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With 'Marco Polo,' can Netflix win a 'Game of Thrones'?

The streaming-video service delivers medieval sex and violence to rival the best of Westeros in its latest original show, as it vies to rule premium online video on the global stage.

Netflix original "Marco Polo" includes battle sequences with hundreds of extras, supporting stars like Benedict Wong, Uli Latukefu and Lorenzo Richelmy. Phil Bray/Netflix

Beheading? Check. Epic battles in far-flung kingdoms? Check. Brothels? With imperial harems, Netflix's new series beats HBO and "Game of Thrones" in that department. Plus the streaming video subscription service is throwing in some kung fu for good measure.

"Marco Polo," an epic drama series based on the namesake explorer's adventures as a young agent in Kublai Khan's Chinese empire, premieres Friday as Netflix's latest original show. It's already conjuring comparisons to HBO's hit fantasy series, thanks to the two programs' shared zeal for nudity, gore and a Middle Age feel.

"Marco Polo" is not "Game of Thrones" with ninjas, its creators say. Yet the new series may provide Netflix with a weapon it can use on two important battlefronts. The company's own exploration of the globe -- one that would bewilder Marco Polo himself -- makes a continent-hopping show with an international cast more important to the streaming-video company than ever. And Netflix, which has made no secret of its ambition to be the Internet's HBO, is about to face stiffer competition from the premium cable rival: the network plans to launch its Netflix copycat service in the US next year.

Executives at Netflix say those considerations had little to do with the decision to make "Marco Polo" -- that it was the storytelling that captured Netflix's interest. "It's going to be fantastic," Chief Executive Reed Hastings said of the series in an October interview. "Martial arts, sex, intrigue, power -- it's a lot to work with."

But Netflix gave "Marco Polo" a lot to work with, too. With battles heating up on dual fronts, Netflix has invested enough loot in the series to satisfy a Mongolian warlord. The show's reported $90 million budget for 10 episodes has it contending as one of the most expensive television series ever made. By comparison, Netflix spent a reported $100 million on 26 episodes of ."

A stately pleasure dome

Watching "Marco Polo," it's clear where all the money went. Shot in Venice, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, at its height the production had a construction crew of 400 and an art department of 160. The sets needed 130 tons of plaster and 1.6 tons of silicone. Kublai Khan's throne room took more than three months to build.

The throne room set in Netflix's "Marco Polo" took more than three months to build. Phil Bray/Netflix

"The production apparatus is not dissimilar from a 'Deadwood' or 'Game of Thrones,'" said executive producer Dan Minahan, who has directed episodes of both those series for HBO before. "This one feels particularly big."

"Marco Polo" traces the explorer's accounts as an agent in Kublai Khan's 13th century dynasty for 17 years. It opens with its namesake character's arrival as a young man in the emperor's court, traded by his father to be a servant to the Khan in exchange for the merchant family's access to the lucrative Silk Road trade route between East and West.

Minahan dismisses the idea that the show is a "Game of Thrones" clone. The project was devised and the first two hours of script written before the HBO series ever aired, he said, also noting that Netflix's program is historical fiction, versus the fantasy set in the Seven Kingdoms of "Game of Thrones." "They're two really different animals," Minahan says.

But the two have undeniable similarities in look and feel. If "Game of Thrones" is reduced to being about boobs and beheadings, well, "Marco Polo" delivers those too. The first episode closes with Marco ambling through Kubla Khan's misty imperial harem in a daze, with naked concubines frisking and moaning around him. The second episode ends with a swordfight between two grandsons of Genghis Khan -- Kublai and his brother -- and with one of their heads rolling on the ground.

Both boast lavish production values, huge international casts and shoots sprinkled around the world. The "Marco Polo" cast is almost entirely sourced outside the US. Lorenzo Richelmy, an Italian acting newcomer, plays Marco and learned to speak English for the part. British actor Benedict Wong plays Kublai Khan, and Chinese actress Joan Chen (of "Twin Peaks" fame) plays his empress. Richelmy and Australian actor Uli Latukefu once killed downtime on set by counting off all the nationalities in the cast and crew; they made it over 30, even with Richelmy forgetting to include his native Italy on the list.

"No one has done this period of China or this approach to the history on this scale, ever," series creator John Fusco said. "It breaks new ground."

Netflix's own globe-hopping adventure

International exploration is as important for Netflix as it was for the adventurer its series celebrates. Netflix subscribers are joining in its US home base at a reliable but routine rate. To return the company to lofty growth, it is going abroad.

In the seven years since it launched its streaming-video offering, Netflix has moved into more than 50 countries, including the biggest roll-out yet in 2014: an expansion into six mainland Europe nations, including Germany and France, that represent the largest pool of potential subscribers for Netflix ever outside the US.

Last month, Netflix said it would widen its international expansion to Australia and New Zealand in March, its first official entry into the Asia Pacific region. It's the company's closest foray yet to the biggest market in Asia -- China -- that represents as significant an undertaking for Netflix as it did for Marco Polo.

Researcher SNL Kagan estimates that of the world's 730 million broadband homes, China accounts for about a fourth of them. But it's still far beyond Netflix's horizon. "It's early," Chief Financial Officer David Wells said in July. "Look for the future in terms of an answer from us in China."

It will face competition there from homegrown giants like Alibaba, the e-commerce behemoth that has been on a Hollywood kick since its $25 billion initial public offering of US shares in September.

But Netflix will also face a competitor in China that is familiar from home: HBO. Last month, the premium cable network signed a deal with Chinese Internet giant Tencent to stream its programming.

The race to rule the new online world

Ted Sarandos, Netflix's head of content and the executive who oversees programming decisions, quipped last year that the company's goal with original series is to " become HBO faster than HBO can become us."

Much of the attention has been on newcomer Netflix, which quickly elbowed into the Hollywood accolade game by reeling in top television awards and nominations with programs like "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black" only a year after premiering its first original.

But HBO is the undisputed king of TV's top honors. The cable channel had triple the Emmy nominations of Netflix this year, and more than any other programmer bar none. Yet it also has been a leader in streaming. Its popular HBO Go platform provides movie and full-series viewing for people who already subscribe to its channel through a cable or satellite company, and it was a vanguard among traditional television channels for putting up a sprawling catalog of its content online.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said HBO's entrance into online-only streaming is "playing rapid catch-up." Sarah Tew/CNET

The race between the two is poised to move into higher gear. In October, HBO said it will launch a "standalone, over-the-top" offering next year that will let people watch programming purely online. That puts HBO squarely on Netflix turf.

The two companies have faced off online in this way before, in Nordic countries. Netflix expanded there in 2012, the same year HBO first offered an online subscription service for people untouched by a pay-TV package. But it's difficult to assess their standings there: HBO has provided no numbers for its HBO Nordic membership, and Netflix doesn't disclose its subscriber stats by country. Overall, 17-year-old Netflix's 53.1 million global members at the end of September compares with 40-year-old HBO's roughly 85 million at the end of last year.

As HBO moves deeper into Netflix's own territory, that's where expansion abroad and big hit-making bets like "Marco Polo" grow in importance for the upstart.

"The same great innovation that Netflix did as a platform, now [it] wants to do that in the script, the writing, in the production," Richelmy, the actor playing Marco, said. "Now, we want to transform television."