By James Hibberd
Updated January 07, 2011 at 08:54 PM EST

UPDATED: Those wondering about the future of Starz’ Spartacus can breathe a big sigh of relief: The network is set to confirm at TCA press tour that it will continue the breakout hit despite the loss of star Andy Whitfield.

Sources close to the production say season two will start shooting this spring, with an eye toward a 2012 premiere.

Which, of course, raises a big question: Who’s Spartacus?

Though Starz has not yet crowned a new rebellious slave-warrior to lead the series, producers are confident that the rapidly narrowing field of candidates will yield a new star.

Though there’s been plenty of suspense over the fate of the series since Whitfield left the show to resume treatment for cancer, moving forward makes plenty of sense. The first season of Spartacus gained viewers nearly every week last year to become Starz’ first hit title. Though Whitfield was terrific in the lead, he was backed by a strong supporting cast. Plus the show grabbed plenty of viewers by virtue of its unique visual style and aggressive R-rated content.

In other words: There was a lot going for Spartacus aside from just Spartacus.

Starz will get an idea of how the show fares without Whitfield when its prequel, Gods of the Arena, debuts Friday, Jan. 21.

UPDATE: Producer Rob Tapert on the decision to continue the series without Whitfield: “Nothing good came from losing Andy. We’ve had the luxury of building an infrastructure and having the prequel and sharpening the skills of the actors. If there’s any upside, we’re better prepared to support the new Spartacus when he comes into the role. The season two story no longer takes place in the ludus. It’s a different world and different set of shoes to fill. We feel confident, as does Starz, we will find the right person.”

UPDATE II: New trailer for Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

UPDATE III: Starz CEO Chris Albrecht adds, “We really struggled with this. From a business point of view, the show is so successful. And the prequel, when we saw it, we saw that the show was continuing to be a creative success. Now we’re at a place where the show is more than the character. We know we can find someone who can step into Spartacus’ sandals.

As for whether the new Sparty will be a star or another relative unknown like Whitfield, Albrecht says, “It will be fair to say the person will not be a household name, but he will potentially have a pre-existing fanbase.”

Anybody else excited about Spartacus continuing?

Keep up with me on Twitter: @james_hibberd

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