With its phenomenal production values, compelling characters and high drama, HBO's epic fantasy series Game of Thrones is a force to be reckoned with.
Season three is set to debut express from the US on Easter Monday. It sees the battle for power rage on as even more contenders lust after the Iron Throne.
More interwoven plotlines are added to the mix as mighty forces gather and the Lannisters struggle to maintain their rule. Robb Stark, self-proclaimed King of the North, must deal with failing alliances and a threat from the Iron Islands to the west.
Jon Snow is trapped among a massive army of Wildlings who are also planning to cross the wall and invade the Seven Kingdoms. Far to the east and across the narrow sea, Daenerys Targaryen and her three dragons will attempt to liberate an army of slaves, then sail west to claim her rightful crown.
With so many climactic clashes imminent, the third 10-part season in the adaptation of George R.R. Martin's bestselling series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire, promises to be more action-packed than those preceding it.
A whopping 13 characters will be introduced to the already overflowing cast. New players include Wildling leader Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), Queen of Thorns Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg); Stannis' estranged wife Selyse Baratheon (Tara Fitzgerald), Catelyn's brother Edmure (Tobias Menzies) and uncle Brynden "The Blackfish" Tully (Clive Russell); Brothers Without Banners leaders Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye); and Orell (Mackenzie Crook), a Wildling with the ability to enter the minds of animals.
The production reportedly employed three units filming simultaneously in different locations, six directing teams, 257 cast members and 703 crew members.
Ahead of the season premiere, Michelle Fairley (who plays Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell) was in Australia after filming wrapped to discuss the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning juggernaut. It appears the Northern Irish actor can hardly believe her luck after she replaced Jennifer Ehle, who originally played Catelyn Stark in an unseen pilot episode.
"The size of the production is incredible," she enthuses. "Everybody cares enormously about the quality (and) you're always striving to achieve more."
The first two seasons of the expensive series revealed wonderfully realised worlds shot in locations as diverse as Northern Ireland and Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco. Fairley describes season three as yet another "visual feast" with lots of new locations, sets and stunning costumes. Among the new settings is the ancient Moroccan city of Essaouira, where Daenerys' scenes in Essos were filmed.
Season three will be based on A Storm of Swords, the third novel in Martin's series, which will be split over the third and a potential fourth season. Fairley believes the show's broad appeal lies, not only in its epic production values, but in the spellbinding storytelling that strikes a viewer-friendly balance between the otherworldly and human drama. "What the television series does wonderfully is the fantasy is a very insidious element that is coming slowly in," she says.
"Fundamentally, this is a story about family. It's a story about honour, love, revenge. It's about power, lust, greed; all the beautiful salacious stuff. And it's about survival as well. And these are conditions, emotions and situations that you can equate so easily to the world today.
"The characters are flawed. Nobody is what they seem in this world. And it's a brutal world . . . it never ceases to surprise you."
Fairley says that unlike many of the other characters, Catelyn is not driven by power but the goals to reunite her family and avenge her husband's death. "Her life has changed beyond recognition . . . She's struggling to come to terms with it and weighed down by grief and anger."
"She's evolving. Most of us think of evolution as a good thing but these people are having to evolve into things that they don't necessarily want to become. But they have to in order to survive because life is so cheap in this world."
Game of Thrones season three premieres on Monday, screening first at 1.20pm and then at 5.30pm, on pay-TV channel Showcase.