Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Delicate Things

Apparently, according to Announcer Woman, this episode is 'sexy and raunchy' - what, more so than usual?! The review below contains spoilers and is probably a bit less witty and sarky than usual, for reasons which will become clear...

Spartacus certainly seems to be more popular following his victory over Theocoles, which is nice, but poor old Crixus is in a bad way. Looking like Messala in his final scene in Ben-Hur is not a ticket to long life.

It's nice to see Xena horrified by the murder of Aufidius and his family. In the first few episodes, she seemed to be yet another Livia/Atia, sex-mad like Atia and cold as Livia, but there's more humanity under there, even if she concedes the problem John Hannah had (or at least, so it seems until her next scene). Spartacus, meanwhile, still doesn't quite seem to understand the actual concept of slavery, which seems unlikely for someone who grew up in the ancient world. Barca has slightly more realistic ambitions, to buy freedom for himself and his boyfriend, but his plans are no doubt equally doomed.

Xena has acquired quite some bath - she looks like Cleopatra, though possibly the Carry on Cleo version. Also, she and JH are apparently once again too lazy to do their own foreplay, and Xena gets off on watching JH rape a slave girl in her bath - this is pretty excessively kinky, even for her.

I like the scene with Spartacus and Neighbours Reject discussing the geography of the Bay of Naples - this is the first real bit of foreshadowing of the eventual rebellion that we've seen. It's immediately followed by some rather more obvious foreshadowing, which is all the less effective for being a thousand times less subtle. It finishes on a nice bit about opportunity though, which is effective even if it did make me think of Pirates of the Carribbean. It also reminds us that Drill Sergeant Guy could stop Spartacus' escape attempt - so, presumably, when he finally rebels, he'll have to either get Drill Sergeant Guy on side or get rid of him.

We keep being treated to Spartacus' fantasies about his violent escape - it seems that, since there is less fighting in this episode, we have to see repeated images of escape fantasies instead. This seems a shame to me, for two reasons - firstly, it will make the eventual rebellion less different and exciting, and secondly, it makes the show 'blood and tits' again, insisting on violence and sex where character and dialogue would be more appropriate. Spartacus' snaky new armour and equally new abilty to wheedle important young Romans are nice though.

At last, we get back to poor Crixus, still bleeding all over a table in the back of the ludus somewhere. Not for long, though. The posh kid reminds me of the kid from Gladiator, though it remains to be seen if he will be as much trouble as Lucius Verus was.

Barca's betrayal and the living little blonde boy are a nice twist, assuming the boy is genuinely alive, but oh look! a Roman orgy. Clearly, it had been too long since we'd seen one, though Spartacus has an ulterior motive and Drill Sergeant Guy isn't interested. Meanwhile, poor Crixus, the character I'm really interested in, lingers in a coma, and I am feeling distinct concern for Barca and his boyfriend (whose name I can't remember) as well. Spartacus, on the other hand, just lost all my sympathy in using his dying comrade as a tool in his plan, though I suppose Crixus might have agreed, given the opportunity.

I like the bit with the Falernian, though poor young boyfriend doesn't catch the threat in the bit about being brought closer to the gods, nor has he quite followed what's going on, poor kid. I'm warming to Drill Sergeant Guy as well, while wondering what religion/cult he belongs to, which involves wearing a stole. I hope Spartacus feels very, very guilty for being such a traitor to all his fellow gladiators (well, except for Neighbours Reject, who's in on it, but who's not happy about the plan either).

Oh dear, there goes Barca - now I'm really upset, the two gladiators whose names I actually knew are both dead or dying! Hmpf. I was really starting to root for Barca and his naive boyfriend as well. I'm guessing Drill Sergeant Guy will survive his encounter with some serious medicine, but the comaraderie will be ruined - how on earth will Spartacus lead an army when he's betrayed everyone around him?!

Surprise, surprise, the boy is dead after all and now JH feels really guilty. Good. It's very hard to be funny about this episode, though - it's so tragic, just one disaster after another. If Crixus dies, I think I'll be left with just Neighbours Reject and Drill Sergeant Guy to care about. Plus, we finally get to the disaster we've been waiting for for six weeks - dear old wifey is, to absolutely no one's surprise, dead as a doornail, or she is within a few minutes of bleeding all over Spartacus, anyway. Mum and I think John Hannah arranged it, and so does Xena, who seems OK with it.

In some ways, this episode was a bit of a case of one step forward, two steps back - for every instance of character development and real connection, there was a bit of gratuitous violence or almost-gratuitous sex (the prostitutes were, I have to acknowledge, part of Spartacus' plan). It's also terribly depressing, as just about everyone ends up miserable (even Xena and JH seem to feel a little bit guilty about poor old Barca). But then I suppose, since the series leads up to a rebellion, it does rather have to be a story of one disaster after another, though I'd expect to see Spartacus, the eventual leader, bonding more with his fellow gladiators by this point. It's also a shame to lose two central characters in one episode. All in all, a good episode, and it certainly moved the series forwards in leaps and bounds, but, well, a bit of a downer, to put it mildly. And I still don't know what's going to happen to Crixus!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Doctor Who: The Big Bang

Spoilers follow, and in fact, I haven't recapped the plot (mostly because, to be honest, I'm not actually sure that I followed it) so none of this will make any sense if you haven't seen the episode.

OK, first things first - my excuse for blogging this, aside from the odd Roman, is that River Song is an archaeologist, so let's look at that. I love her slightly Indiana Jones-y outfit - in fact, she was very much a female Indiana Jones throughout this episode. Since we haven't yet met a version of River who doesn't know the Doctor, this is less out of place than usual, as an archaeologist who may or may not be married to the Doctor is much more likely to be handy with a weapon and up for some action adventure than your average university lecturer. I especially loved her totally brutal, cold-hearted annihilation of the Dalek who killed her lover - perhaps she is Steven Moffat's version of Captain Jack, who can be the tough guy with a gun that the Doctor can't be.

I loved the Pandorica and the battered Dalek ending up in the museum, though I thought calling it 'The National Museum' was pure laziness - why not just mock up a couple of rooms from the British Museum and add some stock exterior shots? I loved the timeline of all the things that had happened to the Pandorica through the centuries as well - that felt like a very 'real' touch - and every time anyone mentioned the story of poor Plastic!Rory guarding Amy for 2000 years I welled up. The image of the Roman centurion running from a World War Two bomb was strangely awesome and powerful, though unfortunately it did lead me to wonder why he waited until World War Two to change his outfit.

(Edited to add: It appears that the 'National Museum' is in Wales - I've never been to Cardiff, which is presumably where it is, and hadn't heard of it. Depending where Leadworth is, that could be a more sensible location but I confess, even though I live in Wales at the moment, I'd still rather have seen the British Museum, there's no museum quite like the British Museum!).

As for other, non-history related things...

The plot made no sense. Maybe when I've watched it twelve times, like an episode of The West Wing, it will all come together and everything will be logical and sensible, but on first viewing (which is the viewing that counts, really, as if you don't enjoy it the first time, you won't bother watching again) none of it makes any sense whatsoever. I think the two biggest issues were, 1) Surely a universe without the Doctor will be a very unfortunate universe? With everyone being overrun by Daleks and so on? This is a very bad plan! (OK, the universe is in dire peril, but still). However, Dad then reminded me that actually, if I recall my nerdy internet reading correctly, Doctor 4 was at least partially responsible for the emergence of the Daleks anyway, so maybe the universe will actually be better off without the Doctor causing all the problems he then goes on to solve. And, 2) how exactly can the Pandorica bring people back to life? For much of this episode, it seemed like it was just a slightly updated version of the Goa'uld sarcophagi from Stargate.

There was also a distinct lack of tension, due to the fact that I know the show isn't ending, so the Doctor will be fine. All through the lovely, tender scenes with Amy and Amelia, I just wanted him to get on with it so I could see how it all resolved itself and get to the much, much more interesting questions - what's going on with River? When will she marry the Doctor? Who did she kill and, presuming she killed the Doctor (since she said it was a very good man, seems a bit obvious but it could be him) when will she do it and, most importantly of all, if she kills him, will he finally regenerate into Adrian Lester like I want him to?! Most of which, it seems, we'll have to wait for Christmas, if not longer, for answers. I wasn't quite sure whether I liked that the bigger story - including the 'silence' - isn't resolved yet, or whether it was annoying. On balance, I think I liked it, as it gives us all something to look forward to, though a couple more answers, or hints, in this episode might have been nice.

I liked Amy and Rory's happy ending a lot (SO happy that Rory is properly human again!) and loved Rory as 'Mr Pond', though I worry for poor Rory's safety. I love the idea of a married couple on the TARDIS, but how can the writers resist the urge to kill him off again? The Doctor's comedy dancing at their wedding was pretty cool, though no Angel.

Other random thoughts... Not sure about the ‘wacky’ music. No, Doctor, no one is listening to you because you’re making absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s all getting a bit Time Traveller’s Wife again. ‘It might even work’ says River – yes, if it’s a million to one chance, it might.

We end on a couple more history related notes. The Christmas special may or may not revolve around an Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express... IN SPACE! Which could be cool. And Amy's father is called Augustus.... why, why, WHY??!! (I would like to finish on a snarky note, but just watch Steven Moffat, the Structure King, somehow tie Amy's father in with Father Octavian and make me sound like an idiot...)

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Shadow Games

My Spartacus review is finally ready, delayed by a further couple of hours because I was distracted by the World’s Longest Tennis Match. No group reactions this week I’m afraid, as I was at home watching with Mum again (now that would be an interesting addition to Watch With Mother, wouldn’t it?!).

I am finally starting to get the hang of who’s who – Crixus is the big guy, the toughest gladiator, whom Spartacus was forced to surrender too, Xena is bonking in her spare time and who fancies the slave girl; Barca is the long-haired Carthaginian who, as several commenters have pointed out, is looking pretty sprightly for someone who must be getting on for 100 years of age (the Punic Wars with Carthage ended in 146 BC, Spartacus escaped and went on the run in 73 BC).

‘Listen carefully to my instruction’ said Drill Sergeant Guy – ‘I shall say zeez only once!’ added Mum.

I like the bit about the close relationship between praying and blaspheming – reminds me a bit of the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant is swearing in the church. We rather like Xena’s dress, d├ęcolletage and all. John Hannah is also covering up his wound from last week with some rather fetching long tunic things. I do, however, wonder where Barca’s boyfriend got his fancy earring thing from.

Our Latin Word of the Week this week is medicus, doctor – used presumably because they’re already using some kind of derivative of doctor, teacher, for Drill Sergeant Guy.

What on earth is up with the maggot eating?! Seriously, that’s just weird.

Theocoles, the Shadow of Death, rears his head again, and it turns out he’s not a god, he’s a gladiator, and even Crixus looks nervous. Forcing Crixus and Spartacus to fight together is a nice twist, and the scenes between the two of them and Drill Sergeant Guy – who we also get a bit more background for in this episode – are nicely tense. The blow-by-blow recall of Drill Sergeant Guy’s own fight with Theocoles is rather good too, and, ironically, Drill Sergeant Guy is the only man to survive a fight with Theocoles because he kept fighting for so long that eventually someone put a stop to it and let him go. I bet Nicholas Mahut is wishing they could have done that at Wimbledon right now.

Ah, there we are – full frontal male nudity (from Crixus)! And, despite the d├ęcolletage on show, we haven’t seen a single tit yet – so one point to feminism! Sort of. It’s a step in the direction of equal opportunity exploitation anyway. I read a really interesting blog the other day – which I’d link to if I could remember where it was – pointing out that Twilight is a relatively rare example of the female gaze being celebrated, rather than the homoerotic gaze, as is the case with 300 (which I will cover at some point). Spartacus tends to lean towards the homoerotic, but in this scene, as Crixus stands there naked in front of three ogling women, perhaps there is a teeny move towards the female gaze as well. (Tits did turn up eventually – a random woman was waving her breasts around in the corner as the gladiators came out for battle).

Haldir’s Paris Hilton-like wife is back, still irritating, still miffed at Spartacus on her husband’s behalf, but her offer to set Xena up with some kind of fertility expert is intriguing. I was hoping the woman might turn out be a witch, which would be pretty cool, but it turns out it’s a priestess. The priestess has a rather exciting and exotic-looking costume (not sure how accurate it was, but it seemed plausible). Unusually for a Roman, she actually considers the possibility that the problem is the man. Usually Roman medical writers assumed that all fertility problems are caused by the woman, but, on the other hand, all the writers whose work has survived are men, so it’s plausible to think that a priestess might be more open-minded on this issue.

I must admit, I was mildly surprised that, having been informed she had to have sex within an hour by the priestess, Xena chose to sleep with Crixus, not John Hannah. Was John Hannah unavailable or would she prefer to have Crixus’ child? She really seems very fond of him, which would be sweet if she didn’t also seem to be fairly happy with her apparently quite nice husband, and if she wasn’t basically raping him every time they have sex. I even almost felt sorry for her when, having told her he couldn’t have sex before the big fight, Crixus went off with the slave girl – but didn’t really, due to the aforementioned rape issue.

It was Aufidius that tried to have John Hannah killed – which would be more of a revelation to me if I could remember which one he was... John Hannah has a small child killed – will he go all dark, fight Obi-Wan and fall into the crater of Mount Vesuvius now? I did love his awful, constipated expression as everyone around him expressed their horror the next day.

When the Big Fight finally arrives, Theocoles himself looks like what you’d get if you corssed an Orc with an Elf but didn’t make them incubate underground a la the Uruk-Hai – long blond Elfy hair but a scarred, tough, Orc-y face and BIG. When Spartacus and Crixus think they’ve beaten Theocoles and barely sustained a scratch between them, it’s a genuinely moving moment even if you know that, like all the best bad guys, he’s not finished yet. Sadly, then they went too far, and Blondie’s superhuman ability to fight when he’s practically been sawn in half by Crixus went beyond implausible and into totally ridiculous. Love the sunlight-blinding trick though.

Dad wandered in at this point and commented for the benefit of Mum and me, who weren’t looking at the screen ‘Decapitated him! He’s still going though... ‘Tis but a scratch!’ I do feel the need to point out, however, that somebody watched The Shawshank Redemption a bit too recently.

And then it just stopped – but what happened to Crixus? Is he alive or dead? The signs seem to point to certain doom – everyone being so in love with him, all that talk about the future, his noble and clever last act helping Spartacus out with the sunlight trick that even Dad – who is, shall we say, not a fan – was impressed by – all of this indicates he is not long for this world. But – but – I was just beginning to like him!

Well, everyone told me the series started to pick up around episode 5, and this is indeed very good. Much less blood and guts, much less pop-culture-Roman-orgy stuff, much more dialogue and characterisation and some really interesting plot developments. (Though Paris Hilton is getting really annoying and I rather hope she somehow ends up in the arena, on the receiving end of Crixus’ or Theocoles’, or Spartacus' or their equivalent's best work). And with that little cliffhanger, I can’t wait for next week – a very good sign indeed!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens

I'm away a lot this week, so the next Spartacus review will go up Thursday or Friday, and the next Doctor Who review (the season finale!) will go up next Sunday.

Spoilers follow.

After a somewhat underwhelming season, this was a pretty decent episode, though just how good it is will be revealed next week, since this is part one of a two-parter and you never know how these things are going to work out. I was expecting the Pandorica to unleash all the familiar bad guys we'd seen in the trailers, what with it sounding like it ought to be a box which unleashes all the evils of the universe and all, but it turned out to be cleverer than that. Just as I was making my customary remarks, wondering why people in science fiction insist on naming ships that fly towards the sun 'Icarus' and ships travelling long distances 'Odyssey', when they ought to know by now that that never ends well, it turned out that the Pandorica has, in fact, deliberately been named after Pandora's Box, because Amy liked the story as a child. (Though I also think that's where the logic of it fell down a bit - what sort of little girl says Pandora's Box is her favourite story?!). The Pandorica itself, meanwhile, looks exactly like Baldrick's time machine, leading us briefly to speculate that Blackadder is, in fact, the most evil being in the universe. Anyway, it was a neat inversion of the usual significant naming conventions and tied in to a nice, twisty revelation.

Said revelation also made sense of a few other things, the main one being, why would only people the Doctor met with Amy get together to warn him about the TARDIS exploding? I assume that is to do with this constructed story as well (except for poor Vincent's painting, which presumably was a genuine vision?). Liz Ten is still pretty awesome, so it was fun to see her, and River is still fun, intriguing, and a nice break from companions who haven't a clue what's going on (that's not a criticism - the companion has to be clueless so the Doctor can explain the plot to the audience - but it's still nice to see someone who knows what she's doing).

I was all on my high horse about Cleopatra being in Britain, briefly, but that was explained too, and I liked the entrance of the commander, who pointed out she's both in Egypt and (long, by this point) dead. I am a bit confused about the Romans though - are they all Autons, then? In which case, is it really AD 41, or not? Are there real Romans around anywhere? Will they turn up at some point?

I shouldn't draw too many conclusions before the final part next week, since I've been wrong several times already, but I am getting a feeling that Rory and Amy's story may involve convincing Rory he's really Rory (a la Bill Paterson in 'Victory of the Daleks'). I'm torn about this - I liked the storyline and thought it was very sad and affecting, but I fundamentally disagree with Steven Moffat, who thinks that brainwaves and memories make a person. I think there's more to a person than brain functions - as Rimmer put it in Red Dwarf, he's really dead, and the hologram that's left is a projection with his memories. This was my big problem with the conclusion to 'Forest of the Dead' (that, and the fact that the idea of basically being stuck in the Matrix forever didn't sound like much of a life to me). On which subject, having shown excellent restraint for most of the year, we also go our first dig at religion in this episode - people who believe in (Roman) gods are 'fools' and the military commander is too much a soldier to have any faith. Gee, thanks Moff.

I didn't see any Daleks while I was there...

Anyway, as I said, I should probably leave well alone until next week, except to wonder why they bothered to ride horses to Stonehenge when they have a perfectly good (not malfunctioning yet) TARDIS at their disposal. It was good fun, with some nice emotional moments, and hopefully will go down well (a friend of mine who's a primary school teacher said none of her kids have been talking about Doctor Who this year, which is a bit sad). So far this year, we've had only one real stinker ('Victory of the Daleks') but no really good, blow-you-away episodes either ('Vincent and the Doctor' came closest) so here's hoping that next week's finale will be a classic.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: The Thing in the Pit

I love the title of this episode - 'The Thing in the Pit'. It makes me think of Doctor Who monsters, or Victorian sewer monsters or something. Anyway, I’m going to try out a slightly different approach to Spartacus over the next couple of weeks, highlighting particularly interesting aspects rather than recapping everything, since ‘then they fight’, ‘then they have sex’ can get a bit same-y after a while.

Since I was in Birmingham this week, I was able to watch Spartacus with a group of friends, so this week I will mostly be blogging our group’s reactions to the episode, though I have also managed to record it and watch it again to catch up on bits of dialogue we missed.

This is a particularly nasty episode of Spartacus (and take a moment to think just how nasty it has to be to be a particularly nasty episode of this show!). The subject of the episode is ‘the Pits’, which appears to be, as several of my friends described it, essentially, Fight Club. In a roomful of Classicists, none of us could think of any evidence for such a thing from the ancient world, though there is no evidence against it either, so it’s not a totally unreasonable extrapolation. The idea – that slaves are forced to fight while John Hannah makes money from people betting on them, rather like a cock-fight, sometimes with actual cock – seems logical and plausible enough, though a bit of a waste of the money spent on Spartacus.

The fights in the Pit are really nasty. Obviously, one of the things about Spartacus is that it has lots of blood all over the place, but this goes beyond cartoonish, artistic geysers of blood and into extended horribleness. Comments from friends throughout the fight sequences included:

‘Woah!’ (as blood flew out of a runaway slave’s mouth)
‘Aaaaarrrggh! It’s a face! It’s a face!’
‘I don’t think he’s a very nice man’
‘They’re all not very nice’
‘Noooooooooooo!’ (I’m not even sure what that one was referring to, I was looking at my notebook)
‘Oh yeah! That’ll teach him!’ (This was from a male friend)
‘Oh no, he’s gonna go for the eyes!’ followed by ‘Oooooaaaaahhhhh’

At one point there was a brief discussion of whether it would be physically possible to peel the skin of someone’s face so easily. We also had a running discussion on whether or not anyone felt especially emotionally involved in this episode, and got at least one real emotional involvement towards the end, when one friend pondered the total horror of the knowledge that if you lose the fight, your face will get peeled off and worn as a mask by the winner.

We also observed that there seemed to be less sex and more violence in this episode, something we weren’t entirely happy about, and one theory was put forward, that they all keep saying ‘cock’ all the time to cover up for the fact that isn’t nearly as much male nudity as female nudity (though, later in the episode, we caught sight of the last chicken in the shop, which went some way to redressing the balance). Another discussion that broke out among the Classicists at one point concerned the precise use of the word ‘paterfamilias’, with the eventual conclusion that the script had, possibly accidentally, used it correctly.

Other observations throughout the episode included ‘Nice wall paintings’, ‘His necklace is from River Island’, ‘I’ve been here for five minutes and I haven’t seen any nipples yet’, ‘This is sensual, is anybody sensualised?’, ‘Awwwww’ (as the slave couple snogged) and, as it started to rain blood ‘I’m 95% sure this is a dream sequence’. As Spartacus approached a woman with her back to him, looking for his wife, someone said ‘it’s not her, is it?’ and another replied ‘No, it’ll be a dwarf in a red coat’. Some attempts at archaizing language in the script-writing were observed, and we felt they’re better sticking to plain English. I was particularly amused by the mandrake root, which made me picture the screaming mandrake babies from Harry Potter, and by the cut from Imaginary!Wife whispering sweet nothings in Spartacus’ ear to Neighbours Reject telling him ‘you look like shit’. Oh, and it turns out the Carthaginian is the one with the long hair – thanks to Most Recent Old Housemate!

One of the bits of dialogue I missed first time around was a rather nice scene between Xena and JH (in the room with the nice wall paintings) in which Xena expresses concern that JH is going to get himself killed by debtors in the Pits, and adds, ‘you know the law; without an heir I’d be forced to marry another’. Presumably this means that her father is still alive, and would insist on her re-marrying, since she has no son to be her guardian – so the ‘law’ in question is that of the power of the paterfamilias (which, as someone noticed, was our Latin Word for the Week this week) which means women and children must obey the head of the household. Then they actually manage to have sex by themselves, without requiring slaves as fluffers. Their relationship is nicely rounded when they're not being pleasured by slaves, though I can't help thinking JH is not going to be impressed when he finds out Xena has been bonking possibly-Barca behind his back (actually having sex to the point where any offspring produced would not be the husband's would be a no-no for a woman).

It turns out Neighbours Reject got himself into debt betting on the fights in the Pits, which I also missed first time around, and on an entirely unrelated note, there was also an advert for our town which no one else was that excited about, but when I re-watched with Mum today she was excited about it!

Me in the tunnels underneath the amphitheatre at El Jem, Tunisia, a couple of years ago

This was a good episode, though unpleasantly violent (more so than usual). The pace has picked up a bit and although there is no ancient evidence for it, the idea of the Pits is intriguing and brings something fresh to the series. I’m very glad it’s for one week only, as it brings the level of violence up even higher, but it’s somehow satisfying to think that Spartacus has, presumably, got as low as he’s going to get before he eventually rebels. We continue to get hints of a bigger story concerning Xena and JH and their problem conceiving a child, and JH continues to string Spartacus along with promises to find his wife, and it will be interesting to see just how long he can keep that up. I do hope next week has a bit more character stuff and a wee bit less eye-gouging and face-peeling though.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Bits 'n' Bobs

Hello all!

This is a quick place-holding blog! A new Spartacus review will hopefully go up tomorrow, if we can work out how to work the Sky Plus thingy. If not, Spartacus will go up next Sunday or Monday, after the repeat. I can't watch it live tonight, as I'm giving a paper in Birmingham.

I'm also planning to post on Part One of the Doctor Who finale this week, as it appears (from the trailer) to feature not only River Song, but also Stonehenge and some Roman soldiers! However, I won't be able to watch Doctor Who live either, as I'll be at a conference in Milton Keynes on Saturday. So, the Doctor Who review will definitely go up on Sunday, once I've watched it on the Iplayer.

In the meantime, CBBC are currently repeating series 1 of The Roman Mysteries, everyday in the morning (just before lunch I believe - unfortunately it's not on the Iplayer or viewable outside the UK). My reviews of Series 1 are all available already:
Series One is on this week and next week, then Series Two will be on for the two weeks after that, so I'll try to get at least one Series 2 review up while it's on, though I won't be able to keep pace with the whole series!

Finally, I have an interview next week! So, I have much preparation to do - please forgive me if the frequency/length of my posts suffers a bit!
By the way, the photo is of a Roman aqueduct near Split, Croatia, which is still in use. I just think it's cool!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Clash of the Titans (dir. Desmond Davis, 1981)

Yesterday was the launch of the latest issue of Rosetta, the departmental journal of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham, and also the annual changeover of the editorial team. I don't have anything in this particular issue, but I'm a specialist editor and I was books reviews editor a couple of years ago so I still have some connections to the journal. For the launch, the team hired the Electric Cinema in Birmingham, one of a few cinemas with a claim to be the oldest working cinema in the UK (it closed for a little while, but is open again now) and put on a special showing of the 1981 original Clash of the Titans.

The Electric is a lovely cinema - it has an arthouse feel to it, with a small bar, cakes on sale and sofas and tables at the back of Screen One from which you can enjoy the movie in real comfort, but it shows major blockbusters as well as arthouse movies and classic screenings. I saw classic French film noir Rififi there a few years ago, a film I would never normally have watched on television never mind gone to the cinema to see, but which I was taken along to by my housemates, and it was brilliant (Rififi is the one famous for a half-hour long silent heist scene, though the rest of the movie is good too!).

Anyway, we were there to watch Clash of the Titans together and see how it compared to the recent re-make. Reactions to the film varied - some had forgotten that certain elements of the new film actually came from the old film, some were more impressed than they expected, others dsiappointed that it wasn't quite as good as Jason and the Argonauts (and contained rather more nudity!). The one thing that was universally popular was the cute little mechanical owl that sounded like it was related to The Clangers, which was more than a bit ridiculous, but far too cute to dislike.

I spent much of the film thinking that no Titans were clashing in this version either, but that maybe I could forgive it since 'Titans will Clash!' was not its tagline and assume that perhaps 'clash of the Titans' was a metaphorical reference to the clash between the 'titanic' deities Zeus and Thetis. Until, that is, two thirds of the way through the film one of the Stygian witches declared in a grandiose manner that pitting Medusa against the Kraken would be putting 'a Titan against a Titan!' Oh dear. As I mentioned when I covered the re-make, not only are neither Medusa nor the Kraken Titans (Medusa is a Gorgon, the Kraken is from an entirely different mythology), but I confess I really don't consider holding the dead head of one of them up at the the other one to be a 'clash' anyway. Ah well, they tried. At least they didn't use the terrible tagline.

There were a number of things about this film that worked better than the corresponding elements in the re-make. Most importantly, the ridiculously high calibre actors playing the gods, chiefly Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Maggie Smith as Thetis, actually had something to do, and real emotions to play. This is because, in this story, the gods experience and act on typical human emotions and human concerns, rather than seeming remote and disconnected. While, as Plato pointed out, this may be theologically unsound, it makes for a much more interesting story and is, in a sense, closer to the way the ancient Greeks told stories about the gods.

On the other hand, the older film does not contain the interesting idea of man railing against the gods that was so central in the newer version. In this film, no matter what terrible and senseless things the gods do, no one ever questions their power or their superiority. Considering what the gods can clearly do, this seems very sensible, but it is perhaps grating to modern sensibilities to see an innocent young woman led out to sacrifice without anyone so much as mentioning that this seems a bit unfair.

Andromeda herself is a curious mixture. At first she seems rather empty, without much personality, and rather shallow (it is initially implied that she was happy to marry Calibos before he was 'uglified', which would make her a wee bit on the shallow side, but once engaged to Persues, she suggests that she was never really that attached to Calibos anyway). On the other hand, she can be brave and stand up for herself, and the moment where she tells Perseus he's not her master yet and she'll do what she likes is quite good. Later, she is led calmly out for sacrifice to save her people - but starts to struggle and try to get away the minute she actually lays eyes on the Kraken. So, all in all, an odd and not entirely consistent character.

The Kraken itself has, perhaps, not aged as well as some of Harryhausen's earlier creations, looking rather like a cross between King Kong and Godzilla, with some extra tentacles thrown in. Whereas the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts look as good now as they did when the film was made, both the Kraken and Medusa look rather bulky, clumsy and stilted in their movements, especially Medusa. Though I have to confess, during the Medusa sequence, the sofas became simply too comfortable and I nodded off for a few minutes, so she may have looked great in between the bits I saw! (I understand that I was not the only person this happened to).

This appeared on I Can Haz Cheezburger today, and made me laugh

The backbone of the plot, which is cut or altered in the new film to make way for the showdown between Aslan and Voldemort, is an original story that seems to be a strange corruption of elements of The Iliad with a bit of nineteenth century monster-within literature thrown in. Thetis, Maggie Smith's character, in Greek mythology is a sea goddess who is the mother of Achilles, played by Julie Christie in Troy. Here, she has a different son, Calibos, who is cursed by Zeus and made into a monster, and he becomes monstrous in personality as well, cursing Andromeda in turn for refusing to marry him and going around murdering people and making friends with vultures (he reminded me a little of the Phantom of the Opera - original book version). Thetis does not react very well to this and it is she that demands the sacrifice of Andromeda. Poseidon once again does nothing except let the Kraken out (in two very amusing sequences where he pops down to the sea bed looking like he's holding his breath) and Hades doesn't appear at all. Perhaps the new version was inspired by Disney's Hercules.

There are lots of fun touches in this movie. I like the statuettes of the mortals that the gods use, which look like playing pieces, and I was amused that the gods don't actually seem to have anything to do except stand around and have a chat in their pretty white robes when they're not cursing mortals. It was nice to see Tim Piggott-Smith, who usually gets given rather slimy or quietly tragic roles, getting to be properly heroic for once. Thetis' reference to Zeus trying to assault her as a cuttlefish got a laugh from everyone, and the conversation between goddesses was nice. Maybe the new version was inspired to cast Atia of the Julii as Cassiopeia by the casting of the Empress Livia as the same character in 1981 - and, just as in their respective TV series, the two are similar, but Livia is more imperious, more powerful and less interested in frivolities than Atia.

Less good stuff included the talking shield, repetitions of the word 'Invisible!' and once again the 'Stygian witches', which don't seem so much like the Fates in this one apart from the one eye thing, but seem to have got lost looking for Macbeth. Perseus' sudden cry of 'We have a flying horse!' got a laugh from everyone, but I'm not sure it was supposed to. Perseus' outfit was rather silly and not nearly as practical as the new one and why did Burgess Meredith's Ammon (a name of Zeus in myth) feel the need to throw cats around? Cruelty to cats is Not On!

The bit at the end about how the stars named for the characters would shine on 'even if we gods are abandoned or forgotten' was rather nice, and this was one of very few moments of philosophical intropection, nearly all from Zeus (though Ammon quotes Herodotus' 'call no man happy until he is dead'). Zeus implies that in the future, the gods may 'no longer be needed', which implies a milder version of the new film's hero's insistence on ignoring them as far as possible, and Zeus also notes at the beginning that a hundred good deeds cannot atone for one murder.

The very cute Clanger-owl, easily the best thing in the movie!

All in all, not the best movie ever made, but certainly not the worst either. I think watching it with a large group of friends helped, as this is a film best enjoyed as a light, frothy evening's entertainment, possibly with some alcohol. It hasn't stood up as well as some other, similar films of the time though, partly because the special effects have aged more noticeably than some others, and the plot and characterisation are too thin to compensate.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Legends

Spartacus is still clinging to the garter-thing as he atmospherically gets dressed for a training session, in which Drill Sergeant Guy has a go at him for not thinking things through properly. Then we get a montage! A training montage! Team America really has ruined the montage sequence for ever...

The Volcanalia is announced, described by Neighbours Reject as ‘a festival to ward off wild fires’, which is accurate enough, though Volcanus was god of destructive urban fires as well (and volcanoes, thoughI guess since Vesuvius hadn’t erupted yet volcanoes might not be the first thing that came to mind). John Hannah is worrying about money again, but Xena attempts to reassure him while trying on a new and remarkably blonde wig.

A gladiator walks past, showing off his package. Neighbours Reject explains that the big gladiator who’s been annoying Spartacus, Barca, is a Carthaginian who is the last survivor of his group, brought over as slaves after the fall of Carthage. Spartacus still expects John Hannah to actually find his wife, and John Hannah is still stringing him along. Xena buys some jewellery – which apparently involves inspecting her slave-girl’s breasts – and the slave girl seems to have some connection to one of the gladiators. Meanwhile, Drill Sergeant Guy is taking metaphors about piss a bit too literally.

The slave-girl and the gladiator she likes have one of those Tense and Meaningful conversations before he goes off to have sex with Xena. Spartacus still hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut and gets both himself and Neighbours Reject thrown into a big hole full of shit, at which point Neighbours Reject finally snaps at him to please just shut up and get on with it.

Spartacus and Neighbours Reject are down to fight each other, because this is a gladiator story so, of course, our hero has to fight his only friend, and if he succeeds he may get to fight Crixus the toughest gladiator of them all (and honestly, I am now completely confused as to who is Barca and who is Crixus and who is a Gaul. I can only positively identify Neighbours Reject and the one who’s been allowed to keep his long hair for some reason). Spartacus gets one of the retiarii knocked out, apparently as part of a cunning plan to get himself facing Crixus sooner, while he and Neighbours Reject discuss the uncomfortable fact that they may end up killing each other and the one from earlier eyes up the slave-girl.

Haldir’s wife comes by for a party, complaining that Haldir is too busy with work and being snarky about Xena’s new necklace, which is apparently out of date. JH brings the gladiators in to show everyone in hopes of selling some. People are interested in Spartacus and JH wants him fighting the big guns, but Drill Sergeant Guy whinges that he’s not ready, still too ‘animal’. The guy I thought was Barca the Carthaginian turns out to be a Gaul, and Haldir’s wife sulks that Spartacus is still alive, so Xena has Neighbours Reject perform some live porn to cheer her up, while NR vaguely hopes his wife will forgive him.

OK, the guy who likes the slave girl appears to be Crixus – Spartacus attacks him in the middle of the party and Haldir’s wife demands that they be allowed to fight, as she’s rather enjoying it. Sparatcus gets what he wanted – he will fight the undefeated Crixus in the arena the following day, and he won’t have to fight Neighbours Reject. Xena is not happy, since she wants to protect Crixus, while Crixus himself gives the slave-girl a pretty necklace.

Another gladiator tells Spartacus the story of ‘Theocoles’, the shadow of death, a giant who apparently (according to the graphic) kills people by splitting them in half. The gladiators all insist that Theocoles is not legend and only one has survived him – so either he’s Voldemort, or they’re exaggerating. I'm not aware of any real legend like this, and 'theos' is simply Greek for 'god', so I think this is an invention of the writers - if it has any basis in the ancient world it's very obscure.

Neighbours Reject

Next day, in the arena, Neighbours Reject has obviously survived his fight (he has blood on his face) and Spartacus goes forward to face Crixus. Xena has given up on fashion and gone back to red hair, but her porn show has managed to impress Haldir’s wife so she’s got what she really wanted. Rock guitar starts to play as Spartacus and Crixus enter the arena and Haldir’s wife gives away that she fancies Crixus too, at which Xena is less impressed. Spartacus doesn’t even wait for the starting signal before having a go at Crixus. Crixus so thoroughly bests Spartacus that our hero’s blood ends up artfully spattered all over the camera, but a glance at his wife’s garter-thing persuades Spartacus to surrender and ask for mercy, something that, at the beginning of the episode, he swore he’d never do and which doesn’t impress anyone in the crowd, who all wanted him to die. JH insists that Spartacus was expensive and is worth saving, but no one is really buying it, and it does seem a bit odd to be honest.

Drill Sergeant Guy points out it’s all Spartacus’ own fault for not training long enough and the episode ends, on a rather odd note. (By the way, the pic of John Hannah on the closing credits is really kinds freaky – he looks unusually evil!).

Another episode that felt like it was treading water, though at least Spartacus actually got into the arena this time. Trouble is, 1) I want Haldir to come back, I’m far more interested in him than his fashion-plate wife and 2) I’m already starting to feel like I want them to just rebel and go on the run already, since I know that’s where we’re eventually heading – at least I hope so, unless all of the actual slave revolt has been put off for a season 2 that may never happen...

Monday, 7 June 2010

Pinocchio (Disney, 1940), for World Oceans Day

Cris over at Here, There and Everywhere is hosting a Blog-a-Thon about oceans and oceanic wildlife as part of World Oceans Day, which is June 8th, and asked me if I’d liked to take part, so here I am! (Spartacus review to follow early Wednesday).

There’s loads I could say about ancient ideas about the sea, the ocean and marine wildlife and the idea of ‘ocean’ rather than sea is especially interesting. In myth, Oceanus was a Titan, son of Sky and Earth, while geographically speaking the ocean was the water that surrounded the whole Earth – for, in ancient conceptions of the world, the Mediterranean sea sits in the middle, the three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) sit around it and Ocean/us flows around them all.

The Babylonian map of the world, the oldest we know of, showing the ocean that surrounds the world - the world being, here, Mesopotamia. Later, Greeks and Romans would include the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, but they still surrounded all three with Oceanus

The problem for this blog, though, was that I needed to find a representation of a Classical idea about the ocean in modern popular culture. I had a few ideas, most of which I don’t have time to do in a day, but then I remembered that the theme for this year’s World Oceans Day is oceanic life, and people are being asked to choose their favourite ocean creature to write about. Well, my favourite oceanic life form has always been the whale, thanks to a primary school project (specifically the Blue Whale, but any whale will do!) and that’s what led me to Pinocchio.

The 1940 Disney film of Pinocchio is based, reasonably faithfully, on a 19th century moralising story by Carlo Collodi. Two of the incidents in the film draw particularly on ancient references: the whale, which I’ll come to in a moment, and the transformation of the boys on Pleasure Island into donkeys. Although the film explains this as the result of the boys acting ‘like jackasses’, the concept is much older.

The two best known transformations of man into donkey in literature are that of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that of the protagonist Lucius in the Latin second century AD novel Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass. Bottom is the victim of the fairies’ quarrel, but Lucius, like the protagonist of the earlier, Greek, story ‘Lucius, or the Ass’ which The Golden Ass is loosely based on, is turned into a donkey as the result of his own foolish curiosity. He watches a witch turn herself into a bird by magic and wants to try the same thing, so that he can fly, but is accidentally turned into a donkey instead. The only cure is to eat roses, but finding some roses to eat proves more difficult than he’d anticipated and, in The Golden Ass, he misses his chance and has to wait a whole year until roses bloom again before he can be returned to human form. Like Lucius, Pinocchio is almost transformed into a donkey (in the book he is actually transformed) because of his own foolishness, though in Pinocchio’s case curiosity is combined with indulgence. Lucius is eventually saved by the goddess Isis, who points him in the direction of some roses, just as Pinocchio is saved by the Blue Fairy.

The reason this post is appearing for World Oceans Day, though, is the whale. The most obvious forerunner to this is, of course, the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. Both Jonah and Pinocchio find redemption in the belly of the whale. Jonah is swallowed up while trying to escape his duty and eventually agrees to obey God is order to escape the whale, repenting and being forgiven. Pinocchio, on the other hand, goes to find the whale in order to save Gepetto, and proves that he is brave and true in the process, and when he sacrifices his life for Gepetto he is redeemed and turned into a real boy by the Blue Fairy. Pinocchio is, then, rather more proactive than Jonah in his story and self-sacrifice is added to obedience as a required quality, but it is a similarly redemptive, new-birth type experience from the belly of the monster.

The part where Gepetto lives inside the whale on his ship also reminds me of another ancient Greek work of fiction, the 'True Story' by Lucian. The title is ironic – this is a fantasy adventure involving trips to the moon, and to the land of the dead, and to the island of dreams. Among the hero’s other adventures, he spends over a year living inside the belly of a whale that has swallowed his ship. As in Pinocchio, the story imagines that whole ships can float around inside the whale’s stomach and eat the smaller fish the whale swallows (how the whale doesn’t starve to death I’m not sure) and in the 'True Story' there’s even a battle between different ships that have been swallowed and the whale’s stomach contains forests and islands. The story may have been a direct influence on Pinocchio, as Lucian’s hero also escapes by lighting a fire, though in this case the fire is not designed to make the whale sneeze – rather, the creature is slowly burned to death from the inside. Eeeew.

Despite the obvious essential problem that we now know that anyone who had been swallowed by a large mammal would be killed by its stomach acid, and despite the knowledge that many large whales only eat plankton, and killer whales would probably bite rather than just swallow, the motif of people being swallowed by whales is still around. The stomach acid problem can be side-stepped most easily by not allowing our heroes to get further than the mouth, like Marlon and Dory in Finding Nemo and, most recently, the Doctor and Amy in ‘The Beast Below’.

‘The Beast Below’ is indicative of another oceanic trend – now that we know more about the oceans, space is the new area of choice for marine-flavoured fantastical adventures. Other planets may be the new frontier, but space itself is often depicted like a giant ocean, and in Star Trek, Starfleet is clearly based on naval motifs (even bell-bottomed trousers in some of the films!) and many of the battles work like submarine battles. The whale-swallowing-people idea, meanwhile, is taken to its furthest extreme by that most extreme of sci-fi shows, Farscape. The whole series is set inside a giant space-whale (the species is usually referred to as Leviathons). When my friends first told me this and insisted that I watch the show I thought it sounded completely ridiculous, and it took a while to get used to, as there’s a lot of suspension of disbelief involved (what do they breathe? Where is the stomach acid? Just.... how? And who thought of flying around space inside another animal in the first place?). I got over it eventually, as Farscape is a great show which, deep down, is based on real, human emotions – but you do have to look very determinedly past the giant space whale, the fart gags, the puppets and the make-up to see it.

Of all the people-swallowed-by-whale stories, Pinocchio is one of the best – more emotionally satisfying than Jonah, slightly more logical than Lucian, more exciting than the whale section of Finding Nemo, definitely more logical than Farscape. It fits this allegorical, moralising fable that it ends with a Biblical allusion, and an allusion to one of the most obviously mythical, allegorical parts of the Bible at that, but Pinocchio takes the story of Jonah and makes it something more affirmative, and less oppressive, than the Biblical story. The only unfortunate thing about it is that the whale, Monstro, must be a monster, aggressive and unpleasant, when in fact many whales are relatively gentle creatures – ‘The Beast Below’ has the edge there, depicting the ‘Star Whale’ as a gentle, kindly being. That’s a minor niggle though – after all, the giant animal that swallows our heroes is rarely the good guy!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Agatha Christie: Five Little Pigs (TV adaptation)

'Five Little Pigs' is a Poirot novel and spoilers abound here, so if you haven't read or seen it yet and you want to be surprised, turn away from this post now.

I haven't read the source novel for this, but have seen the 2003 TV adaptation, directed by Paul Unwin as part of the Agatha Christie's Poirot series. This is one of the later episodes, which tend to stray further from the plot of the novel than the 1990s episodes did, not just adding or subtracting characters but changing motivations and, most often, altering various suspects' sexuality (homosexuality is not entirely absent from Agatha Christie's works - if you haven't seen the more faithful 1985 Joan Hickson adapation of A Murder is Announced, do, Paola Dionisotti's performance is heart-breaking - but it's more subtle, since it was illegal at the time).

As far as I know, however, the method of the murder, which is the bit that's of particular interest to classicists, is the same as that in the book. This mystery is one of the 'cold case' ones, in which a young woman asks Poirot to establish whether or not her mother committed the murder she was executed for, and Poirot hears five different versions of the murder from the five main witnesses.

The method of murder is signposted early on, as, at young Angela's urging, Plato's account of the death of Socrates is read out. Socrates was executed by being ordered to swallow hemlock, a poison which kills relatively quickly, but slowly enough that the victim can sense what is happening. Until I did Classics, I only knew of the death of Socrates from the Horrible Histories; The Groovy Greeks, which has a rather good translation/retelling of the passage. Hemlock makes you go slowly numb from the feet upwards, until it reaches your heart and kills you. I've always thought there was something rather creepy about it. Socrates knew full well what was happening, but of course, that's what's creepy about it, the way Plato records him having a perfectly lucid conversation while his body slowly fails from the ground up. (Among his last words, according to Plato were 'I owe a cock to Asclepius' - whether this is ironic, since Asclepius is god of healing, or put in by Plato to demonstrate that Socrates, executed for corrupting the youth and turning them against the gods, was in fact a religious man, I'm not sure. Probably a bit of both).

Anyway, in Poirot, it's doubly creepy, as Amyas the artist only realises what is happening to him as his body slowly goes numb. The TV adaptation features a recurring shot - appearing in several of the flashback sequences that relate what happened that day - of Amyas turning towards the camera, clinging to his easel for support and looking distressed - drunk, as the others thought at the time. In fact, as Poirot realises, he had already been poisoned and was clinging to his easel because his legs had already gone numb, and the poison (derived from hemlock) had also had enough effect to prevent him from crying out. It's absolutely the stuff of nightmares - Amyas knows he's dying, but can neither move nor cry out, while his friends look on from a distance and his murderer watches and smiles.

The whole thing is beautifully shot and particularly creepy, suffused with a warm yellow-orange light for the flashback sequences, and the cameraman appears to have borrowed the Vaseline from the cameramen from orignal series Star Trek (you know, the Vaseline they used to smear all over the camera whenever a beautiful woman got a shot to herself). The production values are excellent and the cumulative effect adds to the incredible creepiness of Amyas' death and tragedy of his wife's.

The girl, Angela, who was so interested in Socrates grows up to be an archaeologist, specialising in the archaeology of the ancient Near East, by the look of the part of the British Museum she's in when she gives a lecture in the TV version. Agatha Christie herself accompanied her second husband on digs in Mesopotamia - hence she wrote Murder in Mesopotamia - so it is unsurprising that she gave this career to a character interested in ancient history (a character permanently scarred by an earlier incident - but it's probably best not to try to psychoanalyse Agatha Christie on the basis of a novel).

Hemlock, by the way, is also the method of murder-or-mercy-killing-I-can't-quite-decide-which/suicide in Robin and Marion, a very good film that happened to be on telly the other week, Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn at their best.

The reading of the death of Socrates acts as a combination of foreshadowing and clue, and heightens the sense of tragedy around Amyas' (and Caroline's) death - since we feel for Socrates and his undeserved death, we feel for them too. A sense of tragedy is something that's often missing from Agatha Christie, and it's refreshing and really interesting to see it employed here, in this case that revolves around a wrongful execution.

(By the way, did everyone see Doctor Who this week - 'Vincent and the Doctor'? Very good, I wept buckets...)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Fugitive from Corinth

Another enjoyable and educational story, this entry into the Roman Mysteries series allows us to enjoy a road trip through some of the most famous and beautiful parts of Roman-period Greece. Spoilers follow.

Oddly enough, this one reminded me of Harry Potter in a couple of places (and not just because I'm re-reading Potter at the moment). The first was when, for a split second at the beginning of the story, I was worried that poor Captain Geminus really was a goner, as, like Potter, this is a children's series that is not afraid to kill likeable and good characters when the plot demands it (I also thought Arthur Weasley had really gone for good in The Order of the Phoenix). One other thing the two series have in common, though, is knowing exactly where to draw the line between killing off enough characters that the series doesn't feel too safe or predictable, but not killing off so many or such beloved characters that readers are put off - I think I've explained before why I refuse to read Philip Pullman any more?! (I also think killing Harry would have been a huge mistake, but that's a debate for another time).

Of course, I haven't finished the series yet, so watch Captain Geminus die at the beginning of the next book just to prove me wrong!

The other thing that reminded me of Potter was the characterisation of Flavia who, in this novel, reminded me a weeny bit of Harry in The Order of the Phoenix - coming into the very emotional, self-centred (in the sense of not being able to see other sides of things, rather than lack of genorosity) rather shouty phase of teenage years, a few years ahead of Harry of course, since girls go through certain aspects of teenage life earlier than boys. Also like Harry, Flavia has a pretty good excuse for behaving as she does, since she is still in shock and traumatised from the attack on her father.

This is a book in which the reader is expected to work out the mystery before the detective, clearly signposted early on when Flavia ignores the doctor's explanation that her father's amnesia is the result of a blow to the head and becomes convinced that he has been cursed and that she must find the culprit to get him to lift the curse (perfectly reasonable for a Roman child, but less so for a modern reader). Of course, modern readers will know, or their parents will tell them, that Flavia is wrong and the doctor is right, and so the reader is primed to look for the clues that Flavia misses, and even I managed to work out the solution before Flavia did (this is very, very unusual, I love mysteries but I'm rubbish at solving them, even the Agatha Christie ones). This is rather nice, allowing the reader to solve the puzzle ahead of their heroine and emphasising the fallibilty of our heroes, though it is an unfortunate side-effect that Flavia becomes a bit irritating over the course of the book as she refuses to see the truth. Nubia, meanwhile, is definitely my favourite character, as she is, as ever, the most sensible and level-headed of the children and the most perceptive.

The story takes us from Corinth to Delphi to Athens, accompanied by Jonathan's guide book, which is, sadly, a little under 100 years too old to be that of Pausanias, but is very similar. All three cities are clearly described, along with the route taken by the children (and their guide and bodyguard - as ever, the books remain sufficiently attached to reality that these children do not travel alone, though Flavia is in charge). We meet the real - as opposed to mythical - women of Greece, who are often veiled in public and who have less independence than their Roman counterparts - an excellent reminder of the differences between the two cultures, and the fact that Greece stayed Greece even under Roman rule. I also rather liked the references to the strong Spartan woman who's a mix of real Spartan indepedence and mythical beauty, it was a fun combination.

The Corinth canal - which didn't exist in Roman times of course - from our trip there 10 years ago

There were other fun touches too, my favourite being 'he will live long and prosper' in the Pythia's oracle, though that might just be my Trekkie brain over-reacting. Lupus finally gets something nice happening to him as well, thank goodness, though his reunion with his mother is so brief, it doesn't seem quite enough somehow and I'm holding out hope for more in the later books. Oh, and I've been watching too much Rome and Spartacus: Blood and Sand - every time Flavia says 'Great Juno's peacock!' I read 'Great Jupiter's cock!' This may be deliberate... All in all, another fun and intriguing entry into the series with a nice emotional undercurrent in the idenitity of Captain Geminus as the victim, giving the story greater interest and enotional depth.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: Sacramentum Gladiatorum

The title of this episode is probably best translated as 'oath of gladiators' and isn't overtly religious in this context, though in the ancient world any oath was an oath before the gods and carried a religious obligation with it.

We open with some dream sex in which Spartacus' wife's cleavage is waved around at the camera until the dream turns nasty, she gets done in and Spartacus wakes up and is given a haircut and taken to the baths for a clean-up.

Xena Warrior Princess' name in this is 'Lucretia', which doesn't seem to bode well. John Hannah gets his shirt off, which is nice, and they discuss their financial problems while wearing transparent clothing and surrounded by similarly dressed slaves and while a female slave 'entertains' Xena (which seems a bit odd - why not just have sex with each other? Which they proceed to do).

The gladiators do some naked male bonding - I have a vague notion that at some point Alan Bates and Oliver Reed should turn up and wrestle. One of them insists Spartacus smells of shit, so he must have been to a really bad bathhouse. Spartacus gets in the game by telling a Gaul he smells like a woman and we seem to be setting up a future rivalry here. Next we meet Drill Sergeant Guy, their trainer, who tells them they have to f**k death, which, while vulgur, does have a certain logic to it. Sort of.

Drill Sergeant Guy likes Spartacus already thanks to his display last week though Spartacus does his best to annoy everyone by objecting to the name (though not doing anything so useful as telling us his real one). Then there's a whole pissing contest type thing where Spartacus has to prove himself in a fight to avoid being sent to the mines and Drill Sergeant Guy dispenses arena wisdom. This involves one hapless would-be gladiator getting dead, which Drill Sergeant Guy is quite rightly annoyed at since that's lost him some money, though he then illogically orders Spartacus killed as well and John Hannah has to save him (because he's hoping to win points from Haldir by killing him later).

There are some random Latin words thrown into the mix, like 'gladius', the short sword, and last week's 'legatus' which Mum and I misheard as Legolas. I love that they've got some Latin in there, but on the other hand it is rather confusing for me and I'm guessing anyone without Latin misses them all together.

The gladius

Spartacus makes friends with a blonde Australian who voluntarily became a gladiator to pay his debts and protect his family, whom I shall call Neighbours Reject because he looks to me like he should be on Neighbours, though actually the actor has nothing to do with the show as far as I know. They annoy Drill Sergeant Guy and are punished by having to carry cross-bars around all night in a circle, then train as usual the next day, after some more general unpleasantness in the gladiators' quarters. Spartacus does meet the gladiator school's local man-who-can-get-you-what-you-need though, which is handy.

Haldir stops by for some taunting, having decided a slow death for Spartacus will be even better than a quick one, and delivers the compulsory 'your wife was raped repeatedly' speech, though he does include the information that when he last saw her, she was still alive. His snotty blonde wife also stops by for a gander at the gladiators and we actually see some interesting character development as Xena admits to being childless (which is promptly followed by blonde wife giving her a goodbye kiss on the lips - whether that will be an interesting plot development or just an excuse for double the tits remains to be seen). In this period, a man would only stay with a childless wife if he loved her, since childlessness was blamed on the woman and a man would divorce her and try again with a new wife, unless he loved her, in which case they could stay together and adopt instead. I'm not 100% convinced all this thought went into the writing of Spartacus, but it's an interesting character development anyway.

Spartacus works out his rage issues on another gladiator and has to be whipped into submission by Drill Sergeant Guy, losing his wife's garter (OK, it can't be a garter, but that's what it looks like) in the process. Luckily the victim survives, and Batiatus still thinks Spartacus is valuable enough to keep around even though he keeps attacking the other merchandise. Drill Sergeant Guy has got hold of the garter-thing to use to subdue him in future. I have to say, I'm starting to lose sympathy with Spartacus at this point - I hope he isn't going to go the way of Dodgey Soldier (though I suspect not).

Batiatus has words with Spartacus, and refers to his (Spartacus') wife as a 'delicate flower', which is pretty funny, remembering what she's actually like. Batiatus waves the garter-thing around and promises to help reunite them if Spartacus does what he says.

There's some rock music going during the next fight sequence, which is fun (it's probably been there for a while and I didn't notice, I do that sometimes with music). The platform they're fighting on reminded me of the duelling sequences in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for some reason. There's supposed to be some tension around whether Spartacus will fight or not but, well, we all know where all this is going and we know he's not likely to start the revolt yet, so it's not really as tense as it's supposed to be. It's all going to go horribly wrong for John Hannah when he doesn't go through with his promise though. Spartacus recites the 'sacramentum gladiatorum', the oath of gladiators, which seems a bit unnecessary since most of them are slaves, and for some reason it's only now he's branded as well - did they want to avoid wasting good fire fuel or something? Anyway, he's a true gladiator now. End of episode.

This one was a bit slow - we're becoming ever more immune to the blood and tits now, especially given the cartoonish version of the blood, but there wasn't a whole lot of story development here - we all know Spartacus is going to end up being a gladiator from the start. The most interesting character development belonged to Xena, and was genuninely intriguing, if brief. She really should take care of her own foreplay though, getting a slave to do it is just lazy.
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