Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Stargate SG-1: The Torment of Tantalus

Stargate SG-1's first season doesn't tend to have the greatest reputation - along with the first seasons of any number of genre shows - but along with several undoubted clunkers, it also threw out a few classics, and I think this is one of them. Not only does it feature a planet that resembles neither Egypt nor Canada (the dramatic medieval-looking castle on a cliff by the sea is rather fab-looking) but it is probably SG-1's most romantic episode. SG-1 produced several romantic episodes over the course of ten years, most of them tragic, but few could match this story, in which Daniel discovers that a man called Ernest went through the Stargate and never came back fifty years previously, and reunites him with his long-lost finacee Kathryn, who owns the Stargate and who kick-started the programme.

When I grew up watching Star Trek, it used, from time to time, to produce episodes in which our heroes were flung to the far sides of the galaxy by some super-powered alien thing or negative space wedgie and someone would dramatically state how far away they were and explain that it would take decades (more rarely centuries) to return home. Of course, by the end of the episode, they were all safely back in the Alpha Quadrant (TNG's 'Q Who' is probably the best, in which Starfleet are introduced to the Borg). Like Voyager and Farscape, this episode highlights what might happen if our heroes didn't make it back by the end of the episode, but unlike those shows, in which the overall arc required that they get home at some point (even if they don't stay) Ernest, in this episode, is actually stranded for five full decades. Also unlike those shows, there is no possibility of Ernest travelling for a long time until he gets home - he is literally stuck and has to wait for rescue.

Unusually for Stargate, the classical references in this episode are not literal - Latin being used as a language, the ancient gods turning out to be aliens - but metaphorical. There are a few references to various things that, in the world of Stargate, are literally true, including Ra being in Heliopolis and Thor being an alien, but the primary ancient reference is that of the title, which is from a well known Greek myth. Tantalus was once a favourite of the gods and used to dine with them, but he committed a terrible crime (which varies from source to source, but usually it's giving mortals nectar and ambrosia, the food and drink of the gods, generally revealing the gods' secrets to mortals, or serving the gods his own son as dinner to see if they tasted the difference) and was sent to the Underworld for eternal punishment. The punishment itself also varies, but it is always along the same theme, of something being just out of reach. The most common versions are that he is standing in a pool of water that drains away when he tries to drink, or standing just beneath a bunch of fruit that is just out of reach (in the Odyssey, Homer gives him both).

Ernest got stuck the wrong side of the Stargate because he was reaching for something that was just out of reach, and has come to regret it. He tells this myth (pool of water version) to Kathryn as he explains how much he wishes he hadn't come. Meanwhile, Daniel has become fascinated by an alien version of the Rosetta Stone which he is trying to interpret - an inscription in several langauges (including Norse runes) with a central version in a language made up of diagrams of elements of the periodic table (used as a universal language, which kinda makes sense... I think). But, of course, our heroes have arrived on the very day that a castle that has stood for millennia is about to come crashing down into the sea. So Daniel has to leave, to save his own life. He wants to take the risk and stay, but Ernest persuades him that he shouldn't throw his life away on something that will probably remain forever out of reach. The title could also refer, of course, to Ernest's position, stuck just the other side of the Stargate for fifty years, unable to get through.

It's nice to see SG-1 using myths as metaphor for a change. Of course, any show set in any time period on Earth can do that, and SG-1 usually has more exciting things in mind for its mythical characters (seeing them in the flesh, for one thing). That's the nature of the show and there's nothing wrong with that. But one of the reasons people value mythic stories is for their potential for interesting metaphors - a simple, familiar story can resonate more and have a greater emotional effect on people than something long and complicated, or entirely unfamiliar. Myth in science fiction doesn't always have to be aliens and pyramid-shaped spaceships; sometimes, as in any other genre, it can be all about the emotion.

Kathryn and Ernest go home together at the end, of course. Awwwwwww. (Sniff).

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

One of Buffy's classic comedy episodes - something this show did particularly well, most of them were hilarious - in 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered', Cordelia dumps Xander on Valentine's Day and he tries to get his revenge by persuading Amy the witch to cast a love spell on Cordelia, so that he can hurt her the way she hurt him (Xander is not actually that nice a character sometimes, though he is very noble when Buffy comes on to him under the influence of the spell). Of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

The reason the spell goes wrong is that Cordelia is already in love with Xander and has only broken up with him because her friends were teasing her, so the spell rebounds off her and onto every other woman in Sunnydale - or, as Giles suggests, because Amy got it wrong and Cordelia's necklace, which she used in the spell, protected her rather than targeting her. Or, perhaps, the reason it goes wrong is that Amy calls on entirely the wrong ancient goddess for her spell. Amy's spell invokes 'Diana, goddess of love and of the hunt'. Diana (Greek Artemis) was indeed goddess of the hunt, but she was not the goddess of love - that was Venus/Aphrodite. Diana, like Minerva/Athena, was a virgin goddess, and therefore extremely unlikely to help someone with a love spell. Perhaps Marti Noxon, the writer, thought Venus was a bit too obvious and would distract the audience by calling to mind the many, many uses of Venus as goddess of love in popular culture in everything from pop songs to bridal couture to women's razor blades. Still, she could have used the goddess' Greek name, Aphrodite.

This is not the only spell Amy casts in this episode. As she and Buffy, both under the influence of the first spell, fight over Xander, Buffy uses her Slayer power and hits Amy, and Amy responds by using her witch's power to turn Buffy into a rat. The specific spell is, 'goddess Hecate work thy will, before thee let the unclean thing crawl!' Hecate continued to be used for transformation spells throughout the series, for Amy's second attempt in this episode, on Jenny Calendar, cut off by Xander ('Quit with the Hecate!'), for Amy's own transformation of herself into a rat in 'Gingerbread' and for Willow's brief attempt to turn a high school student with an enchanted jacket (yes, really) into a woman in 'Him'. This is more appropriate since Hecate, a minor goddess existing on the fringes of ancient religion, was the goddess of witchcraft. The ancient Hecate doesn't have a particular connection with transformation, metamorphosis or transfiguration - she was associated primarily with ghosts, necromancy (in Greece and Rome, this meant raising the dead to get them to make prophecies) and the night. For spells relating specifically to metamorphosis, I think I'd have been inclined to go for Circe, the divine witch (daughter of a sun god and a nymph) who turns sailors into pigs in the Odyssey. However, Hecate is appropriate enough, since she was goddess of witchcraft in general and that would include metamorphosis, as it does in the Odyssey and in Apuleius' Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass).

Buffy used Latin and classical references for magic spells very frequently - it's something of a go-to ancient language for the show, something I talk about at more length in a paper that will be published online soon. Greek occurs much more rarely, presumably because it's a less well known ancient language, though it is used for the name of the oldest vampire, 'Kakistos' - the worst of the worst (in season three's 'Faith, Hope and Trick'). It is used there to emphasise Kakistos' extreme age, as Greek is probably older than Latin, and the best known part of Greek history predates the best known parts of Roman history.Greek is better known and more acessible that the oldest languages, Egyptian, Akkadian or Sumerian, while still emphasising that Kakistos pre-dates Latin and the Romans (Dawn claims to have learnt Sumerian in season seven, which given the difficulty of Sumerian and the amount of time she's been around is extremely unlikely).

In this episode, however, the spells are in English rather than Latin, because rather than incantations in which the words, in the appropriate language, produce the magical effect, these are actually prayers to pagan goddesses asking the goddess to produce a magical effect. Both forms of magic spell or incantation were used in Greek and Roman magic. Perhaps goddess-magic appealed because magic in Buffy is strongly associated with women and femininity. For all Willow's mocking of the group she meets with at college in 'Hush', who are all about feminine power and baking cakes, there are very few male practitioners of magic in Buffy - one metaphor for a drug dealer, one warlock and Giles and Ethan, who don't generally self-identify as warlocks or wizards (Ethan does, to an extent, but he's drunk at the time!). This episode is about romance and about Xander inflicting something on the women of Sunnydale (none of whom are too pleased with him afterwards) and Amy, the witch, has gained her magical power from her mother, who was also a witch. And, of course, the ancient deities of sex and love from many cultures are almost always goddesses, probably because they start out as fertility goddesses, and it seems logical for a fertility deity to be female. So, although Noxon has misidentified the goddess of love, it probably seemed natural for these spells which are connected to love and to what these women will do for love to come in the form of incantations invoking goddesses.

The invocation of Hecate for transformation is one of the few fairly stable spells in Buffy - although love spells and vengeance spells appear quite often, they tend to be different every time. Hecate may have been re-used partly because the rat transformation spell, which was re-used in season three, was so specific, or perhaps just because this (very good) episode and its spells were particularly memorable. It certainly helps that the language of the spell is English and therefore easy to remember and follow! Other ancient deities appear from time to time throughout the series, interspersed with spells of the magic-words type, but Amy's dark-eyed, glowy invocations of Diana and Hecate are certainly among the most notable.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Chelmsford 123: Vidi, Veni, Vici

Still a bit rushed off my feet with moving and so on, but I did find time while unpacking to watch an old episode of Chelmsford 123 on 4oD (which now offers streaming so you don't have to download it, which is nice!)

Well, you can really tell all you need to know about this episode from the title – 'I saw, I came, I conquered'. Badvoc is kidnapped and his (rather surprisingly) distressed girlfriend Gargamadua goes to stay with Aulus Paulinus, who pretends to look for Badvoc while actually trying to get off with her. He succeeds, briefly, but eventually gives up and finds Badvoc leading his kidnappers in an attempt to defraud Aulus himself.

Badvoc is kidnapped by a vicious tribe called the Triconi, whom Badvoc claims never to have heard of, which I’m choosing to interpret as an in-joke, since they’re not real. In fact, they later explain that they’re not really a tribe, there’s only two of them.

There's very little in this episode that really relates to the Roman Empire - for the most part, this story could have been set in any time period, or at least any time period where the threat of kidnapping was a problem. Chelmsford 123 frequently portrayed its characters as no different at all from modern men (and the odd man's view of what a modern woman is like) and this one does so even more than most. The story may have been inspired by the dangerous side of life in Roman Britain, surrounded by discontented tribal warriors, but it interacts very little with its historical setting.

This episode suffers from the fact that there is another, later sex-based episode which was rather more memorable and funnier – this one is mildly amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. The bit where Aulus brings wine over, talking about its nose, and Gargamadua knocks in back in one as if it was beer was funny, and might possibly still work as a joke about an Italian and a Brit, depending how much we want to deal in stereotypes. We also get a reference to the Roman poet Catullus and the sparrow which is pretty funny. Catullus' most famous poem is about how his girlfriend's sparrow is dead (actually there are several poems about the sparrow, but this is the best known), and apparently it's actually very rude, though I've never sat down to work out how exactly. Aulus wants to read one of them to Gargamadua but tries to translate it literally, with predictably awful results, which is fairly amusing. Overall, though, this episode is too much based on paper thin characterisation and stereotypes (nagging girlfriend, drunk mates and so on) to be really entertaining.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Horrible Histories on television

Am in the middle of moving house and have an insanely busy start-of-term type couple of weeks coming up, but while I was packing yesterday I happened to catch Horrible Histories on television, so here are a few quick thoughts while I get my life together!

The Horrible Histories television programme uses cartoons in the style of the book illustrations along with live action comic sketches that tell children various weird and wonderful facts about the world. Rather than spending an entire episode on one period of history, the episode I saw jumped about between various places and times, with a very wide geographical and chronological spread - they must have covered a decent proportion of books in one episode! So each period just gets a quick sketch or two and some fun facts. Some periods were talked about in a more general way, others were attached to what looked like regular segments on medicine, religion and so on. At first I was thrown by the sudden switch, but after a few minutes I realised I really liked this format, because any time it switched to a period you weren't so interested in, you knew another one would be coming up soon. I'm actually interested in pretty much every period of history, but not everyone is, especially children, so this seemed like a nice way to keep their attention through the whole programme. There was one rather nasty segment on Stupid Deaths - nasty not because of the deaths, which were presented in a comic-book style, humourous way, but because of the Death figure with a very odd voice who presided over it. I think it was supposed to be funny, but it was just unpleasant. Other than that, though, the sketches were fairly amusing and informative as well.

As I watched, I wondered why the stuffed rat who was supposedly in charge kept popping up with signs syaing 'This really happened!' and' That's true!'. It's a history programme, I thought - the children watching this are far too young for a lecture on how we don't really know anything about history and it's all argument not fact, won't they just believe all of it? The answer appeared later in the programme, as the show included both a segment on 'Scary Stories', with a Vile Victorian theme, and, to my groaning despair, the story of the Trojan War. The programme didn't claim truth for these, and they specifically described the story of Achilles as a story that inspired the phrase 'Achilles heel', so they weren't intending to suggest this was really history or that any of it was true (especially all the stuff about Achilles being nearly immortal!). And the bit where they dramatised Homer's description of Achilles chasing Hector around the walls of Troy was hilarious. But I did wonder - wouldn't it be easier to just stick to history, and do a special episode on myths and stories every now and again? If I was a small child with a short attention span and lowish reading skills, I don't think I'd notice the difference between that section and the others. It's no wonder so many children are convinced it really happened.

I enjoyed the show a lot, and it looks like a fun way to get children interested in history. I even learned a thing or two about Incan llamas! But real history is so full of weird and wonderful things, I wish they'd just stick to that so I don't have to disillusion people years later!

Friday, 17 September 2010

My Sister's Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)

This is totally different from the sort of books I normally read (SF/F, detective stories and mysteries, historicals) but I picked it up in a sale on my way to a job interview because it looked intriguing. I'd heard of the film, but I haven't seen it, and I really enjoyed the book, which I finished unusually quickly. Spoilers follow.

My Sister's Keeper is about a court case to determine whether Anna, a 13-year-old who was genetically engineered specifically to be a perfect donor for her older sister Kate, who suffers from leukemia, should be medically emancipated from her parents so that she can choose whether or not to donate a kidney to her sister. I was mildly annoyed at the blurb and general packaging of the book, which implied that the story was told from the mother Sara's point of view in a pathetically obvious bid to appeal to women in their 30s and above (apparently it was a Richard and Judy Best Read, but I won't hold that against it). In fact, the story is told from multiple points of view, the most sympathetic being Anna's and as the title implies, it is the relationship between the sisters that is at the heart of the story (though not in the way you might think, as it turns out).

'Anna' is short for Andromeda, named by her father Brian, whose hobby is astronomy and who deliebrately named her after the Greek princess. Andromeda was left as a sacrifice to a sea monster because her mother Cassiopeia had compared her own beauty (or sometimes Andromeda's) to the Nereids (goddesses of the sea). Perseus saved her and married her. There are obvious parallels to the novel's plot, in which the mother Sara's conviction that she can somehow save her older daughter leads her to such a proud, brooks-no-arguments attitude that she forgets to ask what either of her daughters actually want, while Anna is left out as, potentially, a sacrifice for her sister and for her mother's refusal to back down (the removal of a kidney being pretty serious surgery). The ending, however, strays away from the myth and Perseus is nowhere to be seen (though in the film version Anna's lawyer might be a Perseus of sorts).

The most interesting thing about the use of Greek mythology in this novel is that it comes mostly via an interest in astromony. Apart from the fish Kate names Hercules (the strongest of heroes - pretty obvious symbolism going on there) all the mythological references are there because Brian is interested in astronomy, and that has led him to an interest in the myths behind the constellations. This is partly because fire is another theme of the book - Brian is a firefighter and one of the book's subplots concerns an arsonist - so Brian spending his time gazing up at flaming balls of gas drives home that theme. The characters, especially Brian, show a genuine interest in the mythical stories and Brian has certainly done his homework on them, but only as far as they relate to the stars; little interest is shown in myth independent of astromony. This is because the stars are something tangible, that we can see for ourselves in the night sky (though Brian does ponder the issues around the movement of stars and the differences between the ancient night sky and our own at one point). Brian enjoys mythology because he can, in a sense, see it up above him at night (not the actual Andromeda, of course, she doesn't exist, but the constellation named for the story by actual Greeks). Since death is also one of the themes of the book, it also relates to the popular idea of the dead being among the stars, giving a tangible point of reference for a bereaved family.

The ending of the book is quite different from the film - the film has the ending you expect this story to have, the book goes in a different direction and has the sort of highly manufactured ending you rarely find outside of fiction, though it is a satisfying ending nevertheless. It drives home some of the book's themes and works well enough if you like that sort of thing, and makes Anna's full name and the position of Andromeda, described as spread-eagled out across the sky ready to be sacrificed, especially relevant and poignant. I did like the way it made the reader re-think the title and prologue as well, though I think I shall return to something a bit nicer and more cheerful for my next read!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Star Trek Voyager: 11:59

Unfortunately, this is probably one of the least flattering popular uses of the Classical world, coming straight from my beloved Voyager! Voyager did some really interesting episodes about the nature of history - I'll be blogging 'Living Witness' at some point, which I think is Voyager's best episode and is all about the nature of history and archaeology - and this one is equally interesting, but not always overly kind to us history nerds.

The main story in this episode is about one of Captain Janeway's ancestors, a woman called Shannon O'Donnell (also played by Kate Mulgrew), who was instrumental in setting up a fictitious 'Millennium Gate' which was Earth's first biosphere and the model for the first Martian colony (Uuuuuuu-laaaaaa! Ahem. Excuse me.). The episode, as you've probably guessed, was written in 1999, though it's actually set on New Year's Eve, 2000, on the assumption that everyone decided to celebrate the 'real' milennium that year (according to the argument voiced at the time that, since there's no AD 0, 2001 was actually the start of the new millennium). An old (a bit too old for Shannon, I always think) bookshop owner called Henry Janeway must agree to be relocated before midnight or they'll have to move and find another site. Shannon persuades him - at the last minute, of course - to give in and allow the dome to be built and his shop to be destroyed.

So, basically, the episode pits the history-loving, book-loving, old-fashioned guy Janeway against the trained-by-NASA, scientist/engineer, future-loving O'Donnell and, of course, O'Donnell comes out on top. Throughout the episode, Janeway peppers his conversation with constant references to the Classics, both Roman politics and Greek mythology. I lost track of the number of ancient references while watching, though I do seem to remember his son (Jason - another Classical reference) claiming that Heracles was the child of a single parent family, which isn't usually true as far as I recall (he's brought up by his biological mother and stepfather). There's also a reference that quite nicely blends the two themes of the episode - instead of 'nobody here but us chickens', all three characters say 'nobody here but us galloforms', the scientific name for chickens - which appeals to O'Donnell and is, of course, Latin-derived. Anyway, Janeway's Classical obsession is symptomatic of his habit of 'only looking backwards', of living in the past and caring more about the past than the future - which, according to the episode (and, to be fair, in real life as well most of the time) - is Not A Good Thing.

It's all very unflattering to those of us who've made careers of preserving the past! Janeway is stuck in his ways, unable to see the future, unbending and totally at odds with the rest of the town, who are all in favour of the dome. Still, the episode does express some more positive feelings towards history on occasion. Janeway sets up a book about Paris at the dinner table to make it seem like they're dining in Paris, which is nice, and there's never any suggestion that his bookshop should be destroyed, only moved to a new location. Indeed, much of the episode is about the importance of the past to those of us in the present.

The wrap-around story on Voyager itself concerns the first risk of genealogical research, the thing that every family history website will warn you about if you're just starting to explore your own family history - you may find out things you didn't want to know. Family legends, in particular, may turn out hold hardly any truth and you may find yourself having to re-evaluate your ancestors' history. Janeway's family had built O'Donnell up into a heroine, a pioneer and someone vitally important to the history of the biosphere - not someone who just happened to work on it and managed to persuade a shopkeeper to move. When Paris lets slip the truth (because he's fascinated by twentieth century history and vehicles in particular, a satisfyingly enduring character trait) Janeway is deeply upset. Neelix and the others persuade her, however, that she should still feel proud of her ancestor and that it was fortunate that she was inspired by the stories, even if they weren't true. It's all rather nice, and certainly an important warning for anyone looking into their family history, as it's something that often happens in real genealogical research.

So, perhaps the episode isn't so unflattering as a bare synopsis makes it seem. Still, considering the importance of Greek and Roman culture in the modern world it seems a bit of a shame, if not entirely a surprise, that Classics is chosen as the prime example of something deep in the past, that is no longer so important, suggesting that excessive interest in the subject may lead to an inability to see the future or work for the best interests of your children (Jason is in favour of the biosphere). On the other hand, the trivia about ancient Greece and Rome is also part of Janeway's charm, which is obviously considerable considering how many children and grandchildren they had, so at least we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the ancient world, even when it is depicted as less relevant, is still understood as inherently interesting!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Caesar IV for PC

I apologise to gamers and those who know much more than me about computer games - in parts this post will probably sound pretty ridiculous to you! I don't usually cover computer games on the blog, because I very rarely play them. For my 25th birthday I asked for a second hand Super Nintendo and apart from a Gameboy in the early 90s that's the only games console I've ever owned - I spent quite a few hours playing on my brother's Nintendo 64 and have very occasionally played on a friend's Playstation, but really, I know nothing about games and gaming and I've never even completed any version of Super Mario World.

However, years ago, when getting a new family computer, we got a copy of Caesar III free with the new PC. And I completely and utterly fell in love with it. You could choose to avoid the fighting-heavy scenarios and focus on town-building, which made it just a like Roman version of the one game I did absolutely love and spend hours playing, Sim City 2000 (and Sim Tower, but that was mostly about getting the lifts to work properly). It also had some fantastic little touches that brought it to life, including tents that citizens would pitch that gradually transformed into houses under the right conditions, and people who, when times were bad, would walk away with their head hanging low, complaining in an appoximation of a southern English accent, 'I've been thrown out of my home!'.

Because the game came free with a specific computer, I've never been able to make it work since we got rid of that PC, which died a death years ago (if anyone has any suggestions or ways to find copies of Caesar III that are compatible with new models, let me know!). But I did buy myself a copy of Caesar IV, the next version up, which is similar, though sadly the tents and the little man with no home seem to have disappeared. Gameplay is slower as well - it can be maddeningly difficult to place things where you want to place them - but presumably this is partly the fault of my graphics card. I want to talk mostly about IV, since it's been years since I played III, but a lot of the basic elements of the game apply to both.

The aim of the game is fairly simple - build successful and prosperous Roman cities - but each level has different particular requirements and provides different trade routes and raw materials (I've still never completed it, but I think you can mess around with other scenarios after you finish it and presumably you get to be Caesar eventually). You get regular requests from Rome and if you don't fulfil them or you spend too much time in debt and lose too much money, Caesar (who is, miraculously, in charge despite the fact I'm supposedly still in the era of the Republic) sends an army and kicks you out. This has happened to me a lot.

The structure of the cities is based around trade, manfacturing and the needs of the three social classes - plebeians, equites and patricians. The representation of the class system is, of course, massively over-simplified. The plebeians do mostly manual labour, which was the case at some points of Roman history but at others times some plebeians could become quite rich and influential. The equites in the game perform what we in the modern Western world might think of as middle class jobs - they are the priests, they run the bathhouses, staff the libraries and they are the actors and run the gladiator schools. Again, this is not really representative of what it meant to be an eques, a member of the equestrian order, though their running the tax offices is more accurate. The patricians don't seem to do anything other than pay tax on their villas, which is probably the closest to Roman practice of the lot, though I haven't got to the upper levels yet - maybe they get involved in politics later. Basically, the game equates the three classes with modern conceptions of what it means to be working, middle or upper class, which is fair enough for a simplified computer game - the three classes are in the right order and have the right names - but, of course, can't come close to representing the very different class system that operated in ancient Rome, and that changed frequently over the course of a millennium of history.

One Roman social class is noticeably absent from the game - there are no slaves. Even the gladiators seem to be, in game terms, equites, which is utterly ludicrous. Presumably modern gamers would not be comfortable building a slave market, trading slaves with other cities and staffing their farms, factories, mines and entertainment venues with slaves. Since the game is probably suitable for quite young children, that's probably not a bad idea - after all, no one wants their child deciding that the slave trade is really quite profitable and it would make the game rather excessively controversial. It does, however, completely destroy any chance of the game reflecting Roman society in any way, and there is an argument that not showing children how fundamentally important slaves were to the Roman economy is tantamount to lying to them to cover up the less pleasant aspects of history. The game is not an educational tool, though, and really I doubt it's intended to be any closer to reality than Sim City is, so I think overall they made the right choice - but still, considering the importance of employment and the class system in the game, leaving out the slaves does seem to be, well chickening out perhaps.

I found this image with a Google Image search and I think it's more representative of the game than the promotional images - but what's the exciting language?

When I used to play Caesar III, I remember feeling a little frustrated at the game's insistence that everything be within easy walking distance for the inhabitants (while still maintaining the desitrability of the area). This is an ancient city, I remember thinking, surely people would be used to having to walk a bit further to get to things? This seems to have been largely corrected for Caesar IV, and although it slows them down, people do seem happy to walk a bit further to get to the things they need - though they are still reluctent to walk to leisure activities, like the bathhouse, the library or the theatre. Presumably they are sending their unmentioned slaves to the markets for them. This would also explain another minor peculiarity - plebs need access to food and 'basic' goods (pottery, clothing, olive oil) but equites only need 'luxury' goods (wine, jewellery) and patricians only need 'exotic' goods (things that can only be acquired through trade like salt, perfume, spices). Either the patricians are going very hungry or their slaves are very over-worked!

The makers of the game have really taken to heart Juvenal's famous pronouncement (in a satire, one should remember) that all the people want are bread and circuses. Not only do you have to store massive amounts of food, primarily grain, to keep them from falling ill or leaving, but they are quite ridiculously obsessed with entertainment. The patricians are the worst, but the equites are pretty fussy about it as well. Now it is true that some Roman cities, like Pompeii, had several different entertainment venues, including two theatres and an amphitheatre; but when you give them an amphitheatre, a theatre and an odeum all fairly nearby and they still aren't happy, I think they may be taking things too far. In addition to the fact that permanent structures like these weren't usually built until the imperial period (the Theatre of Pompey was one of the first in Rome), 'odeums' are basically theatres, while the game commits a double crime against Juliette's Pet Peeves by not only referring to all large arenas as 'Colosseums', when the name should be reserved only for the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome itself, but spelling it 'Coliseum'. Normally, I'm fairly tolerant of international spelling differences (the game also uses 'theater', which is fine) but 'Colosseum' comes from the Latin 'colossus' - 'Coliseum' is just plain wrong!

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the game is the 'Religion' requirement. The fact that the citizens want religious buildings is fine, the bizarre part is that, if you don't build enough shrines and temples, not only will your citizens be unhappy, but Jupiter will strike your buildings with lightening! Five gods have been chosen to represent all the multiplicity of religions in ancient Rome - Jupiter, Ceres, Mercury, Mars and Bacchus. Although this leaves out some very important gods (no Hera, no Apollo, no Venus, though I think she appeared in Caesar III) it is a logical enough choice - Jupiter is there as Head God, Mars represents the military, Mercury trade, Ceres agriculture and Bacchus... I'm actually not sure, entertainment possibly. For me, he can stand for all the very many cults and gods worshipped outside the main pantheon in mystery religions and other smaller groups (Bacchus himself is Dionysus, a major Greek god, but he was the focus of mystery cults as well as more formal worship). The reason the chosen gods have to correspond so exactly to the main requirements of the game is that, if you build them enough shrines, they do you favours - Ceres makes the grain ripen unexpectedly, Jupiter stops crimes, and so on. It's fun but I do find it a little bit weird! I'm a religious person, but my faith is rather more complex than 'if I pray for something I'll get it' and as far as urban planning goes, while I'm all for keeping people happy by building religious structures, I'm not sure one can plan one's security and agriculture around it. Still, it does provide an incentive to build lots of shrines.

OK, I know what this language is! That is the structure the game calls an 'amphitheatre' - 'Coliseums' are the same, but bigger.

Of course, at this point it is necessary for me to step back and remind myself that this is a computer game, not a history lesson! It's a brilliant and utterly addictive game, though I am becoming incresingly frustrated at my inability to get past Caralis because I can't get the Prosperity level high enough - I think I need the game to be a little bit easier! (I won't tell you how long I spent trying to finish that level yesterday ready for this post - I've been stuck on it literally for years). For someone with little knowledge of ancient Rome playing the game (as I once was), the main impression you come away with is that the Romans liked religion, food and entertainment, engaged in lots of trade across the empire, and occasionally had to spend large sums of money buying off barbarian invaders. Which is probably not too bad an impression, and once more demonstrates that gladiatorial combat seems to have been Rome's best known and most perennially popular (in non-fatal, fictionalised form) gift to posterity.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Rome: Egeria

I forgot to mention it earlier in the week, but the second part of my light-hearted article on the Mohs Scale of Fantasy Hardness is now up at Discworld Monthly.

Rome has been somewhat abandoned on here while Spartacus: Blood and Sand was on, as two different gory Roman dramas in one week seemed a bit much. However, Spartacus is now finished and we can return to the BBC/HBO vision of Rome, which until we saw Spartacus seemed quite full of sex and violence and now takes its place somewhere between Spartacus and the once-daringly-gory-and-sexy I, Claudius.

It's interesting to watch Rome having seen Spartacus. In a way, the two are not really comparable, as they set out to do completely different things - Rome tells a story that spans decades, while Spartacus focuses on a much shorter period of time and fewer people, telling its story more intimately. However, there are a few points where the two are comparable and, perhaps surprisingly, Spartacus comes off rather better. For one thing, and this is the really surprising part, Spartacus is actually, on balance, more historically accurate so far, mostly because it hasn't dealt with much actual history. More importantly, I care about the characters in Spartacus - not all of them, but certainly Crixus, Spartacus himself and his wife, Barca's unfortunate boyfriend, Lucretia's female slaves and even Varro were sympathetic characters with sympathetic problems and I cared what happened to them. And of all those, only Crixus and Spartacus (and possibly his wife) are real people. When I watch Rome, I care about the historical characters, presumably because in addition to stellar acting their stories are inherently interesting and exciting and I'm already invested in them before the programme starts (and some of them are played by the lovely James Purefoy). But the only fictional character who really caught my attention and who I really care about is Niobe.

I'm not sure exactly why this is. Partly, perhaps, it's an extension of the problem I had frequently while watching Spartacus; I kept waiting and waiting for some sign of rebellion because that's what I knew was coming and that's what I'd tuned in for. In Rome, with two sets of stories running side by side, the problem is exacerbated - every time we switch to the fictional characters, I want to see what's going on with the real people. There's more than that, though. Although there were points where I thought I disliked every character in Spartacus, it had a pleasant and perhaps surprisingly old-fashioned habit of ensuring that every time a character did something really bad, it was either clear that this was a Bad Character we were not supposed to like and who would eventually meet a horrible death (Haldir and Paris Hilton excepted, but there's still time) or, if we were supposed to like this character, they would be very sorry for what they'd done, which was not usually as bad as all that anyway. In Rome, on the other hand... well, there's a reason I call Dodgey Soldier Dodgey. Boring Soldier did improve, if I recall correctly, though possibly not until season 2.

Anyway, much as I carp about it sometimes, Rome is still a fabulous series which is gorgeously shot, brilliantly entertaining and featuring some really impressive performances (on equally impressive sets), so with no more ado, on with the re-cap.

Boring Soldier wants to get away for a dirty weekend in Baiae, but Niobe points out that their daughter is somewhat distressed that her uncle (the real father of the baby that's supposedly hers) is missing presumed dead and is presumably quite keen to find out what happened to him herself. Her sister hanging around the place all the time doesn't help.

Mark Antony is running Rome (a simplification of the real arrangement, by which, according to Plutarch, Lepidus ran Rome and Antony was in charge of Italy and the troops). He is meeting a civilian called Servilius and his wife Poppaea - Servilius played by Simon Callow! Yipee! (Though surely Simon Callow should be playing a more important role - I'd have cast him as Pompey I think). Antony is trying to be a good politician apparently, and this chap is a Pompeian and the most senior senator left in Rome (now everyone else has run away). Antony makes him pass a bunch of laws no one will like, though he gets a promotion out of it. He also flirts with his wife for no discernible reason (for sh**s and giggles, one presumes).

Simon Callow, rather better cast as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. With his lover, Batiatus.

Boring does not approve of Mark Antony because he has a prostitute and a dwarf with him while doing business, and this has driven Boring to drink it seems (according to Plutarch, Antony ought to be living in camp with his soldiers, but never mind). Niobe is looking for a new husband for her daughter because apparently the first is no longer good enough. Dodgey tells Niobe's sister he's pretty sure her husband is dead (which he would be, since he killed him) and she correctly assumes this has something to do with Niobe, curses her and leaves.

Atia is still poking her nose where it doesn't belong and insists that Dodgey take Octavian and get rid of his cherry. When Octavia suggests, as a joke, that perhaps she should arrange for him to kill someone as well, she perfectly seriously answers that that will happen in due course anyway. Later, trying on jewellery, she mentions that Antony likes her in Eastern styles, which is a fun touch - a nod to his later Orientalizing taste while with Cleopatra. Boring and Niobe finally make up and get with the sex, which is nice for them. It can't last though (obviously, this is television) - Caesar calls the 13th Legion to join him.

Octavian reluctantly goes to a brothel with Dodgey Soldier and he has a nice little chat with his chosen prostitute before getting down to business. Meanwhile Pompey tries to do a deal via messenger with Antony, who is apparently squatting in his house. Then he has some crying women fight each other with swords they can't hold, naked, for fun. This sounds like the sort of thing Octavian might have accused him of doing much later, during their propaganda war while Antony was in Egypt - having him behave this way now is a valid character interpretation, but it does rely on both Octavian being right and Antony's character not changing much in twenty years.

Atia wants to marry Antony, which would be a useful political alliance on both sides as well as good for her sex life (he wouldn't be able to forget to come over for dinner any more). Unfortunately, she goes a bit too far (it involves predicting Caesar's imminent death) and Antony calls her a 'wicked old harpy', which doesn't go down too well. That's it for Antony - he storms off in a huff all the way to Greece, taking Boring and Dodgey with him (and therefore ruining Boring's sex life in the process as well).

Atia sends Servilia a slave with an impressive tool as a gift, which is supposed to help them when Caesar is defeated, but since, as Octavia rightly points out, Servilia knows full well that Atia was responsible for Caesar chucking her, it's not going to do her much good. (Octavia has a fantastic reaction when she sees the slave, who is wearing only a strategically-placed sock - she exclaims 'Bona Dea!' - 'Good goddess!' - and bursts into a giggle). Octavia is sent with the well-endowed gift and, in the beginning of one of Rome's most completely bizarre and transparently crowd-pleasing plot developments, Servilia flirts with her. But we'll have plenty more on that in the weeks to come.

Octavian is sent to Mediolanum for safety, having put on his (blue? BLUE?!) manly toga, and Boring and Dodgey head off, with a genuinely touching farewell scene between Boring and Niobe. Antony and his troops ride off towards Greece and then they take ship, in some rather impressive waves and driving rain. Boring is convinced an offering they made to Triton will keep them safe but, well, he's not right there. End of episode.

Not a bad episode by any means, though it's mostly memorable for Octavian and Dodgey's trip to the brothel which is not the classiest thing to be memorable for. No Pompey and his minions at all this week, except for one messenger who ended up on his back in the pool in the atrium (not in the good way). Boring and Dodgey's shipwreck and Servilia's flirting are leading us into some of Rome's least plausible storylines over the next few episodes, but we're also getting closer to the subject of Lucan's Civil War, the battle at Pharsalus, which is good. You win some, you lose some, historically speaking.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Only Connect

For those of you not in the know, or not from the UK, Only Connect is a brilliantly entertaining quiz show on BBC Four which I was introduced to when I moved home to live with my parents for a while. Teams of three have to guess the connections between apparently unconnected things, and it requires a basic level of general knowledge (i.e., unlike University Challenge or Mastermind, I can actually answer some of the questions - even the non-Classical ones!) and a bit of lateral thinking.

Each round in Only Connect features a selection of questions, up until now named after Greek letters - so teams had to choose a letter a random from alpha-zeta until all questions had been answered. However, the new series began tonight, and it turns out a lot of people have complained about the Greek letters. Apparently (and bear in mind I'm typing this from memory after the show so I'm not quoting exactly) the Greek letters are too elitist and pretentious, and downright silly, or words to that effect.

Of course, as host Victoria Coren read this, I was all up in arms. It's not elitist! (or pretentious, or whatever the exact word was) I was all ready to cry in hurt consternation to my parents. There's nothing wrong with Greek letters - and they're a bit more interesting than ordinary numbers or A-F! Of course, this is all tied up with attitudes to Classics and Classical education in this country, which I've posted about before, and the problem of Classics being viewed as elitist and not accessible, available or interesting to the majority of the population. As a person whose first secondary school taught no Classics at all, while it was not complusory in the second by the time I got there, and who studied Ancient History at an excellent but non-Oxbridge university, I tend to feel extremely frustrated and even, at times, a wee bit hurt by this assumption, but there we have it.

Then Victoria Coren revealed her solution (which, judging from her comments on Twitter, was actually hers) - instead of Greek letters, to acknowledge the complaints, this series will use Egyptian hieroglyphs instead!

Well, my parents and I all fell about laughing and absolutely loved it. An out-of-date, incomprehensible system has been replaced with an even more out-of-date and incomprehensible system, and those who complained about Greek letters as being too prententious now have an even deader and more obscure language to contend with. We were happy bunnies indeed.

However, I wonder if Egyptian heieroglyphs will seem more appealing and garner fewer complaints anyway. Unlike Greek and Latin, Ancient Egyptian is not associated with an elitist, old-boys'-club, upper class word not accessible to others in our (British) culture - rather, Ancient Egyptian is so obscure that very few people know it at all. Whereas Greek letters are familiar to mathematicians, scientists and people with a Classical education, Egyptian hieroglyphs are familiar only to Egyptologists - so, rather than leaving out those who did not have access to a posh education, these leave out more or less everybody. Then there's the fact that hieroglyphs are rather more fun than Greek letters. Whereas the words 'alpha', 'beta' and so on don't mean much to anyone except mathematicians, when a team asks for the 'horned viper' or 'eye of Ra' they're choosing something rather more exciting - I wonder if it's actually easier to choose from these options, since you can choose a snake because you're feeling dangerous, or two reeds because you feel in a literary mood, rather then the meaningless Greek lettes. Then there's the fact that, thanks to The Mummy, Stargate, Death on the Nile and countless others, Egyptology is simply cooler than the study of ancient Greece (which has yielded such gems as Clash of the Titans and the better but kid-dy Hercules).

The programme makers were asking for trouble when they included the phrase 'Jump the Shark' as a clue in a later round - one of the contestents, bravely but predictably, suggested that 'suddenly including Egyptian hieroglyphs' might be an example of a point where a programme jumped the shark. However, I have a suspicion that the hieroglyphs may prove genuinely popular - they are, if nothing else, unique, whereas Greek letters do occasinally appear in other highbrow-leaning programmes. Even if they do generate complaints, I hope that the programme will not have been thought to have jumped the shark, and just maybe everyone will eventually welcome the slightly simpler Greek letters back with open arms!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Xena Warrior Princess: The Path not Taken and The Reckoning

Not all episodes of Xena have enough directly Classical references in them to fill a whole blog post, so I thought I'd look at them two-at-a-time unless they have really substantial Classical content or do something really unusual and particularly interesting with the material.

'The Path not Taken' contains little, if any, Classical material. There's the usual scattering of Classical names - Marcus, and I think I heard a 'Dionysus' somewhere - but most of the episode has little to do with Classics specifically. The episode ends with what I thought was a funeral pyre after it's burned down, which is an unusual sight as TV usually shows the body being set alight at the start of the burning - but Brother thought it was a brazier. It's a method of burial that was used at various times and places in the ancient world, though not universally.

As for the episode itself, I like the idea of ‘the path not taken’ being about the way Xena’s life could have gone, if she hadn’t changed, but I’m also a teeny bit disappointed that it’s not a parallel universe/alternate timeline story, which is what I was expecting from the title (though episode 5 season 1 would be a bit early for that, as really that sort of episode needs to use the audience's knowledge of the characters to throw them in new directions). There was some funny stuff and the bit with Gabrielle wandering around pontificating while Xena casually knocks people out was hilarious. The young couple were rather irritatingly soppy, though, and Brother pointed out that the seedy bar looked bizarrely Hawaiian. There was also a throat cut! It wasn't quite as gory as Spartacus, but still, I was surprised, Xena is usually more family-friendly than that.

'The Reckoning' has a stronger Classical bent to it, as it features Ares, the (Greek) god of War, but most of the episode is actually taken up with Xena being put on trial for the murder of several men (killed by Ares).

As I understand it, Ares had a history with Xena on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Unfortuantely, this episode assumed that the viewer knew about this and had seen the relevant episodes, and did little to explain their relationship or what had happened between them before. This may have been a deliberate choice, to leave an air of mystery around him, but it means I'm reliant solely on this episode in my judgement of how they've interpreted Ares on the show and may be missing something viewers of Hercules would have picked up on.

In this episode, Ares doesn't really come across as warlike so much as he seems slimy and unpleasant. He has an evil little goatee and wears a distinctly impractical velvet robe with black leather underneath it. All the 'war' element in his character comes out in his dirty talk to Xena and his attempts to get her to join him and become a Warrior Queen, but he himself just seems sleazy. He kills three men at the beignning, of course, but I'd hardly consider ambushing an unarmed cart to be a 'warlike' act, that's more like banditry. Hector, Agamemnon and Achilles get name-checked and it is established that they're 'long gone', but really, this episode is little concerned with war. Ares' presence is an excuse to go through how Xena's changed from the cold, violent warrior she used to be and how she fights for good now - it's a worthy theme, but we've seen the same essential ground trodden in episode after episode now and it's getting rather tired. We need to find out more about her past, or move on for a bit - or both.

As for the rest of the episode, it does little beyond cover this same ground. It does, however, include several scenes of Xena wearing a corset. Chained and suspended in a jail cell. Being whipped. No prizes for guessing which part of the audience that's supposed to appeal to.

Ares leaves with a 50s-bad-guy style voiceover cry of 'Until next time!'. Here's hoping that he will actually do something god-of-war-like in his next appearance, rather than wasting time unsuccessfully trying to tempt Xena back to the Dark Side, as so many others have done before him.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Star Trek: Balance of Terror

This is a Classic episode of Star Trek in every sense of the word. It’s an Original Series episode (which I tend to refer to by the rather less flattering TOS but which is often called Classic Trek), it’s an absolutely brilliant episode (it would be the best of season 1 if season 1 didn’t also include ‘City of the Edge of Forever’, the Best Episode of Star Trek Ever Made™) and it’s got a Classical basis. This is the episode that introduced us to the Romulans, one of Star Trek’s most enduring bad guys. In their later appearances, the Classical link is sometimes downplayed or buried under their Trek-related history, though it’s not forgotten; they have a Roman-inspired political structure, Romulus has a twin planet called Remus, and the new movie named its Romulan bad guy Nero. But in this introductory episode, their Romanness is more essential to their identity than it would ever be again. Spoilers follow.

Mum and I were both surprised to discover, on re-watching season 1 on DVD, that the Romulans were introduced earlier than the Klingons – the Klingons are such iconic Trek baddies that we just assumed they were also the oldest of them (not to mention the fact that here, it’s the Romulans that fly a Bird of Prey, associated in all the movies with the Klingons). Whereas the Klingons, in their original series incarnation, are Asiatic warriors with a battle-obsession, the Romulans are much colder customers and, most importantly, they look exactly like Vulcans. This story is one of Trek’s excellent Cold War metaphors, with the Enterprise and the Romulan ship having, essentially, a submarine battle in space (complete with a ‘Crazy Ivan’-type move and a nuclear warhead) and one of the B plots concerns a racist crewmember’s obsession with the idea that Spock might be a Romulan spy, because Romulans and Vulcans are related. Although Klingons in the original series look human, and Klingon spies appear in episodes like the classic-for-a-different-reason ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’, the particular metaphor here concerns Spock as an outsider on the Enterprise who appears, superficially, to have more in common with the Romulans, presumably standing in for people with a loose connection to Russia or a Slavic country in the States in the 1960s. [Edited to add: It's been pointed out in the comments below that the submarine battle probably reflects World War Two more than the Cold War per se, and on that the Romulans also share traits with the Japanese as preceived by the Americans, so that may be the metaphor they were going for at the time - to me, a British child of the 1980s, it reminds me of the 1980s Cold War movies I grew up with!] The episode consists of a battle of wits between Kirk and the Romulan commander, rather confusingly but compellingly played by Mark Lenard (better known as Sarek, Spock’s father). I won’t recap the whole episode, because it’s much more about the building tension between the two captains than anything else and a blow-by-blow rehash of it would destroy the drama, but I will say that any episode that starts with a wedding ceremony that gets interrupted is Not Going to End Well.

So, the writers of this episode needed to create an intelligent and threatening enemy that looked like Vulcans. What made them think of the Romans? I suspect it was the Empire and the legendary skill of the Roman Army that appealed to them. The Romulans inhabit an Empire on the other side of the Neutral Zone – and the Roman Empire is the classic archetypal empire for science fiction writers (see the Senate in the Star Wars prequels, for example). Perhaps this was the original inspiration behind their Roman characteristics (there’s no in-universe explanation for the similarities given, it’s just accepted as part of the narrative). The Romulan commander, rather than emphasising glory and honour in battle (also Classical traits of course, but not necessarily specifically Classical, used later for the Klingons) tends to emphasise training and military order and duty, like the highly trained and extremely well-organised Roman army. Devotion to military duty is another crucial issue in this episode; the deaths of the unnamed Romulan commander and the bridegroom Tomlinson are the same tragedy, both men killed in the line of duty.

Having made the comparison, other, more superficial elements of Romanness are easy to include. The Romulan commander’s second-in-command, for example, is referred to as ‘Centurion’ and their ultimate boss is a 'Praetor'. The Romulan costumes echo the line of a toga as it comes over the shoulder, though unfortunately the Imperial purple or the traditional red has been replaced with a rather camp pink – but this particular shade of pink was something of a favourite in the psychedelic 60s Original Series. They also look like they’re wearing the carpets – clearly, Star Trek costume designers are convinced that the Romans, if they were around in the future, would be wearing floor coverings.

'What's wrong Commander?' 'My carpet-suit is itching like crazy!'

Both the Romulans and the Klingons, in their first appearances, are part of a ‘we’re not so different after all’ theme that echoes across Original Series bad guys (in marked contrast to later series' favourite bad guys, the Borg). In the case of the Klingons, Kirk’s interactions with the Klingon commander force him to confront the fact that he’s as bad as the Klingon is. In the case of the Romulans, however, it is more a case of realising that the Romulan commander is no worse than Kirk – certainly not less intelligent and not less considerate or caring either – he’s a man doing his duty, it’s just unfortunate that he’s liable to cause an intergalactic war in the process. For this reason, the Centurion is a really important character – he demonstrates both his commander’s compassion, as we see how affected he is by his death, but also his ruthless dedication to his mission, as he is not above using his friend’s dead body in a military manoeuver.

Ultimately, we are intended to admire the Romulan commander, and to care what happens to him. The Roman Empire is the perfect model for such a character, because Western culture has such a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, we have a democracy that failed and was replaced by an dictatorship occasionally taken over by madmen, which conquered thousands of miles worth of other people’s territory and hung on to it tooth and nail – not behaviour we’re supposed to approve of. On the other hand, we have a civilisation that gave us Latin, great literature, baths, roads, central heating and garlic ice cream – the list of the Romans’ accomplishments is well known. So what better basis for the commander who is equal to Kirk, who is compassionate but ruthless, whose defeat is necessary but not glorious? Not!Sarek spells it out for us with his final words to Kirk: ‘You and I are of a kind. In a different reality I could have called you friend.’ Whereas the later Klingon commander’s insistence on their similarity was horrifying to Kirk, partly because it was based on bloodlust, he is honoured by this comparison. This is why the Romulans have never gained the cultural status of the Klingons; for a long time, the Klingons had few redeeming qualities and could be held up as really bad bad guys, there to be hated and defeated (which is often more fun in fiction). The Romulans, however, were a bit more complex, and were not designed to be hated utterly, which makes them harder to fit into popular songs, but rather more interesting as antagonists.

This episode also featured Yeoman Rand and Kirk's last inappropriate cuddle - having been his love interest from the start, she disappeared after this episode and did not reappear until the feature films in the 1980s.

(Oh, if you haven't already, click on that last link - it's strangely awesome).
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