PASADENA, Calif. -- The great thing about a prequel as opposed to a sequel: If you're a newcomer, you haven't missed anything story-wise because any future plot hasn't happened yet.
Starz debuted "Spartacus: Blood & Sand" a year ago to strong ratings. Even before its premiere, network executives were pleased enough with the show's creative direction that they ordered a second season, a strong show of support for a freshman series.
With equal amounts of gore (blood, severed limbs) and sex (straight and gay, full-frontal nudity), "Spartacus" tells the familiar story of the leader of a slave uprising against the Roman Republic, but in the show's first season, it went further back in time to give us a Spartacus origin story. Viewers saw how Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) became a champion in the ludus owned by venal Batiatus (John Hannah) and his scheming wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, "Battlestar Galactica").
Mr. Whitfield played the title role in the first season but was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma last March, which forced a delay in the production of the show's second season.
Because "Spartacus" was on a roll, garnering the best ratings for any Starz series to date, the network and producers huddled to come up with a stop-gap measure. The six-episode prequel miniseries "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," which debuts tonight at 10, introduces a new gladiator, Gannicus (Dustin Clare), and tracks the rise of the house of Batiatus before the arrival of Spartacus.
"We had planned a flashback episode centering on Batiatus and his father for season two," explained "Spartacus" head writer Steven S. DeKnight. "It probably would have amounted to eight or nine scenes in flashback, but we took that idea and expanded it. It was the seed from which we grew the tree of the prequel."
Set roughly five years before the events in season one, "Gods of the Arena" depicts Batiatus' rise to power with a gladiator not present at the ludus in season one of "Spartacus," which encourages speculation on how Gannicus might meet his end.
In addition, the new batch of episodes explores the background of slave Crixus (Manu Bennett) and the transition of Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) from gladiator to the gladiator trainer known as Doctore.
In addition, Batiatus' wife, Lucretia (Ms. Lawless), engages in hanky-panky with her friend, Gaia (Jaime Murray, "Dexter"), and expresses her disdain for the idea of sleeping with a gladiator, a notion she obviously rethought before the events of the first season of "Spartacus" when she was all over Crixus.
Judging by the first episode of "Gods of the Arena," "Spartacus" is no less visceral in its depiction of bloody gladiator battles and between-the-sheets intrigue. Gannicus, especially, is a hedonistic Big Man On Ludus who partakes in wine-soaked orgies on a nightly basis.
Mr. DeKnight, who previously wrote for the Joss Whedon-produced series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," said the most challenging aspect of making a "Spartacus" prequel was that it required shoe-horning in a new story before the events of season one without destroying the show's continuity.
"There were times where that became very difficult, where what we needed to do in the prequel went against what was canon in season one," he said. "I very much come from the Joss Whedon boat that I like continuity so we really strived to keep everything kosher between the two projects."
Cast members said the opportunity to delve deeper into their characters' back stories was a rare pleasure.
"That never happens where you get to go back and fill in blanks and actually find out more about your own character," Ms. Lawless said at a Starz press conference earlier this month. "And you get to see our characters when they are in the honeymoon phase of their lives."
Mr. DeKnight said many first-season characters, even minor ones, appear in the prequel, including Gnaeus. "He's the guy that Spartacus threw off the cliff," Mr. DeKnight said. "You even get to know a little bit more about him. So we delve pretty deep into people's back stories and flesh them out. And you also learn a lot about what drives [Batiatus] when we introduce a character we talk about in season one, but never see, which is Batiatus' father, Titus."
Mr. DeKnight said the show's writers are halfway through plotting the show's second season, which is likely to air a year from now. Among the stories that will unfold: The back story of how Doctore -- seen as a gladiator in "Gods of the Arena" -- came to the ludus. And elements of the prequel will come to bear on the show's second season.
"I never wanted to do just a prequel," Mr. DeKnight said. "I wanted it to inform season one and to really enrich season two. So it is very much the connective tissue between both seasons."
Producers decided some time ago to allow Lucretia to survive the bloody season-one finale, but the nearly beheaded Batiatus will not be back.
"It wasn't that bad. I could survive," Mr. Hannah joked. "I believe that Batiatus does actually have a twin brother who we get to meet later on."
As for who will step into Spartacus' sandals, Starz announced this week that a little-known Australian actor, Liam McIntyre, has been tapped to take over the title role. He looks a lot like Mr. Whitfield, who stepped aside last summer when his cancer recurred.
"We're obviously deeply saddened that Andy couldn't continue with us," Mr. DeKnight said. "He was a huge part of the show's success. Andy is being very private about his condition and what he's going through with his family. The last thing I heard -- it's been a little while -- he was attacking it like a true champion, and I have the utmost faith he will pull through with flying colors."
Last week there were major cast/character overhauls revealed for "Law & Order: Los Angeles" -- Skeet Ulrich, Regina Hall and Megan Boone will leave the show; Alfred Molina's character shifts from lawyer to cop -- and this week NBC announced the show will not return to the schedule on Feb. 8 as had been planned.
"Parenthood" will remain on Tuesday at 10 p.m. and a return date/time slot of "LOLA" has not been announced.
From the "Why Didn't They Do This Sooner?" file, Discovery has decided to re-brand its Fit TV network as Discovery Fit & Health, carrying many of the Discovery Health programs that disappeared with the debut of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
The re-christened channel debuts Feb. 1 and will include shows such as "Dr G: Medical Examiner" and "I'm Pregnant and ..." and "Untold Stories of the ER." Some of Fit TV's fitness-themed shows -- "Bodies in Motion," "Namaste Yoga" -- will remain and mostly air weekday mornings, 6-9 a.m., according to Multichannel News.
Discovery Fit & Health is carried locally by Comcast's Xfinity (Channel 104 or Channel 130), Verizon's FiOS TV (Channel 163) and Armstrong Cable (Channel 444).
Ricky Gervais will have a brief cameo in next week's episode of NBC's "The Office" reprising the role of David Brent that he played in the original British edition of "The Office," according to New York Magazine's Vulture blog. ... USA has ordered the new drama series "A Legal Mind," starring Carnegie Mellon University grad Gabriel Macht as a New York corporate lawyer who hires a college dropout with a brilliant legal mind. ... "Billy Gardell: Halftime," a new stand-up special taped in Pittsburgh and starring the "Mike & Molly" star and Swissvale native, debuts at 9 p.m. Feb. 5 on Comedy Central. ... Fox's "American Idol" returned Wednesday, drawing 26.1 million viewers, a huge audience but still a drop from last year, particularly in several key demos (down 18 percent in adults 18-49, down 28 percent among teens, according to EW.com). ... Syfy's American remake of the British series "Being Human" attracted 1.9 million viewers Monday night, a decent if unspectacular showing, while MTV's "Skins" scored with 3.3 million viewers. NBC's "Harry's Law" drew a robust 11 million viewers Monday night, more than CBS's "Hawaii Five-0," the season's No. 1 new drama. ... Syfy has renewed "Sanctuary" for a fourth season. ... NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (11:30 p.m. Saturday, WPXI) welcomes guest host Jesse Eisenberg with musical guest Nicki Minaj on Jan. 29 and on Feb. 5 Dana Carvey returns as host with Linkin Park. ... Comcast and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency with an on demand channel dedicated to presidential debates, newsreels, campaign commercials and documentaries. ... Verizon's FiOS TV has added Pittsburgh Penguins content to its on demand service. ... ABC will shave five minutes off "Nightline" to allow "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to start at midnight rather than 12:05 a.m. effective Feb. 4. ... Melissa Jaret Winokur is out as a member of the cast of CBS's daytime show "The Talk," according to People magazine, because the show evolved in a way that squeezed out time for her mom-on-the-street segments. ... Logo has renewed "The A-List: New York" for an 11-episode second season to air this fall with the first-season cast locked to return. ... My bad: Last week I confused "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" co-stars Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall; Mr. Foxworthy hosted "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader" and the same company is making Mr. Engvall's "Lingo" for GSN. ... Steelers specials: WTAE airs a one-hour preview of the AFC Championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday with 90 minutes of news at 5 p.m. Sunday. ... A 2008 "On Q" feature on Western Maryland photographer Leo Beachy has been expanded to a half-hour and will air Monday on "Experience" (7:30 p.m., WQED-TV).
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.