Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)

Since it's Roman Catholic Palm/Passion Sunday, and the start of Holy Week, this seemed like a good time to look at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which is that rare thing - a production that includes spoken (subtitled) Latin that is not part of a church service, nor does it appear in a comic context (see Chelmsford 123 and Blackadder Back and Forth).

Before we get on to the Latin, though, there are several other points of interest in this film. The second biggest controversy at the time it was released revolved around the film's use of extreme violence, and it remains the most successful R-rated film to be released in the United States. I didn't see the film in the cinema and put off seeing it at home for ages because I'd heard such horror stories about it. When, eventually, I did see it, I didn't think it was that bad after all, but perhaps if I'd been stuck in a cinema, watching it on the big screen, I would have felt differently.

What marks Gibson's film out from Jewison's or Zeffirelli's is that Gibson's version of the story is very much a personal act of faith. This is not to say that faith was not a factor in the other two - I would not dream of presuming to make statements about the extent or nature of Jewison or Zeffirelli's religious faith - but whereas their films presented an attempt at an historically accurate re-telling of the Gospels in Zeffirelli's case, and an exploration of the human Jesus told chiefly from Judas' point of view in Jewison's, Gibson's film is basically an extension of the Catholic tradition of meditating on the Stations of the Cross during Lent. This tradition emphasises the significance of the physical suffering of Jesus and encourages meditation on, well, how horrible the whole thing is. This is part of the reason for Gibson's unusual level of attention to physical suffering in the film.

There are other reasons as well. Isaiah 52:14, often interpreted as a prophecy concerning the suffering of Jesus, says that His appearance was 'disfigured beyond that of any man', which can be interpreted as a reference to the result of extreme violence. Perhaps more importantly, the extent of the violence seen in the film justifies some of the other events of the film. The first beating, for example, which as far as I can tell does not have its origin in the Gospels, provides Judas with sufficient comprehension of what he has done that it drives him to suicide (along with some bizarre devil-children - more on them below).

There are other points which do originate in the Gospels or in church tradition that make more sense in the context of the film's extreme violence. Whereas other films about Jesus shy away from depicting miracles, or depict only those which are smaller and less showy (Zeffirelli, for example, depicts healings but not Jesus walking on water, though he does include the feeding of the five thousand) Gibson, more interested in the spiritual story than in a more secular interpretation, includes just about all elements of the Passion story, from Pilate's wife's dream to the removal and replacement of the ear of a soldier called Malchas, which is very rarely dramatised. So Gibson also includes Veronica offering Jesus a cloth which is left with the imprint of His face - which suddenly makes a lot more sense when His face is shown covered in copious amounts of blood.

Most importantly, according to the Gospels, Jesus died after only 3 hours - crucifixion normally takes days. The traditional explanation for this, which seems logical enough (well, the physical explanation, divine intervention being understood as the real reason), is that Jesus had been so badly beaten and tortured before He was crucified that He was dying already, and this is stated specifically in the traditional prayers that are said at the Stations of the Cross. So the violence inflicted on Jesus has to be fairly extreme, to demonstrate that His body is already dying before it is nailed up.

Having said that, some of it is a bit excessively extreme. Why on earth the unrepentant robber has to have his eyes plucked out by ravens or crows I do not know - this is pure invention on Gibson's part and totally unnecessary, as is Judas resorting to taking rope from a dead donkey (or was it a goat? No, I think it was a donkey) to hang himself with (as if hanging himself wasn't bad enough already). And I'm not sure Jesus needed to be beaten up quite so often, considering the flogging could easily have killed him by itself. Talking of the flogging - that wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected - there were a couple of nasty shots of flesh being torn away, but for the most part we saw only the soldiers and Jesus' hands or his face, like most filmed flogging scenes, and for much of it we followed Mary away from the scene all together.

Anyway, the more important point as far as Classics is concerned (don't worry, I haven't forgotten I'm supposed to primarily talking about Classics!) is: is all this violence historically accurate? I think, for the most part (horrible bird-related eye-gouging excepted) it is presented in a reasonably accurate way. It is made clear that not all criminals are treated with this degree of cruelty, as several soldiers demand that the flogging/beating be halted at various points, and the other two criminals look absolutely fine (apart from being crucified, that is). This fits nicely with the idea that Jesus was more badly beaten than usual, and that's why He died more quickly than usual. On the other hand, it's equally clear that no one is especially surprised by the treatment doled out to Jesus, and that the soldiers will not get into trouble for it - this is, after all, the civilisation that gave us the gladiatorial arena. Pilate's expression when he sees Jesus post-flogging, crown of thorns and all, sums it up perfectly - he raises his eyebrow in mild surprise at the extent of Jesus' injuries and he treats Him with sympathy and concern, but he is not especially shocked or outraged - this is more exaggerated than usual, but nothing out of the realm of his experience. This seems about right for ancient Rome (or rather Judaea).

Of course, the most significant use of Classics in this film relates to language, and this is something I'll talk about more in an article I'm writing at the moment (which will be published online). I'll go over the main points here as well though. Firstly, and most obviously - for much of the film, Pilate, Jesus and the various other characters are speaking the wrong language. Gibson shot the film in three languages - Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of the Jews in Palestine at that time, Latin the language of the Romans, and Hebrew I think was chiefly a religious language but I'm not sure. I can't tell the difference between Aramaic and Hebrew, I'm afraid, so I don't know when they switch between those two but, of course, I can tell when they switch into Latin.

Trouble is, the lingua franca of the East of the Empire at that time wasn't Latin, it was Greek. Scenes between two soldiers who both come from the Latin West might reasonably show them speaking Latin, and Pilate and his wife might communicate with each other in Latin, but any scenes in which Pilate communicates with the Jews - or even with large groups of soldiers, if they come from various parts of the Empire - should have been performed in Greek. Not only that, but the Gospel of John actually states that the sign placed above Jesus on the cross - reading 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' - was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Gibson shows only Latin and Hebrew. Gibson claimed that the reason for using the ancient langauges was historical accuracy, but it wouldn't take much research to establish that Greek would be the common language for communication between different groups - any ancient historian could have told him that (and he's hardly known for his attention to historical accuracy anyway). So why the inaccuracy?

I have a few ideas, which I'll talk about more in my article. Basically, I think Gibson is a little too attached to his Catholic upbringing. He wants Pilate to say 'Ecce homo!', not 'Idou ho anthropos!', and he wants to hear Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, not Greek (the language of the Greek Orthodox Church, presumably). Perhaps this is also why he has the two other criminals carry only the cross-bar of their crosses, as depicted in Jesus of Nazareth and as some historians argue was the case in reality, while Jesus Himself has to carry the whole enormous cross, as depicted on many, many illustrations of the Stations of the Cross (which are on the walls of every Catholic church). (Of course, this also makes it easier for Simon of Cyrene to help carry the cross, so that might explain that one).

Gibson also plays with the language a bit to emphasise Jesus' divine nature - whereas Pilate communicates with all other Jewish characters in Aramaic (I'm very skeptical that a Roman governor would have bothered to learn Aramaic) when Pilate starts to question Jesus in Aramaic, Jesus replies in Latin. Presumably this is meant to acheive the same goal as the earlier, rather ridiculous flashback sequence where, as Mark Kermode puts it, Jesus invents the kitchen table - it demonstrates that Jesus has access to knowledge others around him do not have, because he is divinely omniscient. All this is at the expense of everyone else around him, who are confined to Aramaic and Hebrew.

The other oddity, language-wise, occurs in the flogging scene, in which the Latin subtitles suddenly disappear. The Aramaic/Hebrew (sorry, no idea which it is!) is still subtitled but the taunting Latin of the soldiers, and the counting of the strokes of the whip, is in unsubtitled Latin. Gibson famously wanted the whole film to be shown without subtitles - perhaps to produce a more immersive experience? - and was persuaded otherwise, but this bit was left. Why?

Perhaps the idea is to increase our incomprehension and confusion, as we watch the flogging from Mary's point of view. The use of Latin here is not so odd - perhaps the soldiers all come from the West - and Mary would be unlikely to speak Latin fluently, so perhaps this is supposed to put us in her shoes. The soldiers aren't saying anything terribly strange or exciting - I'm not used to translating spoken Latin (even in church they give you the words) but I caught phrases like 'enough!' and the counting, which are obvious enough from context, taunting phrases like 'facta non verba' (deeds not words) and, at one point as Jesus tries to get up from the floor, 'credere non possum', I don't believe it. I can only assume that Gibson wants to make the soldiers seem more alien and Jesus more human and closer to us by allowing us (his non-Latin speaking audience that is, which may be the majority) to understand Jesus but not the soldiers.

Oh, and the pronunciation of the Latin, often by Italian actors, tends to towards the Italinate - which gives us a slightly bizarre situation in which the Jewish Aramaic pronunication of 'Caesar' (like the German 'Kaisar') is closer to the way Caesar probably said that the the Latin Romans' (which is more like 'Che-sar').

I actually like The Passion of the Christ a lot, it's very moving and the shot of Mary sitting in the traditional pieta position and staring straight at the camera is quite unnerving (in a good way). I think it loses the plot, though, whenever it strays too far from either the Gospels themselves, or sensible extrapolation and enhancement of the Gospels. By 'sensible', I mean scenes like that of Mary seeing Jesus fall under the cross, and remembering seeing him fall as a child, and rushing to help him - although Mary's flashback and memory are invented, these seem like reasonable enhancements of the story. The slightly extended role for Pilate's wife, deeply affected by her dream, is quite nice too.

On the other hand, the 'kitchen table' scene is pretty bad, and the strange, androgynous devil figure who stalks Jesus throughout the film and the creepy devil-children who hound Judas to his death (and who look like something out of Don't Look Now) are just strange and out of place. Perhaps Gibson wanted to emphasise the Catholic doctrine that Judas' worst sin was despair, thinking he could not be forgiven, by having the devil drive him to suicide, but it just doesn't work, and Judas has quite enough reason for despair already. The Gospels do describe Jesus being tempted by the devil, but way back at the begining of His ministery, not at the end. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane would be much more powerful if it was solely about a man struggling with his conscience and determination, no devil figure required.

Other than that though, it is a beautifully made film (well, you know - the less gory bits are) and the music is great. The depiction of the Roman empire manages to emphasise the violence that TV and filmmakers are so fond of emphasising in Roman stories, but whereas most glamourise this violence, or use it like historical window-dressing, all over the place and sometimes without much rhyme or reason to it (Rome, I'm looking at you!) this film depicts that violence in a brutal and unforgiving fashion, without throwing it in to scenes where it isn't necessary.

One final niggle though - as I reached the end of the film, I remembered something else that stands out about it - this is the film that gives us Naked!Jesus! I'm sure Gibson was going for spirituality and new life, and the shot of the burial shroud deflating as the body disappears from it is beautifully done. I take the point that if the shroud is empty, Jesus probably doesn't have much else to wear, and it's very Gandalf-on-the-mountain-post-Balrog, etc etc etc. But Jim Caviezel is a very good-looking man, and even bearing all that in mind - it's Naked!Jesus! And he's really close to the camera - OK, you don't see anything, but you're pretty close to some upper thigh there. This does not make me reflect on the miracle of the Resurrection and is liable to result in a train of thought that would get one excommunicated. Surely they left Him a loincloth in the tomb? Or if not, God could just - I don't know - provide magic clothes?! Or He could wrap the burial shroud around Him, before wandering off? Naked!Jesus is just not the way to end such a deeply serious and genuinely moving film...

Edited to add: Having done a bit more research on this film for my article, consensus seems to be that the whips used on Jesus here are accurately portrayed, and soldiers quite often deliberately whipped victims to the point of death because they had to guard the cross until the victim died - the worse the scourging, the less time they had to spend hanging around by the cross. So the violence is pretty accurate. Also, victims would be naked during the scourging, so I should be grateful there wasn't even more nudity in the film.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Chelmsford 123: One for the Road

This is one of Chelmsford 123's more memorable episodes, in which the Roman desire to build straight roads comes into conflict with the Romano-British desire to patronise good brothels.

The one thing most British schoolchildren are taught about the Romans (in addition to the layout of a villa and the constituent parts of a centurion's uniform) are that the Romans built straight roads, and two of their roads, the Fosse Way and Watling Street, still run across large areas of the Midlands. So this episode plays on a very familiar aspect of Roman life, and gets a great deal of mileage (mileage - hah!) out of its use of the words 'straight' and 'bendy' on the way.

The plot follows Badvok and Functio's efforts to save their favourite brothel in Romford from being torn down to make way for a new (straight) Roman road. The episode also has a lot of fun at the expense of Romford, but I've never been there, so I can't say how deserved or otherwise this is!

Meanwhile Gargamadua, Badvok's betrothed, continues to flirt with Aulus, leading Functio to save Romford by threatening to sacrifice her to the local god Thingy, only for Aulus to discover and tear down the brothel in the process anyway. For some reason, while preparing for a meeting with Gargamadua, Aulus decides to wear what looks distinctly like Caligula's gold bikini get-up from I, Claudius. Quite why he thinks a practical woman like Gargamadua - or, indeed, any woman - will find this attractive is a bit of a mystery.

What makes this episode so memorable, of course, is the combination of lots of sex jokes, a very familiar element of Roman culture being satirised, and the use of a real place that you can see on a map or pass on a (bendy) road. Although the previous two episodes, about the tension between the British and the Romans and about a Boudicca-like tribe of warrior women, had certainly played on familiar aspects of ancient Rome, it's the combination of a specifically Roman source of comedy with the more everyday and familiar that really works here - culminating a an amusing post-credits segment where a British cart and a Roman cart crash on the new road because the Britons are driving on the left and the Romans are driving on the right.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (dir. Chris Columbus, 2010)

I finally managed to see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief! I think a short summary is the best way to start this one. I haven't read the book, so this applies only to the movie.

The first scene gives us Boring Soldier emerging from the waters, and he's HUGE! It's quite alarming. He and 006 (also known as Boromir, Sharpe or Odysseus, but that's way too confusing) set up the plot - 006's lightning bolt has been stolen and he is Not Happy.

Percy Jackson lives with his mother, Harper Lee, and Cypher (I've met him! He's very nice in real life) who, in this movie, is even nastier than he was in The Matrix. On a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (I've been there! I got very excited at this point, the movie was starting to look like my most recent holiday album), Percy is attacked by a Fury and 007 tells his he has to get the heck out of dodge ASAP.

Percy's mother is killed in a minotaur attack and no one seems sufficiently upset about this; his best friend turns out to be a satyr and 007 is really a centaur (where he was hiding the giant horse body when he was sitting in his electric wheelchair is anyone's guess). There's some battle training and then Hades turns up, played by the Balrog, and promises to give Percy's mum back if Percy brings him the lightning bolt. For some reason, instead of trying to find out who really stole the lightning bolt so he can clear up this mess, Percy instead decides to go to the underword and just... ask Hades for his mum. Hmm. Then he accepts a whole bunch of help from Luke, a son of Hermes with a chip on his shoulder without wondering what's going on there either.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Watch out for Furies.

Our three heroes, Percy, the satyr and the daughter of Athena (how? Has someone else been masturbating all over Athena in an attempt to rape her?) have to collect three MacGuffins that will get them out of the underworld before they actually attempt to get in. It does not occur to anyone that if they get there and pick up Percy's mum, there will be four of them. They pick up all the MacGuffins, battling Medusa and the Hydra and getting side-tracked by the Lotus Eaters on the way, and discovering the gateway to 'Hell' underneath the Hollywood sign.

Once in the underworld they run up against all the problems they failed to foresee, but manage to get out, though they have to leave the satyr behind. The go to the gateway to Olympus, which, it turns out, is on top of the Empire State Building (I wonder how the Greeks got there before the 1930s?). If only we had shelled out the extra money to go to the 102nd floor while we were there, we could have gone to Olympus! Percy fights Luke who is, of course, actually the lightning thief and they get the lightning bolt back to 006 just in time (and get him to let the satyr out of the underworld too - how 006 has any control over that is not explained). There's a touching scene of Boring Soldier and Percy connecting and then Percy moves in full time to 'Half-Blood' camp, a strangely racist place mortals cannot access.

If only we'd realised we could have got to Olympus from here

I actually quite enjoyed this movie, and there was some good stuff in there. The reinterpretation of the Island of the Lotus Eaters as a casino where people become trapped for decades is rather good, though I'm not sure about the ethics of showing our heroes on an all-out journey to Trip City - but I guess since the drugs are shown to be A Bad Thing it's OK. I quite liked the way words in ancient Greek swam around in front of Percy's eyes and rearranged themselves into English (usually too quickly to check for accuracy, but it looked OK) but I was less keen on the explanation - apparently his brain is naturally hard-wired for Ancient Greek. Er, what?! That's not how language works!

The depiction of the underworld was quite interesting - I rather liked it, but it was a bit too Christian-hell-like for my taste (and they kept calling it 'hell' too). The ancient underworld is most emphatically not a nice place, but it's more empty and shadow-y than fire-y. Hades himself is even less successful - I'm not sure how I pictures Hades, but neither Steve Coogan nor the Balrog is it. And the movie skimmed over the uncomfortable fact that Percy's mum, as a mortal, will eventually end up there anyway.

Talking of uncomfortable, the Persephone scenes were also rather awkward, as the dark nature of the myth is kept, and further darkened (Hades is 'abusive') but her scenes played lightly, sometimes for laughs. And the depth of sacrifice Sally makes for her son is also extreme to the point of disturbing and seems to belong in a much darker and more adult story, like Dr Zhivago or something.

I did enjoy the film, and it was strongest when it was being funny in an appropriate way - 'you guys take camp way too seriously' made me laugh, and I like Luke's devotion to modern technology in the face of a life of swords and arrows. One joke did take me right out of the movie though. Gathering the children together, 007 tells Paris and Helen to stop lollygagging at the back - amusing, but since all the other semi-divine heroes are not around and presumably died a long time ago, the reference to these two jarred and took me out of the story. The movie also made nice use of the reconstruction of the Parthenon in Nashville and the leads were genuinely engaging - I could watch them again in a sequel, if the movie had done well enough to warrent one!


Yours truly at the gateway to Olympus!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Xena Warrior Princess: Chariots of War


This is the one where Xena befriends a Trojan refugee called Darius while recovering from an arrow wound, while Gabrielle falls for the guy who shot her.

I get the impression there's a fair bit of backstory from Hercules in this one - the 'bad guys' are keepers of the horses of Ares and Gabrielle's friend's older brother was killed at a peace meeting where Xena was present. It's a pretty good episode, not too predictable and some nice character stuff. I liked the scene showing Xena's combined discomfort and pleasure at putting on a pretty dress a lot, though, as is often the case in these shows, the dress wasn't actually quite pretty enough to create such a reaction (or maybe I was just spoiled because I'd just got back from seeing Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which is a bit like gorgeous-dress-porn).

Intriguingly, the warlords who are the 'bad guys' for most of the episode are wearing very Eastern-looking costumes, which look to me a bit like the pop-cultural view of Genghis Khan (though I know nothing at all about Genghis Khan so maybe that's just me). Except for the dreads the younger man wears, that is. I wasn't sure if they were supposed to come from a different place or area, geographically speaking, or if the different style was supposed to reflect that they were from a particular tribe, or if the costume designer just thought that look said 'bad guy'. The only real drawback, for me anyway, was that one of the victims of the attack was called Darius. Now, I am aware that Genghis Khan was not a Persian and has nothing to do with King Darius of Persia - but the vaguely eastern look given to these costumes gave me a distinct feeling that 'Darius' should be on their side. I'll be interested to see whether we see this look again, and which characters are wearing it.

It's a nice dress, just not that nice

The actual chariot sequence was quite fun too, though it was shot in one of those locations where I can't quite shake the expectation that a bunch of Orcs are about to come round the corner carrying Merry and Pippin, or possibly the White Witch with a broken wand, in a very bad mood...*

*Yes, I am aware that Xena predates both of these movies. But I saw the movies first.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Simpsons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star


This isn't really a full post, but I just caught this episode on TV and was equal parts amused and reduced to tearing my hair out. In this episode, for reasons unknown to me because I'd stepped into the other room, Bart goes to Catholic school and Bart and Homer nearly join the Catholic Church. I'm going to ignore the digs at my religion (some fair, some less so) because the point is, there were a couple of shout-outs to Classics popped in to the episode.

Bart is initially not impressed by Catholic school, but a young priest gets him interested by showing him a comic book about Lives of the Saints, in particular an issue telling the story of Saint Sebastian, who was killed by a sort of ancient firing squad (using arrows) during the persecutions of Diocletian. In Bart's mind, we see Sebastian burst all the arrows out of his body and back into the Roman soldiers who've just executed him. As one soldier lies dying, he sobs regretfully 'I wish I'd gone to more orgies!'. Ah, the popular view of Roman history It's just a long list of Christian martyrdoms and orgies.

Later, at dinner, Bart starts to say Grace in Latin (he gets as far as 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit') and Homer wants to know what on earth he's saying. Lisa tells him it's Latin, but then, for reasons passing understanding, elaborates by claiming that Latin is the language of Plutarch, who wrote Lives of great Romans. Er, what??! Plutarch wrote in Greek and he wrote Lives of both Greeks and Romans! Why choose Plutarch as an example anyway - he's hardly the best known ancient author around (he maybe was in the medieval or early modern period, but not now). Why not use Caesar, or Virgil, or Tacitus, or Ovid, or, well, anyone better known who actually wrote in Latin?! If you want an imperial biographer, why not name-check Suetonius?

I assume one of two things has happened. One possibility is that a writer for The Simpsons has recently read some Plutarch, enjoyed it, and wanted to get it in there without realising that Plutarch wrote in Greek, which is understandable if all you've read is an English translation of some of the Roman Lives. If this is what happened, then they are forgiven. It hardly matters what one line in one episode of The Simpsons says about Plutarch, this won't destroy classical research as we know it and might increase interest (though, thanks to Clueless, I did spend years thinking Spartacus was called 'Sparatacus'...). On the other hand, this could be the result of sloppy research, of a Google search and a quick look on Wikipedia without properly reading it, or reading an inaccurate Wikipedia article. This is more annoying, not because it really matters what The Simpsons says, but because I have a feeling this is what some students do. I've received some first year essays with some odd basic historical errors in them - a common one a few years ago was to think that Cleopatra had written an autobiography, which I eventually traced to a very old novel on Google Books. Sloppy research leads to silly mistakes just like this, which is probably why it bothers me so much when I see it on a TV programme!

And now I await an onslaught of comments telling me to chill, get a life and stop stressing so much about a TV programme...

Monday, 15 March 2010

Doctor Who: The Romans 2, All Roads Lead to Rome


Original 60s Doctor Who credits. Always awesome.

We pick up where we left off, with the Doctor and Vicki about to be murdered by the creepy dude with a knife because he thinks they're musicians. The Doctor successfully fights him off, however, and he goes out the window trying to avoid being hit over the head with a vase by Vicki, provoking the Doctor to wax lyrical about how much he enjoys the various martial/pugilistic arts. You wouldn't catch Ten saying that, even if he thought it. Vicki thinks they should get out while they can, but the Doctor is insistent that they press on for Rome anyway.

There's a rather nice overhead shot of a model of imperial Rome - not sure if it's Mussolini's, it might be a smaller one. Barbara is being kept in a small cell with another slave woman, who has a horrendous cough. Barbara is hoping that Ian will turn up, but is not feeling terribly optimisitc.

Lovely shot of a small sailing ship, and we see that poor Ian has become a galley slave - not nice. Gives him the opportunity to be all Charlton Heston about it, though it's only been five days so he only has some stubble, not a beard, and he's still got all his clothes on. He also has a cunning plan to escape, together with the guy next to him. It's the oldest trick in the book - pretending to be ill and trying to hit the bad guy over the head - and it doesn't work, the guard has seen it all before.

A man turns up wanting to buy Barbara and promising to help her, but he is told he'll have to bid for her at auction. The slave trader brings new clothes for Barbara, but says the other woman is to be thrown into the arena, since she's not valuable enough for the auction. Ian's ship runs into a storm and is wrecked. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Vicki, blissfully unaware of what has happened to their companions, are having fun exploring Rome itself, just missing the auction where Barbara is being sold to the same bloke who wanted her the night before.

Ian is washed up on shore, where his friend, who has freed them all and saved his life in the confusion of the shipwreck, uses some big rocks to get the chains off him (it looks painful). They are somewhere near Rome, so Ian says he must go there to find Barbara, who has attracted the rich but slightly creepy buyer by her help for the sick woman in her cell. He seems geuinely to want to help her and has bought her to be a slave to Pompeia, Nero's wife, presumably on the assumption that, as slavery goes, it could be a lot worse.

The buyer then leaves to greet the Doctor and Vicki and introduce them to Nero himself. Nero is tall, fairly heavy set, eating and talking with his mouth full, and speaking in that particular upper class British accent that actors use to convey utter selfishness combined with idiocy. There's then a lot of messing around with lyres, as Nero strums random strings and everyone pretends it's a new composition. The Doctor is very proud of himself for getting out of having to play the lyre, but as Vicki points out, this will hardly be the end of it.

The Doctor and Vicki are still nosing around - Barabara's buyer had referred to some trouble in the apodyterium, so they poke around until the find the body of the centurion who found them in the first place. Ian and his friend have reached Rome and are in search of somewhere to clean up when they run into some guards. As escaped slaves, they are taken to the arena to be thrown to the lions, and the episode ends with some nice shots of actual lions, presumably from the zoo.

This episode suffers a bit from middle-episode-syndrome, as a lot of the time is spent getting the characters from A to B, and the 'comedy' bit with the Doctor Nero and the lyre isn't as funny as the more gentle and less obvious humour from the week before, but there's some good stuff here. The Doctor and Vicki just missing Barbara in the street is a classic bit of just-missed-them plotting to increase the tension and Nero, in typical overgrown child crazy-mode, is how you might imagine Nero to be. The shots of Ian's ship and of the lions are very nicely done and the plot takes some interesting turns, especially in the form of the man who buys Barbara, who seems to be some kind of palace official and so far, seems to genuinely want to help, which is a nice idea in a slavery story. Stories about slavery are usually aimed at showing how utterly awful slavery is and while this certainly doesn't shy away from that - Ian is not having a nice time at all and the man has bought Barbara to protect her from worse masters - it is nice to see a few shades a grey and a bit of humanity in a slave owner, since, in this period, it would never occur to anyone not to own slaves if they could. Of course, I haven't yet seen the rest of the serial, so it's entirely possible that he is, in fact, totally evil, thus rendering this entire paragraph null and void.

Ian working the bedraggled-slave look

All in all, an enjoyable episode but a bit more plodding and less interesting than Part One, with less focus on characterisation and more on plot mechanics. The show is, however, doing a great job of showcasing several different aspects of ancient Rome for it's intended (child) audience, including slavery, daily life, the imperial court and the arena. Because Old Who doesn't feel the need to shove monsters into every historical story, the danger can come from within Roman society itself, which is rather nice and allows for a more intricate story.* On the other hand, apparently other viewers do not find basic historical stories as interesting as I do, since they stopped doing them for years, so I'll take New Who's historical stories with monsters over having no historical stories at all!

*This is one of the reasons that 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances' is one of my all-time favourite Who stories. There is a monster, and it is terrifying and thoroughly satisfies the sci-fi/horror element of the show, but the resolution is also absolutely tied in to the period, a resolution that could not work in other historical periods or in a modern setting. I love that!

Friday, 12 March 2010

Rome: How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic

This is Rome. There's lots of sex, violence, bad language, etc.

The title tells you a good deal about this episode - it's one of those episodes where the writers go to great effort to shove the story of Vorenus (Boring Soldier) and Pullo (Dodgey Soldier) into the actual history of the end of the Roman Republic.

We open with Caesar in Gaul, where the soldiers are getting restless. Caesar's slave explains the plot - Caesar's term as proconsul is about to run out and he needs to do something. Antony is going to become a tribune and they needs to make sure he behaves himself. Cut to a scene of Antony shagging an unhappy-looking woman against a tree while a bunch of soliders, including Boring and Dodgey, wait nearby. It would be kind of funny, if it wasn't yet another example of how every male character in this series except Boring Soldier appears to be a rapist, which is rather depressing and makes ofr uncomfortable viewing.

Boring and Dodgey return Octavian home, where Octavia and Atia are still fighting over the forced divorce from Octavia's (fictional) first husband, Glabius. Octavian invites Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier to dinner as a reward, much to everyone's discomfort - it's a bit like that bit in Titanic where Cal invites Jack to dinner with the sole intention of making fun of him. They all sit up on their couches to eat - good for the digestion, but not very Roman, surely. Boring Soldier is all in favour of the continuation of the Republic and of honour, Dodgey Soldier wants Caesar to invade Rome itself with elephants and Octavian, ever the pragmatist, thinks the Republic is doomed. Atia is amused by the soldier's bickering and invites them back any time.

Boring and Dodgey part in bad moods with each other, but Boring tries to make it up by recommending the cleaner brothels. Then he returns home to his wife, Niobe, whom he has not seen in eight years. He is less than impressed to discover her holding a baby, while she is somewhat taken aback by the fact he's alive. She tells him that the baby, Lucius, is his young daughter's son. He is introduced to his daughters, one of whom must have been born after he left, she's so young, and who both look terrified, while Niobe explains that the paymasters told them he was dead. Niobe is not impressed at being addressed as 'whore' (what with the baby and everything) nor with Boring Soldier complaining that the food has too much salt, so they're not off to the greatest start, though he has brought home plenty of money.

There's a totally unnecessary scene of Dodgey Soldier having rough sex with a prostitute, then we cut to Atia holding a meeting with Cato, Cicero, Pompey and Antony, who is yet another one of her lovers and who, for some inexplicable reason, peppers his language with Italian, which is especially odd since they're all supposed to be speaking Latin already. Pompey demands that Caesar resign for the crime of illegal warfare, treason and a few other things, while Caesar demands that he be given a province. No one can agree to anything and the others leave while Antony goes off to bonk Atia.

Random shot of full frontal male nudity, right up near the camera. Hmm. Dodgey Soldier is busy gambling while Boring Soldier has boring sex with his very unhappy-looking wife. At least this one probably isn't rape, though she does not look like she's having fun - more lying back and thinking of Rome. Dodgey Soldier realises that he's being cheated and gets into a fight, during which several people are killed and he gets smashed over the head with a vase. He manages to crawl to Boring Soldier's house, and a doctor is fetched to perform trepanation without anasthetic - ouch. Eventually he passes out and the very expensive doctor does not know if he will wake up, which does not improve Niobe's mood, and Boring Soldier goes into emotionally-abusive-husband mode as he inisists that she must not question him (probably normal for a Roman husband, to be fair).

Trepanation without anasthetic. Ouch.

Pompey and Cicero discuss politics while watching a minor gladiatorial combat, because we're halfway through episode 2 and we haven't seen any gladiators yet. Cicero tries to point out that Pompey's demands on Caesar will result in war, but Pompey won't listen. He has decided to disappear off to Spain if he doesn't get his way with the Senate, leaving Rome undefended against Caesar.

Boring Soldier is yelling at his daughter's boyfriend, who, obviously, should not have been sleeping with her outside of marriage, but who wishes to marry her now. Considering what we will soon learn about the baby, both he and the daughter take an awful lot of crap for something that wasn't their fault. He agrees, grumpily, to the marriage though.

Pompey has a crony propose that if Caesar doesn't meet their demands he should be declared an enemy of Rome, and the Senate take a while to agree, Antony slouching in an arrogant fashion, Cicero hesitating for ages, but the motion is about to be carried when Cicero screams at Antony 'veto the motion! veto the motion!'. Then there's a lengthy debate about exactly whether it should pass or not. To be honest, I'm a little lost, I don't know how anyone without knowledge of Roman politics would feel.

Boring Soldier walks in on Niobe complaining to Dodgey Soldier about how unaffectionate he is, while Dodgey Soldier defends him and tells her how faithful he has been. The Soldiers have to go back up Antony, and Boring Soldier tries to reassure Niobe that he likes her, though doing so in a cross voice doesn't help. Antony, meanwhile, is having dinner at Atia's House of Screaming Coitus (a subject Octavia brings up at dinner, complete with When Harry Met Sally-style imitation).

Boring and Dodgey Soldier save Antony from a street assassin, thus endearing themselves to another major figure from Roman history, then an all-out fight breaks out. Caesar is declared an enemy of Rome and Pompey explains that Caesar now has no choice, and will have to march on Rome in the spring. Antony, meanwhile, rides out to join Caesar in Gaul, still in his bloodied toga, with Dodgey Soldier and a wounded Boring Soldier in tow. Caesar says Antony looks just right to address the men. James Purefoy certainly suits the bedraggled look, though somehow I don't think that's what he meant. Caesar asks if any of the men are worthy of praise and Antony names Dodgey Soldier, who beheaded the first attacker - presumably this is the act that is referred to in the title.

Mmmm.

Caesar gives his men a rousing speech about how the Republic is the hands of mad men who attack tribunes in the street and commends Dodgey Soldier in front of everyone, paying him 500 denarii and obtaining his loyalty, at a very loud volume. The whole army rides up to the Rubicon, where a cute small boy is fishing and watching them. At no point does anyone say 'the die is cast', which ios very disappointing, even if it is a fair interpretation. Boring and Dodgey Soldiers appear to be in a medicinal litter, Boring Soldier being carried across the Rubicon and made into a rebel against his will and gloomily predicting that they will be crucified on the Appian Way within a week. We see Niobe feeding the baby, who is actually hers, from when she thought Boring Soldier was dead, and with that soap-opera worthy cliff hanger of sorts, the episode ends.

This episode ought to be very dramatic, but somehow it feels more like a filler of sorts. The plot keeps moving, but aside from Boring Soldier's return home, nothing terribly exciting or satisfying seems to happen. They may have explained the significance of the crossing of the Rubicon but, if so, I missed it, and the event itself just slips by quietly, which is a shame and a wasted opportunity, I think. All the politiking in the Senate is also not as clearly explained as it could have been, and since that is the basis of most of the action of the plot, the episode somewhat lacks emotional impact. It says something that Boring Soldier's storyline, involving his much more sympathetic wife, is the most interesting part of the episode. Niobe is a genuinely sympathetic and engaging character, beautifully played by Indira Varma, and soapy as it is, her accidental-baby-as-result-of-affair storyline does capture the interest.

Describing Pullo as bringing down the Republic is also a bit of an overstatement, since the Republic was pretty clearly on the way out anyway - his later involvement with Cleopatra has much more apparent impact on history than his actions here. In the next episode, in which Caesar finally gets to Rome and Pompey flees it, things pick up a bit.

Edited to add: rogueclassicist has an excellent stream-of-consciousness take on the episode here, in which he comes to the exact opposite conclusion to me!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Xena: Warrior Princess: Sins of the Past


This is my first ever exposure to Xena, which I've never actually watched before, I've just heard about it through references in shows like Buffy and Farscape.

I'm not going to go through Xena in quite as much detail as some of the other TV series I usually look at. There are several reasons, the main one being that there's just too much of it! There are so many episodes, recapping them all in detail would be a huge time commitment and I'd never get any work done!

Sometimes I get comments from people who don't like the way I pick up on inaccuracies in historical programmes or explain the actual classical origin of mythical themes. Normally, my response is, I don't say these things to criticise the programmes/films/books - I don't think there's anything wrong with taking some artistic licence with classical material, especially mythical material. The reason I list the various inaccuracies/new interpretations is because I think it's genuinely interesting to discover the 'real' history (or rather, the current academic thinking on the subject!) behind the stories, that's what got me interested in history in the first place. Anyone who's not interested can just skim those bits.

Anyway, the point is, in Xena's case I think explaining the 'real' classical origin of everything that appears on Xena would be a bit too much like me re-telling the whole of Greek history and mythology on the blog. For example, in this episode, there are characters called 'Hecuba', 'Herodotus' and 'Draco', but they bear almost no relation to Herodotus, Hecuba or Draco and it would be pointless for me to go on about Herodotus for ages in relation to this episode. So I'll only go into detail on the original history or mythology if it seems particularly relevant (or if the change is so extreme it takes me out of the story, which can sometimes happen).

So anyway, this is the pilot episode - the one where Xena and Gabrielle meet, where they both run into a Cyclops who has been blinded by Xena and they defeat a punk-looking bad guy called Draco, while Xena makes up with her mother. Xena seems to have comitted some mysterious and terrible atrocities in her past and is now a social outcast (remember, I haven't seen these before, so please forgive my ignorance of the show's basic mythology and please don't spoil it too much for me in the comments!).

Obviously, this episode sets up the basic structure of the series. Xena isn't actually a re-telling of Greek mythology - for starters, there's no Greek character called Xena that I'm aware of, though presumably she's supposed to be an Amazon. The show is actually a fairy tale, which uses Greek myth as the spark for adventures set in a generalised magical world. It isn't even set in Greece, it's set, basically, once upon a time, in a land far, far away. The set up has a lot in common with Narnia, or Middle Earth - a fantasy land with recognisible elements taken from various mythologies, including Greek, but which is really a creation in its own right.

The general look of the show is mainly Robin-Hood-medieval; lots of brightly coloured, vaguely historical-looking costumes and dirty peasants living in small wooden villages. The look of the show reminds me of the various planets of Stargate: SG-1 more than anything else. Although it's filmed in New Zealand rather than Canada (I'm sure I spotted the site of the Battle of Beruna at one point) it has that general look that says the producers were going for something vaguely pseudo-medieval on a limited budget. All of this emphasises and reinforces the fairy tale feel of the show.

The use of the Cyclops was quite fun, played mainly for laughs which suits a giant, one-eyed, blind character (subject of the only surviving satyr play we have). There wasn't much Greek myth in this episode aside from the Cyclops, but I did enjoy Xena's battle with a big stick, which reminded me very much of Robin Hood and Little John.

As for the main characters, Xena is pretty bland so far, though I'm genuinely interested in her dark past and she did a rather cool move that The Matrix would use a lot more technology to produce some years later. Gabrielle, so far, seems kinda hyper - she's all about big, wide-eyed acting and throwing her arms around a lot. We wondered if she was slightly high. I did, however, notice that the first thing we see Xena do (after some ritual burying of armour and some general rejection) is rescue Gabrielle and some other girls from slavery, immediately setting out the show's relatively feminist (in some ways) outlook (and presumably coming across as more radical in the pre-Buffy era). Hopefully Gabrielle will have calmed down a bit in the next episode!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)


Still recovering from the Oscars... goodness, they were predictable this year! (I had a feeling Hurt Locker might win out - the Academy has been desperate not to give Oscars to anything people actually want to see since Return of the King's victory a few years ago. Very pleased for Kathryn Bigelow though, and though I haven't seen it, I hear that The Hurt Locker is a very worthy winner).

Jesus of Nazareth is a six-hour mini-series covering the life of Jesus from the Anunciation tot he Resurrection. I believe there is also a shorter, 'theatrical' length version (unless I'm mixing it up with Das Boot!). Although it is not always the most popular Jesus film these days, it's my favourite - Robert Powell's central performance is just the right mix of human and slightly other-worldly, the all-star cast are uniformly excellent and the blending of the four Gospels seems well done to me (though I confess I'm not an expert in this area). The portrayal of Judas as a conflicted political activist is done better in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Ian Holm's character Zerah seems rather unnecessary, but otherwise it's very, very good.

Zeffirelli's approach to historical drama tends to be to aim as far as possible for historical authenticity in sets, costumes, background action etc, or at least, to stay as close to what is currently believed to be historical authenticity by historians at the time. So, his Romeo and Juliet is a vision of what we think of as medieval Italy, complete with castles and Juliet caps, while his Hamlet appears to be set in a medieval Danish castle, his Gertrude wearing Germanic-looking long blonde plaits. His earlier religious film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (about the life of St Francis of Assisi), had used some contemporary music over the 'period' images, but Jesus of Nazareth does not, relying instead of the beautiful score written for it by Maurice Jarre.

Zeffirelli's authenticity is an artistic authenticity though, and many of his scenes are modelled after Renaissance paintings. Although Brother Sun, Sister Moon had included some scenes of injury and illness intended to put across the difficult aspects of life in the medieval period, there are fewer scenes of this nature in Jesus of Nazareth, other than those required by the Gospels involving epilepsy, crucifixion and so on. Zeffirelli's ancient world is striving for authenticity, but is also prettied up a bit.

All this means that his approach to the Romans is also aimed at historical authenticity. Everyone speaks English, but this isn't a problem - we can just assume that they're speaking Greek most of the time, and some Latin when speaking to each other. Costumes, sets and so on aim at authenticity and, as far as I can tell, they achieve it, though the series makes use of the same ninth century Islamic fortress as Life of Brian two years later, so some of the architecture is not quite as authentic as it looks.

Since Jesus of Nazareth is not a Passion play, the Romans take up a proportionally smaller chunk of screentime than they do in Jesus Christ Superstar. Although the series avoids most of the more spectacular miracles (walking on water, turning water into wine) it does include some healings and the raising of Lazarus, and it depicts the virgin birth as just that, with no Roman interference. We see a few Roman soldiers generally treating people not very well, we see the Roman centurion whose slave was cured (who later, in a nice bit of storytelling, turns out to be the centurion who exclaims 'truly this man was the Son of God!' at the crucifixion) and we see Zealot resistence to Rome, but Rome and Romans do not really come to the fore until the series reaches its climax - Roman decrees like the census are seen through the intermediaries of the Jewish kings, Herod the Great and, later, Herod Antipas (Peter Ustinov and Christopher Plummer, both brilliant).

The chief representative of the Roman Empire, though, is Rod Steiger's Pontius Pilate. This is the Pilate you might imagine when hearing the Passion story in Sunday school - a mixture of brusque Roman disinterestedness in Jewish problems and fascination with Jesus himself when they meet. Pilate's questioning of Jesus demonstrates a nice tension between Pilate's desire to ignore unimportant Jewish religious problems and a genuine interest in Jesus, as he asks in perplexion 'what is the truth?'. His delivery of 'Behold the man' is equally beautifully balanced between regret and an almost careless dismissal. Slightly stronger perhaps than the Pilate of Jesus Christ Superstar, his ultimate lack of strong interest, in addition to his desire to avoid riots, seems to be his ultimate motivation for crucifying Jesus even though, as in most adaptations that stick fairly close to the Gospels, he believes him to be innocent of any crime. As a depiction of a Roman governor, this works rather nicely - Pilate is just trying to get through his time here without any disasters occuring in a volatile region, which seems like a fair interpretation.

For the crucifixion scene, Zeffirelli depicts Jesus carrying only the cross-bar of his cross up the hill, rather than the whole cross, which I believe was a popular theory at the time, though I don't know much more about this issue. I do know that the depiction of all victims being both nailed to their crosses and tied with ropes is accurate - the ropes would probably be necessary to stop the nails going right through the victims' hands, but Lucan's Civil War, in its description of a witch who lives in graveyards and feeds off corpses, confirms that nails were also used in crucifixions.

The ribat in Monastir, where much of the series was filmed

Zeffirelli's strive for authenticity is very different from that of Rome or other more recent examples. Quite apart from the obvious lack of sex and nudity, Zeffirelli is not out to depict the dirtiness, unpleasantness or even the violence of the ancient world. Rather, he wants to provide an 'authentic' background for the story he's telling which serves that story - it is violent or unpleasant where necessary, but for the most part, he wishes simply to show people getting on with their lives within their historical context. This is, of course, partly determined by his subject matter, since adding sex and violence to the story of the Gospels would make a rather different series and not give it the reverent air it has. But it is also, fundamentally, a different, perhaps an older, approach to the depiction of the ancient world, in which the director is more interested in showing the similairties between us and the ancients than the (sexy, violent) imagined differences.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

I believe this is my 100th blog post - Woo! It seems appropriate, given my known geeky tendencies, that it will be about Star Trek. Tony Keen has also blogged about this episode here.

This episode is one of those Classic Trek episodes where Kirk & co. come upon a planet that is just like a particular location on Earth in a particular period. Sometimes this is explained by a backstory in which people from Earth have ended up on the planet somehow and influenced it (as is the case with the Nazi planet in 'Patterns of Force'), or the aliens on the planet have got wind of a particular Earth culture through travel or communications and tried to emulate it (as the Platonians have, theoretically, emulated Greece in 'Plato's Stepchildren'). In this case, however, neither of these things have happened. Although, in the same season's 'Patterns of Force', Spock reckoned it was impossible for another planet to randomly come up with the exact same culture as a place on Earth, in this episode that's exactly what's happened, and there's even a fancy name and theory for it - Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development.

This theory, as you've probably guessed, suggests that, just as in the Trekverse all aliens look humanoid because they've all evolved the same way, all planets go through basically the same history. Much as this may sound like an intriguing, almost Marxist, idea, the way it's presented here is utter nonsense - it's not just major social movements that are the same, but individual people (Caesar, for example) and customs. This is clearly quite bonkers, even for Star Trek. (Yes, I am aware that similar customs often develop independently in different places, but there's similar and then there's exactly the same). But the useful thing about such an idea is that it allows the show to do, basically, an alternate history - what the twentieth century might look like if Rome had never fallen. This is rather good idea, though I think, personally, I'd have been inclined to do it as a time travel/parallel universe story - a parallel universe would be perfect - rather then inventing an implausible alien planet.

As the episode opens, Spock is surveying Science Stuff. Kirk is wearing that weird green top with the drunk Starfleet logo (the one that's on it's side). They are examining the wreckage of a ship lost six years ago, whose merchant captain Kirk used to know. Then they come across a planet exactly like earth but with difference shaped continents – 'exact in some ways, different in others', as Kirk notes as if this was a new discovery. Uhura taps into the planet’s television broadcasts and the crew watch a gladiatorial combat overseen by twentieth century helmeted guards and filmed in black and white against a painted backdrop. As Kirk puts it, the planet appears to be, basically, ‘20th century Rome’. (The gladiators have retiarii and everything!)

Credits – man, you gotta love those classic Trek credits!

Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down and Spock and McCoy bicker like an old married couple. They observe that today, they are choosing to obey the Prime Suggestion, and conceal their true nature and the existence of space travel from the natives. They are promptly taken prisoner by a group of English-speaking runaway slaves (they don’t realise at first that these are runaway slaves, despite the little chain motifs on their identical outfits. They’re not too bright, these three). Apparently English just developed on this planet in the exact same way it developed on earth. The group are members of a cult who worship ‘the sun’ and believe in peace and one true belief (though one, Flavius, thinks they should really kill them anyway). Spock explains they are looking for 47 lost friends – 47! Hehe.

Kirk explains that the whole place is an example of Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development – they have their own Julius Caesar etc, but on this world Rome never fell. Our heroes are puzzled by the whole ‘sun’ business because they think there was no sun worship in ancient Rome (which is particularly odd for a group of people who actually met Apollo) and because no one notices the essential mistake they’ve made until Uhura points it out to them at the end of the episode. They really aren’t that bright.

The merchant captain, Merrick, has become ‘First Citizen’, now known as 'Mericus', and is supervising the gladiatorial games, so Kirk explains that he has violated their law and they need to capture him. They set off with Flavius, a former gladiator, but fairly quickly get captured themselves (really, really not that bright). The Roman guard uniforms are great – thoroughly twentieth century but with bits of purple to remind you they’re Roman. There’s also some great use of real, modern classicizing architecture as they are taken to the city and Kirk demands to see ‘Mericus’, the merchant captain. Spock and McCoy bicker some more (amusingly). Flavius asks if they’re enemies and Kirk grins and replies ‘I’m not sure they’re sure’.

Mericus and the pro consul

Mericus finally turns up, and for some reason he’s wearing a carpet. He’s best chums with the pro-consul and takes our heroes off to talk. They have food, and the obligatory blonde slave girl in a minidress (I kept expecting her to tell them her name was ‘Gloria’, but she’s gone for the more dubious ‘Drusilla’). The pro-consul, it turns out, is essentially keeping Mericus prisoner so that he can’t tell anyone about them, though Mericus has done rather well out of it. Any crewmembers who didn’t agree to stay quietly have been killed in the arena.

Spock and McCoy bicker some more about politics, while Kirk refuses to be drawn and only cares about his ship. Mericus and the pro-consul insist that the entire crew of the Enterprise be beamed down and ordered to settle there for the rest of their lives, or they’ll send our heroes to die as well, and apparently they can’t just go to war with their far superior weapons because they’re choosing to really, really care about the Prime Suggestion this week. Kirk refuses to order them down and instead tells Scotty ‘condition green, all’s well’ – which is, of course, a coded message (so they do have some brains after all). Scotty knows they’re in trouble but is not allowed to take action, so he starts monitoring the situation.

Our heroes are marched out to the TV-set arena (bad painted backdrop and sports commentators – I like it!). Spock and McCoy are sent out against Flavius and ‘Achilles’, another gladiator. They are fighting to the death – if they're following Roman customs, not every fight would be to the death, but since this is essentially an execution, it makes sense. The pro consul annoys Kirk by snarking and philosophizing at him the whole way through, and trying to persuade him to get the rest of his crew down while Kirk pretends he doesn’t care that Spock and McCoy are about to die. The fight goes on for a little while, but eventually Spock puts both gladiators out with a Vulcan Nerve Grip. The best bit is where a guard orders Flavius and McCoy to fight properly so as not to bring the network’s ratings down.

Proper, old-fashioned 'Roman' costumes are worn by the television guards, 20 century styles by the real guards - a nice touch

The pro consul orders them taken away to die another day (apparently unaware that neither downed gladiator is actually dead). Then there’s a really, really bizarre scene where, while Spock and McCoy fret in a prison cell, Kirk has sex with Drusilla, who is wearing just a bit of tin foil. Since she is a slave, and was told to ‘be commanded’ by Kirk, I’m very, very dubious about the ethics of this. OK, she pretty clearly comes onto him, but she’s been ordered to do so, she isn’t doing it out of choice, which surely makes this rather dubious? Hmm. Anyway, it has no place in the story whatsoever other than giving Kirk an opportunity to get laid. Spock and McCoy have a good old heart to heart though – a very pointed and antagonistic one where McCoy gets really ticked off – which is genuinely interesting and nicely played by both characters.

Eventually, the pro consul come to see Kirk again, and is rude to Mericus in the process (perhaps he’s fed up of looking at that orange carpet he’s wearing). He promises to let them die quickly and sends them off to be killed ‘in full colour’. Meanwhile, Scotty has, rather usefully, decided to disrupt the planet’s power sources, to scare them. Kirk is about to be executed when Flavius rushes in to save him (and is killed in the process) and Kirk runs off to fetch the other two. When they ask where he’s been, he says ‘they threw me a few curves’. Oh, boy. James Bond has wittier one-liners. Mericus tries to save them and is killed, but succeeds in chucking them a communicator so Scotty can beam them up.

Back on the ship, Kirk gives Scotty a commendation and Uhura finally points out the blinkin’ obvious – that the group of runways don’t worship ‘the sun’, they worship ‘the Son’ (of God). Spock has some very peculiar ideas about sun-worship – he thinks it’s inherently 'primitive' and 'superstitious', not sophisticated enough for the Romans. Seriously guys, you met Apollo! (Sort of). Then follows the most positive description of Christianity I’ve ever heard in science fiction outside of C. S. Lewis. It is implied that Christinity is partly responsible for the fall of Rome, but this is seen as a good thing, because it is a religion of peace and brotherhood. According to Kirk, this new religion of peace and love will make a better world on the planet below.

Tony Keen has pointed out that this is the view that features in a number of older Hollywood Roman epics. In recent works, however, including more recent Trek series, religion in general tends to be used in a much more negative fashion, and religions parallel to Christianity tend more towards the oppressive than the peaceful. In a way, it's rather nice to see the elements of peace and love emphasised, but it also acts as a reminder that classic Trek belongs firmly in the 60s - no modern series could make such a speech and get away with it, nor would most modern TV writers want to.

I really enjoyed this episode. Spock and McCoy's bickering was very funny and genuinely interesting. The idea of seeing a twentieth century Rome is also a rather nice one, and although not gone into in great detail, cars like the 'Jupiter 8' are fun touches. The only area that is really explored is that of the gladiatorial contests, and the obvious parallel with TV entertainment in general and digs at the networks are no less fun for being obvious. Shame Flavius died though. The only aspect I really didn't like was the scene between Kirk and Drusilla - there was something really unpleasantly seedy about it. Of course, Kirk slept with random alien women all the time, but this particular encounter had a rather nasty feel to it, possibly because I've spent too much time studying real slavery.

Aside from that, this episode is a great example of one of my favourite themes of classic Trek, the Planet of Hats. 'Soft' science fiction is often best employed in metaphor, and a Planet of Hats is a wonderfully simple way to do a fairly basic metaphor in 45 minutes. I also have a strange fondness for the planets that are just like various parts of Earth, though I think the explanation for this one is rather excessively far-fetched. Goodness knows why, but I love episodes where Kirk & co beam down and discover a planet with something weird about it (everyone passing out at a certain time of day, Planet of the Nazis, and so on). So I love the idea of Planet of 20th Century Rome, illogical though it is, and although the use of Christianity is rather heavy-handed, this is done nicely here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Legionary from Londinium


This is the last Roman Mysteries book, a collection of short stories set at various points in between the other books, with the last story set after the last book. Since I've fallen way behind on reading the books, I nearly didn't read the last one, but I was on a roll so I carried on. Unfortunately, now I know something about what happens at the end of the series, but not very much, and I will still enjoy finding out how it happens!

Caroline Lawrence explains at the beginning of the book that she was often asked by British readers if she would write a Roman Mystery set in Britannia, but she just couldn't fit it into the tight timescale of the books. I have to confess, if I had read the books earlier, I would have been one of them! I wouldn't want every Roman-set book I read to be set in Britannia, because apart from the rebellion of Boudicca, it would be very boring, but I do like to see a British setting every now and again. It gives British readers like me the wonderful opportunity to say 'I've been there!'. It's great for children especially, of course, since they can ask their parents or teachers to take them to the places from the books - Colchester, London - if they live nearby. Obviously, all this only applies to British readers, and only English and Welsh readers at that, since the Romans never got to Scotland or Northern Ireland, but it means a lot to us so it's great to see Briton appear in this book! Flavia still can't go there, of course, but her armchair detective approach works perfectly well.

There are six short stories collected here. Like all the Roman Mysteries, they contain subtle references to very adult topics (the rebellion of Boudicca, which I discussed recently), mentions of real Roman texts that the children might like to read (Apollodorus' Library of Greek Mythology, which I've used for my work many, many times but, I confess, I've never actually sat down and read it cover to cover) and one rather unpleasant and sad twist. Child-me would have hated that, but grown-up-me can see the value of it! The children are also wonderfully, refreshingly sensible - whenever things get dangerous, if they can, they always send for adult assistance from their parents or the magistrates, which is so nice to see. I gave up on reading things like The Famous Five as a child because the children got to the point where they were just stupid in the risks they took.

My favourite stories were probably The Legionary from Londinium and Death by Medusa. I learned from the latter that Friends lied to me - I am shocked! (Apparently, urine won't actually help a jellyfish sting). I especially liked the letter-format of The Legionary from Londinium, partly because it's a very Roman form of writing but mostly because I just have a peculiar fondness for stories written in the first person - they seem more immediate, somehow. I also liked The Five Barley Grains, although it was rather sad, because I liked the way it was linked to The Legionary from Londinium, giving the collection a sense of cohesion short story collections sometimes lack. Threptus and the Sacred Chickens was also fun - I warmed to Threptus and Floridius, and I liked the very Dickensian street gang, who seemed to have stepped straight out of Oliver Twist.

Two of the stories in this collection are re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories - something young readers will presumably only know when told and which might lead them to an interest in Sherlock Holmes as well. I have to confess, I only know this because I read the Author's Notes - although I'm very fond of detective stories, I've only ever read The Hound of the Baskervilles and only seen one Granada episode and the new movie. I did notice that Flavia's methods of detection were very, very Holmesian though, especially in her identification of the legionary. I liked the reference to 'Baker's Street' in one of the retold stories as well!

I did get a bit confused by the brothers Quartus (fourth) and Quintus (fifth) when Quartus was revealed to be younger than Quintus, and wondered if perhaps they were related to Zaphod Beeblebrox. But it's possible that the first little Quartus died when Quintus was new born, and when another son was born the next year, they re-used the old name - that did happen, probably quite frequently. I also wondered for a moment about the plausibility of the legionary asking Flavia for help, but the story explains that she had been recommended to him by a young girl (from the previous collection) and he is taken aback by just how young she is, so it works. The Perseus Prophecy is very, very short - but perhaps this will be appreciated by young children learning to read!

I haven't read the later Mysteries yet (they're on my list...) so I don't know how readers for whom this is their very last encounter with Flavia and friends will feel. The collection perhaps lacks a sense of saying goodbye to the four - Nubia in particular does not feature a great deal, Jonathan gets one story told from his point of view, while Flavia takes centre stage for the most part. However, the last story, in which the inspiration of Lupus in particular helps someone else a great deal, perhaps performs this function - and for me, I have the rest of the series to look forward to! I suspect that the final book in the series performs the function of saying goodbye to the characters, so to do so again here would seem repetitive. Perhaps this collection is better viewed as a 'DVD extra' - just when you thought it was all over, there's one more bit of Rome to enjoy!

Roman ruins at Colchester

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Enchanted Castle (by E. Nesbit)

The Enchanted Castle is my favourite E. Nesbit book. Five Children and It and its sequels are great fun, and the film of The Railway Children is guaranteed to make me cry just thinking about that last scene (sniffle!) but none of her other works quite match the sheer magic and, well, enchantment of The Enchanted Castle. It also plays very cleverly with the limits of one's suspension of disbelief, even as a child - finding a Princess, complete with elaborate get-up, asleep in an enchanted castle is something straight out of a fairy tale, difficult to incorporate into a contemporary fantasy without some element of irony. But finding a little girl pretending to be a Princess who inadvertently discovers that the ring she claims to be magic really is magic... somehow this is much more plausible!

Like many of E. Nesbit's books, the story is a fairly episodic series of more or less separate adventures, but some elements of the story are carried across different parts of the book. One of these is my favourite bit of magic from the story, the most 'enchanting' aspect and the one that makes the 'enchanted castle' really, properly enchanted since it seems to have little to do with the magic ring that otherwise dominates the plot (except that you must be wearing the ring in order to see them move) - the statues in the castle grounds that come to life at night. The gardens are described as like dreams during the day and like visions at night, and the image of groups of white, cold statues (they 'come alive' but stay made of marble) moving about the moonlit garden in summer is pure magic.

The statues are chiefly on two subjects - dinosaurs, which are specifically compared to those at Crystal Palace Park that I've mentioned before, and classical subjects. Just as in C. S. Lewis' later Narnia stories, the first of these magical creatures encountered by one of the children is a creature with goat's legs and the head and arms of a boy - a faun. This description could apply to either a faun or a satyr, but the woodland setting and the location, near the Temple of Flora (a Roman goddess) suggests a faun. Just like in Narnia, the faun is a woodland spirit who embodies the magic of the woods, making him a perfect introductory character for a magic wood (although the setting is an enchanted garden, it is the sort of very large, estate 'garden' that more resembles a wood in places).

Gerald discovers the faun and the dinosaur quite early on in the book, but the enchanted garden really comes into its own much later, when Kathleen accidentally gets turned into a statue herself, and 'comes alive' together with the other statues in the garden. Kathleen and Mabel make friends with a statue of Phoebus Apollo, who declares himself to be their slave and whisks them off - Mabel having become marble as well - for a night in 'his world', a magic world of living marble with seven moons reflected in the lake. There, they enjoy a 'celestial picnic' with an array of classical deities, including Zeus, Dionysus, Hera, Hermes, Hebe, Psyche, Eros and Aphrodite Urania.

During the feast, having fetched the boys, the gods hint that the origin and secret of the magic ring, which is at the heart of all the magic, is something to do with them, but dawn comes before they get around to explaining anything. Hermes tells the children when they can come back and, for one night only, talk to the statues and ask them questions without the ring. Various plot developments involving the childrens' French governess result in the French governess, her fiancee and the children reassembling on the night in question, and seeing not only the Olympian gods but all the ancient gods of Egypt and Assyria as well. The magic ring was apparently given to a mortal once, and the story ends romantically as the French governess wishes all magic away from it, leaving it to be simply her wedding ring. Magic rings are notable for their absence from Classical mythology, and I can't think of any from Egyptian or Assyrian mythology offhand either - with the exception of Plato's parable of the Ring of Gyges, magic rings are much more the province of Norse mythology (Tolkien's inspiration). I'm not sure if Nesbit is referring to a story she expects her readers to know, or if this is an invention of her own.

Like Fantasia, this story brings some magic into classical mythology, something which is sometimes lacking in other uses and re-tellings. The gods become approachable, friendly - all are described as amiable, lovely, just like your mother and so on. There is nothing terrible or frightening about them, though there is a sense that they are awe-some, in the most literal sense, when our heroes go to see them on the appointed day. In addition to the major Olympian gods, the focus is on those who are associated with parties, love and joyful things - Hebe the cupbearer, Eros, Psyche, the mortal wife of Eros. This is, perhaps, not the most faithful representation of classical mythology ever written, since it omits any sense of strife, discord or violence. On the other hand, nectar and feasts of the gods and celestial parties are, indeed, part of classical mythology, so perhaps it is better to say that Nesbit has carefully selected those aspects of classical mythology that best suit her purpose. And the result is that, like Fantasia and like Nesbit's depiction of ancient Babylon in The Phoenix and the Carpet, this story makes classical mythology something far more appealing, far more magical and wonderful, to young readers than drier, sometimes more faithful, re-tellings. The less pleasant aspects of Greek mythology are generally not very suitable for children anyway, so it can be fun to indulge in something a joyously warm, comforting and 'enchanting' as this story.
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