Saturday, 26 October 2013

Atlantis: White Lies


The arc plot starts to get moving a bit more in this week’s Atlantis, though it’s still moving at a glacially slow pace – obviously, going too fast would be a disaster and the show would run out of story, but the drip-drip of information here is so slow it risks not holding our attention. Still, I enjoyed this episode a lot – like last week, it’s rooted in character-driven drama, and that tends to be more my thing than pure spectacle, though of course it still looks amazing.

The plot of this week’s episode had almost nothing to do with Greek mythology, which is fine, but it means it has to work that bit harder to get us to care, without a famous name and existing associations to spark the interest. But one aspect of the story that would have resonated with ancient Greeks is Pasiphae’s role as the wicked step-mother, trying to have Minos’ son and heir Therus (not a character from Greek myth as far as I know) killed in favour of her nephew.

Many families would have included a step-mother in ancient Greece, thanks to the high rate of death in childbirth in pre-industrial societies. Since women also married men substantially older than themselves – and there were a lot of wars – some of these second and third wives who’d survived their own labours and whose husbands had died might come to the family with children of their own. The trope of the wicked step-mother comes from the fear that a woman who has a son of her own will be a threat to her husband’s sons from a previous marriage, as she’ll want to get rid of the husband’s heirs in favour of her own children. (In ancient Greece, land was split equally between legitimate sons, so the more sons you had, the less land each one got). We see the wicked or otherwise threatening step-mother in ancient myths and stories and it's also used against the historical Livia by historians wanting to make her look bad – indeed, Pasiphae bears an increasing resemblance to the scheming matriarchs TV series set in ancient Rome are so keen on, modelled on I, Claudius’ Livia.

In Pasiphae’s case, it’s her nephew she wants to marry off to Ariadne, and then presumably rule through him. But by far the most interesting line, frustratingly not expanded upon, in the whole episode was Minos’ reference to ‘what we did to seize power’ and his belief that the gods are punishing him for ‘taking the throne.’ Unlike Pasiphae, Minos is a reasonably sympathetic (albeit strict and ruthless), much more interesting character so this is genuinely intriguing.

There are several possibilities for what he means. In some stories, to prove to his brothers that the gods wanted him to be king, Minos asked Poseidon to send him a bull from the sea, and promised to sacrifice it to the sea-god. However, when the bull turned up, it was so beautiful that he couldn’t do it, and sacrificed a much less valuable animal instead, so Poseidon sent the bull mad as a punishment. But that’s the origin story of the Minotaur (Pasiphae falls in love with the mad bull and insists on having sex with it) and Atlantis has already done its own version of that (plus, we may see a lot of torture here, but bestiality really is a bit beyond what you can show on BBC One at teatime). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Minos later goes to war against Megara (the city, not the woman) and the princess Scylla (not the sea-monster) falls in love with him and chops off her father’s magic hair so Minos wins, but then Minos rejects her and she goes mad and turns into a bird. So they could perhaps do something with that… Anyway, the idea that Minos has a dark past as an evil usurper is by far the most interesting character development Atlantis has done yet.

Ariadne herself gets a little bit more development here, as she finally gets to leave the palace! She still doesn’t have much of a personality beyond being terribly noble and upright but at least she shows that she is willing to take action when necessary. The trouble is, it’s very hard to buy into Jason’s desperate love for her and willingness to die for her when they’ve barely spent five minutes together. (I’m also not sure letting on to the prince that you fancy his sister is a good idea…) Honestly, although Ariadne's nice and all, I desperately want Medea to turn up in some form and for Jason to give up on Ariadne and have a more interesting and convincing romance with someone more three-dimensional. Hercules and Medusa’s relationship is much more convincing because, although their screen-time together may be limited (though it still outranks Jason and Ariadne by a long way), we see them doing ordinary things like watching dung beetle races together, so we can see that they’ve spent considerable time together, albeit off-screen. Hercules and Pythagoras are still the best developed relationship of all though.

Jason’s modernity again comes through in little ways, though he still hasn’t expressed the slightest desire to get back to a land and a time period where he can eat fish and chips with ketchup. This week, he demonstrates his non-ancient-ness by being the person who tells Therus that Ariadne should be allowed to choose whether to leave or stay for herself, at which I almost wanted to cheer. The girls do not get much to do on this show, but at least their right to their own agency is respected (so far – we will not speak of the dubiousness promised by the trailer for next week). All these little touches of modern attitude do at least justify that framing device back in the first episode, but really, having made such a huge character decision, it would be nice to see it explored a little bit.

The Oracle also appeared again for the first time in a week or two. I must admit, I hadn’t missed her – she’s rather one-note. True to her ancient forebears, she speaks in confusing and often mis-leading riddles, in this case insisting that ‘lost at sea’ is not the same as ‘dead’ (I kind of want to see the adventures of Therus, at sea for ten years. They should have just called him Odysseus or Ulysses…) With the story focused on getting Jason and Ariadne to make puppy eyes at each other, Pythagoras and Hercules had little to do beyond look after Hercules’ dung beetle, though it was Hercules, possibly the sharpest character since Pythagoras is all book-knowledge and Jason is the brawn, who observes that Corinna and Therus clearly aren’t lovers. I did also notice that Pythagoras said the mountain paths were too littered with corpses to be able to bury them all. That may be true, but if you want to do well in Greek mythology you could do worse than bury a few corpses properly – their ghosts, who can’t cross the Styx into the underworld until they’re probably buried, will be ever so grateful.

Without losing the fun and the gorgeousness of the early episodes, Atlantis has improved steadily over the last couple of weeks. This episode gave us a lovely scene between Ariadne and Minos and fleshed out Minos’ character considerably – if future episodes can give us more Minos and less Pasiphae (who is just too dully predictable to be interesting, though it’s not actress Sarah Parish’s fault, she’s giving it all the evil glare she can muster) and if we can see the girls’ own agency and value not only respected but shown on screen in the form of them actually doing something, we’ll be well on our way to some classic teatime fantasy drama.

Quotes

Jason: I was looking for a bowl – which I found. It’s not for now, it’s for another time… It’s not quite ‘I carried a watermelon’ but Donnelly’s delivery is great.


Monday, 21 October 2013

Atlantis: Twist of Fate


So far, poor Atlantis has met a rather lukewarm reception in most places as far as I can see (Tony Keen has posted on it here, and Dave Adamson is reviewing it for Den of Geek). For myself, I'm not sure I'd be watching it if it weren't using Greek mythology, but at the same time I quite enjoy it and I don't find it any worse than early episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess or late episodes of Merlin. Perhaps the problem at the moment is that it lacks a strong central character with an inherently interesting story-line. Xena was always about a formally vicious woman trying to redeem herself, while Merlin had his secret magic, and was driven by his need to hide it from everyone around him while learning how to use it (it also helped that they were played by Lucy Lawless and Colin Morgan. Every show should feature Lucy Lawless if it's at all possible).

Jason's past is certainly mysterious, but so far it's so mysterious that it fails to be intriguing - we simply don't know enough about whatever his deal is, other than that he can catch spears and run quite fast, to be really engaged. Even the character's own parental issues and search for answers is referenced mostly with quick facial expressions rather than any kind of substantial discussion - I spotted Jack Donnelly's sad look when growing up without a mother was mentioned, but struggled to remember why it was relevant, because the show has barely mentioned his back-story or goals. He doesn't even seem that bothered about the fact he's apparently stuck in ancient Greece (or somewhere like it) without a phone, TV or games console. I'd be going mad without my computer.

Having said all that, I liked this week's Atlantis more than the previous three episodes. The humour is still a little forced, the Three Men and a Baby thing not quite working (I worry if Jason at least, who's a modern guy, doesn't know that a baby that age can eat neither sardines nor olives). But it was a little more character-driven, it featured Medusa in a reasonably substantial role - this show's other main problem being the lack of visible female participation beyond floating around the palace looking pretty and/or mysterious - and it helped that it references one of the best and most famous tragic plays of all time, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

Although the show could really do with exploring Jason's feelings about being stuck in a world without microwave ovens a bit more, it does make good use of his modernity in other ways, particularly when it comes to negotiating the severely outdated aspects of Greek mythology. The practice of exposing unwanted infants was common and would have appeared unremarkable throughout antiquity. In real life, children were often exposed in urban environments, near the town dump, for example, so that if anyone wanted to pick them up and raise them as their own or as a slave, they might have a fighting chance. If the parents lived in rural Greece and the purpose of exposing the child was because the parent specifically did not want the child to live - perhaps if the problem was a physical abnormality, which many ancients and especially Spartans tended to see as a reason to choose not to raise the baby - then they might be exposed on the mountainside, and in myth, they are nearly always exposed on the mountainside, because the reason for exposure, as here, is that the parent actively wants to kill the child.

There are instances of a father wanting to expose a child but the mother not necessarily feeling that way as well. In real life, we have a letter from a husband to his pregnant wife from Roman period Egypt in which he tells her if the baby is a boy, she should keep it, but if it's a girl, she should expose it. In myth, Ovid tells the story of baby girl Iphis, whose father gives the same order, but whose mother raises her as a boy, and who is eventually transformed into a man by the goddess Isis. So the idea of a father exposing a child over the mother's wishes is a genuinely ancient one (and even in Oedipus Rex, Jocasta sounds mildly miffed at the whole business, which has put her off divination all together).

Whatever some mothers' feelings, infant exposure was a common practice - but not one especially well known in our culture and one that seems horrific to modern eyes. As an audience, we need Jason to voice his horror at the idea, and to insist on saving the baby. Without his modern background, we'd be faced with three family-viewing heroes who don't blink at an attempt to kill a baby through cold and starvation, which might not go down too well.

One of my favourite scenes in this episode was the brief conversation between Hercules and Pythagoras, without Jason, wondering if they have done the right thing. For Jason, there is no hesitation - a baby will die unless he helps it so he helps it. From a modern perspective, this is clearly the right and only thing to so. From an ancient perspective, and particularly in a mythological context, in which supernatural mysteries are a serious force to be reckoned with, things are less clear cut and one of the themes of Oedipus Rex is the inevitability of fate and the will of the gods (in that case, everything Laius has done to try to stop the oracle being fulfilled only ends up leading to its fulfillment). It was nice to see the two ancient characters wondering if they should be messing with what appears to be the baby's fate, even though ultimately of course they agreed with Jason.

It was also very amusing to see Jason's look of pure "Oh sh*t!" when Pythagoras named the baby Oedipus (which does, indeed, mean swollen foot - in Sophocles' play, Laius has hobbled the baby just to make sure, unsuccessfully of course, that he dies). Clearly, Jason's knowledge of Greek mythology is decent but doesn't go into any depth, as he didn't recognize Laius' name or wonder at the prophecy (though to be fair he hadn't heard the mother-marrying bit, which Tiresias only told Pythagoras).

Tiresias, in classical mythology, is a prophet and appears in Oedipus Rex, though here he seems to be just a servant of Laius. There are various stories about Tiresias, most of which involve him going blind at some point, so it will be interesting to see whether he returns and whether his blindness - or powers of prophecy - will be touched on within the series. Oedipus has been sent off as an infant, so it also remains to be seen whether we'll see any more of his story. The spectre of him marrying his mother has been raised, but presumably, as with Arthur/Morgana/Mordred in Merlin, the show won't do a full-on incest story. Killing Laius seems more likely, as despite Tiresias' insistence that he's not a bad man, Laius is instantly established as a bad guy through his interactions with eeeeeeevil queen/step-mother Pasiphae, and her obvious liking for him.

I enjoyed this episode, and as I've said every week, the show still looks gorgeous. Next week's trailer promises actually to give Ariadne something to do, which is desperately needed if she's to be remotely compelling as a character or as Jason's love interest. Hopefully we'll see a bit more of Alexander Siddig as King Minos as well, and continue to follow Hercules and Medusa, who are a rather sweet couple (until it all goes horribly wrong in a few weeks, anyway...)

Quotes 

Hercules: Some wine?
Medusa: At this time of day?
Hercules: It’s after breakfast!

All Atlantis reviews

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Was Cleopatra beautiful and should we care?


I got into an interesting discussion on Twitter earlier which I thought I'd mention here rather than trying to work through complex issues in 140 characters or less!

Earlier today, I re-tweeted a link to an article from Heritage Daily on whether or not Cleopatra was beautiful. In response, I was asked 'But why is it relevant if she was beautiful or not?' We don't talk about whether or not Caesar and Mark Antony were incredibly handsome, so why are we talking about Cleopatra's looks? The whole thing is sexist because 'the beauty question is irrelevant.' (You can see some of the conversation here, if I've embedded the tweet correctly!)

On the one hand, yes, if what we are interested in is analysing and examining Cleopatra's role as a politician, her beauty (or lack thereof) is, indeed, largely irrelevant and focusing on it without mentioning Caesar and Antony's looks is sexist. I still think it's not quite as cut and dried as all that, since she cemented her political alliance with both of them by having a sexual relationship with both, plus according to Octavian's propaganda, Antony was madly in love with her - much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder and looks aren't everything, sexual attraction and romantic love are at least a little connected to looks. Plutarch tells us that what attracted Antony to Cleopatra romantically was her wit and intelligence and personality rather than her looks and I think that's genuinely interesting. But it is true that to focus on her looks but not on Caesar's or Antony's smacks of sexism.

That's not why the issue of Cleopatra's looks interests me, though. What interests me is the development of the tradition that she was beautiful. Cleopatra, in popular culture, is a stunner - she's Theda Bara, she's Claudette Colbert, she's Elizabeth Taylor (though Taylor's Cleopatra is political as well as beautiful). I, Claudius' Livia makes a reference to how she and one other 'in Egypt' were the most beautiful women in the world. In the popular imagination, Cleopatra is an exotic, sexual seductress, and beauty is a part of that.

However, like Caligula and Incitatus-as-consul, the ancient basis for this particular tradition is slim. (Suetonius, the old gossip, says Caligula thought about making Incitatus the horse consul - and now nearly every depiction of Caligula features a horse in the senate). In addition to Plutarch (who lived decades later) we have coins minted by Cleopatra and Antony that show her with fairly pointed features, a nice-looking woman but not stunningly beautiful. The tradition is, as far as we know, inaccurate.

The root of this tradition, presumably, lies in the idea that for Cleopatra to have ensnared both Caesar and Mark Antony, she must have been gorgeous. In a line of reasoning that is equally unfair to men and women, it has presumably been assumed that Caesar and Mark Antony had their otherwise politically savvy heads turned by a beautiful woman (because men only want one thing and only value women for their looks), and for this to happen, Cleopatra must have been gorgeous (because women are only capable of swaying men using sex, not through their intelligence or political ideas).

The reason I think the whole issue is interesting is precisely because we need to overturn this sort of sexist thinking. The popular view of Cleopatra, dominated by movies in which, of course, producers want to cast the most beautiful actress they can find, is of a woman who used her beauty to distract and detain two powerful men. The reality is much more complicated and more interesting - Cleopatra had political alliances with both men and she attracted them with her brains, not her beauty. I think the formation of the tradition, however sexist, is interesting, and I think the way to combat that sexism is to address the issue, look at the evidence, and ask whether the tradition conflicts with the ancient evidence and if so, why?

What do you think? Am I being sexist to think Cleopatra's beauty (or otherwise) is interesting?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Atlantis: A Boy of No Consequence


Atlantis continues to be very pretty, and Medusa continues to be the most interesting character in it.

There's a strange thing about this story for an ancient historian. It's not a flaw exactly, it's just weird. Atlantis is, we presume, set in a culture vaguely resembling ancient Greece - though since Jason reached it through a magic portal, of course, it's equally possible to assume it's a purely fantasy place made up of familiar elements, but not exactly like any one era, like Westeros or Middle Earth. But so far, it's mostly been presented as basically ancient Greece, more or less.

This story, however, is a gladiator story. Gladiators are Roman.

Bull-leaping is Greek - famous frescoes from the Minoan (Bronze Age) site at Knossos, on Crete, show images of bull leapers and there are some small statues of them too. And maybe they were slaves forced to do it as a punishment - though I think that's extremely unlikely. Real bull-leapers, whether slave or free, were presumably trained gymnasts and they performed in order to impress people with their ability to leap the bulls, like a circus act. Although presumably being gored by the bull was a risk, it's unlikely to have been the reason people watched them. Deliberately watching people get killed or seriously injured for entertainment is specific to gladiatorial combat.

And what happens to Jason, Hercules and Pythagoras here is clearly a gladiator story. They're forced to leap the bulls as a punishment - fighting (humans or animals) in the arena was a punishment for criminals, as well as a job for slaves, in the Roman Empire. The sets and costumes throughout the bull-leaping scenes are all typically gladiatorial, from the cells and bars, to the leather  outfits (and occasional lack of shirts) to the arena itself - which, when we see it from a distance, we see is a Roman amphitheatre, complete with Roman arches. As our guys walk out into the arena to face the bulls, the camera lifts a point of view shot directly from Gladiator, and then they salute the king as those 'who are about to die'.

As I said, Atlantis isn't necessarily set in the real ancient Greece, so it's not that there's anything wrong with this, exactly. It just feels really weird, as a viewer, to be watching a story supposedly set in Greece (or something resembling it) but that feels like it ought to be set in Rome (or perhaps something resembling Rome). The story itself is a fairly typical, slightly cheesy gladiator story - I liked the new characters it introduced, but unfortunately they left at the end. Apart from the one named after a Persian king (Cyrus) who insisted he was ever so tough and used to sleeping with one eye open and then fell prey to the oldest 'I'm-about-to-kill-you' line in the book ('have you told anyone else?'). I hope our heroes end up visiting Shabaka (whose name I unfortunately mis-heard as Chewbacca) in his home sometime soon.

In other differences between Atlantis and actual ancient Greece, the whole idea of a person supposedly being sacred to a god is an odd one too. There were lots of way to violate the laws of the gods in ancient Greece, but attacking a specific person who's supposedly looked after by the gods was not one of them. Greek heroes in myth are often exiled for murdering random people, and in real life hubris - a crime against the gods - could take many forms. Sexual violence, vicious attacks and murder (sometimes even of a slave, despite the fact the ancients didn't tend to be very good on human rights for slaves) might be punished as an act of hubris if it was done irrationally, unjustifiably, especially violently or similar.

In Greek myth, if you hurt someone or something precious to a god you were in serious trouble - but that's on the assumption that the gods exist and take an active interest in what humans are doing. You kill Artemis' favourite deer, Artemis makes the winds blow against you so you can't go to war, etc. Atlantis, however, hasn't shown any gods to actually exist or have any power. In a way, Pasiphae's nephew is a sort of blend of two ideas - it's as if he's fulfilling the role of a deer special to Artemis or a bull beloved of Poseidon or whatever, except the god themselves is nowhere to be found, it's a status awarded by humans, who then carry out a punishment for the hubris of attacking the god's favourite.

Pasiphae is still scheming in the background, using voodoo dolls, which is not totally out of line for the ancient world. She also mentions witchy deity Hecate, and the ancients were very keen on curses. But her spells are in Greek, like the hymns to Bacchus last week, which I wish they weren't because all this achieves is to draw attention to the galactic-sized plot hole concerning what freaking language everyone's speaking! I can forget it most of the time and just enjoy the ride, but it's hard to ignore when I'm having ancient Greek shoved in my face.

As a character, Pasiphae's not overly interesting yet, but Medusa is, and by far the best scene in the episode is Medusa vs Pasiphae. The outcome of the bull-leaping is never in doubt, but although I was reasonably sure Medusa wasn't about to cop it either, there was more tension in her scene and some uncertainty as to how she would actually succeed, while the only uncertainty in the boys' story was exactly how much Pythagoras and Hercules would gurn in a supposedly comic fashion as they jumped over the bull. I quite like the idea of her and Hercules, though I think we need to see a bit more of what exactly they're attracted to about each other, and I wish they'd lay off the weight jokes a bit.

Bull-leaping fresco from the palace at Knossos

The show is still gorgeous, some bits of very dodgy CGI aside. I love the blues on the royal costumes and the rich colours in the sets. I'm also still enjoying Hercules, who is once again brave, despite Pythagoras' insistence that this is very uncharacteristic. All in all, this episode is more of the same following the first two - a little bland, a little basic, but oh so very pretty.

Quotes

Hercules: Medusa and I have a connection that goes beyond physical appearance.
Jason: Does she know that?

Pasiphae: You are heir to the throne. Your marriage must be about more than love.

All Atlantis reviews

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Atlantis: A Girl by Any Other Name


Atlantis' second episode introduces another new character in another gorgeous episode that switches between the equally pretty albeit slightly different-looking countrysides of Wales and Morocco... Beware spoilers.

The inspiration for this episode is presumably Euripides' Bacchae, CS Lewis' favourite Greek tragedy. In the play, the king of Cadmus, Pentheus, forbids the worship of the god of wine, ecstasy and fun in general, Dionysus. In revenge, Dionysus drives the bacchants - his female worshippers - mad and persuades Pentheus to spy on them. When they find him, they tear Pentheus limb from limb and his own mother carries his head, stuck on a thyrsos, back in triumph, only later realising it's her own son.

There's no sign of anyone being torn limb from limb here - though it is mentioned - but the maenads are pretty freaky for a family show. As screen depictions of maenads go, these are definitely closer to reality than True Blood's Maryann - not that it takes much (and some of the stories Hercules and Pythagoras have apparently heard about maenads sound more like they apply to Maryann). The 'satyrs', on the other hand, don't look much like satyrs, who should be half-man, half goat (I'm not sure what these were - the love-children of Gollum and some Inferi, possibly). Perhaps the show-runners didn't want Narnia fans to get confused, and are saving the half-man/half-goat look for some fauns later on.

We can see where the decision to make Jason a modern character (or, more strictly speaking, one raised in the modern world) really starts to pay off here, in his reaction to Medusa introducing herself with a cheery 'My name is Medusa!' He even takes the time to check whether it's a common name. Since the audience will probably react in a similar way to such names, it's quite nice to have a character who can have that reaction on screen and address the issue head on - and, of course, point out all the differences between the stories we know and what we see here in an attempt to get the audience on board with a new version of the tale. By the end of the episode she's apparently been cursed, but her hair is still hair and everyone's OK with looking at her, so we'll just have to wait and see exactly how she turns into a monster for heroes to slay, if, indeed, she does.

I rather liked Jason's response to Hercules' explanation of what happened with his mysterious woman as well, as Hercules says she was terrified and Jason says, 'I'm not surprised if you were chasing her through the woods!' There's so much underlying misogyny in Greek mythology, it is probably a very wise idea to have a modern character around to comment occasionally on the rather dubious attitudes that the other characters take for granted. Mostly, these things can be adapted out, but it's still a useful backup position to have available.

There were some other quick shout-outs to various aspects of Greek mythology and history here. Hemlock is the poison that Socrates was forced to take, which does indeed work quite quickly, though possibly not that quickly. Medusa avoids being brain-washed by the cult of Dionysus by stuffing her ears, which echoes Odysseys avoiding the Sirens. It was nice to see this new, cowardly version of Hercules stand up for someone and show some bravery this week as well - perhaps his reputation won't turn out to be entirely undeserved!

There are still some minor niggles with the show. Towards the beginning I found myself wondering exactly what Hercules and Pythagoras' jobs are, and how they make money, other than adventuring (which seems unlikely given neither of them are much for fighting). They seem to be doing security of some kind? Which is what's boring Jason?

Even more problematically, we hear the maenads speak some Greek, which just draws attention to the still-unresolved issue of exactly what language everyone's speaking and how they're able to understand one another if Jason's speaking English and everyone else is speaking Greek. Or are they speaking English? Hmm. As with Stargate (which did at least provide a handwave explanation for the entire multiverse speaking English) I guess we shouldn't worry about that too much. And although we keep being promised some mystical explanation, the satyrs' refusal to attack Jason did seem awfully convenient.

Still, niggles aside, this was another fun and beautifully shot episode. Ariadne still doesn't have much of a personality but Medusa does, and both she and Hercules showed an endearing kindness (even if I was distracted throughout by imagining Demetria's father as Cato). There's only so many weeks we can watch the Oracle make obscure, enigmatic statements though...

Quotes

Jason: I nearly died of boredom twice.

Pythagoras: So your cunning plan to avoid your debts is to get yourself killed?

All Atlantis reviews

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