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‘The Last Kingdom’ Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ Producer’s New Drama Is Part ‘Outlander,’ Part ‘Vikings’

BBC America series follows a young hero during the formation of England in the Early Middle Ages

Half the battle in presenting exceptional historical fiction on television — that is, without a feature film-sized budget each episode — is authenticity. Recent superb examples in the genre “Downton Abbey,” “Wolf Hall” and “Vikings” now welcome “The Last Kingdom” to their ranks.

Based on the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” novels, “The Last Kingdom” seems BBC America’s response to History’s “Vikings” success. It’s the English perspective on the Early Middle Ages invasions and is brought to television by a team including Emmy-winning “Downton Abbey” executive producers Gareth Neame and Nigel Marchant of Carnival Films, the company behind the Julian Fellowes-written and created international phenomenon.

Alexander Dreymon, whom audiences may remember as mother-troubled Luke in “American Horror Story: Coven,” stars as the second son of Uhtred (Matthew Macfadyen), a ninth century ruler of the kingdom of Bebbanburg in Northumbria. When his older brother is killed by Viking invaders, the younger boy (Tom Taylor) takes his father’s name and his brother’s place as heir to Bebbanburg, but before he can stake his claim, the young Saxon lord is spirited away by Viking Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler), who eventually adopts the courageous child as a son.

Battle-trained by the Danes, Uhtred grows to possess the swagger of Travis Fimmel‘s Ragnar Lothbrok of “Vikings, ” but also the romantic playfulness of Sam Heughan‘s Jamie Fraser from Starz’ “Outlander.” In all three cases, the characters are embattled young warriors fighting for power in worlds full of adversaries who would keep them from advancement or retrieving their birthright. And in all three cases, the lead actors create charismatic, sword-swinging characters with compelling lives, losses and loves.

Also like those leading men, Dreymon has the benefit of being surrounded by talented costars, including Emily Cox (“The Silent Mountain”) as Brida, David Dawson (“Peaky Blinders”) as King Alfred, Ian Hart (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Beocca and Rune Temte (“Eddie the Eagle”) as Ubba. Macfadyen (“Ripper Street”) and Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”) appear in brief, but memorable roles as Uhtred’s father and Viking elder Ravn, respectively, and Taylor gives an inspired performance as young Uhtred.

Brida, young Uhtred’s best friend, partner-in-crime and lover, was captured during the same battle and taken as a slave to Earl Ragnar and his family. Cox’s spitfire Brida becomes more Dane than Saxon and antagonizes her former countrymen with her assertive behavior and “heathen” beliefs when Uhtred cozies up to King Alfred — as in “the Great” — of Wessex.

Uhtred’s trials intensify when he joins Alfred’s quest to unite the kingdoms into England, creating an epic backdrop for a handsome, stellar cast and expert storytellers to weave television’s latest addictive historical fiction.

“The Last Kingdom” premieres Saturday, Oct. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.