Friday, 30 April 2010

Xena Warrior Princess: Cradle of Hope

Whew, I've posted a lot this month! There are a few reasons for it. I've been trying out different posting patterns to see what works - not anything I'd stick to rigidly, but a vague plan. This month, I was playing with posting Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, but I think that's going to be a bit too much in the end, partly because every now and again, something interesting - Doctor Who, at the moment - comes on on Saturday and I want to blog it while it's fresh. So next month I think I'll try posting Tuesdays, Thursdays and other days when something interesting comes up - we'll see how it goes. This month has also been my first full month of unemployment. I've got loads of non-paid work I need to be getting on with and a massive pile of job applications to do, but not so many tight deadlines, hence the increased blogging. Finally, I am horribly superstitious and don't like having 13 posts in a month! Crazy, isn't it?! I think in future I should stick to my more usual 9-12. I have got a bit of paid work now, so I won't have so much time anyway.

In this episode, Xena and Gabrielle rescue Pandora’s granddaughter, also Pandora, from an angry mob while simultaneously rescuing a baby who, it is prophesied, will one day be a king. Unfortunately they end up being attacked on all side with only a few hours left to save the word from losing Hope forever (or not, as it turns out).

This is also the episode that features Xena posing as a veiled dancer, looking like a harem girl, which may be more memorable to some. The bit where they start throwing a baby around like a football, might, on the other hand, be the most memorable bit.

There are more dreams at the beginning of this episode, and a female soothsayer who seems to be mixing up half a dozen methods of divination at once – prayer to a god (Zeus), stones, dreams and some kind of vision (stones really could not give that much information). She prophesies that an infant orphan will one day rule instead of the king and the child is put in a Moses basket (very appropriate) and sent down river, only to be discovered by Xena and Gabrielle.

The idea of the prophecy that a baby will rule, followed by an attempt to kill or capture the baby, is very Classical, and Near Eastern, and Biblical. There are lots of stories of that nature, the most historical ones being those connected with the Persian monarchy that appear in Herodotus (Astyages dreamed that his infant grandson Cyrus would overthrow him and tried to have him killed, but as usual the general who was supposed to kill the child didn't want to, in this case because it meant killing a royal. Cyrus eventually overthrew Astyages). Gregor proves to be wiser than any of them by simply adopting the child as his heir, thus saving the kid the bother of usurping him at a later date.

The version of the Pandora story used here features a wooden box, rather than a jar, and includes the detail that Hope was trapped inside the box. However, here, the fact that Hope was trapped apparently means that we all still have hope, as opposed to all other desires, which are fleeting, rather than that everything is hopeless. My copy of Hesiod, in which this detail first appears, has an explanatory note saying that Hope remaining in the jar means men still have Hope, and Hesiod is just being inconsistent in his symbolic use of the jar, which would fit the interpretation here (though I have to confess, the tone of Works and Days being what it is, I wouldn't be surprised if Hesiod had had the more negative interpretation in mind). I have to admit as well that I was rather relieved when the box turned out to be empty. I know the whole point of Xena is to dramatise mythological stories, but this particular story really works better on a metaphorical level than a literal one.

Unfortunately, presumably in order to fill time, the episode gets more and more ridiculous as time goes one, with some bizarre and inexplicable use of slow motion (the director must have been getting bored) and Xena and Gabrielle literally throwing a baby around as if they were Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

Jareth, in the middle of throwing the baby around.

One final, random observation – the currency is apparently dinars. Interesting choice. I would have expected drachmas, sestercii or denarii, but I guess dinars is as good as anything else!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Stargate (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1994)


I gave a short (very short - 5 minutes!) paper on Stargate a while back, as part of a panel on 'Archaeologists from real to reel', in which I basically discussed the representation of Daniel Jackson as an archaeologist. I'll copy the text of my paper into the bottom of this post - it's really very short (not all my papers are that short!) and it's sort of half formal, half informal (it was that sort of event) but hopefully it may be of interest!

I love Stargate, it's the kind of big, cheesy fun I tend to like a lot. Also, I saw Stargate SG-1 first, so I came to the film already feeling a lot of affection for these characters - otherwise I might have been a bit more dubious about Colonel O'Neil. And James Spader is very attractive in it.

I'm never quite sure how I feel about the use of religion and mythology in Stargate in general though. On the one hand, the idea that ancient gods are really aliens is always a fun one, since it means you get to play with their mythology and even see the gods in action, offering dozens of fun episodes over the course of SG-1 and plenty of oppotunities for me to blog about it! It also fulfils that constant desire for myths to be somehow true. We do not believe in the ancient gods, but if they were, in fact, aliens, suddenly we have a way of making all their myths real, just twisted - an obscure version of euhemerism (and I'm dealing with a particular kind of fictional 'true' here - I am by no means suggesting that the gods actually were aliens and the pyramids are spaceships, those are the crazy people we walk away from slowly!). The desire to find some kind of truth behind myths is an old one and a strong one and if I could fully explain it, I'd be a happy person, but it is undeniably there.

On the other hand, throughout the history of Stargate, the team never seem to come across a religion that isn't based on the crimes of a Goauld or an, um, thing from the later seasons which I haven't seen as much of. Obviously, this is more of an issue with the television show than the original film, but the groundwork is laid in the film. It's a bit akin to Arthur C Clarke's famous dictum that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' in that it assumes that people will attribute anything they can't explain to magic and/or religion - it's a very Frazerian world view. And I'm honestly not sure it's true. There's a difference between believing in some form of the supernatural and attributing everything you can't explain to it, even going so far as to worship it. And there's more to religion than just 'Dear Deity, please do this for me and don't smite me and I'll kill a cow for you, thanks a lot'. Still, I suppose ancient Egypt, where Pharoahs were considered to be deities, is an appropriate culture to hijack for this sort of story, and there are plenty of historical instances to support the idea of people worshipping strangers with new technologies (I was going to say that the Romans weren't worshipped for having central heating, but Emperor-worship did develop in some places, several cultures have worshipped human rulers, and I think there might be some central American examples as well though I don't know much about that). And in the film, there's no suggestion that this is a universe-wide problem, it's just one thing that happened on one planet, which is much more plausible (with a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief of course!).

The film also maintains much higher plausibility as far as language and culture are concerned. The Abydosians behave like ancient Egyptians because they were transported to Abydos from ancient Egypt and they speak a form of ancient Egyptian (Demotic presumably!) for the same reason. As science fiction set-ups go, this is not that unreasonable, and it does my favourite thing - actually pays attention to the language issue. By the time of the series, everyone spoke English, despite the fact that their ancient monuments were often inscribed in Latin, Greek, Egyptian and other ancient languages, which just isn't plausible at all (though I understand why they did it - it wouldn't be very practical for a weekly series to have to mess around with ancient languages every week!).

The film also features an arranged marriage that the groom doesn't realise is a marriage, and just about pulls off the resulting romantic relationship. Daniel and Sha'uri have nice chemistry and you do sympathise with his predicament, though I always find that I can't help hearing Samantha Carter's reaction from her first meeting with Daniel in SG-1 whenever I see those scenes -

O'Neill: She [Sha'uri] was a gift.
Daniel: She was, actually, from the elders of Abydos the first time we
were there.
Carter: And you accepted?

In the end they're very sweet though.

I'm sure there's more I could say about Stargate especially as it relates to Egypt (I like the alien wildlife, but actual camels are much, much cuter). I suspect a lot of it will come up over the course of the the various episodes of SG-1, though, and there's probably a limit to how long this blog post should be! So here is my very, very short paper on Stargate. This paper was given at our departmental forum, at the first session of the year, so it was a little more informal than most of my papers, as we wanted to do something fun and welcoming for new postgrads.

Stargate is a 1994 film which has since spawned the 10-year long TV series Stargate SG-1, the 5-year long TV series Stargate Atlantis and now Stargate Universe. Since I only have 5 minutes, today I will be focussing on the 1994 movie.

The film opens with the discovery of the titular Stargate at Giza in the 1920s, by a German archaeologist. Then we skip ahead to the 1990s, and the German archaeologist’s daughter recruits Egyptologist Dr Daniel Jackson, who has become an outcast in the archaeological community, to help to translate a cartouche that was found near the Gate. Daniel claims that the Great Pyramid was not built by Cheops and is at least 10,000 years old; contrary to statements made later in the series, he does not at this point claim that the pyramids were built by aliens. The Gate itself is being kept in a secret mountain base by the US air force (how and why this has happened, or how they know what it is, is never explained). Daniel solves a problem other experts have been working on for 2 years in a few hours, they get the Stargate working and a military team, led by Colonel Jack O’Neil, with Daniel in tow, travel through the Gate to an alien planet, where hi-jinks ensue.

Much of the tension in the movie comes from the conflict between Daniel, the archaeologist, and Col. O’Neil, the military man. On a broad level, Daniel, the archaeologist is made to represent science as a whole; he wants to explore the new planet and discover more about its inhabitants, and he displays a curiosity about everything. O’Neil, on the other hand, has been given orders to detonate a nuclear bomb, destroying the planet and its Stargate, in a pre-emptive strike to protect Earth (which he is willing to do because he is suicidally depressed following the accidental death of his son).

The presentation of Daniel the Egyptologist as a quintessential Hollywood scientist has two main aspects. Firstly, he is a fount of all knowledge. There is no area in which Daniel is not an expert, be it Egyptology, archaeology, anthropology, philology, cryptology, astronomy… Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Daniel embodies the American stereotype of the science geek.

The science geek is an easily recognisable character in American TV and film. He or she wears bad glasses, often has asthma or other respiratory problems, has bad hair, wears bad clothes, and speaks in a nervous and often comic voice, sometimes with a stutter. At this point I went through some pictures of typical science geeks - Leonard form The Big Bang Theory, Frink from The Simpsons and so on.

Dr Daniel Jackson wears big glasses, has long, floppy hair (in direct contrast to the military crew cuts sported by most of the rest of the cast), wears tweed with elbow patches, stutters a little and suffers from allergies, many involving sneezing a lot. He appears foolish to the air force men he works with, and has to lie about his ability to get them home to get on the team.

This view of the archaeologist as a geek is in direct contrast to the more usual view of the archaeologist as adventurer. Although Indiana Jones looks pretty geeky while teaching, he quickly becomes much cooler and magically regains the power of perfect vision before contact lenses came into common usage, as soon as he leaves the office. Other movie archaeologists are just cool from the beginning and are characterised as treasure hunters, rather than scientists or historians. I believe that the characterisation of Daniel Jackson in Stargate is entirely governed by the decision to portray him as an archetypal scientist, rather than a treasure hunter.

It should be noted that, at the end of the movie, Daniel does turn out to be the romantic hero and gets the girl, while in SG-1, although he starts out as the floppy-haired sneezing geek, by the end of ten years he has become a lot more cool, with shorter, more military hair, better glasses, tight black T-shirts, a lot more muscles and no allergies. Clearly, no Hollywood writer can resist the allure of the adventurer archaeologist, even if they start out with a very different character.

End of the paper. I didn't use this paper as an excuse to show off lots of pretty pictures of the Daniels Jackson at all, oh no, whatever can you mean...

Monday, 26 April 2010

Rubicon (by Steven Saylor)

As I still live in the Land of No Cinema, I haven't seen Centurion yet, and I'm not sure I'm going to (it looks a bit gory for me anyway!). But the excellent Antoninus Pius (1923 years old and still going strong) has a few words about it here, and knows much more about the 'lost legion' than I do anyway.

Before I start, I want to warn everyone that this review contains MAJOR SPOILERS. All my reviews tend to contain some spoilers, partly because they’re half review, half academic musing, and the musing requires the whole plot to be taken into account, and partly because I always think reviews are more fun when read after you’ve watched/read the thing, like discussing it with a friend. And several of the things I review are mysteries and several of my reviews do reveal what happens at the end, and I confess, generally I assume real spoilerphobes will just stay away until they’ve read it themselves. (Also, when I’m reviewing children’s things, I figure parents might want to read up on the stuff that might or might not upset their kids, and the kids themselves won’t necessarily read the blog). But in this case, I wanted to be extra clear – this will really, really spoil the book for you, not only this book but at least one other of the Gordianus books as well (and an Agatha Christie or two into the bargain). If you’re a real spoilerphobe, you might want to avoid even reading the quotes on the back. These books are really, really good – if you’re remotely interested, go out and read it, then come back and read this when you’re done!

I love Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. I enjoy Lindsey Davis’ Falco series a lot as well, but something about Saylor’s clinches it for me – the richness of the writing, how real and how Roman the characters feel, and the way he builds his plots up from genuine historical events. I have to confess a very slight preference for some of the earlier novels – Roman Blood, Arms of Nemesis and The Venus Throw – I like the purity of the conceit in these (Gordianus investigates a real Roman murder mystery, mostly based on speeches of Cicero, and of course he discovers a different conclusion to that recorded by history). A Murder on the Appian Way also fits this pattern, but at the same time takes the series in a new direction, first hinted at in Catalina’s Riddle, as Rome descends back into civil war and Gordianus is dragged into high politics. Rubicon, although it begins and ends with a murder and a solution, is really more about the civil war than it is about solving a crime. It also features a fictitious, rather than a real, murder, for the real Numerius, who may or may not have been related to Pompey, sailed away with Pompey at Brundisium, according to Plutarch. I have to confess a slight preference for the solving of real murders in Gordianus books, but fictional murders are fine too and there aren’t that many real murder mysteries to solve!

Rubicon also features the return of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, in a role he is not known to have played historically, but which is reasonably plausible. When I first read Roman Blood, before I started studying Classics, I didn’t realise that Tiro was a real person and I was overjoyed to find out that not only was Cicero’s likeable slave real, he was manumitted and became famous for inventing shorthand, among other things. Though I think a part of me is still half-convinced he’s fictional, which is perhaps why I buy his covert actions so easily. Anyway, it's nice to see him back here.

Right at the end of the novel, Saylor includes a brief mention of Caesar's dream, not quite as well known as his wife's but fairly famous, in which he dreamed he had sex with his own mother. The interesting things about this dream is that it moves. Suetonius says the dream occured while Caesar was quaestor in Spain (Julius 7). Dio Cassius agrees that it happened in Spain, but doesn't mention the dream until he is describing the later civil war between Caesar and Pompey, to emphasise the horror and the awfulness of Caesar's actions (41.24). Plutarch goes one step further. Never one to let history get in the way of a good story, Plutarch claims that Caesar had this dream the night before he crossed the Rubicon (Caesar 32). Historically, Suetonius is probably the most likely to be closer to the truth, but Plutarch moves the dream so as to make Caesar's violation of the river and of Rome seem more dreadful - and Saylor does exactly the same thing. The dream is so much more dramatic when placed there, and can say so much more about Caesar and his character and his actions, it's not hard to see why Plutarch's version of the story works better for a novel.

This novel does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s going on at each stage of the war. Where Rome frequently leaves the viewer somewhat baffled and even anxious to rejoin Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier simply because at least their plotlines are comprehensible, Saylor not only explains exactly what’s going on, he also gets right into the minds of his characters who, unlike us, do not know what is going to happen. Sometimes, retellings of the civil war come with a sense of inevitability; we know Caesar won, he was always going to win. But Saylor fully explores the options open to the Pompeian party, and why Pompey might have done what he did, and for a moment you almost think Pompey might even stand a chance.

Saylor also takes care to explain the history of his main character, partly to catch up new readers and partly because it’s central to the story. I found the idea of the tiny roll of paper inside a shoe rather surprising and a teensy bit OTT, but it did a very good job of reminding readers, or explaining to new readers, who Gordianus and his family were and what connections they had to Cicero, Pompey and Caesar. I was surprised to see old readers forcibly reminded of Saylor’s most shocking ending so far, in which the murder of the philosopher Dio turned out to have been committed by Gordianus’ own young daughter, Diana, in revenge for Dio’s previous abuse of her mother. As it turned out, this was preparing the reader for Saylor to go for the only resolution potentially more surprising than the culprit being the detective’s daughter, as the culprit in this case is Gordianus himself.

I wasn’t quite as shocked by this resolution as I was some years ago when I read the Dio story. I had wondered way back at the beginning why no one seemed to suspect Gordianus himself when he seemed the obvious prime suspect, and I wondered why Gordianus didn’t seem to be making any great effort to actually locate the killer before going to Pompey. I hadn’t actually guessed though, and it was a very satisfying solution. Gordianus’ motive made sense, and there were no glaring passages that couldn’t work with this conclusion. I’ve always been a bit disappointed that I can never fully appreciate The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because I already know the central conceit (I have a feeling I’ve ruined the final Poirot book for myself as well, which I’m really miffed about, but don’t say any more in case I’m wrong!) so this book made me happy, since I was able to properly appreciate this clever ploy, well done. You’d think that would be the end for the detective, but since the motive is understandable and the circumstances extreme, I think most readers will forgive Gordianus, just this once.

What I did see coming, once Gordianus had confessed, was the final twist – that Meto had never betrayed Caesar at all and got the documents to Numerius deliberately. This seemed completely obvious to me from the moment Gordianus explained his motive, it’s just the sort of double bluff that gets played in these things, and Meto’s loyalty to Caesar had been so strong it would be very odd for him to have turned against him. At least this spared me from being completely depressed at the rather dark and downbeat ending, since I was pleased to have been right. Saylor does offer some consolation though, in the form of Numerius’ girlfriend, who has found a way to keep her baby after all, and of course, Davus and the rest of Gordianus’ family are OK. This prevents the ending from being so depressing it might put one off the books all together! As it is, I'm wondering whether I can get hold of a reasonably priced copy of Last Seen in Massilia, since the ending was also almost veering into cliffhanger territory...

Caesar

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Time of Angels

River Song's an archaeologist, right? I figure that's a good enough excuse to blog any episode she happens to be in!

Actually, she wasn't the only Pop Classics-y reference here - 'Octavian' is apparently a sacred name in the future. Interesting choice, since its best known as the name Augustus had during his cold-blooded killer phase, before he decided to revamp his image. But then, 'sacred' seems to mean something rather different here - it's as if the Salvation Army have suddenly gone very, very literal. I must confess, I really didn't take to the Christian army ranks. This is partly because I was really, really hoping that now that Russel T Davies has left, the series would leave religion and religious imagery alone for a while, since he really over-did it, and partly because all I could see any time anyone said 'Bishop' was this. They might as well have called themselves the Spanish Inquisition.

I do like the Future!Army guys though. Always good to see some army guys, even if they might as well all have been wearing red shirts.

River Song just gets more and more awesome. I'm honestly not sure whether 'hallucinogenic lipstick' is the silliest thing I've ever heard, or the most awesome weapon since Drusilla's fingernails, but I do like the way she was given an opportunity to strut her stuff in fancy evening wear as well as run around in fatigues. I personally may be a classicist/ancient historian rather than an archaeologist, but I think we all share a fondness for getting all dressed up from time to time, as well as for running around ancient sites in an old T-shirt. I liked the museum as well. I've been to several historical exhibits in churches so that made sense and it looked gorgeous, and I love that the Doctor wanders around museums looking for his own stuff - wouldn't we all do that, if we had the chance!

Nice use of time travel from the Structure King again (go back and watch Coupling - Moffat just loves to play with structure. It's his favourite thing). Though I have to confess, when River jumped out of the spaceship, I half expected her to be picked up twenty-nine seconds later and dumped on the pier at Southend.

All in all, not the best episode ever - like the previous episodes this series, it's a bit messy in places - but pretty good, looking forward to next week. And someone, please, give Amy a decent top to go with her tiny, tiny skirt.

Edited to add: Amy thinking her arm was stone was a bit odd, since Karen Gillan was 'The Fires of Pompeii'. Bit too similar there, took me out of the episode a bit. But I guess that would only bother super-geeks like me!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Rome: Stealing from Saturn

The bulk of this episode is built around the return of Caesar to Rome, which is odd, as I'm pretty sure Caesar shouldn't be anywhere near Rome at this point. He should be attacking Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (an ancestor of Nero) at Corfinium and beseiging Pompey at Brundisium. However, there is not nearly enough sex in such a storyline for Rome, so instead, he poddles back into Rome to go to a party.

We open with some people being tortured. Of course.

We are with Pompey, Cato, Cicero and Brutus, and Pompey's (fictitious, possibly a blend of his two real sons) son has just come up from 'Brindisi' - interesting use of the modern name rather than the Roman 'Brundisium'. Pompey is trying to find out what happened to the gold he lost last week. Apparently this gold will be completely vital to Caesar.

Caesar has entered Rome and goes to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus to ask for auguries in his favour. He is planning a fancy dinner with a woman who is Not His Wife (Atia of course) and insisting that she also invite Servilia. Atia is shagging Mark Antony, which means we get to see more of James Purefoy without his shirt on, which is always nice. She is also trying to force Octavian to go and shag someone himself (she's not fussed who). I know Romans expected young men to run a bit wild in their pre-marital youth and didn't mind who they slept with, but I think a mother trying to force her young son (who, I'm pretty sure, has yet to put on his toga, i.e. become a man, socially speaking) to go and have sex with something is going a bit far. Octavian isn't quite up on everything yet either, as he still thinks Atia had nothing to do with Glabius' death.

Boring Currently-Ex Soldier is also planning a feast, to mark the setting up of his new business, but is summoned to see Mark Antony, who is being cleaned in the middle of a courtyard instead of in the bathhouse for reasons best known to himself. And woah! Yep, he's totally naked. Absolutely butt-naked and viewed from all sides, albeit from what the cameraperson obviously thought was a tactful distance. But there's nothing left to the imagination. You'll be unsurprised to hear, dear reader, that this was one of the scenes I remembered particularly clearly in the years between my first viewing of Rome and my getting the DVD for Christmas last year. On the one hand, here we have James Purefoy in his birthday suit. Yummy. On the other hand - they're not even in a military camp or something (where, presumably, bathhouses might be in short supply), they're in the middle of the city of Rome! For crying out loud, could Mark Antony not have himself cleaned in the bathhouse like everyone else? And yes, I know this is Mark Antony, lover of sex, booze and the fun things in life, but really, even he had his limits.

I'm sure he and Boring Ex-Soldier talked about some stuff in this scene, but, well, I was distracted. I think Boring, still determined to commit suicide-by-politician, continued to whinge.

Servilia is worried that she doesn't look as good as she did eight years ago, while Atia, not bothered but such self-doubt, chooses a wig from a bunch of wige that look just like her hair.

Boring is worried no one will come to his party (probably because, firstly, he's very boring, and secondly, the city is under martial law in the middle of a civil war and people may not feel like partying). People do come though, unfortunately including Niobe's ex-lover, her brother-in-law. Boring wants to be a slave-trader, which seems a rather seedy trade for someone so obsessed with honour and so on. Niobe's sister is sulking at the sight of the baby and starts threatening to tell Boring everything, screaming that she loves her husband - funny way of showing it, dobbing him in to a trained killer. The sisters start fighting and break a pot. I'm pretty sure that's a bad omen of some kind.

Ceasar and Mark Antony are busy bribing an augur through the subtle means of suggesting they want to get his wife a birthday present (combined with some threats involving choking on oysters) - this does not impress Caesar's slave, who seems to feel the money is running out.

The pot breaking was indeed a bad omen, so bad that Boring has decided that the sister and her husband must never come again (this is fine by Niobe, of course). Pompey junior interrupts to call poor Niobe a trollop (does anyone just say hello to that poor woman?) and demand Pompey's money, which of course, Boring knows nothing about. Just as they're about to tortue Niobe to make him give it up, luckily for him, Dodgey Soldier turns up, splashing the very money about all over the place. He and Boring fight Pompey's men off but Boring insists that Dodgey must give the money to Caesar and orders him to do so, and Dodgey leaves in a huff with Pompey junior and the money (which was stolen from the treasury apparently, hence Boring feels it belongs to Caesar and Pompey thinks Caesar needs it).

Caesar sends Pompey junior back to his father with an offer of a truce and, though he thinks Dodgey is an idiot, rewards him anyway, partly for his help and partly because he thinks he's lucky. Caesar is in a very bad mood, and even whinges at Antony for disagreeing with him in front of others. Octavian wants to know what's going on, but quickly works out that Caesar intends to offer a truce Pompey can't accept. Just at that moment, Caesar suffers an epileptic fit, and his personal slave gets Octavian to help him to rush Caesar off to somewhere no one will see them. A slave notices Octavian shutting the door, but luckily puts it down to sexual preference rather than epilepsy (Romans were always spreading rumours about the sexual preferences of their leaders, but a disease like epilepsy would be a severe problem for someone needing to win the loyalty of thousands).

Meanwhile, Atia is trying to win the Wooden Spoon award by going on and on about how much Caesar loves Servilia in front of both Servilia and Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, both of whom refuse to rise to the bait, even though Atia has got some sexy dancers out just to rub it in. As they leave, Caesar tells Calpurnia he won't be coming home due to business, which she doesn't believe for a second, and rightly so. Atia is rather disappointed too, and actually weeps on Octavian's shoulder about how alone she is. You'd feel more sorry for her if she hadn't been in bed with Mark Antony that very morning.

Pompey and the others argue about the truce, which Cicero is in favour of and Cato is emphatically not. Dodgey comes to visit Boring for reasons unknown and overhears Niobe refusing to take her brother-in-law back because she loves Boring. Luckily, Dodgey decides not to take anything out on Niobe - presumably, he feels that Boring is better off knowing nothing about it, if she really loves him - but the rather insipid brother-in-law is in big trouble.

The episode ends with good auguries for Caesar. Bet that didn't surprise anyone either, then or now.

This episode is enjoyable enough, though it suffers from almost totally leaving history behind. The best bit was the very short scene between Caesar, Octavian and the slave. We know that Caesar will eventually adopt Octavian as his heir, which the series often doesn't seem to give much time to, even though it's of vital importance. More importantly, we are pretty confident that Caesar was epileptic, and we know that there were rumours about his sexuality all his life, from when he was young and befriended Nicomedes. The idea that a young boy seen helping him through an epileptic fit could be misunderstood as a sexual relationship is a perfect explanation of how these things fit together. Even better, for once, Rome chooses not to go for the salacious option, but to imply that at least one character was actually less sexually active than was commonly believed. This makes a pleasant change!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Enemies of Jupiter (TV adaptation)

I want to read The Gladiators from Capua, but I don't have the book of The Enemies of Jupiter, so I've skipped The Dolphins of Laurentum for now (I'll come back to it later) and decided to watch the TV adaptation of The Enemies of Jupiter so I know what's going on in The Gladiators from Capua. So I haven't read the book and am talking only about the TV adaptation here!

In this story, Doctor Mordecai, unaware that his wife is still alive and a slave to Titus, wants to remarry. Luckily (!) a plague draws him to Rome, where his wife is living.

This story features another prophetic dream, which always makes me happy of course and is thoroughly appropriate for a story heavily featuring Aesculapius, who had a marked tendency to appear to people in dreams. Titus has had a dream about a Pandora's box being opened by a Prometheus, and he believes that it means an enemy of Jupiter will do something that will destroy Rome, and it's this puzzle that Flavia offers to try to solve.

Much of the story concerns a certain important box that one is not supposed to open. Josephus (yay!) tells the children about the Ark of the Covenant, which will be especially fun for any viewers who've seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I only saw that film for the first time a couple of years ago, and wasn't entirely paying attention, but even I developed a vague expectation that melting Nazis would somehow be involved in this story. I like the identification of the Ark with Pandora's box - this story makes much more interesting use of the Pandora's box story than most, which is lovely to see.

Titus continues to be portrayed as jealous and potentially very dangerous, even more so than in the books I've read, though of course I haven't read this particular one. I like this grey Titus, though sometimes it makes his acts of kindness seem stranger and less natural.

The sections where Flavia, Nubia and Lupus interrogate various doctors are rather fun, since ancient medicine is always good for a laugh if you're not actually victim to it, though unfortunately these sections are rather lost next to the much more important storyline concerning Mordecai and Susannah. Their reunion is genuinely touching, and of course, the television version has removed the unfortunate detail that Susannah left Mordecai for another man - here, she stayed behind to care for her sick father - so he has no reason to be angry, at least until Titus turns up. Titus is, unsurprisingly, Not Happy, and a nice tense scene ensues between the three, which ends up with Jonathan dragged off by guards again while Susannah suffers from poison inflicted by Berenice (who, historically, is the daughter of Herod Agrippa from I, Claudius, by the way).

Should have recognised the bad guy too - he once tried to eat Jill and Eustace in The Silver Chair. (He's a time traveller as well - he already calls the Flavian amphitheatre the Colosseum). That wasn't the only part that reminded me of The Silver Chair - the children are confronted with a brilliantly awful choice when they have to open the box which may or may not be the Ark of the Covenant in order to save Susannah (which, of course, they do, and it's the right choice, but it's a wonderfully horrible moment!).

I loved Lupus knocking out the bad guy with a slingshot - pure David and Goliath. And in this TV adaptation, poor Jonathan himself certainly isn't responsible - not directly anyway - for the (second) Fire of Rome, he's just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bit where Lupus tries to tell the others where Jonathan is with no voice is also straight out of a nightmare, even if they do realise what he's saying, and very well done. Nubia's musical ability saves the day again too, which is nice.

Flavia is either very brave or very stupid when she decides to tell Titus he and his hubris are the problem, but luckily it works and he lets Susannah go, for he is a goody after all.

The episode ends with Miriam's wedding, which in this version, her mother is able to attend (in the books, Miriam is already married by the end of The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina) so that's nice. In fact, several elements from the un-adapted Twelve Tasks are here, most importantly, Marcus Geminus' desire for Flavia to stop 'running wild' and get married. Only one problem - at the beginning of The Gladiators from Capua, everyone thinks Jonathan is dead! I guess in the book they weren't able to find him in the fire? And Susannah is still with Titus? Hmm, I think a little digging around on the internet is in order...

Edited to add: Looks like Twelve Tasks has been adapted, in series 2 - it's just the wedding and the first mention of Flavia's own marriage that have been moved!

Monday, 19 April 2010

The English Patient (dir. Anthony Minghella, 1996)

Well, this post was going to be on the next episode of Chelmsford 123, but unfortunately I've lost my source of Chelmsford 123 episodes, so I've had to come up with an alternative rather quickly. As a result, this post is based on my somewhat hazy memories of the film in question, so please forgive any glaring errors or omissions!

I'm torn about The English Patient. On the one hand, this is a film which features both Ralph Fiennes and Mr Darcy (sorry Colin Firth, but you will always be Mr Darcy!) and not only provides a chance to talk about the desert, but was filmed in the very bit of desert that I went to! On the other hand, it's very, very, very depressing. It's like either the novelist or scriptwriter thought of the most depressing story they could, then added to it's misery by killing off Sergeant Lewis into the bargain.

The bit that interests me here, of course, is the battered and much-doodled in copy of Herodotus that the Patient carries around with him. Herodotus seems to hold an intriguing place within the popular imagination. No popular culture hero that I can think of carries around a copy of Thucydides or sings his praises - Thucydides is considered simply too dull. A character who professed a great love for Thucydides would be a bore, a nerd/geek/dork/whatever, a person more interested in dead Greeks than in the living. On the other hand, plenty of popular heroes are very fond of Homer, and may own copies of the Iliad or the Odyssey. But that wouldn't be quite right for The English Patient either. Homer is too mythical, too unreal (and before anyone suggests that the Iliad is more 'realistic', remember that there's a talking horse in it) and, perhaps, too military. The English Patient is about war, but is is much more about romance and prejudice, themes not especially prevalent in Homer. A hero who reads Homer is a soldier or an adventurer, an Achilles, a Hector or an Odysseus, and the Patient (Count László de Almásy - no, I can't remember, spell or pronounce his name!) is none of those things.

So why does the hero here read Herodotus? Perhaps because Herodotus stands for a love of travel and a wide-ranging interest. Herodotus is certainly a more entertaining read than Thucydides, and he is famously open-minded, recording vast amounts of material even he seems to doubt and allowing plenty of space in his narrative for non-Greek peoples and characters. Herodotus was well-travelled and included an entire Book that's more or less a travelogue, and he recorded several of the most famous incidents in Greek history (Croesus and the Delphic Oracle, Thermopylae, Marathon, the 'wooden walls' and Salamis). Someone who loves Herodotus is broad-minded (very important in this story), fond of travel and interested in bizarre and unusual stories.

The Atlas mountains, at Chebika, where some of the movie was filmed.

Herodotus also occupies an intriguing cultural niche - not as well-known as Homer, more well known than Thucydides. Someone who has never read any Greek literature - me at age 16 for example - has probably heard of Homer and has some knowledge of the contents of the Odyssey if not the Iliad, may have heard of Herodotus but not really know what he wrote about other than Greek history, and might not have heard of Thucydides, or might not know what he wrote about (I've left out Xenophon, who would occupy a similar place to Thucydides, but without the reputation for crushing boredom). So a hero who reads Herodotus is someone with 'interesting' taste - someone who reads things that are classics and that are clearly interesting and worth reading, but not common reading material - just that little bit exotic.

Perhaps this is the appeal of Herodotus to authors (this is not the only story to have a hero who likes Herodotus. Neil Gaiman's American Gods, for example, also features Herodotus prominently at the beginning as a sign of education and interest, but I still haven't even got halfway through that book, so please don't make a comment that spoils it for me!). Herodotus is familiar - a classic text, studied by generations of schoolchildren, especially at the time The English Patient is set - but also just a little bit exotic, just a little bit less familiar than Homer might be. With Herodotus' text itself so interested in the strange and the exotic, the combination serves to make the hero 'interesting' in the best way, making his character more intriguing and less predictable than he might otherwise be.

This area is actually by a really big oasis, one of the biggest. Knowing this can make it hard to get into the tragic spirit at the end!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Discworld: Eric

The front cover of my old edition of Eric has the word 'Faust' in German Gothic lettering, crossed out with 'Eric' scrawled next to it (and 'Terry Pratchett' in big gold letters, which is ironic since there's a joke in the book about bad novels in which the author's name is in big gold letters on the cover). It is, as this implies, a loose (very loose) re-working of Dr Faustus, and makes several jokes about what would happen to a face that launched a thousand ships. Young Eric Thursley tries to summon a demon to grant him three wishes, but ends up with Rincewind instead (who had been running around Hell for reasons relating to the conclusion of Sourcery). Thanks to the machinations of a demon usurper, Rincewind finds himself granting Eric's three wishes in the usual you-don't-quite-get-what-you-wanted way.

Eric's first wish, to be ruler of all the nations, takes them to a jungle civilization who intend to sacrifice their ultimate ruler to their god, a demon of a kind similar to the fear-demon from Buffy's 'Fear, Itself'. There isn't much in the way of Classical elements here, but Eric does make the same mistake I used to make as a child (OK, as an 18-year-old). He thinks the jungle - the Discworld equivalent of the Amazon - will contain Amazonian princesses, the mythical female warrior tribe of ancient Greece. For years and years - all the time I studied A Midsummer Night's Dream - I wondered how on earth Hippolyta and the other Amazons got all the way from South America to Greece. (I often used to get geographically confused in this way - when I was about ten, I read the Babysitter's Club books but assumed that they were set in England, because I lived in England, and wondered how it was possible to catch a train to New York...).

Eric's second wish is to meet the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, which of course takes him to the Discworld's Helen of Troy, Elenor of Tsort (or possibly Ephebe). However, he is in for a disappointment, as Elenor, ten years on from her journey to Tsort, is now a middle-aged ordinary-looking woman with a bit of a moustache and many, many children. Some of her appearance is down to the passage of ten years, but the narrative also implies that she wasn't actually that beautiful in the first place and a lot of the stories are down to poetic exaggeration. I think the idea that her dowdy appearance is due to the passage of time is more fun and interesting, since it plays on an obvious flaw in the tale; poetic exaggeration is a more common idea that could be applied to anything really.

While in Tsort, Rincewind and Eric inadvertently let in the Ephebian army and burn down the city, thus ending the war and granting victory to the Ephebians. The Horse is in the story, but the Tsorteans are not fooled by it for one moment since it is such a ridiculous idea. Exactly what happens to Elenor in the end is unclear - she wanted to stay in Tsort, but since it burned down, presumably she went back to Ephebe.

Naturally, since the Horse is around, we meet the Discworld version of Odysseus, who is called Lavaeolus, and is an ancestor of Rincewind. The name is translated within the book as 'Rinser-of winds' and it was pointed out in the comments a while ago that this comes from 'lavo' (Latin 'I wash') and Aeolus, master of the winds. The suggestion of a connection between Rincewind and Odysseus is interesting. There's a certain logic to it - Odysseus did try to get out of the war by pretending to be mad and does have a penchant for the less fighty, more intriguy aspects of warfare, carrying out night raids on the enemy camp and coming up with the Horse idea. But, to me, it just doesn't quite work - Rincewind's reaction to everything is simply to run away, with very little thought about what's going on, while the point of Odysseus' character is that he is the brain-over-brawn guy, which doesn't necessarily make him cowardly (and he certainly wasn't the only one who tried to get out of the war), just clever and a little bit sneaky. Perhaps the essential problem is really that Odysseus is one of my favourite characters from mythology, while Rincewind is one of my least favourite characters from the Discworld.

Eric's third wish is to be immortal, which gets them sent right back to the Creation of the universe, so that he can fuly appreciate immortality. In order to escape, Eric has to draw a new magic circle and get himself and Rincewind to Hell/Hades.

A lot of translations of the New Testament transliterate the Greek 'Hades' as it is, but then add a footnote explaining that this means 'Hell', and for years I thought that they were one and the same thing. It's been a very long time since I read Dr Faustus, so perhaps it makes the same conection. In fact, as far as pre-Christian mythology goes, the two are different concepts. The ancient Hades - the Hades of the Odyssey - is just where everybody goes. There are similar elements - some sources include the Isles of the Blessed for the very lucky, and there is usually a bit of Hades, or the underworld, set aside for those suffering eternal torments, like Tantalus and Sisyphus. For the most part, however, the underworld is just the underworld, and is the place where everyone ends up. The Christian Hell, on the other hand, is where you go if you're naughty, and is the place with the fires and the demons and the grinding of teeth. Some of this is in the New Testament as 'Hades', hence the conglomeration of the two, but a lot of it represents medieval developments, such as the demons and Dante's circles.

Pratchett deliberately combines the two into one Hell/Hades (he uses both words) so we get the best - or the worst - of both worlds. It leans more towards the Christian side, though, since everyone is being tortured for all eternity, which is a bit depressing if everyone ends up there. On which subject, the only problem with this is that I did wonder why Lavaeolus and another character from earlier in the story ended up in Hell - did they have guilty consciences? Were they just very pessimistic, so they believed that they were going there? It's nice to see them again anyway - though Lavaeolus is not impressed that they failed to properly warn him about his long journey home.

Hell, at the time at which Rincewind and Eric visit it, is under new management, and physical torture - which didn't bother anyone because they soon realised they had no bodies or nerve endings to feel pain - has been replaced with mental torture. So the Discworld Prometheus has to listen to the eagle tell him about its hernia operation and the Discworld Sisyphus has to listen to all the many, many Health and Safety Regulations concerning pushing large rocks up hills before he can do anything. It's very funny and way too familiar in the same way as Rob Grant's novel Incompetence (which is very good, by the way). By the end of the book, however, the management has changed again and it seems that everything will soon return to normal.

I quite like Eric, but I only have the text-only version, so I'm probably missing something without the illustrations. To be honest, it would never be one of my favourites anyway, as I find it hard to warm to Rincewind. I appreciate his desire to stay alive, but a character whose chief characteristic is running away just doesn't quite interest me as much as many of the other Discworld characters. Eric is good fun though, and plays on real world mythology and literature even more than most Discworld books, which is a good thing - it's almost like reading Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, but for myths.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989)


I have seen the future, and it will look and sound like the 1980s.

This is Bill and Ted's classic first cinema outing, in which a man from the future lends them a time machine so that they can interview historical figures for their history report, so that they won't fail senior year, Ted won't be sent to military school, and the society of the future, built on their rock music and their philosophy of 'Be excellent to each other and party on dudes!', will be secure.

Bill and Ted pick up a number of historical characters and drag them back to San Dimas, California, to do their oral history report (on what people from the past would think of San Dimas) for them. Luckily, with the possible exception of Napoleon, all the historical characters are so impressed by the time machine that they seem perfectly happy to do this. So, in preparation, for two hours Billy the Kid, Socrates (referred to by everyone as So-crates), Freud, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln run amok in the shopping mall at San Dimas, several of them ending up getting arrested in the process.

The most awesome thing about this generally awesome movie is the languages - everyone speaks the correct language! People who would also speak English also speak English, those who would not speak English (pretty much just Socrates and Genghis Khan really, though Joan of Arc is pretty silent in general and Napoleon and Beethoven don't seem terribly strong in this regard) don't. I have to confess, unlike Latin, Ancient Greek is not a language I've heard spoken at all outside of class and I don't speak Modern Greek, so I can't actually tell whether Socrates is correctly speaking ancient Greek or speaking modern Greek - but it's some kind of Greek anyway! I love that such a fun, silly movie took the time to give everyone the right language, rather than the usual sort of excuse along the lines of 'the time machine translates for everyone/here's a machine that translates everything/here's a magic fish that translates everything etc. Even at the final report, this reality is maintained, and Socrates mimes his report on what he thinks of San Dimas while Ted 'translates', which is pretty funny.

Other awesome things about this movie include: the clever use of the time travel set-up, with a structure worthy of Steven Moffat, Bill and Ted's bizarre but somehow appealing vocabulary, the suggestion from Ted before he did his homework that Joan of Arc was 'Noah's wife' and Caesar was something to do with salad dressing, Billy the Kid picking up Bill and Ted's interesting use of language, Napoleon at 'Waterloo', Freud in general (especially his analysis of Ted's father), the scene where all the important historical figures help to do Bill's chores, the running joke about Bill's stepmother who was in school with the boys not long ago which eventually pays off as Bill tells Freud he has a 'minor Oedipal complex', Beethoven's updated music, the 80s soft rock in general (I'm a child of the 80s, I can't help it!).

I also love the phone box. I can never work out whether the writer/director knows Doctor Who and is deliberately making fun of the TARDIS, or if it's just a crazy coincidence, but the tiny phone box with all the historical figures crammed into it just doesn't stop being funny.

Socrates himself comes out of this movie very well. The more appealing parts of his philosophy are brought to the forefront and he likes Bill and Ted because they tell him that 'all we are is dust in the wind, dude'. Ancient Greece, according to Bill and Ted is 'most tranquil' and looked like a Led Zeppelin cover. Socrates, however, livens up considerably and throws himself into the adventure with gusto, helping to rescue Bill and Ted from a medieval executioner, making friends with Billy the Kid and declaring that he loves San Dimas at the end. It's great to see an ancient philosopher represented as a real, fun-loving human being rather than a dry old man who sits around doing nothing all day, and to see Socrates as a hero rather than an obscure background character. I like the way he and Billy the Kid make friends too.

It's interesting to see Greece representing the ancient world rather than Rome as well. A lot of the time, as you can tell from the relative use of my post labels, pop culture interests itself in Roman history, and Greek mythology. Greek history, with a few exceptions mostly involving Alexander, gets left out. Much as it would have been fun to see Caesar, it's actually rather nice that ancient history is represented, not by a Roman soldier, but by a Greek philosopher. As well as offering a change from the frequent appearances of centurions and reminding everyone that Greeks did do other things as well as tell good stories, this avoids an excess of military figures in the group. In fact, the selection of figures in general shows a lovely cultural spread, including plenty of artists and thinkers, not just military leaders and fighters, which offers a really nice slice of life in the past, rather than the old succession of kings, dates and battles.

One less awesome thing about this movie - Socrates must have felt right at home in Bill nad Ted's group, since there are almost no women in it. In all of history, the only woman they thought interesting was Joan of Arc? Don't get me wrong, Joan of Arc is very cool, but even she falls down a bit when, in the mall, she throws herself into a workout seesion populated entirely by women. I guess it could have been worse - she could have gone clothes shopping - but she's clearly pigeonholed into an activity mostly engaged in by women, which doesn't seem right for Joan of Arc. Meanwhile, the only other female characters are the medieval 'babes' rescued by Rufus at the end and Missy the Oedipal stepmother - nothing wrong with them, they're funny, but this means women are chiefly relegated to sex objects. It was 1989 - they couldn't have been a bit more enlightened than that and picked up Elizabeth 1st, Queen Victoria, Cleopatra, Pochohontas or Marie Antoinette (who does get a mention in another, very boring, report)?

That's a minor gripe though - this film is totally silly, but absolutely hilarious and actually a pretty good way of drumming some history into kids without them even realising that that's what you're doing. It also provided a great early role for Keanu Reeves - I don't care what anyone says about his acting, I think he's great and will not be gainsaid on this matter. They just don't make them like this any more, more's the pity...

The last line of this movie is also the best last line since 'Nobody's Perfect!' - as Bill and Ted make such awful noise on their guitars that my cat freaked out and thought we were under attack, their benefactor Rufus looks straight at the camera and reassures the audience, looking somewhat embarrassed, 'They get better!'

Monday, 12 April 2010

Xena Warrior Princess: Dreamworker


First of all, I haven't managed see Clash of the Titans, which I'm actually quite sad about, coz it looks like big, silly fun, but big silly fun best enjoyed on a cinema screen. Perhaps I will make up for this by eventually seeing on TV with friends and alcohol. However, Cleolinda has done a short parody of it, so here's a link to that in lieu of an actual review!

Anyway, on with Xena. Only the third episode in and it’s an entire episode about dreams, yay! In this episode, Gabrielle is kidnapped by ‘mystics’ who want to sacrifice her to be the bride of Morpheus, god of dreams. Xena must go through a series of challenges in a dreamscape in order to rescue Gabrielle.

The use of dreams in this episode generally has little to do with ancient dream beliefs beyond the use of the name ‘Morpheus’. The dream vision the blind former mystic tells Xena he has seen is most like an ancient dream. It’s a direct vision-prophecy, showing him exactly what would happen, which is unusual but not unknown in ancient texts, and they way he reports and acts on it is reasonably ancient.

The ‘dreamscape’ and the other uses of dreams, however, come not from classical myth or history, but from modern science fiction and fantasy, where the dreamscape is an ideal way of exploring your main characters’ worries, preoccupations and desires. I’m stumped to think of any pre-Xena examples right now, though I’m sure the older Star Trek series (Classic and TNG) can provide some. Post-Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Restless), Star Trek: Voyager (Waking Moments), Farscape and Stargate: SG-1 have all used dreams in this way. The idea of the ‘dreamscape’ or dreamworld, where living characters can meet and interact even when separated by great distances (used to great effect, for example, in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Trilogy, an excellent series of fantasy books I would thoroughly recommend, but best to start with the Assassin trilogy first) in rarely attested in reality if at all. Various cultures see dreams as a way to meet and communicate with the dead or the divine, but not with other living mortals.

In this case, although Xena is able to meet with Gabrielle to give her advice, for the most part we’re strictly in character study territory, with some of Xena’s dark past, alluded to in the first episode, being filled in, though so far it’s mostly your basic village attacked, forced to kill lots of nasty men story. Scary black-contact-lens Xena, meanwhile, seems to be a projection of Xena’s Jungian Shadow, her dark side which, like all good warrior heroes, she is constantly battling.
Gabrielle is still the ‘innocent’ comic relief and still hasn’t got out of her blue blouse/red skirt combo, at least until she is put into a bridal dress for ‘marriage’ with Morpheus. Xena wears an intriguing purple outfit in the dreamscape, which looks almost Japanese-ish in design – whether this is a clue to her origins or a random decision on the part of a bored costume designer is, at this point, impossible to say.

This episode uses the dreamscape pretty effectively, especially in Xena’s final acceptance of her darker side, and Gabrielle’s enforced use of brain over brawn is nice too, though, presumably, she will indeed have to kill someone at some point during the series – I hope they remember to make something of that when it happens. And she’s still stuck in that peasant costume! Overall, though, I liked it - I'm always a sucker for dream-y episodes and although this one was a bit obvious, it was nicely done.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Romans 3, Conspiracy

This is episode 3 out of 4 of the Willian Hartnell-era story 'The Romans', so, unsurprisingly, it's chiefly composed of padding and marking time to get to episode four, though the titular 'conspiracy' seems to be ticking away in the background.

Poor old Ian is about to be sent to 'fight' lions in the arena - which, one suspects, adds up to being fed to them. Meanwhile, Nero wander around his (Golden?) house, picking on slaves, and the Doctor is trying to work out whether there's a conspiracy afoot.

Next, we get to meet Poppaea. She is youngish but not very young, blonde, sophisticated and her relationship with Nero seems to resemble Margo and Jerry from The Good Life as much as anything else (only not as nice!). Barbara is presented to her, and Poppaea declares grandly that she likes being Empress and does not wish this situation to change, though how she expects Barbara to protect herself from Nero, I'm not sure. Barbara is immediately chased down a corridor by Nero, who is stopped when he runs into Vicki, who once again just misses seeing Barbara. Nero catches up to Barbara again, but this time is stopped by the Doctor, who also doesn't see her. The whole thing looks distinctly like a French farce; the Doctor laughs at Nero's behaviour and the music seems to be suggesting that we should be laughing too.

Vicki, meanwhile, has stumbled across the court poisoner (who, ironically, looks not unlike Sian Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius). Vicki is cheerfully informed that everyone expects the family of Caesar to murder each other. This is starting to look like something out of Farscape (minus the puppets) and the series has strayed into presenting us with the pop-cultural view of Rome, rather than anything resembling Roman history. It is true that there was a period (later, during the third century) where emperors took to murdering each other at an alarming rate. It is also true that various historians - Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius - occasionally imply, infer or downright accuse members of the Julio-Claudian imperial family of murdering each other (a subject covered in great detail by I, Claudius - perhaps the writers of this episode had read the book). However, Tacitus and Suetonius never once imply that all this murder and poison is OK or expected - bad emperors are marked by their bloodthirstiness, Nero being one of the worst, and good emperors leave the poisoning to their wives. If any of them did have a 'court poisoner', it wouldn't be an official position (though they might employ a known poisoner like Martina). This scene seems to spring from the basic notion that Roman emperors had a tendency to bump each other off, but without any more in depth understanding of how Roman society really worked. And yes, I know, it's only Doctor Who, but before I get accused of nit-picking, it is worth bearing in mind that these early historical stories were supposed to educate children as well as entertain them.

They have got one thing right though - poisoning is woman's work. Men were expected to kill each other in much more macho ways, while women were forced to resort to poison, being physically weaker.

Nero continues to chase Barbara, demanding 'a kiss', while the Doctor and Poppaea listen to her screams from outside the door. The Doctor doesn't even try to help, but wanders off, but Poppaea walks in and allows Barabara to leave, while Nero insists that she was chasing him.

The woman in the cell next to Ian is the one who was helped by Barbara, and she tells him that Barbara has been sold. The Doctor and Nero organise his first concert while in the baths, while Poppaea decides to poison Barbara, still convinced that she wants to be Empress (unlikely, since even Nero was unlikely to marry a slave or freedwoman, whatever Suetonius says about secret wedding ceremonies between Nero and a male slave).

Nero and Barbara are about to have a drink, when Vicki tells the Doctor, quite calmly, that she thinks, in trying to save the unknown slave Poppaea wanted to poison, that she's poisoned Nero. I know Nero's horrible, but she is way too calm and collected about this (though she has managed to save Barbara, who drank first and would have died if Vicki hadn't switched the goblets). The Doctor objects on the grounds that this will mess up history, and stops Nero from drinking. Nero tests this by making a slave drink and the slave immediately collapses, bug-eyed.

Poppaea sends the poisoner to the arena for failing to do her job, and we cut to the feast that evening (Nero stuffing himself with grapes, of course, because This Is What Romans Do!). Bizarrely, everyone is eating sitting at regular dining chairs and waist-height dining tables (perhaps they've been ordering furniture from that strange carpenter from Galilee?!). This is especially weird since Ian and Barbara seemed to be reclining correctly in the first episode. The Doctor is ordered to play, and pretends to pluck the strings while actually making no noise - and somehow, everyone feels this is OK. He explains to Vicki that it's an 'Emperor's New Clothes' situation but really, this is getting far too silly, plus it's thoroughly annoyed Nero, who doesn't like being laughed at and doesn't like other people getting applause.

Nero drags Barbara off to the gladiatorial school, where Ian and his friend are to be forced to fight each other, just like in Star Trek. This theme often crops up in fictitious gladiatorial situations (Roman or otherwise) presumably because writers like the drama and moral dilemma of it, but I suspect it never, or very rarely, happened in reality - if you're watching a fight to the death (and they weren't fought to the death nearly as often as TV would have you believe) you want your gladiators to really go at each other, not feel conflicted about it.

Nero and Barbara seem to be enjoying a private show, and after Ian has refused to kill his friend, the friend gets the better of him, Nero orders his head to be cut off, and Barbara suddenly realises who it is - cue end credits. The next episode is called 'Inferno', so no prizes for guessing what that's about!

Unfortuately, after two pretty good episodes, this one is something of a let-down. The 'comedy' is no longer funny but in places rather offensive, since it stems from Nero's pursuit of Barbara, but I suppose that's understandable given that we are in the era of the Carry On. Less excusable, though, is the Doctor's ridiculous 'Emperor's New Clothes' act; even Nero would never be that drunk or that stupid, and the Doctor looks considerably less intelligent for trying it. Meanwhile the 'court poisoner' is also straying perilously close to the edge of plausibility and Vicki's untroubled approach to her attempted regicide (emp-icide? impicide? hmm!) is utterly strange. Only Ian's storyline remains compelling, and even that is stretched a bit by the insistence on the melodramatic 'let's make the friends fight each other to the death' trope, though perhaps this idea had not been quite so over-used in 1965.

I have reasonably high hopes for the next episode, though, which should end in a lot of flame and fiddling, and in which our heroes will finally stop just missing each other in corridors and be reunited!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Assassins of Rome


There are three basic approaches to writing historical fiction. Historical novels can fictionalise a real event; they can tell an entirely invented story that has an historical setting, or they can fill in the gaps in real events or solve a real historical mystery with fiction. Steven Saylor's Gordianus books nearly always take this third approach, inserting Gordianus into real events or court cases, while Lindsey Davis' Falco books tend more towards fiction, but occasionally include real events or mysteries, often in the background.

One of the most fun things about Caroline Lawrence' Roman Mysteries series is that the series as a whole covers all three approaches, from stories like The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, which is entirely fictional, to The Secrets of Vesuvius, which is largely based on historical record. This novel uses elements of the third approach. The story is entirely fictional, but the setting is a fictional speculation on a real unknown - what exactly Vespasian and Titus used the remains of Nero's Golden House for. An entirely female community of Jewish slave women is, perhaps, a rather surprising solution, but it is probably fair to say that stranger things have happened.

This book is filled with gorgeous descriptions of Rome, and one of my personal favourite aspects was they way Flavia and Nubia travelled all over Rome in a litter! This may seem a bit weird - let me explain. When I was little, The Horse and His Boy was my favourite Narnia book (well, other than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and I loved the whole sequence in Tashbaan, where Aravis rides with her friend Lasraleen in her litter, and I always wanted to do that myself. Now, obviously, this was very un-politically-correct of me. The thing is, when you're six years old and the book you're reading features two talking horses as main characters, you don't really think about the fact that a litter has to be carried by other people, usually slaves. Clearly, being a grown-up, I would never do such a thing, but it is a fun thing to read about and the six-year-old me would have been thrilled!

Of course, another of the good things about these books is that they don't let you forget how awful it is to be a slave. When I was in my late teens and reading Robin Hobb's fantasy series (most definitely not suitable for children) I was shocked when a main character was given a slave tattoo, so I can only imagine how over-sensitive child-me would have reacted to Jonathan's branding here. There is also a pretty clear reference to the rape of an entire city, which may go over the heads of some children (I hope).

On the other hand, some of the details of this story were not as bad as the TV version, which surprised me greatly, since I would normally assume children can take more in a book than visualised on the television. Jonathan's uncle Simeon is not blinded here, but is able to explain himself to the Emperor in time to escape unharmed, and Jonathan's mother assures him that she is not Titus' lover, only his friend. The Emperor comes off rather better and Susannah stays where she is through choice, hoping to influence him. This would have left child-me much, much happier! Josephus also comes off better here, which makes grown-up me happy too.

There's an interesting line about halfway through the book - Sisyphus, the secretary (I kept wondering if his name was significant, but he seemed happy enough!) says 'I'm a Greek, we're not afraid of strong women' - unlike the Romans, who are, especially those from the East. This is certainly true as far as the Romans are concerned, though I think they were equal parts fascinated and appalled by Livia, Cleopatra and the others, and some strong imperial women were greatly admired (Octavia, Agrippina the Elder, Antonia the Younger).

The reference to the Greeks is very interesting. Classical Athens itself was, I think, an awful place to be if you were a woman - rich women were kept inside, allowed out only for religious festivals and funerals, in upper quarters and considered utterly inferior by men (scholarly opinion does vary on the extent to which this was true - personally, I tend to think Athens was a pretty sh***y place to be if you were a woman). Greek literature, however, is pretty ripe with strong women. Clytemnestra and Medea are to be feared, as murderers, but Penelope, Antigone, Electra and Hecuba are all admired. In the first century AD, when the book is set, the Greek genre of the romance novel was taking off, and the heroines in these are pretty strong too. So I think the really interesting point is, would a Greek of the first century AD end up with a view of women that was polar opposite to his forebears, as the original contexts of some of the texts were lost and only the strong, interesting female characters remained? It's certainly something to think about next time I teach Gender in Ancient Rome!

Titus is almost implausibly nice to everyone in this book, but this is tempered by allusions to his behaviour in the past, which I found very interesting. I haven't yet read all of the Falco books, but in the ones I've read, Titus tends to come across pretty well all the time, to contrast him with his horrible brother Domitian. Here, Domitian's brief appearance doesn't reveal anything terrible about him, while Titus, although he has reformed and is behaving very well, is clearly described as not always having been so nice. It's lovely to see these more complex characterisations here. Our heroes do not know that Suetonius will eventually paint Titus as good - though, importantly, only when he was Emperor, not before - and Domitian as bad, so it's good to see them discover this gradually.

The Arch of Titus, commemorating the sack of Jerusalem

I enjoyed this book a lot - it won me over early on with a dream that made use of Penelope's loom, combining some of my favourite themes! And Flavia describing the under-construction Colosseum as 'colossal' made me smile (and yes, the author's note at the back makes clear that the name comes from the statue, not the amphitheatre itself, but Flavia doesn't know that!). It's also clearly set up for a sequel - I'm glad I know that this is not the end of the story, as poor Miriam and Mordecai being in the dark still would be rather frustrating otherwise. The children are sensible as ever, allowing grown-ups to help them and accepting help when they need it, and their use of their musical ability is a nice touch, as this particular skill turns out to be extremely useful.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Rome: An Owl in a Thornbush


This is Rome - expect sex and violence.

We open with Atia whipping one of her slaves herself - really, does she not have anyone to do that for her?! Caesar is marching towards Rome with only one legion - 'suicidal treason', according to Brutus.

Soldiers Boring and Dodgey are sent ahead as scouts with strict instructions that 'there will be no rapine, pillage or burning'. Perhaps Caesar thinks this is why Boring is so sulky - Mark Antony has to tell him it's actually because Boring think they will be punished by the gods for their crime, which the much more practical Antony thinks is only a crime if they lose.

Niobe's lover tries to persuade her that Boring Soldier really is going to die this time, but Niobe has suddenly become much more attached to her marriage vows. Her rather dim daughter thinks she should come clean, while the much more sensible Niobe points out Boring Soldier might kill them all if he found out. Meanwhile, Boring Soldier asks Dodgey Soldier for marital advice. Why he thinks someone whose idea of romance is to rape any woman who crosses his path who isn't a prostitute will be able to give him useful advice concerning his marriage is a bit of a mystery.

Pompey needs four days to assemble his legions, which is a shame for him, as Caesar is only two days away. Cicero desperately looks for an alternative while Cato gets very, very cross. Pompey insists they must leave the city, to re-take it later and Cato points out he has managed to lose Rome without even unsheathing his sword.

Ati is having dinner with Brutus and Servilia, having a screaming hissy fit about the Pompeians outside while Octavian tried to think things through properly despite his mother's discouragement and Brutus insists he will never desert Caesar. Lindsey Duncan and Polly Walker play very well off each other, Walker all rage and fire, Duncan completely calm and serene to the point of smugness. Pompey is making a right mess of leaving and Cornelia is keeping things together, including reassuring their cuter-than-cute children (no one in a show like Rome should ever have cuter-than-cute children, it's a sure sign that they're doomed - just remember what happened to Sejanus and his kids).

Dodgey Solider proves he is not the person to come to for marital advice by suggesting 'the warm beating heart of an enemy' is the way to a woman's heart. His other advice, it must be said, is better (talk to her, compliment her, and, somewhat unexpectedly, he knows what and where the clitoris is). Pompey's men have been betrayed and his stuff is stolen by some ruffians, along with a young woman who happened to be in the wrong spot on the Appian Way at the wrong time. Atia, meanwhile, plans who should kill who when the mob break in (she's far too cheery about killing her daughter). She and Octavia get into such a row about who should kill who that Octavian has to yell at them to point out that the mob have gone (it's all rather like something out of Chelmsford 123).

Brutus is leaving with the Pompeians, because he thinks they will win, but Servilia insists on staying because she's madly in love with Caesar, despite Brutus' offer to buy her a nice muscular slave to have sex with instead.

Octavia sneaks out to a romantic rendezvous with her fictitious former husband Glabius, despite the fact that when the streets are filled with panicing soldiers is not the best time to do so. She tries to persuade him to leavee because apparently everyone knows he is for Pompey, but they have a quick shag instead. This interrupts Atia's attempt to have sex with her uppity strongman Timon, as she sends Timon out to kill Glabius.

Atia, in the absence of a man of the household, does the Godfather-thing (patronising lesser families, in tis case reassuring Pompeians who've stayed because of business that she will protect them from reprisals from Caesar). Dodgey Soldier is feeling philosophical, wanting to know what the stars are,while Boring Soldier is complaining that they should have been attacked by now by people defending Rome. They run into the ruffians who stole Pompey's stuff, who tells them that Pompey has fled. Dodgey Soldier wants to buy the girl they kidnapped, and when they refuse, Boring Soldier observes that they are a bit well-armed to be guarding a grain wagon - at which point, all hell breask loose and the girl is dragged off when the oxen pulling the cart she's tied to wander away.

Glabius' corpse turns up at Atia's house, much to Octavia's distress, while Atia, having been let down by her guilty expression, swears that she had nothing to do with it and, miraculously, Octavia believes her (though Octavian doesn't). Dodgey Soldier wants to rescue the girl, coming over all sentimental all of a sudden (his true motivation being, he wants to get into her pants) but Boring Soldier insists that they continue into the unguarded city, completing the fall of the Republic that he's so upset about. (The proclamation is written in Latin, wich is nice, and read aloud by Caesar in English voiceover).

Boring then immdeiately decides to desert, gives Dodgey his sword, sacrifices to Venus to try to get Niobe to love him and goes home, where he puts Dodgey's advice into action. He offers Niobe a divorce, but she feels far too guilty to agree, and has been charmed by the talkin and complimenting. Dodgey returns to the road, where he finds the girl, collapsed on the ground by the cart, which just happens to be chock full of all Pompey's money and treasure. Natrually, he heads off with both girl and cart, pronto, just as Caesar and Mark Antony appear with the rest of the legion.

I enjoyed this episode, which is one of the more successful attempts to blend Boring and Dodgey's stories with actual history. In this epsiode, everyone is basically concerned with the same events, and everyone is in danger for them, so it doesn't feel as much like there are two separate stories going on as it sometimes does. There's also not too much need to shove Boring and Dodgey in where they don't really belong, though Boring's obsession with the crime they're comitting and ridiculously dangerous decision to desert (he's come to Caesar's personal attention several times - he should be killed for desertion) gets very tiresome. The irritating and fictitious Glabius is now gone, too, so there seems to be hope for getting back to Octavia's actual biography (though these hopes will soon be soudly dashed, a few episodes from now!). The one scene that did feel quite out of place was the ludicrously comic scene in which Atia tries to arrange who is going to kill who to protect them all from rape and slavery, which is played in such a sily, sitcom-style tone that it doesn't seem to sit with the serious events of the episode - though it is genuinely amusing, so it does have a saving grace. Overall, though, this is one of Rome's more tightly plotted, satisfying installments.
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