Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Update and a few thoughts on Creation (dir. John Amiel 2009)

OK, first things first - I submitted my thesis about 3.30pm this afternoon! I am now very happy and very tired and I think it hasn't quite sunk in yet... I think I'll need a bit of time to recover, but normal blog service will resume as soon as possible.

In the meantime, though, I went to see Creation last night - the new film about the writing of The Origin of Species - which was very good. It did remind me once again, though, why there are so few films about classicists, or indeed, academics in general. Book-based research just isn't that interesting - it's a long, dull, internal process that doesn't come across very well on film. (Of course, Darwin did all sorts of exciting things in the course of his research which would have worked very well on film, but since the focus was on 1858-1859, when he was writing it all up, we didn't see much of that. I was disappointed - I wanted to see the turtles! Or were they tortoises...?) To make up for this, most of the film was about Darwin coming to terms with the death of his daughter, which was done very well (I sobbed most of the way through) but rather depressing. (Apparently there have been complaints about the film's use of her 'ghost', as Darwin didn't believe in ghosts - but this was, as Mark Kermode has emphatically pointed out, a dramatic device to enable Darwin to express his thoughts and feelings out loud, and as such, probably necessary).

There were a couple of great academic moments though. My panic when a book a bit similar to my thesis appeared last June seems totally inconsequential next to poor Darwin getting scooped after twenty years' work. He has a bit of a mad fit and starts destroying his pigeon house - I think a lot of frustrated academics can relate to that! His twenty years of work also puts my three into perspective (and I have the added bonus that no one is telling me that my thesis has 'killed God', which I would find rather upsetting!). His wife sits up all night reading his book, which is probably familiar to many relatives and friends who've slogged through really boring work proof-reading it, though she was lucky enough to have something pretty interesting to read.

All in all, I'd recommend the film, but take a big box of tissues, and if you know much about Darwin (which I don't) you should probably anticipate a lot of artistic licence. Oh, and the orang-utan is adorable.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Doctor Who: The Myth Makers 3, Death of a Spy

Apologies if this post sounds even grumpier and snarkier in tone than usual - I have had very little sleep lately and have less than a week to finish the thesis, but I wanted to get something up before the weekend! There may be a slight delay before the next update...

This is the third episode of the lost William Hartnell adventure 'The Myth Makers': I've already covered episodes 1 and 2. A lot of the story follows the Chaucerian/Shakespearian story of Troilus and Cressida, which is very confusing for me, as I'm most familiar with the Homeric and, to a lesser extent, Virgilian versions!

Paris saves Stephen and Vicki from immediate death (yelling at Cassandra for ‘religious mania’ in the process) but Priam demands that Vicki either tell him how to win the war or find a magical way to win it for him. Vicki hints that the Greeks might win, but is largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is busy making paper aeroplanes and telling Odysseus how to build a cannon, in a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable and come up with some way for the Greeks to win other than the Trojan Horse.

Vicki is not impressed at Stephen’s attempt to rescue her and insists that she can take care of herself (you can tell her days as a 60s Doctor Who companion are limited). Stephen is also most unsympathetic to Vicki’s crush on Troilus, somewhat heartlessly pointing out his city is about to burn. At this point, Odysseus’ logically but pointlessly named one-eyed servant Cyclops turns up to laugh at them, but he disappears again in time for Troilus and Vicki to flirt.

The Doctor is running out of time and still trying to avoid either recommending the Trojan Horse or risking trying out a flying machine himself. He finally bows to the inevitable and gives Odysseus the Horse idea. Troilus and Vicki are still flirting, bonding over a shared fondness for ‘adventure’ (presumably meaning ‘unnecessarily getting into ridiculously dangerous situations’).

The plan of the Trojan Horse is the familiar longish thinnish model – but I don’t know whether it’s from Doctor Who or from something else. The Doctor seems to be suggesting that the Trojans will see the horse as a god – perhaps referring to various theories about Indo-European horses. (Edited to add: see the comment below re: the model).

Troilus promises to try to persuade the others to let Vicki and Stephen out, having been reassured that Stephen is not Vicki’s ‘special’ friend. Stephen is distinctly unimpressed, until she gives him some food.

Cyclops gets shot just outside the walls, while the Doctor and Odysseus admire the (very quickly built) Trojan Horse (except the fetlocks, which the Doctor is not so happy with).

Stephen tries unsuccessfully to escape – which I’m sure was quite exciting when there was action to see, and not just slightly suspicious sounding grunting. The Doctor and Odysseus make small talk, during which Odysseus mentions orgies – because, in popular culture, all ancient civilizations spend their whole time having orgies.

Troilus wakes Vicki to tell her that the Greeks have gone and the war is over, and that she can come out, as Priam thinks it’s all her doing (Stephen is still stuck in jail though). Vicki obviously doesn’t remember the myth very well, since she doesn’t seem to have twigged to what’s going on, and poor Cassandra is still insisting that it’s not true to no avail. Vicki finally cottons on as the horse appears over the horizon, and Paris says he has given instructions to have it brought into the city.

This was probably the first episode where I really started to wish this serial had survived. I have to confess, it hasn’t exactly grabbed me, but I suspect that the sequences involving the horse looked rather exciting. I think Hartnell’s Doctor may be part of the problem – I haven’t seen many episodes of his, but I think he needs strong characters like Ian and Barbara to support him – alone, he just seems a bit doddery and unable to make up his mind. I did find his desperate attempts to avoid resorting to the Trojan Horse idea very funny though (after all, you know how I feel about the Trojan Horse). I alternate between feeling sorry for Cassandra and wanting large pieces of masonry to fall on her because her constant screeching and her jealous attempts to have Vicki killed are driving me round the bend. I think that’s a shame, as poor Cassandra is one of the most completely tragic and victimised characters in ancient myth, whereas here she’s a shrieking harridan. The full details of the Cassandra myth couldn’t be shown to children at tea time though, so maybe that’s for the best.

The more usual view of Cassandra, finally being done in by Clytemnestra

Monday, 21 September 2009

Red Dwarf: Psirens

I had hoped to do a proper re-cap of the next episode of I, Claudius yesterday (it's a particularly good one!) but the thesis is still not as far ahead as it needs to be, so I had to put it off. So, to cheer myself up, here are some reflections on a sixth series episode of Red Dwarf.

'Psirens' is the first episode of series 6 and features one of Red Dwarf's periodic reconceptualisations of the show - at the beginning of 'Psirens', we find out that Red Dwarf itself has been stolen (or possibly Lister just can't remember where he parked it) and the crew have therefore lost Holly, and are on a mission to recover both it and her(/him). They are following the ship's vapour trail, which requires them to fly through an asteroid belt.

In the belt, they find evidence of crashed ships and a message scrawled with the victim's own intestines ('someone who badly needed a pen') - PSIRENS. The following conversation ensues:

LISTER: This entire belt is swarming with some kind of genetically engineered life form who can alter your perception, telepathically. They're called Psirens. Like with Ulysses in that ancient Turkish legend.

KRYTEN: I believe the legend was Greek, sir.

LISTER: Whatever. Some country big on curly shoes and hummus. The point is, they use this power of illusion to lure you on to the asteroids, strip the ship of anything they can use and suck out your brains.

RIMMER: They shouldn't bother us, then. There's barely a snack on board.

KRYTEN: We can't turn back. We'll lose Red Dwarf.

LISTER: Look, we'll be through the belt in three, maybe four hours. We've just got to be on our toes. They'll try and tempt us, scare us, break our morale - anything to force us down on to the rocks. Just be alert.

The script I pulled from the internet said 'hummus' but I always thought I heard Lister say 'eunuchs'...

Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) listening to the Sirens while tied to the mast of his ship: the other crew have stopped up their ears (mosaic from Bardo Museum, Tunis)

Obviously this is based on the Sirens, one of the best known Greek myths. In mythology, it was the Sirens' song that lured sailors onto the rocks (their appearance is less important, though they are often depicted with wings). These Psirens (the silent 'P' tells you it's Greek, like 'psychology'!) are a little more sophisticated - they can appear in many different forms in order to get you to come near enough for them to suck out your brains. So, for the Cat, they appear as a group of women who have lost their men and need seed-spreaders (a set-up which also has a basis in Greek mythology), for Lister, they appear as Kochanski, who has used his DNA to have twins called Jim and Bexley (after Jim Bexley-Speed; I have to confess, I would never have recognised Clare Grogan as Kochanski if Lister hadn't said so, she looks so different here!), and for Kryten, one appears as his creator, whose every order he must obey.

Although the Psirens appear in various forms (usually beautiful women) their true form is as large, insectoid, beeping monsters, resulting in a delightful scene where Lister, feeling desperate after being deprived of sex for more than three million years, snogs one. (Apparently Craig Charles had complained that it wasn't fair that Rimmer got all the action in series 5, since his character was dead, and this was the writers' response).

Somewhat grainy image of a Psiren from the crashed ship's black box recording

Lister and the Cat (the only crewmembers who have edible brains) are eventually saved by Kryten - the Psiren thought she had got rid of him by having him crush himself in the waste disposal unit, but all it does is make him cube shaped.
Red Dwarf used aliens which could appear as anything as plots several times over the course of the series (most successfully in 'Polymorph', but 'Polymorph II: Emohawk' was pretty funny too). In this case, the focus on the sexual lure of the Psirens gives the episode a slightly different focus and keeps it fresh (plus the fact that there are several of them). The Psirens don't work only through sex - in one very funny scene, one of them poses as Lister and reveals itself by actually playing the guitar well - but it seems to be their favourite method of attack. The Sirens of classical mythology aren't particularly sexy (unless wings turn you on) but they have become associated with sexyness over the years, as their irresistable call has been interpreted as a sexual lure. If I had more time, I'd look into exactly how that happened - I suspect it involves Romantic poets. Anyway, this is pretty good episode - perhaps it suffers in comparison to the same series' 'Gunmen of the Apocalypse', but it's funny and it introduces us to the show's new format, with added danger and tension as a result of the need to chase Red Dwarf, very effectively.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler, 1959)

There's a brand new adaptation of Ben-Hur opening live at the O2 arena (known to most of us as the Millennium Dome) tomorrow. The BBC showed some footage of rehearsals on their website and it looks amazing - they have real live horses in an actual chariot race! (Hopefully one that is light on violence). I have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but it looks very cool. In honour of this intriguing show, I thought I'd post a few thoughts on the best-known adaptation of Ben-Hur, the 1959 film directed by William Wyler. This won't be a full re-cap/review of all four hours or so of Ben-Hur, because of the whole thesis-near-completion thing; just a reflection on some of the bits from the film that stood out the most to me (I'm sure I'll return to it and give it a proper review at a later date).

The most memorable bit, of course, is the chariot race. I first saw Ben-Hur when I was about 12 or 13 I think (the period when I knew nothing about Classics). By the time we got to the chariot race, I think I had completely lost track of the plot, but when the drivers rode out into the circus, I was excited! There were only two problems with actually watching it. One was my persistent sqeuamishness. I kept hiding my eyes, and as soon as Messala was injured, I couldn't look at him any more and treated the film like a radio show. The other problem was a childhood spent watching Popeye cartoons. As soon as the blades came out of Messala's chariot wheels, all I could see in my head was Popeye and Bluto - I expected Olive Oil to start screaming at Ben-Hur from among the spectators.

It's been a while since I've seen the film, but I can still see in my mind's eye several moments from the chariot race. It's a great, old-fashioned spectacle and an amazing set-piece - plus it wakes up the audience at a point in the film where they're probably starting to nod off...

The other bit of the film that my brother (who is three years younger than me) and I really enjoyed and remembered from our first viewing of the film was the section aboard the galley. We were fascinated by the design and running of the galley. I think that up till this point we had imagined that all pre-steam ships got around using only the wind in their sails. We also loved the way the overseer kept time with his rhythmic pounding. It was oppressive, creepy but very effective and strangely hypnotic (and my brother, who is now a professional musician, was already interested in rhythm and uses of rhythm). Being sick-minded children at heart (as most children are) we also rather liked the part where the overseer nearly kills the slaves (possibly does kill one?) by making them row ridiculously fast, just to test them. Finally, we loved the climax of the sequence, first the reprise of the cry 'ramming speed!' and then the destruction of the galley through being rammed by another ship. I think we recreated that one in lego a few times.

The classic Lego Pirate Ship - perfect for recreating a galley being rammed

Of course, the subtitle of the film is A Tale of the Christ. I very much like the depiction of Jesus here (as far as I remember it!). I believe that showing Jesus only from behind was a fairly common technique in early 20th century films, but as yet I haven't seen any others that use it, as I haven't yet seen any of the earlier films. I think it works well, especially for a film that is really about Ben-Hur himself, whatever the subtitle says. The parallel scenes of Jesus and Ben-Hur offering each other water are nicely done and I like the fact that Jesus is barely in the rest of the film - Ben-Hur gets on with his life and his encounters with Jesus are just part of the world he lives in (albeit a rather important part). I remember the ending as being perhaps a little overly melodramatic, and the movie's depiction of leprosy being, well, less than authentic, but the scenes between the human Ben-Hur and the human Jesus are simple and sweet.

Well, those are the parts of the film that really made an impression on me (along with everyone else, I suspect). There are other things I remember - the frustratingly ridiculous tile incident that kicks off the whole plot, the views of ancient Rome, brief appearences by Tiberius and Pontius Pilate - and other things I've learned more about later - mainly the supposed homoeroticism between Ben-Hur and Messala (not what Charlton Heston was going for). I'm sure there's also lots more of academic interest to discuss, and I suspect that if I watched the film again I would spot lots and lots of incidences of artistic licence being taken (or stuff that's just plain wrong!). I'll leave it there for now, with my dim memories of enjoying an exciting film on a long afternoon during the summer holidays, and come back to the film again in a little while, when I've had a chance to watch and enjoy it all over again.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Mamma Mia! (dir. Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

I'm hoping to print and bind my thesis two weeks today, so my blog posts may be a bit shorter and less frequent than usual for the next couple of weeks!

The film version of Mamma Mia!, the musical built around ABBA songs, includes a minor detail not in the stage musical. Meryl Streep's character Donna's hotel is supposedly built over the 'fountain of Aphrodite', and anyone who drinks the water will find their true love. At the end of the film, there's a termor in the earth, the mosaic (of dolphins I believe) cracks and water shoots out of the ground, as Donna cries joyfully 'It's Aphrodite!'

You'll probably be unsurprised to hear that, as far as I know, this has no basis in ancient stories about Aphrodite. The island on which Mamma Mia! is set is fictitious, as is the hotel, and there are no stories that I know of concerning a fountain of Aphrodite (if anyone else has heard any, let me know!) (Edited to add: see the comments section below for some interesting examples I hadn't heard of before). The mythical 'birthplace of Aphrodite' is usually placed at Paphos in Cyprus, and the story is that she was born fully grown from the sea from some castrated genitals, so there is some connection with water in her myth, but as far as I know that's it.

Aphrodite is used in the film, of course, because she's the goddess of love and sex, which is pretty much the sole subject of the film (that and gorgeous Greek scenery). It's quite sweet in its own way, and it gives the film a stronger tie to its location (which otherwise really is just scenery porn, Donna's hotel could be anywhere) but I really think everyone should be more worried by the minor earthquake and possible instability of the building...

(Edited to add: I actually like this film, I think I forgot to mention that! Although now I have ABBA songs stuck in my head...)

Friday, 11 September 2009

Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branagh 1996)

Does Hamlet count as popular culture? Well, it was in Shakespeare's day so I guess it does!

Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and Kenneth Branagh's film of the 'Eternity' version is one of my favourite versions of it (I've also seen a couple of great stage productions, one starring Sam West and the recent one starring David Tennant). I first read Hamlet when I studied it for A-Level. At the time, I hadn't done any Classics (I'd done some Ancient Greek as a hobby, but I didn't bother with the history much and I hadn't done any Classics formally). I knew pretty much nothing about the ancient world except what I saw in I, Claudius, so although I loved the play, the section in which the First Player recites a long speech about Priam and Hecuba left me pretty cold. Hamlet is a pretty long play and I couldn't understand why this was in it (and yes, I know why it is in there now, but I was an A-Level student revising several long plays and a big bit of Chaucer, give me a break!). I certainly didn't have a clue who Priam or Hecuba were, what was going on, why people's ears were being chopped off or why I or Hamlet should care.

Branagh's Hamlet came out on DVD a while back and I bought it, post-two Classics degrees, and watched it again. The First Player's speech is now one of my favourite parts of the film! For starters, the First Player is played by Charlton Heston, who is absolutely brilliant here, and his deep, gravelly voice is just right for a long Shakespearian monologue. Then, during the speech, Branagh cuts away to a fantasy view of Priam and Hecuba themselves, played by John Gielgud and Judi Dench. Gielgud, wonderful as he is, doesn't really get to do very much, but Dench makes an impression in her few seconds screentime with a heart-wrenching silent scream of grief. They're surrounded by generic images of burning and people running around chaotically. For anyone familiar with the story of the Trojan War, it's a very moving few minutes.

Judi Dench as Hecuba

I do wonder, though, what my 17-year old self would have thought (at the time, I only saw the Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version, which I think cuts the Priam/Hecuba speech). On the one hand, actually showing Priam and Hecuba makes it a bit clearer what's happening - I don't know about anyone else, but, much as I love Shakespeare, I sometimes get a bit lost during the long speeches. So actually seeing a figure looming over Priam with a sword and Hecuba seeing his body and weeping helps me to follow what's going on and why the First Player is crying. On the other hand, how invested can you be in characters you have no knowledge of? If I didn't know who Hecuba was, would I find the scene so moving?

This is a common problem with Shakespeare - without a Classical education, you need a book of students' notes to explain a lot of the references which Shakespeare seems to assume that everyone knows. Obviously, my solution is that I think we should make sure everyone is familiar with Classics! But in the meantime, Branagh's solution is good one - at the very least, everyone can tell that some kind of fight is going on and this woman's husband has just been killed. This sort of thing isn't possible with every Classical reference in Shakespeare, but it works well here, making the reference a bit clearer and showcasing some fabulous actors in the process.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Roman Mysteries: The Secrets of Vesuvius (TV adaptation)

The first two episodes of The Roman Mysteries TV series, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius', are an adaptation of the book of The Secrets of Vesuvius, presumably with some elements from The Thieves of Ostia. I haven't read these two, so everything I say here refers only to the TV series and I don't know what sort of changes they've made in adapting the books.

The series is beautifully filmed on location in Malta and for the most part, it looks amazing. The matte paintings of Vesuvius and the effects on the eruption aren't quite convincing, at times, but the final sequences, with ash raining down on everyone and fire rushing towards them over the sea, are more impressive. I have to confess, though, I have no idea whether Flavia's plan to save everyone by ducking under the water would really work. (Edited to add: Having now consulted a geologist, I can confirm that this might indeed happen and the ducking under water plan might also work!).

Ostia, where the children live.

The best thing about this adaptation is they were able to get Simon Callow to play the Elder Pliny, which is fantastic, perfect casting. Both Pliny and Pliny the Younger were exactly as I imagined them - the Elder friendly, curious and a bit eccentric, the Younger nice enough but ever so slightly supercilious. Simon Callow is brilliant as ever and I have to confess, I blubbed when he died. His death matches Pliny the Younger's description (Letters 6.16, unfortunately not available online, or at least not easily, except in Latin). I would ignore Wikipedia's suggestion that he couldn't have died from the fumes because the others around him survived; the Younger says in his letter that the Elder's throat was constitutionally weak, often narrow and inflamed (like Jonathan in the series, he may have had asthma), so he would have been more vulnerable to the sulphur in the air than the others.

The kids are well cast too, as are the adults (though I was a little confused by Eoin McCarthy's different voices for the identical twins he plays, it sounded almost like they had different accents). They even look quite like the illustrations on the older book covers!

The series has toned down some elements - for example, Lupus is mute for no obvious reason, rather than having had his tongue cut out. This seems a shame to me - I'm sure kids would cope and you wouldn't have to acutally show it, just have Dr Mordecai examine him. Still, the volcano sequences are pretty scary and exciting. There's also some artistic licence taken, as usual - no one of this period, not even a Christian, would be likely to be against slavery as a concept; Christians and Stoics taught that masters should treat their slaves well, but not that slavery was wrong. There's probably no harm in a modern children's story including characters who are not fans of slavery though. Also, I thought Gaius and Miriam fell in love awfully quickly, possibly as a result of condensing the book to fit into an hour's screen time.

There's an interesting mix of clues to what's happening that Flavia puts together as she realises that Vesuvius is a volcano (something Pliny had not realised before). A lot of the clues are geological events that modern volcanologists would recognise as signs of an imminent eruption - sulphur in the air and in the water, animals leaving the area, increasing tremors in the earth and smoke above the mountian. But Flavia is equally interested in an old story of a village being swallowed by Vulcan and in her own and Jonathan's bad dreams (which come up again a few times). This is not a simple case of her being from an earlier time; Pliny breezily dismisses such superstitions and must be convinced by geological arguments (and, eventually, only by the volcano actually erupting in front of his eyes, to which he rather comically says 'Ah. You may have a point'). Flavia and her friends, however, are more inclined to be religious, which makes the final scene, as they all pray to different gods for Jonathan (who is in a coma due to a combination of asthma and sulphur) very sweet and touching.

Computer-generated image of the eruption over Pompeii from the BBC.

I really enjoyed watching this. I don't watch a lot of children's television these days, and when I do, it's from the late 80s or early 90s (I have The Chronicles of Narnia and Maid Marian and her Merry Men on DVD) so I don't know how this series compares to other children's television, but I was pleasantly surprised by the high production values and by how slick it was. As I said, I don't know how closely this stuck to the book, but I did notice one of my favourite details from the books - Nubia's tentative Latin, which has her yell 'Behold! Unhappy man!' instead of 'Man overboard!' - and, like the books, the series includes references to things the kids can actually go away and read if they want to - in this case, both Plinys, Catullus and Strabo. I'm looking forward to the the next episode, which is based on a book I have read, so I'll see what the series is like as an adaptation when I watch that one.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Star Trek Voyager: Waking Moments

This is the second of my posts focused on dreams on TV, to mark hopefully the last month of writing my thesis on dreams in ancient literature (I’ll go back to focusing on the ancient world in my next post).

‘Waking Moments’ appeared about halfway through season 4 of Star Trek: Voyager, which I think is the best season of Voyager. I’ve nothing against Kes, but I also like Seven-of-Nine, and in her first season, we hadn’t all got fed up of her yet! This episode appears after ‘Year of Hell’, Voyager’s best two-parter, and immediately before ‘Message in a Bottle’, which is not only one of their best episodes (another being ‘Living Witness’ a few episodes later) but something of a turning point in the series, as the ship makes contact with Earth for the first time.

The dreams in ‘Restless’ were designed to look and feel like real dreams, full of bizarre set-ups and lots of movement, drifting between locations in physically impossible ways. But these dreams were so carefully designed, with every detail (Cheese Man notwithstanding) designed to signify something particular about the dreamer, that they weren’t really like a dream you might actually have – no one would have a dream in which every element symbolised something deep and meaningful about themselves.

‘Waking Moments’ opens with a series of dreams experienced by various crewmembers which are almost the exact opposite. They look less like dreams in terms of camera movement, setting and so on, mostly because the writer has gone for the old trick of trying to get the audience to think they’re watching the characters’ reality at first, before revealing that the sequences are all dreams. But these dreams are all based on the sort of ‘typical’ dreams that a lot of people regularly experience.

I think typical dreams are really interesting. Freud based a lot of his dream theory on them – the Oedipus complex is based on the idea that sleeping with your mother is a typical dream among all men (in fact, Bremmer has suggested it might be a typical dream in certain cultures but not all) (and hey look, something Classics-related!). Typical dreams do seem to vary between different societies, cultures and time periods, with the naked dream (where you’re naked in public) common in some areas, and other dreams, like being chased, most common in others. Oddly enough though, people have reported dreams about their teeth falling out for at least two and a half millennia.

So ‘Waking Moments’ opens with a sequence showing typical dreams being interrupted by the Bumpy-Headed Alien of the Week. We see Harry have a sex dream (though this is Star Trek, so its just kissing; these are pretty common in all cultures), Paris has a generic dream about being attacked, Janeway has a slightly more specific dream about not getting her crew home (this would fit with dreams about things that are bothering you, which are very common, rather then being a typical dream itself) and Tuvok has the naked dream. The sequence is cleverly done; the first weird thing we see is Seven kissing Harry, which is fairly plausible (they had flirted earlier in the season), the first creepy thing is the dead crewmen in Janeway’s dream, which is odd but not impossible in Star Trek, and the moment that reveals to the audience that these are dreams is the moment when Tuvok appears naked on the bridge and everyone (including those involved in the other sequences) laughs at him. (Tim Russ wore a large plastic prosthetic, getting a genuine reaction out of everyone). Then they all see the alien and everyone except Harry wakes up.

Creepy dead crewmembers

The next morning (after the credit sequence) everyone swaps dream stories (it’s a long, dull journey home!) and realises firstly, that they’ve all dreamed about the same Bumpy-Headed Alien and secondly, that Harry is still in bed. (There’s a great exchange between Janeway and Tuvok where she quizzes him about his dream and, when he is forced to reveal the detail, gives him a distinctly appraising look up and down). No one can wake Harry up and they realise that the Bumpy-Headed Alien seems to be attacking them through their dreams. Unsure how to approach this (and I would make a witty comment about Nightmare on Elm Street here if I’d seen it, but I haven’t, so make up your own), they are forced to try to stay awake while Chakotay makes an attempt at lucid dreaming, to try to find out what the alien wants and how to make it go away.

I have to say at this point that I know nothing about either lucid dreaming (no evidence for it from the ancient world) or Native American rituals or vision quests (a similar thing that Chakotay embarks on every now and again; an extremely cheesy early episode had Janeway try one, in which she sat on a beach chatting to a lizard). So I’m not in a position to judge the depiction of Native American practices or of an attempt at lucid dreaming, and it’s all mixed up with technobabble technology anyway (according to Chakotay, in the 24th century, people use little computer pads to somehow replace psychotropic drugs – goodness only knows how).

Chakotay creates a symbol to let him know he’s dreaming so he will gain control – Earth’s Moon (capital letter to show it’s Ours!). This gives us a rather nice shot of the Moon, seen through one of the windows in the mess hall. He dreams about hunting a dear, which turns into the Bumpy-Headed Alien. The two of them have a quick fight and a quick chat and the alien tells Chakotay that, if he flies a certain distance away, everyone will wake up and be left in peace. He also explains that his race exist in a state of sleep and that this is their reality, and explains the attack as a pre-emptive strike against any waking species who wanders into their space.

The clearest picture I could find of the Bumpy-Headed Aliens of the Week

Chakotay wakes himself up, passes on the message and they fly off as directed. Everyone wakes up and there’s some more swapping dream stories, leading to more embarrassment as Seven walks in just as Harry was about to tell his. There’s also a sweet conversation in the mess hall, where Neelix speculates that a Vulcan nightmare would involve a planet where laughter is the only method of communication. But then – duh duh daaaaa! – the aliens turn up and attack! And take over the ship! (I love Janeway, and I really want her to be a great female role model so badly, but my goodness that woman lets her ship get taken over a lot. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two occasions when she ends up in her own brig and another two when the entire crew get dumped on another planet, and I’m pretty sure there are more). So everyone ends up being kept prisoner in a cargo bay.

Seven starts a fight with Harry to distract the Bumpy-Headed Aliens (and this is not just sarcasm – they’re actually never given a name) while B’Elanna and Chakotay go to do [TECHNOBABBLE] with something, and as Chakotay goes over to one of the ship’s little computer screens, he sees..... the Moon! This time he really does manage to wake himself up, and the Doctor (immune by virtue of being a hologram) informs him that everyone is asleep, and has been for two days. Soon he will have to start feeding them (and presumably stimulate their muscles in some way). According to the Doc, everyone’s REM patterns (or brainwave patterns, or something) are identical, which Chakotay thinks that this shows that they’re all having the same dream, each from their own point of view (in which case, surely, their REM patterns would all be slightly different, as they’re doing different things in different places.....? OK, my specialisms are Classics and dreams, not Star Trek technobabble, so I’m just going to give up now and let it lie). Doc gives Chakotay a powerful stimulant and Chakotay changes course to fly towards the Bumpy-Headed Aliens’ planet and sort them out.

Meanwhile, Chakotay’s mysterious disappearance has puzzled everyone else, and Tu
vok comes to same conclusion as the Doc and Chakotay. Seven refers to the situation as ‘collective unconsciouness’, which unfortunately has nothing to do with Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, but is a reference to the Borg’s collective consciousness.

There actually are odd references to group dream experiences, by the way, but they’re extremely rare (probably because they never really happen). One story involved an entire army dreaming the same thing.

Janeway decides to test the theory by walking into an antimatter explosion. This is wrong on several levels – mostly because, as Tuvok points out, there are better ways to test that theory. You might expect that, like in The Matrix, bad things they imagine happening to them would really affect them, but that isn’t the theory they’re following here. Interestingly, Voyager actually covered that idea in an episode that predated The Matrix, the extremely creepy
season 3 episode ‘The Thaw’. However, whereas that episode took place in a virtual reality (exactly like in The Matrix), this episode is based on actual dreaming, as in reality, just with the added elements of the collective dream, and the Bumpy-Headed Aliens. So, just as when something fatal happens in a real dream, we don’t die, nothing happens to Janeway (though normally you would wake up at the point of actual death...)

Captain Janeway (possibly making come-to-bed-eyes). Somewhat reckless when it comes to anti-matter explosions.

There’s another bit of misdirection as we think that this has allowed Janeway and the others to wake up, but then there’s another lovely shot of the Moon through the main viewscreen and it is revealed that no one except Chakotay has had any luck waking themselves up, and this time he needs some help from the Doctor. Chakotay reaches the Planet of the Bumpy-Headed Aliens and finds the huge hall where their entire population apparently lives in a state of sleep (how do they eat? How do they reproduce? How... how... how... I give up).

Janeway confronts the Chief Bumpy-Headed Alien, who taunts her about how their bodies are dying (blissfully unaware that Holodoc could probably keep them alive for a pretty long time). It’s really not clear what exactly the Bumpy-Headed Aliens actually want – perhaps they need to steal Voyager in the dream world (but why not dream themselves a ship.... Argh!)

Chakotay wakes one of aliens with the last of his stimulant just as he himself falls asleep again, and informs Chief Bumpy-Headed Alien that if they don’t all wake up in a few minutes, Holodoc will blow up the whole place, himself included. So the aliens let them go, and that’s pretty much the end of that, except that everyone comes down with a bout of severe insomnia (and we get to see Tuvok in a rather snazzy pair of Vulcan pyjamas).

Much as it might not be obvious from the above commentary, I actually love this episode! It may not make much sense, but it’s sweet and funny and I like the idea of being attacked via a communal dream. Not knowing quite how to end these situations is something of a common theme – the problem being, once you’ve established that everyone knows that they are dreaming and, more importantly, that they can’t actually be harmed, its hard to know where to go with the plot. I think Voyager does slightly better than Buffy in this respect, as it is clearly Chakotay’s threat to the aliens that solves the problem, rather than Buffy’s rather odd moment of simply deciding to wake up.

What this episode does really well is the good natured, friendly interaction between crew members and gentle humour, which is one of the reasons so many people don’t like the show, but one of the reasons I like it so much. A lot of people prefer a bit more conflict and drama in their inter-character relationships, and that’s no bad thing (and Voyager has rightly been accused of wasting a good plot line by resolving the conflict between the Starfleet and Maquis crewmembers too early). But I happen to like a bit of fairly light, warm and cozy entertainment every now and again, and Voyager does that perfectly (while still occasionally offering up a darker episode or tackling bigger themes).

Voyager did use dreams again a bit later, for the two-parter ‘Unimatrix Zero’, but that wasn’t so good, so I’ll leave on that high note and return to Classics and Ancient History-related blogging next time.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Restless

My thesis on dreams in ancient literature is slowly getting nearer to being finished, so in honour of this impending momentous occasion, I’m going to take a short break from blogging about Classics and blog about my two favourite appearances of dreams in TV drama – more specifically, science-fiction and fantasy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Voyager, two of my favourite shows, both did episodes devoted to dreams, so the next two blog posts will cover these: ‘Restless’ from Buffy, and ‘Waking Moments’ from Voyager. Normal Classics-centred service will resume after these two.

(Actually, there is some Classics stuff in this episode. The Voyager episode... not so much).

‘Restless’ was one of three gimmick episodes in the vastly underrated fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I didn’t get into Buffy until season 4 was on BBC 2, so I have a fondness for it anyway, and I really like its lighter tone. I think long-running shows need a balance of dark and light and, if they’re going to tip a bit far one way or the other, I’d rather they favoured the light side, on the whole. I also think it does a pretty good job of looking at the scaryness that is going to uni for the first time, and I was sad that the university was so completely dropped from the later seasons (I think its good to have a mix of characters, so Buffy dropping out to join Xander and Anya in the real world was OK, but Willow and Tara seemed to almost give up on it as well).

When SFX ranked every episode of Buffy from best to worst, both the best and the worst were in season 4 – ‘Hush’ (best) and ‘Beer Bad’ (worst). I disagree with them on both counts (for best I’d have gone for ‘Becoming Part 2, with ‘The Gift’ in second place, and for worst, a tie between ‘Hell’s Bells’ and ‘Seeing Red’, both of which I refuse to watch) but it shows the mixed reactions season 4 tends to provoke. Unusually, it’s the gimmicky episodes that tend to draw the highest praise – ‘Hush’, with much reduced dialogue, ‘Superstar’ is an alternate universe episode which is quite well thought of, and ‘Restless’, an episode almost entirely made up of dream sequences with which Whedon chose to round out the season, in place of the usual massive climactic fight (shifted here to the penultimate episode). And it’s brilliant, because it’s unusual, intriguing and, most importantly, very funny as well.

‘Restless’ opens with our heroes coming back to Buffy’s mother’s house for some R&R following their latest victory over evil (I always wondered just what they do after these things). Xander’s idea of a relaxing movie is Apocalypse Now, and they all fall asleep in front of it.

The first dream we see is Willow’s. And – yay! – it opens with an actual Classics reference! Willow and Tara are in Tara’s room, and Willow is painting Tara’s naked back with Greek poetry. The poetry she is writing is Sappho’s 'Hymn to Aphrodite' (Fragment 1 of Sappho’s works – Willow is soon going to run out of space if she wants to copy the whole works). Sappho is one of the absolutely miniscule number of pre-Christian female writers whose work has survived (in fragments; the other reasonably well known woman, also a poet, is Sulpicia) and is the most famous, known for her love poetry addressed to women (hence ‘Sapphic’, and ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). Aphrodite is the goddess of love, so this is a particularly appropriate poem for Willow and Tara, beautifully rendered in capital letters, the way ancient Greek is preserved on papyrus fragments (before it is edited into something much easier to read!). Willow explains how safe she feels with Tara, but she is soon on the move, taking part in a bizarre production of Death of a Salesmen. Whedon has gone on record as saying that everything in ‘Restless’ is symbolic of something, except for the fabulous Cheese Man (‘I wear the cheese. It does not wear me’). On the DVD commentary, he explains the significance of the red theatre curtains, which are very Freudian. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed that before, and now that I know, it just looks crude and a bit icky – less subtle than Austin Powers eating a sausage. I prefer the Sappho.

You can actually read the Greek - it's very cool

If anyone can tell me what Harmony’s milkmaid outfit symbolises, I’d be very grateful!

Everyone keeps telling Willow to take her costume off, and she is confused, until Buffy rips off her season 4 hippy chick bright clothes and reveals her season 1 ‘softer side of Sears’ outfit (what is Sears? What is it’s softer side? Why do American’s find this so funny??!!) complete with season 1 longer, darker hair (which Anya refers to as 'a Greek tragedy'), in a classroom from the dearly departed Sunnydale High School. The symbolism here is pretty darned obvious (Willow is afraid everyone, especially Tara, will see through her cool new costume to the geek within). It does contain Xander’s classic allusion to the magic=sex metaphor that’s been running through the whole season though – ‘Sometimes I think about two woman doing a spell, and then I go do a spell by myself’.

Xander’s own dream has more of this delightful male obsession, as the camera swoops away from Willow and Tara’s first implied kiss to focus on Xander’s stunned face. I’m glad their first onscreen kiss wasn’t here though – much as I dislike ‘The Body’ (too depressing), their kiss there is much more touching and natural.

Xander’s dream follows Willow’s as Willow is attacked by a mysterious, savage figure. Sex is pretty prominent feature in Xander’s dream (surprise surprise) as it opens with Joyce trying to seduce him before moving to a playground where Giles and Spike are playing on the swings and Buffy is in the sandpit. Giles says Spike, rather amusingly dressed in tweed, is like a son to him and that he is training him to be a Watcher. Xander says he was into that for a while, but has moved on to other things, and he goes to join Anya in the ice cream van he has been working in – which is where Willow and Tara show up. The best bits of Xander’s dream are yet to come though, as first he finds Giles and Anya, on the UC Sunnydale campus, speaking French which he can’t understand (but which gives me an opportunity to practise, excellent) and then wanders into his own personal Apocalypse Now, with Snyder as Colonel Kurtz (which all made a lot more sense once I had seen Apocalypse Now). Xander’s dream is mostly about questioning where he’s going, since he (along with Anya) is not in college, as the girls are, and ending up back in the basement, where he is attacked by the savage figure.

Whedon explains in the commentary that the dreams are supposed to get creepier as they get along. I’m not sure if this is what he was referring to, but the beginning of Giles’ dream, with Buffy, and a watch, and Giles saying something very odd about women and men, is definitely creepy. Luckily Spike turns up pretty quickly, doing some hilarious poses for a group of photographers and admirers. Then it get even better – the undoubted highlight of the episode (apart from the Cheese Man) is ‘The Exposition Song’, in which Giles explains that their spell in the previous episode has angered a primal force, and adds a final line asking Xander to please not bleed on his couch, as he’s just had it steam-cleaned. As the savage figure scalps him (in a shot that looks just like Sylar’s MO from the much later Heroes), he realises who it is – the First Slayer, who ‘never had a Watcher’.

The First Slayer, complete with spooky skull-effect make-up

Finally, we get to Buffy’s dream, much of which foreshadows the arrival of Dawn at the beginning of the next season (not that we all knew that at the time). As Buffy wanders though the dream (they all wander from set to set, taking advantage of the layout of the main Buffy sets at the studio), she sees her mother living in the walls (which is definitely creepy) and Riley and Adam planning world domination via the medium of coffee makers that think (which is hilarious). Eventually Buffy ends up in the desert, where she fights the First Slayer, first with weird prose poetry (‘I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don't sleep on a bed of bones’) and then with, you know, fists. Eventually, Buffy just gets fed up and decides to wake up, and somehow, everyone is safe.

(Pedantic whinge of the day: the spell in question names the four of them as four parts: Spiritus=Spirit, Animus=Heart, Sophus=Mind, Manus=Hand. Oh. Dear. For starters, ‘sophus’ is Latinised Greek, while the rest are Latin, and Buffy apparently incants a spell in Sumerian. ‘Sophos’ is Greek for wisdom, not mind. ‘Animus’ is a Latin word referring to the logical, rational part of the soul (as opposed to ‘anima’, the emotional part of the soul) and it can also mean ‘heart’. ‘Spiritus’ is closer, meaning breath of life or spirit, and ‘manus’ as hand is fine.)

I love ‘Restless’ I think its weird and wonderful. It was also a lot of fun, the first time round, watching it again after seeing season 5 and seeing what elements foreshadowed elements of that season.

The dreams in ‘Restless’ are all, of course, symbolic – no message dreams here. Although Whedon goes to a lot of effort to make them really bizarre, like real dreams, and includes the Cheese Man to ensure there is at least one random element, the level of symbolism in these dreams marks them out as being purely literary. They’re like puzzles for the viewer to figure out (some of which, I confess, I have yet to figure out myself – others are more obvious). ‘Restless’ is a very self-conscious piece of writing. Even leaving aside the fact that these are all dreams, and the science-fiction aspect of the concept, these are still not the sort of dreams a person might really have, even if they look more like them than a lot of fictional dreams do. They are also, since the show is technically in the horror genre, relatively creepy. This all contrasts strongly with the use of dreams in the more ‘science’-oriented Voyager – of which, more later...
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