thrones’ opening season. It wasn’t shot in 4K, after all, and previous experience of this season via broadcast and Blu-ray hadn’t exactly blown me away on the picture quality front.
Somehow, though, the remaster work has delivered transformative results, making the whole show look so fresh you feel like you’re watching it again for the first time. Or at least you would if so much of the show wasn’t so damn unforgettable.
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