Friday, 23 December 2011

Top Five Christmas Classics

Classics, geddit? See what I did there? Ahem.

So, obviously, these are my top five Classical-themed Christmas offerings.*

5. The Vicar of Dibley: 'Winter'
Which festival? Christmas
Fun for all the family? Definitely - though more bitter pregnant women or new mothers might feel the need to point out some of the, ah, toned-down elements
Why? I really like the idea of a Nativity play performed at an actual farm - I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done this. But the real joy of this episode is David Horton's desperate attempt to rehabilitate his character, Herod the Great, as a kindly old grandfather (further complicated by the arrival of his actual grand-daughter halfway through the performance).
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Almost certainly not, though the actual mythology of Christmas, i.e. the story of the birth of Jesus, is in there somewhere.

4. The Roman MysteriesThe Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
Which festival? Saturnalia
Fun for all the family? Yes - everyone except seven-year-old me. Seven-year-old me would have been inconsolable and no one would ever have heard the end of it. But the book is middle grade (aimed at around 8-12-year-olds) so that's fine.
Why?  The atmosphere of this story, from Flavia's opening scenes with a hot drink, through Nubia trying to adjust to the cold and throughout the family-centric story, is warm and evocative. Saturnalia, with its traditions of turning everything upside down so that an eleven-year-old girl might actually find herself in charge (to a degree) is the perfect festival for a children's adventure and this is a lovely and touching story with some important character development for Flavia. And giraffes, which are just always cool. The only drawback to this as a Christmas story is that the ending is so sad, so it can be a bit of a downer if you're looking for holiday cheer.
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Possibly - the making and breaking of families and growing up are generally Christmassy themes.

3. Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli, 1977)
Which festival? Christmas, I guess. Or, um, whatever Jewish festival might be happening during the lambing season?
Fun for all the family? Yes, for a certain fairly specific definition of 'fun'. I liked it as a kid.
Why? We all used to watch Jesus of Nazareth on video every Christmas and every Easter, and I genuinely enjoyed it (my favourite part was the crucifixion - I worry about that sometimes). Since we had the whole unedited, however-many-hours long version, quite often we didn't get any further than the Nativity story, but we got to know that bit really well! Zeffirelli's realist approach comes up against the surreal Christmas narrative and Zeffirelli treads a fine line rather well - we see a star, shepherds and wise men but no angels (just a bright light) and Jesus is born in a cave, which must have been the predominant thinking on why people might have been lodging with the animals at the time (I believe more recent theories revolve around the animals living downstairs and the people upstairs, or maybe that's been discredited by now).
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Well, that depends on your point of view. If you're a Christian, yes. If not... probably not.

2. Discworld: Hogfather
Which festival? Hogswatch
Fun for all the family? Probably not for younger children, but Discworld is relatively tame. I started reading them around age 12, which is probably about right.
Why? Hogfather is nowhere near my favourite Discworld novel, though it's somewhere in the top 50%, but I used to re-read it every year at Christmas because it is such a great seasonal special. I absolutely love all the Christmassy satire, from Colon and Nobby with the department store Hogfather, to the little match girl, to various characters reminiscing about family Hogswatches past. I'm also particularly fond of the Unseen University faculty as characters, and Death too. The actual Classical element, aside from the general themes concerning mythology and the development of myth and ritual, is Bilious the oh-god-of-hangovers, who's great fun and probably most appropriate for this time of year!
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Yes, probably - there are definitely some interesting ideas about the origins of winter myths and rituals in here.

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Which festival? Christmas, briefly. And Easter, metaphorically.
Fun for all the family? Yes, definitely.
Why? I blogged the more recent film version last year, but it's the 1988 BBC TV version that really says 'Christmas' to me. The only actual Christmas element is the brief appearance of Father Christmas in episode 3, but between the snow, the parcels Mr Tumnus is carrying when we first meet him and the magic, the whole thing feels so incredibly Christmassy that Doctor Who is ripping it off for its Christmas special this year. The Classical elements are, of course, the fauns and satyrs, and the fact that Tumnus the Faun is the first Narnian creature we meet means that this feels as much like a Classical classic as it does a Christmas classic. The TV version has its detractors, but for me, this was the start of a life-long love affair with fantasy in general and with Narnia in particular and I think its completely magical. The hand-drawn creatures look imaginative rather than cheap to me and when you hear the first strains of that beautiful theme tune, you know it's Christmas-time.
Will we learn the true meaning of Christmas? Perhaps surprisingly, no. Father Christmas turns up briefly to give out some presents, half of which are weapons. So, satisfying the greed of small children, and violence. Not really in line with 'those who live by the sword, die by the sword'. You might learn the true meaning of Easter, though. If your Mum tells you what Aslan's name is in our world.

I'm going to take a short break for Christmas (well, I'm going to focus on some lesson planning and try to start the paper I'm giving in January). Have a fantastic Christmas/holiday and see you all in 2012!

*For the curious, my top five Christmas movies in general are:
5. The Snowman tied with Joyeux Noel
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas
3. Little Women (the Winona Ryder one)
2. Love Actually
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

and because I can't restrict myself to just five, my top ten Christmas episodes/specials are:
10. The Big Bang Theory, 'The Bath Gift Item Hypothesis'
9. The West Wing, 'In Excelsis Deo'
8. The Brittas Empire, 'In the Beginning'
7. Blackadder's Christmas Carol
6. Men Behaving Badly, 'Last Orders'
5. Only Fools and Horses, 'Heroes and Villains'
4. Friends, 'The One With the Holiday Armadillo'
3. Community, 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'
2. The West Wing, 'Noel'
1. Yes Minister, 'Party Games'

Happy Christmas Everybody!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Strictly Come Dancing 2011 Final

I moved house a couple of weeks ago and just got the internet (and the TV) sorted out in my new flat, so this evening I settled down to, rather belatedly, watch the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. After an introductory blurb from Tess comparing the dancers to gladiators lining up for a final confrontation (and set to the soundtrack from Gladiator), for the opening number... well, I think this is better seen than described.

Wow. One of my all-time favourite songs, a Roman theme, and Pasha and Harry with their shirts off. What more could a girl want? Only one question - why is Vincent so thoroughly covered up?!

My absolute favourite part of this number is the bit where the guys come in with retiarii nets! They use them like bull-fighting capes in a paso doble and it is weird and ridiculous and completely awesome. We are talking about actual use of Classical archaeology in a ballroom dance number. I love it.

I assume that the main reason the powers that be went for a Classical theme is that it offered a perfect excuse for men and women of whatever orientation to perv over their favourites in bikinis/no tops (myself very much included). It also plays up the show's depiction of its final as an epic battle of course - Strictly has always been keen on playing up this angle, partly to make ballroom dancing seem a bit tougher and more macho, mostly to play up the drama for the TV. I also wondered, as the three couples were pulled on in chariots, if the producers had been reading The Hunger Games, as it was very much like the presentation of the tributes in the first book.

I'm very fond of Strictly, partly because I used to do ballroom dancing as a hobby, partly because it's just good, fun Saturday night TV. Both my Mum and The Artist Formerly Known as CurrentHousemate's Mum were put off by some of the unfortunate exits in previous years (Colin Jackson was robbed. Robbed I tells ya!) but AFKACH and I have been watching all year and it's been a very good year. Apart from Rory Bremner's early exit (there's no way he should have gone before Nancy Dell'Olio) things have gone more or less the way I was hoping, with my perfect three finalists. My first ever album was Kylie and the first pop stars I loved were Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, so I loved watching him get to the final, though it was right he went out first. And I could watch Harry Judd dance all day and all night and still not have enough - that man can move.

Anyway, I'm off to watch it again. Cheesy brilliance. Thank you, Strictly!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: The Execution

This episode follows the near-execution of Gabrielle’s friend Meleager on a false charge by a judge who really doesn’t like to change his mind.

Meleager is a figure from Classical mythology, though his myth doesn’t have anything to do with his story here. The mythical Meleager was to stay alive as long as a brand on the fire. Having killed the Calydonian boar, Meleager killed his uncles (whether accidentally or on purpose depends on which version you’re reading) so his mother burned the rest of the brand and Meleager died.

The way Meleager here thinks he’s guilty when in fact he’s innocent might bear some relation to some versions of his story but really, this is an independent tale. The depiction of Meleager as a hero who goes around saving villages all the time is rather nice and vaguely fits with the fact he rid the world of the pesky Calydonian boar. Similarly, the mythical Meleager fell in love with Atalanta, a virgin huntress who’d been raised by bears and who killed various unpleasant centaurs etc, so it makes sense that he’d get on well with Gabrielle, though here he sees her as a daughter rather than a lover.

This was an interesting episode, most particularly for the moment when Gabrielle defies Xena to defend her friend. This at the same time marks her out as becoming more independent of Xena, while simultaneously reinforcing her dependency, since she’s motivated to do it by hero worship for someone else. Xena forces her to confront her tendency towards putting people on pedestals, though the fact that Meleager turns out to be innocent after all may have wiped that particular lesson!

Being based around an execution, the episode has a fairly dark tone, brought out unexpectedly in the closing lines.

Gabrielle: When I’m that age, I hope I’m knitting socks.
Xena: Oh don’t worry about it. People in our line of work never reach that age.
Gabrielle: That’s a comforting thought.

Buffy had all sorts of angst about the short life expectancy of Slayers. Perhaps, since Xena and Gabrielle have chosen this lifestyle, they’re less woe-is-me about it, but it does seem that Gabrielle hasn’t quite thought it through, which doesn’t bode too well for the future…

Side note: love the knitting women waiting for the execution. Very French Revolution.


Gabrielle: Whatever he did, he didn’t do it!

Gabrielle: Consider this; when we doubt that heroes exist in this world, who do the optimists name?
Some random: Hercules!

Executioner (looking exactly like Death from an Ingmar Berman film): These are my comfortable clothes.

Note: By popular demand “The Executioner” will bring back his comfortable lightweight cotton-flax blend robe in a variety of spring colours.

All Xena reviews

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Help

Cassandra was the ancient Greek prophetess who was cursed to always prophesy the truth, but never be believed. Because, like Sybil (similar to the Roman oracle the Sibyl) ‘Cassandra’ is a fairly common name still, it’s a perfect option for writers wanting a suitably symbolic name for a prophetically-inclined character, so it’s used fairly often. Sometimes it’s used just because it’s associated with prophecy, but other times, Cassandra’s particular problem is more relevant. In The X-Files, for example, Cassandra is the name of a woman who claims to be an alien abductee and, of course, only Mulder believes her. This occurred in Season 5, though, and then she reappeared in Season 6 with a different story and… I have to confess I was already totally lost by the arc plot by the beginning of Season 3. I love the individual episodes of The X-Files, and great stand-alone episodes continued to appear right up to the end, but even the weird summing up in the series finale couldn’t clear up what on earth was going on with the arc plot.

Anyway, the most touching use of Cassandra’s problem has to be this seventh season episode of Buffy. Like so many other series, Buffy fell prey to the tendency to try to be ‘darker’ by, basically, being more depressing in the later series (I remember The West Wing doing a similar storyline to one of its greatest ever episodes, Season 2’s ‘Shibboleth’, in Season 5’s ‘Han’, but altering the outcome to make it really depressing). Season 7 had its lighter moments, and a lot of rather dull but not overtly depressing stuff about potential Slayers, but it also included a couple of really ‘dark’ – for which read ‘depressing’ – episodes. Oddly enough, though, they were also two of the season’s best.

In ‘Help’, Buffy encounters a schoolgirl who is completely convinced that she is going to die. Buffy is determined to prevent this and most of the episode centres around the gang’s attempts to stop her being sacrificed by a bunch of unpleasant guys much as Cordelia and Buffy nearly were in Season 2’s lighter ‘Reptile Boy’. They are successful, but at the end of the episode, the girl dies anyway, of congenital heart failure. It’s a rather more effective reminder of the point hammered home with the subtlety of an ice pick (I was going to say sledgehammer, but that’s such a cliché) in Season 5’s arc plot centred around Buffy’s mother’s cancer – there are some things, and some deaths, even the Slayer can’t prevent.

Buffy might have realised that her efforts were going to be in vain if she’d known her Greek mythology because the girl’s name is Cassie – clearly, short for Cassandra. Cassie insists throughout the episode that she is going to die and there is nothing anyone can do about it, but not a single person believes her, because they are all convinced they can save her. Unlike Greek mythology (in which, in some versions, Troy burns partly because no one will listen to Cassandra), their insistence on refusing to believe her does do some good, because they catch and stop the bad guys, who could have gone on to hurt someone else after Cassie, someone less doomed. However, the essential point that Cassie is tragically aware of her own doom, completely unable to prevent it and also completely unable to get anyone to take her seriously is terribly poignant and terribly sad, and comes right out of the mythical Cassandra’s curse. Knowing the future is bad enough, but not being taken seriously when you know the future is even worse.

Cassie’s form turns up again when the First Evil visits Willow (and possibly other members of the Scooby Gang) in ‘Conversations with Dead People', but since that isn’t really Cassie (and was supposed to be Tara originally) it’s not really relevant to her particular story. Her main episode remains a rather nice and effective stand-alone story in which the mythological trope is used to maximum tear-jerking effect and, despite being really depressing, the episode really works as a commentary on helplessness and frustration.

(By the way, the other ‘dark’ Season 7 episode that is really good, even better than ‘Help’, is the Anya-centric ‘Selfless’).

(And the picture at the top of the page doesn't really have anything to do with this episode, it's just awesome).

All Buffy/Angel reviews

Monday, 12 December 2011

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

I cover Shakespeare from time to time on the grounds that what he was writing was popular culture, of its day. There's no need to justify the inclusion of this particular adaptation though - despite the Shakespearian dialogue, this film is definitely popular culture. I can still remember countless phone calls as a teenager being addressed as 'Hulieeeeeeeeeeeeeet!' and pausing the video as Leonardo DiCaprio looks at the screen and says 'Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.' Swoon.

Shakespeare included lots of Classical references in his plays, but they are often edited out when the plays are cut down for film versions (except for Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet of course). The most substantial literary reference left in this version of Romeo and Juliet (given the + sign in the title to make it extra cool and attract the yoof) is to Queen Mab, who's not Greco-Roman.

There is one Classical reference added for the film, though. Here, the Capulets' party at which Romeo and Juliet meet is a fancy-dress party. Most of the costumes are symbolic of something, mostly something quite obvious - Juliet is an angel, Romeo a knight, Tybalt a devil, Paris (Paul Rudd, young and very cute!) is an astronaut, an all-American hero and perfect son-in-law material. Others are slightly more subtle, though not by much - flamboyant Mercutio is in disco drag, one of Romeo's particularly violent friends is a Viking, and so on. Juliet's parents are dressed as Cleopatra and either Antony or Caesar - of course, since either of those would be a simple Roman costume and there's no dialogue referring to it, it could be either!

Cleopatra for Juliet's mother is interesting. Mrs Capulet is a pretty tough character, later demanding the death penalty for Romeo and cutting Juliet off entirely when she refuses to marry Paris. In her first appearance, during which she puts the costume in all its constituent parts on while talking, she is telling Juliet about Paris and suggesting the idea of the marriage to her. The fact that she is putting on a Cleopatra costume as she does so emphasises the sexual aspect of the marriage, the fact that she is pushing Juliet to grow up and regard men sexually, since Cleopatra is so well known for her sex life and her power over men. The sexuality of Cleopatra also plays well during Romeo's bad trip shortly after, in which he sees her kissing Tybalt, an image the audience is supposed to wonder about - is it real or not? The Cleopatra costume encourages the audience to at least consider the possibility that the event is real, since Cleopatra is so well known for a voracious sex life. The fact that Cleopatra was a queen also plays into Juliet's mother power over Juliet and the importance of her social position, as a woman the Prince must listen to.

During his trip, Romeo also sees Mr Capulet waving his purple tunic around and showing off his underpants, behaviour perhaps associated more with Antony than Caesar (though most of all, I suspect with toga parties - an apparent staple of American college comedies that I don't understand because I've never seen any of those comedies). I also think that he is probably meant to be Antony, because these costumes are a reference to Antony and Cleopatra. There are subtle references to other Shakespeare plays scattered throughout the film, like the phrase 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on' from The Tempest, which is displayed on a billboard. It is quite likely then that these costumes are another nod to a play with a conclusion that bears some similarity to Romeo and Juliet - the costumes foreshadowing the tragic conclusion of the play and of these characters' daughter's life.

When I watch it, though, I find I see Capulet more as Caesar than Antony. Despite his apparent intoxication, during the party, Capulet makes his power and authority very clear to Tybalt when Tybalt threatens to defy him. He is absolute ruler of his small kingdom, and of course his absolute authority over Juliet is an important part of the plot. For a modern Western audience not brought up to understand a society where the power of the father is absolute, this is a helpful visual reminder that no subordinate character can cross Capulet.

Luhrmann transports Shakespeare's action from Italy to the US for this film, but he gives it a very strong Italian feel throughout, ensuring that the Italian setting is all but kept. The Catholicism of the central characters, so important for the plot, is overtly and opulently displayed and the Capulets in particular have a distinct mafia-like feel to their operation. Dressing their first couple in Roman costumes only adds to this Italian theme. The film is a fantastic adaptation, exciting, vibrant, romantic, violent and with a fabulous soundtrack. If you haven't seen it, make sure to get hold of a copy - it's not just for teenage girls, I promise!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Stargate SG-1: Seth

This third season episode of Stargate: SG-1 features Seth, a Goa'uld who makes a one-off appearance, rather than our regular bad guys Apophis or Osiris. These are always good fun - they're often able to tell a tighter story than episodes focusing on long-running characters and arc plots.

As usual, the basic details given about the Egyptian god Seth are pretty much accurate - a god associated with chaos and confusion (though they perhaps dwell a bit too much on the 'evil' aspect, since our cultural conception of evil is rather heavily Christianised). This includes the detail about the mythical/fictional animal that represents Seth - the Egyptian god is indeed represented by a mysterious animal in Egyptian art. He also really was identified with the Greek monster Typhon. I have no idea where the medieval bit comes from - I think that's an invention of the writers, but I might be wrong.

I like Daniel's (totally correct) theory that a Goa'uld hiding somewhere on today's Earth would most likely be a religious cult leader - as he points out, it fits their M.O. rather neatly. The incorporation of the Greek identification of Seth with Typhon into this story, as an indication of what Seth was doing on Earth in the Classical period, fits nicely too. The more personal storyline in this episode concerns Sam, her father and her brother, who has had a major falling out with their father in the past and didn't come to his apparent deathbed in the previous season. Our heroes also spend a fair bit of time with a man whose son is in the cult. Since much of Seth's mythology concerns his murder of his brother and battles with his nephew, this makes for a vague but nice thematic link.

The costumes worn by members of the cult are fairly typical twentieth-century Western cult styles (at least, as far as these things are represented on television - I haven't seen any real ones!) but most of them could equally easily belong to members of an Egyptian-based ancient religion. They look like simple linen robes, like those worn by members of the cult (different kind of cult! well, a little bit different) of the originally Egyptian but later Greek-ified goddess Isis in the Greek and Roman world. The more senior members' outfits, a combination of pyjamas and karate clothes, are less so, since ancient Egyptians (and Greeks and Romans) didn't wear trousers. I love Seth's outfit. You can't go wrong with a villain in black leather. And an evil little black goatee. And he has fabulous floppy Snape-hair.

For some reason I've been interested in stories about scary American religious cults for a while (I say American because all the stories on this topic I've seen have been written and set in America - though I'm sure similar organisations exist elsewhere). This probably comes of watching too much X-Files as a teenager. I also seem to remember a melodramatic Sweet Valley High book called Kidnapped by the Cult! that I was quite fond of. Anyway, I enjoyed this episode. It's nice to see Canada playing Seattle rather than an alien planet - it's rather more convincing as Seattle! Seth doesn't really do anything particularly interesting - his actions are all bog-standard evil cult-leader stuff, without even the added interest of including exciting money-making ventures - but he does have great hair and a fantastic black leather coat.

Seth, on the left

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Chelmsford 123: Mine's a Double

In this episode, Badvok and Aulus both somewhat unexpectedly turn out to have long lost identical twin brothers, who both turn up after a ten-year absence needing somewhere to stay. They turn up, cause trouble and reveal all the old family secrets - such as Badvok's real name ('Rosemary') and the fact that Aulus is actually a Spanish provincial rather than native Roman. Aulus runs into Badvok's twin and thinks it's Badvok, Badvok runs into Aulus' twin and think it's Aulus, and hilarity ensues.

The trope of the identical or nearly identical sibling/relative who turns up uninvited requires said relative to be some kind of polar opposite to our regular hero, like the brave-to-the-point-of-stupid MacAdder, cousin of the cowardly Blackadder, or the alcoholic loser brother of Captain Mainwaring. In this case, Aulus' brother is a dirty, rude career criminal with a terrible Spanish accent, while Badvok's is a walking stereotype of camp. Badvok's brother is actually slightly more likeable than Badvok, while the nice thing about Aulus' is that it makes him and Grasientus look slightly closer, since Grasientus is less of a pain than his brother.

At one point, Aulus' brother insults all the patrons in a British drinking den. The idea of British drinking dens that are off-limit to Romans is interesting. I don't know if that's true or not, I can't remember coming across it before - though I think it's safe to assume the opposite (exclusively Roman drinking dens) certainly existed. It would certainly be a good way to make the locals feel that they had a place that was still their own - but given the possibilities for plotting rebellion in such a place, especially only a few decades after Boudicca, I doubt they really existed.

The story revolves around Mungo's theft of one of Aulus' priceless statues of the divine twins Castor and Pollux. Naturally, Aulus wants it back, Badvok wants the other twin, there's all sorts of twin-swapping going on, and everyone gets very confused. The scene where Aulus interrogates his hapless guard (Chris Langham), who has not only barely guarded the villa, but was actually present when Mungo stole the statue and let him do it, is really pretty funny. A second scene, in which the guard reveals that Badvok has managed to convince him he was the emperor, is even funnier.

This episode wasn't half bad - better than the rather tired plot might imply. The attempt to lampshade how totally ludicrous it is that everyone has a long-lost identical twin who's suddenly decided to show up is a bit forced, but saved by Blag's sudden gift of prophecy regarding the invention of television and Panorama, and the final joke, in which we are introduced to Grasientus' identical twin, pushes the idea so far it becomes funny again - and it's an amusing joke too.

All Chelmsford 123 reviews

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Top Five Roman Murder Mysteries

In terms of detective fiction, the only thing better than a good murder mystery is a good murder mystery with an interesting setting. I have a love of quirky, interesting detective stories with fun settings, from cozies like Riley Adams (Elizabeth Craig)'s Memphis BBQ books, set in a Southern restaurant, to quirky spoofs like Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books, which are Raymond Chandler pastiches full of evil Druids and victimised fudge box girls set in Aberystwyth, to the City Watch Discworld books, in which our heroes may find themselves trying to produce a million-to-one chance so they can shoot a dragon. So obviously I have a great fondness for detective stories and murder mysteries set in my period of history, ancient Rome.

Spoilers follow; I've avoided actually naming the murderer but there are fairly substantial spoilers floating around. OK, very substantial spoilers. Best not read any of the details if you haven't read the book...

5. The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Dio, an Egyptian philosopher
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The trial of Marcus Caelius Rufus, 56 BC
Is justice served? That depends on your definition of 'justice'.
Why read it? I read this book a long time ago so my memories of it are vague, but it is surely one of the most fascinating Gordianus stories. I read the books out of order; I was particularly keen to read this one, because it was based around Cicero's speech in defense of Caelius. This speech one of the reasons I have intensely disliked Cicero throughout my academic career. In it, he completely destroys the reputation of a woman called Clodia, using a combination of sexism and inferences. Clodia's social life never recovered and she pretty much disappeared from public life after this. Saylor's Clodia is a fascinating creation, largely built from the rather one-sided ancient evidence but managing to be sympathetic at the same time, while this story marks a turning point in Gordianus' increasing disillusionment with his former friend Cicero. The actual murder mystery is something of a separate, though linked, issue, but holds its own among the high politics with its intensely personal context for Gordianus and its genuinely shocking conclusion.

4. The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis
Victim: Sosia Camillina, a relative of Helena Justina
Detective: Marcus Didius Falco
Context: The first years of the reign of the emperor Vespasian, AD 70
Is justice served? No.
Why read it? The first of the Falco novels is also the cruellest, the most cynical, the grittiest and the most bitter - though still written with the wry humour that makes him so beloved of readers. We meet Falco as a struggling bachelor and the murder that forms the heart of this book is by far the most tragic and the most affecting (though I confess I haven't read all the books yet). The case is intensely personal and the solution firmly rooted in its historical context. Although justice is not directly served for Sosia, there is enough resolution and enough characters are brought to justice for related reasons that the ending satisfies, and of course her tragedy is balanced out by Falco and Helena's happy ending. If you like Falco, you must make sure you read this first, character-defining story.

3. 'Some Justice', I, Claudius
Victim: Germanicus Caesar
Detective: All the main characters, really. Livia is the most successful.
Context: The death of emperor Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, AD 19
Is justice served? Some of it. Obviously.
Why watch it? This is more a courtroom drama than a detective story, but it still counts as a murder mystery, as most of the main cast spend the episode not just pursuing the case, but trying to work out what actually happened as well. The story is also told in Robert Graves' novel, of course, but the format of this, as an hour-long courtroom drama taking place within one episode, is especially effective. Again, we have here a real and really mysterious death, which in real life may or may not have played out the way it does here. Like Saylor in both his novels listed here, Graves uses the classic historical novelist's technique of taking a real death and a real solution and presenting an alternative, secret explanation - or, in this case, a deeper and more complicated explanation. His solution plays into the way he wants to present his characters later in the novel and is perhaps less shocking than you might think, given the characters involved, but he certainly spins a good yarn. The slow revelation of this solution over the course of the episode, and in particular Livia's crucial dinner conversation, make for a satisfying hour of television and a refreshing change of pace in the middle of a long series.

2. The Man from Pomegranate Street, by Caroline Lawrence
Victim: Titus Caesar. Possibly.
Detective: Flavia Gemina, Nubia and Lupus. And Jonathan, sort of. And Aristo.
Context: The death of the emperor Titus, AD 81.
Is justice served? Your guess is as good as mine... probably not.
Why read it? Since The Roman Mysteries are children's books, they are fairly light on murders, at least in the events of the books - recoverable crimes, like theft or kidnapping are more common (the characters' back-stories are another matter all together). The later books in particular do go further into the murder mystery area, with poor long-suffering Nubia's discovery of a dying man in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem standing out as a sign of slowly increasing violence as the characters and readers get older and more mature. The Man from Pomegranate Street, the last novel, goes to slighter darker places again, while remaining suitable for middle grade readers. One of the things I like about this story is that it's not clear whether a murder has occurred - the mystery is, was it murder? It's a really interesting approach, especially since this is a real-life death, and a slightly mysterious one. I also love that Lawrence doesn't go for the obvious solution, but presents several possibilities, some quite shocking to a young reader - while at the same time ensuring that the resolution, as far as there is resolution, offers a level of reassurance (these are children's books after all!).

1. Roman Blood, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Sextus Roscius
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The dictatorship of Sulla and Cicero's defense of Roscius' son, 81 BC
Is justice served? Er, it's so long since I read it I actually can't remember!
Why read it? It's been well over ten years since I read this book and as you can see, I can barely remember most of the details! It's number one on my list though, because I love the simplicity of the concept so much. Saylor takes an extant defense speech by Cicero and a real murder case and builds a murder mystery from it, offering his own (fictional) solution to the case and using Gordianus to explore the various characters involved, especially Cicero himself and his secretary Tiro. Saylor also examines Sulla and his dictatorship but, reading this long before I ever studied any ancient history, it was the murder mystery and the characters, especially Tiro and Bethesda, that appealed to me. It's also beautifully and evocatively written. I could have lived with slightly less of Cicero's actual speech perhaps - which bored me even before the Pro Caelio sealed my dislike of him - but otherwise, this is a cracking story and essential reading for Saylor fans.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rome: Philippi

Sometimes, Rome is really quite helpful with its episode titles (other times less so). We knew when we'd reached the final showdown between Caesar and Pompey because the episode was called simply 'Pharsalus' (as in 'Battle of'), and here we know we've reached Brutus and Cassius' final hour because the episode is called 'Philippi'.

Brutus tells Cassius that their men did not realise Greece was so large and are complaining, which handily tells us where we are. Following his rather odd John the Baptist moment, he is still being almost unbearably chirpy, while poor Cassius, though pleased that Brutus has got his act together, is trying to be slightly more practical about men, supplies, marching and so on.

Mark Antony is still wearing the Beard of Sorrow, possibly to emphasise his age and experience over Bingley!Octavian. The little psycho has compiled a list of supporters of Brutus and Cassius still in Rome for the two of them to kill, in order to ensure they're not stabbed in the back and, as Maecenas points out, to get their money. This scene is particularly interesting as it is here that Cicero is condemned to death. Since Cicero is an extremely popular figure, both now and in the ancient world, the question of where to lay the blame for his death is an important one. For the ancients, one solution presented itself. Since (spoiler alert!) Antony eventually lost the later war between himself and Octavian, the obvious option is to blame Antony for Cicero's death. This exonerates Octavian to an extent and ensures that his later incarnation, Augustus, is not associated with the death of Rome's greatest orator and statesman. It's also another way to drive nails into the coffin of Antony's reputation. Plutarch puts it especially dramatically when he declares that, on seeing Cicero's hands nailed up in the Forum, people 'thought they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but an image of the soul of Antony'.

Modern interpretations which want to present a positive view of Augustus usually take this approach as well. The TV mini-series Imperium: Augustus is particularly dramatic about it, suggesting that the murder of numerous political opponents was a terrible hardship that Octavian only did because he felt he had to. It is Antony who insists on adding Cicero to the list. However, Rome is not interested in presenting a hagiography of Augustus - indeed, the series has already given him extra vices he didn't really have, so its not going to sugarcoat things he actually did. On the other hand, the rivalry between Cicero and Antony is equally dramatic and that detail of Cicero's hands being nailed to the rostra does sound more like something the passionate and occasionally reckless Antony would do, more than the usually (except when he's stealing other men's pregnant wives) calm and collected Octavian.

So the way the scene plays out here is very interesting. Octavian hands Antony a list of men to proscribe, killing them and confiscating their land. The focus, though script, camerawork and performance, is on the absolute coldness with which he does this and we are clearly directed to feel mildly horrified at this action, especially when Maecenas mentions the financial gain. Antony looks at the list and declares that they should kill Cicero first. This clearly implies that Cicero was already on the list (and indeed there's no reason he wouldn't be, since he's clearly sympathised with Brutus and Cassius all along). Then, Antony says he wants to add another one or two names - so, as in the more pro-Octavian versions, he still adds names out of spite - but Cicero isn't one of them.

Before they finish, Atia wants to add a name. Octavian firmly tells her they won't kill Servilia because they won't kill women, but she persuades him to kill Jocasta's father for his money even though he has nothing to do with the politics. This is even more interesting - Octavian, while utterly ruthless, is only interested in killing for political gain. Antony is mostly about the politics but not above adding the odd person out of spite, while Atia is the nastiest person in the room by far, having a man murdered purely because she doesn't like his daughter very much.

I think my favourite bit in the whole scene is just after Octavian has told Antony they should kill the men on the list, and Antony looks mildly impressed and says 'You are a ferocious little (see you next Tuesday)... with a pen!' As we will see, Octavian can talk the talk, but he's not exactly at the front of the attack when it comes to physical fighting. Lepidus, by the way, hates the whole idea, but no one's listening to him.

Lepidus is left behind in Rome because he's a wet blanket who doesn't like killing people. Agrippa is also sent back to Rome just ahead of Octavian and Maecenas, to get The Godfather to organise the mass murder. The Godfather and Dodgy Soldier are to kill Cicero personally, to make sure it's done right (actually, Plutarch names Cicero's killers, men whom Cicero had helped in the past, but he may not have got it right and it doesn't really matter - though the pathos of those Cicero had defended murdering him is lost). At this point, Antony, with quite some venom, says to tell them to cut off Cicero's hands and nail them to the Senate door - so the ancient interpretation of this action as Antony's revenge for the very negative speeches Cicero made about him is maintained. He also makes this a threat to Octavian, looking right at him as he says he told Cicero he'd do that if Cicero ever crossed him again.

Antony and Atia have a quite sweet goodbye scene where he accidentally implies that he might marry her and immediately regrets it (historically, he's married to someone else at this point, but since that rarely bothered real Romans never mind TV ones, we probably shouldn't let it bother us).

The Godfather's totally evil barmaid sulks because the Godfather won't let her make-up his eldest daughter, while said eldest daughter sulks because... well, just in general really. The Godfather gives out the assassination assignments to the gangs, who are allowed to make off with the booty - I don't think this is how it worked in real life, since the triumvirate wanted the booty for themselves (and Plutarch implies Cicero's killers were well-off and high up enough to have hired Cicero in the past). The Godfather wants to feed the poor with some of the proceeds in the hope of improving their popularity (basically, he's running a smaller version of the whole Roman political system from a bar). Some evil rival gang members decide to seduce Sulky Eldest Daughter to get back at the Godfather, and because she clearly has terrible, terrible taste in men (the guy is unbelievably creepy) it looks like it's going to work.

Evil Barmaid is making eyes at Dodgy now, which does not impress Eirene, so he takes her, along with the Godfather's entire family, to a picnic and murder party. He leaves them all in a pretty, picturesque woodland glade while he takes two minions to Cicero's place. I have to say, I don't think the Godfather is following Antony's orders to see to Cicero personally here, but perhaps he and Dodgy are now like Troy and Abed from Community; they're so close they're practically one being.

Cicero gets warning that Death is quite literally coming down the road and writes to Brutus and Cassius warning them of the triumvirate's plans (the letter doesn't get through, as in real life it didn't exist). Tiro tells him armed men are at the door and he must run, but as you've gathered by now, it's no good.

I have a couple of problems with this scene. One is that Cicero actually was running away, or trying to, according to Plutarch (and he'd done so before, though in slightly less extreme circumstances), though he was brave enough when he realised he'd been caught. My bigger problem, though, is Tiro. Tiro was Cicero's right-hand man for most of his life, an extremely clever man who invented shorthand. He was freed several years before Cicero's death, and continued to work for Cicero as his freedman. He happens to be a favourite of mine - partly, I confess, because I liked him so much in Steven Saylor's Roman Blood! I don't see that Tiro in the character going by that name here, who is not only still a slave, but who gurns and panics and whimpers (though his attempt to take on Dodgy with a wavering sword is rather sweet). Rome's Tiro exists purely to make Cicero look good - Cicero is calm, still trying to achieve something with Dodgy at the door, reassuring Tiro that he will be freed in his will with some of his last words, so he appears generous and thoughtful to the last. That's all very well, but I would have preferred that Tiro's character didn't have to suffer and be sidelined to achieve that effect - though at least we do see some of the love between Cicero and Tiro, which must have been there in reality, given how Tiro continued to work for his master long after his death, and which is nice.

That aside, Cicero's death scene is suitably moving for such an important character, both in the show and in Roman history. Bamber is wonderful, full of sadness and resignation along with reluctance and fear. This is the first really major character death since Caesar, and the prelude to the deaths of Brutus and Cassius at the end of the episode, so the show takes its time, lingering on Dodgy eating he fruit and having a semi-philosophical discussion with Cicero about immortality while he goes about his job in a business-like fashion. It's very effective, a weirdly calm death to contrast with the more chaotic battle-deaths to come.

Back at the family picnic, Lyde is pestering the Godfather to try to find a husband for Sulky Eldest Daughter. The Godfather actually does mean well - he simply doesn't believe any decent man will marry an ex-prostitute and wants to protect his daughter from the non-decent ones - but no one else agrees with this point of view. Dodgy returns with poor Cicero's peaches and everyone tucks in with gusto.

Later, we see Dodgy nailing up Cicero's hands, as promised, and Posca brings Octavian some fresh names for the list, from Antony. It appears that Antony is sitting around deliberately thinking of people he could do without. Agrippa complains that they've killed enough people already, but Maecenas is all for getting more money to pay the troops. I love that Agrippa, the most successful military man among them, is the least comfortable with killing people for profit - it makes perfect sense. He kills people in battle, not in their gardens next to their peach trees. The development of this trio is really fascinating - Agrippa clearly has the most conscience, Maecenas clearly the least, while Octavian (the Kirk to their Spock and Bones - I'm all about the geek references today!) sits somewhere in the middle, ruthless but not vicious, though he's more concerned with how he appears that what he's actually doing (which fits perfectly with his later actions as emperor).

Agrippa storms off in a huff and, of course, runs into Octavia. She needles him about all the killing-people and then complains that he's avoiding her because of the awkwardness, which she thinks isn't a good enough reason (all very well for her to say, he's the one who had his heart stomped on!). She lets on that maybe the case isn't hopeless, but he points out he will never be allowed to marry her because his father was a nobody and his grandfather a slave, so he could never marry Octavian Caesar's sister (aside from the vague notion that I've accidentally wandered into Downton Abbey, in which Allan Leech plays almost the same storyline but his character has slightly more gumption, I love the irony in this, since Agrippa will eventually end up married to Caesar's daughter and will be the direct ancestor of two emperors. Albeit mad ones). Octavia insists she'll marry who she likes, which is ridiculous - she would never be that naive. They both angst all over the screen until eventually they snog, at which point they are interrupted by Maecenas, who gives Octavia a fantastically comical look that basically says 'Really?'

Timon and his brother are feeling rebellious and looking for support in the synagogue, where they proceed to start a brawl, and come out looking very pleased with themselves. I think they're becoming Zionists. Trouble is - I very guilty about this, but whenever they mention Judea and fighting their enemies, all I can hear in my head is 'the Judean People's Front?!'

Dodgy is feeling dismayed about being second to the Godfather, following his chat with Cicero about immortality, and wants something more soldierly to do than hand out free fish. The Godfather nods and smiles in a vaguely smug fashion.

Nighttime. Agrippa and Octavia go to the Roman version of a cheap motel to have sex in a room with its own shower-thing, which is kind of cool. She does that thing couples on film sometimes do where one of them gets dressed and is leaving, and the other sits there, still stark naked. Isn't she leaving too? Isn't she cold? She appears to have fallen for Agrippa as badly as he's fallen for her. He's late to ride off to war, and Maecenas declares that he must be saying goodbye to some woman, and that he either has several whores or one lover - while the audience, of course, can see that he's clearly guessed and is trying to get Octavian thinking about it. Agrippa runs in late and Octavian teases him about coming in straight from the brothel, at which point his sister rushes in declaring that 'women's troubles' made her late. Octavian may be very clever in some ways - world domination and all that - but he's clearly a bit of a thicko when it comes to human relationships.

Atia, however, is not and pulls the old 'How long has this been going on?'; 'How did you know?'; 'I didn't until just now' trick. She warns Octavia they can't ever get married, when they are interrupted by poor Jocasta, whose family has been murdered and who has been raped, and who collapses in the hallway, weeping. Octavia promises to protect her and Atia agrees, without showing a hint of guilt or remorse. She is one cold, cold woman.

Eirene and Dodgy have a chat in which we learn that in all these years of marriage, he's never bothered to ask about her life before she was made a slave. He talks about how he'd like to go to war again, at which point she tells him she's pregnant. She seems rather upset about it (given the mortality rates for babies and mothers in pre-industrial societies, I don't blame her).

Brutus is waving around his father's signet ring when a messenger turns up with the rather distressing news that Antony and his legions are with Octavian. Cassius says they must retreat but Brutus insists on 'no more running', and says they should either win with extra glory, or get on with it and die. And they have the upper ground, so it's not completely suicidal.

There's a rather impressive shot of large armies marching across an open plain. It seems we will actually see a battle this time, which is rather good - though, on the other hand, perhaps this is why the show was abruptly cancelled. Not so good. Brutus suddenly remembers that it's Cassius' birthday and wishes him a happy birthday, apologising for the lack of cake. It's a wonderful, stiff-upper-lipped pre-battle conversation, in the best tradition of war movies in which soldiers face possible death with black humour and a certain calm. Antony (who has shaved for the occasion) is more about teasing Octavian, suggesting he should go for a pee now. The two armies advance in glorious CGI - they really did spend all the money on this episode - and, you know, fighting happens. As battle scenes go, it's no Gladiator, but there's some blood and some guts and some groinal stabbing. Meanwhile Antony and Octavian sit on their horses behind the lines, eating, like British generals in World War One. Antony decides he'd like to know what's happening and rides on in. Octavian sends Agrippa in after him but does not go himself. This actually presents him in a braver light than history - historically, he claimed he'd been warned in a dream he was going to be ill, and spend the whole thing hiding in his tent.

Cassius is mortally wounded, which makes Brutus very cross. His death scene follows, and it's completely unhistorical, but fabulously dramatic. He kisses Cassius' body, asks a soldier to tell his mother 'something suitable' (a sentiment no less fab for being nicked from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) then strips off all his armour and walks, sword in hand, into the oncoming forces to commit suicide by enemy army. The soldiers look a bit reluctant at first, what with one man armies not actually working in reality, but when he starts slashing at them with his sword, they lay into him like he and his buddies laid into Caesar. The camera pans away from directly above, and it's all over.

Antony declares that the smell of 'smoke, shit and rotting flesh' is 'beautiful' (I bet he'd have loved the smell of napalm in the morning, if he'd known what it was) while a scrounger nicks Brutus' signet ring and puts it on gleefully. The episode ends on that image, with suitably sombre music playing over the credits.

This is a very good episode, that gives emotional, weighty death scenes to three major characters while advancing the stories of the others as well. We get several fresh insights into Octavian's character, and Maecenas', while Antony and Atia continue to be their gloriously amoral selves. Season 2 continues to go from strength to strength - it's just a real shame that they blew so much of the budget on the battle scenes, ended up cancelled and had to rush the rest of the season, squashing the next 13 years into the remaining four episodes...

All Rome reviews

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Star Trek: Plato's Stepchildren

As so we come, with dreadful inevitability, to 'Plato's Stepchildren.' This is the episode of Star Trek that features the first interracial kiss on US television. I'm glad Star Trek is remembered for that - it's a good thing to be remembered for and Trek genuinely wanted to break boundaries. Flawed though it is, Roddenberry wanted to say something about racism and sexism in an era when it was hard to do so. Flawed it definitely is, though - that famous interracial kiss, as we shall see, most of all.

Kirk & co. respond to distress calls from an apparently uninhabited planet ('cause that always goes so well). They are met by a dwarf who informs them that he is a very good loser. Good signs from the start, then. He explains that they live under a philosopher-king who admires Plato so much that he calls his subjects Plato's children - though, the dwarf says, they sometimes call themselves 'Plato's stepchildren'.

A scary woman appears. 'Welcome to our republic,' she says. Their republic which is run by a king. Someone needs to explain basic political terminology to these people. 'Who among you is the physician?' A guy with a bad leg, their leader, explains that his badly infected leg wasn't attended to ages ago because of 'sheer ignorance'. Then he floats a syringe into his own arm. He explains that this planet is a utopia built on Platonic ideals. Out of earshot, the dwarf pleads with the woman that Kirk and friends came to help and don't deserve to die, but to no avail. Dun dun duuuuuh! Credit sequence.

The dwarf, Alexander, plays with a giant chess set. We had one of those at the hotel I used to work at. Kirk's voiceover explains that these people greatly admire Classical Greek civilization. Presumably this is why the set decorators have covered the place in heads, busts and columns. It doesn't explain the psychokinesis though - that's something to do with the planet apparently, and brainwaves.

The leader's scary wife explains that the planet's inhabitants - all 38 of them - are the product of a really vicious eugenics programme, and they are a small group of perfect, 2,000 year old genetic specimens. They scarcely have to move, let alone work (what do they eat? and who makes it for them, helots?). The leader dude's delirium starts manifesting as poltergeist activity and the Enterprise, under Scotty's command, is hit by some really bad space turbulence. Spock thinks the whole thing is fascinating, of course.

Bones tries to knock out the leader but is defeated by psychokinesis. Kirk and Alexander are made to fight each other until Bones finally manages to overpower the guy. Kirk is all for getting the h**l out of there - sensible man, this is why they made him captain - but Bones insists on waiting until leader dude's fever breaks, so he agrees to stay.

Alexander is grateful to Kirk for saving his life and explains that the other 36 pseudo-Greeks are off meditating, and that he is the only one without telekinetic powers, which is why he is everyone's slave (though he also has a bit of a complex about his size). Kirk explains that where he comes from, 'size, shape or power makes no difference'. Good to know, I'm sure. Spock says that 'it will be very gratifying to leave here', which is pretty vicious, from a Vulcan. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is locked in orbit, and communication with Starfleet has been severed.

Alexander sings a song about Pan and his horn, with a lyre, naturally. Leader dude lounges around, enjoying himself. He looks much more like a Roman than a Greek, wearing a laurel wreath and purpley-red robe thing over a tunic. He calls himself a philsopher-king and refers to his kingdom as a principality - very Roman empire, not very Classical Greek. He mentions that he doesn't really like people wandering into his territory even if they do cure his gangrene, and starts telepathically controlling Kirk, making him slap himself, which is unintentionally hilarious.

Evil leader dude has now cut off the away team's contact with the Enterprise and seems to want to keep them all prisoner. He tries to sweeten the situation by giving them gifts of gratitude for the whole gangrene-healing thing. These are made up of the shield of Pericles for Kirk, a kithra for Spock and a collection of Hippocratic texts for Bones. No one is very impressed.

Leader dude apologises for his behaviour towards the captain and explains that he just can't help himself, and Kirk says cheerio. But leader dude has a final request. He has decided he needs a court doctor and asks McCoy to stay. When McCoy says no, it becomes clear that no-one's going anywhere. Kirk and Spock try to point out that Plato was in favour of truth, beauty and justice, but leader dude claims they have had to make a few alterations, but that they live in the most democratic society imaginable, as anyone can rule if his mind is strong enough (Kirk points out this doesn't work for Alexander). When our heroes try to leave, he keeps Bones held by telepathic power. The wife wants him to just kill them, but since leader dude thinks that might upset McCoy, who will then refuse to play doctor for them, he says he'll keep Kirk and Spock to help celebrate the anniversary of the republic instead.

He forces Kirk and Spock to put laurel wreaths on their heads and do a little dance. They sing Tweedledee and Tweedledum's song from Through the Looking Glass while doing a jig. Then they roll around on the floor for a bit. Kirk gurns and tries to fight the telepathic power and fails for a while. He ends up sprawled on the floor, spurting out 'is this your utopia?' in between screams and gurning. It all looks exactly as silly as it sounds.

'We have had enough of your moralising' says leader dude. To be fair, by this time, so has everybody, but he's not making a good case here. He makes Spock do another little jig around Kirk's now immobile head. Nimoy is a pretty good dancer and looks like he'd do a mean Paso Doble given the chance, but here he just stamps around a bit and then falls over. Then he laughs, which is pretty disturbing, I have to say. Alexander watches all of this, looking vaguely unhappy. Bones complains that they can't force emotion out of Spock as it will destroy him (contrary to several previous episodes). Kirk orders Spock not to let them break him while Spock sobs on Alexander's knee.

Then, when Alexander tries to stick up for them, he is forced to ride Kirk like a horse while Kirk whinnies. Seriously. Picture it, and yes, it's really that bad. But if you really want to see it for yourself, here it is. 'How can you let this go on?' leader dude asks Bones. How indeed.

Later. Spock is freaking out over the whole emotions business. He sympathises with Kirk over the humiliation factor. He observed that the healthy relase of emotion is frequently unhealthy for those in the vicinity, which is a nice point. They have a conversation about anger and hatred and how they lead to the dark side. Bones offers to sacrifice himself and stay so that the others can go, but Kirk points out that probably won't help and they'd just be killed anyway.

Alexander explains that he's now understood for the first time that they (the genetic pseudo-Greeks) are the problem, not him, and says he wants to kill them, but instead they sit down and work out that the psychokinetic power comes from eating the planet's native foods. Alexander doesn't have the power because the same condition that made him a dwarf stopped him from developing it. Bones starts injecting Kirk and Spock with stuff to make them develop the power. Alexander points out he doesn't want to become one of them and doesn't want the psychokinetic power, he just wants to get away.

Then suddenly out of nowhere - Uhura and Christine Chapel! The only two female regular crew members now that Rand has gone! 'I guess we weren't sufficiently entertaining' says Kirk, teeth gritted. This line was used a lot on trailers for Star Trek videos in the past, which is kind of amusing. Uhura and Chapel are put in fancy sparkly gowns and Kirk and Spock are kitted out in tiny, tiny tunics and fresh laurel wreaths. Kirk and Spock are slightly flushed (unsurprising, given the skimpiness of the outfits), but don't have full psychokinetic powers just yet.

'Fellow Academicians' says leader dude. The actual Academicians all roll over in their graves/urns. Kirk insists they have to convince McCoy to join them willingly if they want him to work for them. For some reason, the leader dude's method of convincing him is to force his crewmates to perform for him.

So Spock sings to the girls (clearly they haven't heard Uhura sing, since she actually, you know, can). Nimoy gives it his all and the girls look suitably horrified/embarassed but it's painful to watch. 'Now let the revels begin!' says the leader. No, please, don't let them begin. Make them stop. Now.

The four are plit off into pairs, Spock/Chapel and Kirk/Uhura. And here we have it - forced (and so, by definition, sexual abuse) interracial kissing! Spock and Chapel is terribly sad, given her feelings for him and the fact that they keep apologising to each other, and if they weren't semi-comically jerking around against the mind control, the moment would almost have the power it's aiming for. Then we get to Kirk/Uhura, which is made worse by Uhura repeatedly saying she's frightened. It's a seminal moment, but while it's not Kirk's fault, the fact that the first scene of a white man kissing a black woman on US television is an abusive sexual encounter in which the white man is forced (albeit against his own will) on the black woman is just disturbing. It's really not what they were going for. Her final insistence that she's not afraid with him is quite sweet though.

Then comes, apparently, the piece de resistence. It involves whips. And a hot poker. Seriously, at this point I don't think I can take any more! Kirk insists, contrary to appearances, that his enemies have been 'dead for centuries', because they are empty inside. We're back to one of Classics Trek's favourite themes, the powerful alien that plays with our crew for fun. But no one cares about any of that because Kirk and Spock are whipping each other!

We don't actually see this seminal event in Trek history, we just see everyone else's reactions and hear the sounds of the whipping. This makes no difference; it's just as horrific as it sounds. Alexander can't stand it any more and goes for the leader dude with a knife. Leader dude tries to make Alexander stab himself, but Kirk gets the hang of the psychokinesis thing just in time, breaks the guy's control, saves Alexander and stops whipping his first officer. They have a fight in which both try to control poor Alexander and his knife to stab the other one, which is really unfair on Alexander I think. Kirk starts to win and leader dude freaks out, and Alexander begs to be allowed to finish him off. However, Kirk points out that Alexander doesn't want to become like the pseudo-Greeks, and the knife finally gets dropped.

Alexander tells the leader dude what's what and Kirk takes the moral high ground, while leader dude babbles in a desperate attempt to defend himself. He tries to make it all about absolute power corrupting absolutely but Kirk just tells him to get his act together. Then our heroes leave with Alexander and the Enterpriese gets the heck out of Dodge.

Oh my. It's just awful. So, so awful. To be fair, the whole point of this episode is that Kirk and Spock are tortured and humiliated, and in that respect it certainly succeeds. Everything that is done to them is as horrific as it should be. But the trouble is, that very effectiveness makes the whole thing deeply, deeply unpleasant to watch - the forced kissing most of all. Or maybe the whipping. Or the horse thing... it's all bad.

Most frustratingly for me, there is nothing whatsoever related to or inspired by Greek philosophy in this episode. Phrases like 'philosopher-king' are bandied about without any understanding of what they mean (no kingdom can also be a republic, for a start!). The leader dude makes lots of references to the power of the mind, but the power of the mind here is a simple result of eating the right plants and then forcing your will on others - it's a science-fiction version of physical force, and has nothing to do with the mind at all.

Judging by the Roman-style costumes and the theme of forcing others to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave for your own entertainment, I suspect this is actually an episode about Romans, altered to take its names and slim science-fiction justification from Greeks instead simply because Trek had already done Romans at the end of season 2. Perhaps they wanted to use up leftover Roman costumes. After the success of 'Bread and Circuses', which had explored the idea of Roman culture with added technology so well, this is a crashing disappointment. Poor Plato. He's given his name to many things over the years, but none quite as far removed from any hint of his actual philosophy as this one.

All Star Trek reviews

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Orphée (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1950)

As you know, art films are not really my thing, and although I love France and French culture, I'm not always that wild about French films either (except war films). But I read Caroline Lawrence's post on Orphée a while back and it sounded interesting, and I love the myth (though Orpheus is an idiot) so I was intrigued. And I'm delighted to say, I loved it. This is a gorgeous film; fascinating, eerie, sad, beautiful.

Ironically, one of the reasons I love the film is that it patches up a lot of holes in the basic outline of the myth - exactly the opposite of my problem with the Fellini variety of art film, in which the total absence of coherent plot really bothers me. I've loved the spooky nature of the myth of Orpheus ever since I saw a televised dramatisation of it when I was very young, but the biggest problem with it is that Orpheus has to pick up the idiot ball in such a ridiculous way for the tragic double death to occur - he can't keep faith for the few extra minutes required to follow a fairly simple instruction. This is not the case here - among the numerous bits of logic that hold the surreal story together, Orpheus is told, not just that he can't look at Eurydice until they have both returned to Earth, but that he can't look at her ever again, which is obviously much harder. In the end, he catches sight of her in his rear-view mirror, entirely by accident. The film also provides motivation for other tricky elements of the story - for why Orpheus is able to go down to the underworld without having died (and without capturing Cerberus! Ancient heroes may treat the underworld like a must-see tourist destination, but visits there by the living are supposed to be exceptional), and for why Eurydice is allowed to return but only under strict conditions.

A voice-over tells the story of Orpheus over the opening credits, and immediately alerts viewers to the changes that have been made to the majority of ancient versions of the myth. Here, we are told that Orpheus lost his wife while he wasn't paying attention to her - not usually part of ancient versions, in which she's bitten by a snake, which no one can really do anything about. His death, torn apart by maenads, is directly linked to his failure to save Eurydice, which it isn't always in ancient literature, and of course there's the stipulation that he can't look at her ever, not just on the journey back to the upper world.

The reason for these fairly subtle alterations to the specifics of the plot is a massive alteration to the characterisation of Orpheus and his relationship with Eurydice. In ancient literature, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragic love story about a love so strong that the bereaved husband was able to persuade Hades and Persephone themselves to be merciful, but which is thwarted by Orpheus' weakness and lack of faith at the end. In some versions, like Ovid's Metamorphoses, reference is made to Orpheus and Eurydice being reunited in death after he is murdered by the maenads. Here, however, we only actually see Orpheus and Eurydice in love and happy together at the substantially altered ending. Orpheus is driven, not by his love for his wife, but by his overwhelming obsession with Death (or, more specifically, his own Death), in the form of a sophisticated woman who reminds me very much of Lilith from Cheers/Frasier (I love that image by the way). Between the use of coded messages on a radio that look and sound exactly like every image of the French Resistance you've ever seen, sinister motor-bikers as henchmen, and the filming of the underworld sequences in buildings damaged or destroyed during the war, it's not difficult to see why Cocteau wants to explore the idea of man in love with Death, who actively seeks Death out.

The most interesting thing of all, though, is the way Cocteau turns the main overall theme of the myth, of love that almost conquers death, inside out. This is a film about the power of deep romantic love. But in ancient literature, this story is about a selfish kind of love. Orpheus wants his wife back, a wife who, in most versions, has died on their wedding day - i.e. before they were able to enjoy their wedding night. Yes, he loves her, but his primary interest is in getting her back for himself, and it is because he is so desperate to possess her - to have her, not just to know she is alive and well - that he fails at the final hurdle and looks back. In this story, however, the love that conquers all is completely selfless. Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (my favourite character, and by far the most sympathetic) pay an unspecified (and all the more horrible for it) price when they sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the people they love. Neither can ever possess the object of their affection, and their actions drive Orphée and Eurydice back together at their own expense. This is why, unlike Orpheus, they are successful - because their love is a true, selfless love. It's selfless love that has the power to turn back death, not the desperate need to possess that drives Orpheus.

The scholarly commentary on this film insists that this is 'not a fantasy'. Ah, I love the smell of anti-fantasy snobbery in the morning. The commentator goes on at length about how the film is a metaphor for reality. So... like all really good fantasy then? I suspect this is the secret to the fact that I actually enjoy this film - however the director and fans may categorise it, this is essentially a very good, deeply layered metaphorical romantic fantasy, i.e., pretty much my favourite genre. I'm especially impressed at the way the film manages to give the story of Orpheus a happy ending, while maintaining the essential character of the myth, which makes it especially satisfying to watch.

Monday, 21 November 2011

King Arthur (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2004)

Some years ago, OldHousemate(theRomeone) and I went to the cinema to see Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. Reasonably excited by the prospect of Clive Owen snarling in Roman uniform for a couple of hours, our hopes were high. They were dashed, however, by the opening titles that started with the words 'Historians agree...' Quite apart from the fact that, in actuality, the majority of historians of the period consider Arthur to be a purely fictional character who never existed in real life, contrary to the film's opening statement, and without even going into how dubious we are over the film's claim that 'recently discovered archaeological evidence' supports their interpretation, we were entirely taken aback by the claim that 'historians agree' on anything. We'd both recently completed history degrees, and were both fully aware that historians never agree on anything, or we'd all be out of work.

Historically speaking, the film just goes from bad to worse from then on. Between its complete confusion over who should be Christian and who pagan, a Catholic Church that looks later medieval and Saxons in Scotland (words cannot begin to describe how inaccurate that is), the whole thing is just a big mess. It's quite fun in its own way though, so OldHousemate(theRomeone) (hereafter ORO) and I decided to get together and watch it, and re-live the glorious experience of seeing it together that first time, but with extra added silliness, as this is the Director's Cut. And so, inspired by SFX Magazine's Couch Potato feature, we bring you our re-viewing of King Arthur. We were joined by ORO's husband, OldestMaleFriend (OMF) who may or may not have been with us the first time we saw it - none of us can quite remember...

(This has been put together from ORO's and my written notes. We also recorded our whole conversation on a dictophone, and I've listened to bits of it. For some reason my accent gets more Estuary - probably thanks to Ray Winstone - and my language fouler as the film goes on. In the interests of keeping this post shorter than the film script itself, our conversation has been heavily edited and I've mostly relied on the written notes, with the odd bit from the recording.)

(Before we've even started the film)
ORO: I'm loving the melodrama of the menu.

('Historians agree' appears onscreen. Much laughter).

(Film starts)
OMF: Didn't Romans have rectangular shields and Greeks round ones?
Me (trying to remember the answer, write and drink all at once): It's really hard to write fast drunk.
ORO: You know, I can't remember anything about this film except it really annoyed me. Why are they calling them knights?
Me: Dunno. Are they equestrians?... The music sounds like it's trying to be Lord of the Rings.
OMF: No, it's just trying to be rubbish.
ORO: The background's trying to be as green as New Zealand as well.

(Arthur and/or Lancelot appears, now grown-up)

ORO: He's got more good-looking, good. Ah, a bishop - it's the Church, therefore they are Bad.
Me: Is that Titus F****ing Pullo? (Note: I actually knew it was, as I went to an excellent paper by Tony Keen in which he mentioned this bit of trivia last summer, but I'd had a few drinks by this point and had forgotten).
ORO: What's with all the fog?
OMF: It's Scotland, it's always foggy.

(Stuff happens. I try to keep up with who's supposed to be who, beyond the central trio of Arthur, Lancelot and Bors).

Me: That's Tristan? Tristan's supposed to be handsome!

(Mads Mikkelson is actually fairly good-looking,  but his hair and make-up here is not)

(The Table appears).

Me: Oh dear, is that supposed to be the Round Table?
ORO (who is not drinking, unlike the other two of us, and is gamely trying actually to follow the film): I wonder what time period this is meant to be? When did they have the first Pope?

(A debate about whether it's supposed to be set in a particular year follows, involving re-winding the tape to establish that it doesn't seem to be).

Me (bitterly): Christians are the bad guys, what a surprise.
Evil Bishop (onscreen): Rome and the Holy Father are leaving Britain.
ORO: So this must be AD 410...
OMF: And he's implying that north of Hadrian's Wall is Saxon...

(A very long description of Anglo-Saxon groups, where they were, where they came from etc follows from ORO, whose period is medieval history. OMF and I nod along and continue drinking).

ORO: Why do they keep on about the Pope? Since when was the Pope in charge of the Roman Empire?
(general groans)

(Continued explanation from ORO about why the Anglo-Saxons never went anywhere near Scotland. More nods from OMF and I).

Me: It is Titus F***ing Pullo!

(Film continues. ORO and I discuss the casting of Ioan Gruffydd as Lancelot, which we're broadly in favour of).

Arthur (onscreen): They're being harassed by Saxons
(And she's off again).

(At this point, my attempts to make notes become completely unreadable and the notebook is passed to ORO. She continues to observe Saxon-based historical inaccuracies - the latest being the implication that they're basically Vikings. Which they weren't).

OMF: That was a carving knife. I know ancient weaponry, and that's a carving knife.
ORO: We're being declared free.
Me: Free from what?
OMF: Do you want to rewind it?
ORO (very firmly): No!
Me: Lancelot is very posh.
ORO: And he has some kind of modern mechanism for creating ringlets.

(Film continues. We mistake a temple for a torture chamber. Christians are doing Bad Things in it).

ORO: Why are the Christians in a temple of any sort?

(Keira Knightley turns up as Guinevere).

ORO: Why are they spending lots of time staring at each other and not talking?
Me: To cover up the fact they probably wouldn't speak the same language?

(A collective decision is made that this film badly needs to find the funny).

OMF: Now we're back to the Saxons
Me: And Swedes who are not as hot as their offspring.
ORO: And why have we got a Swede playing an Anglo-Saxon?
Me: Well, he's Scandinavian, that's close enough to German for Hollywood
ORO (sarcastically): And 'cause obviously Vikings and Anglo-Saxons are the same...
OMF: Who are the horse people out of Tolkien?
Me: The Rohirrim? They're actually supposed to be Anglo-Saxons.
OMF: Really? 'Cause there's a guy with a Rohirrim-like helmet with long horsey hair over there. It actually looks authentic.
(General surprise).

(Film continues. I repeat my insistence that Tristan is not good-looking enough. We discuss Guinevere's apparent immunity to cold, because she's so at one with the Earth, or something. There's a lot of plinky-plonky music and wailing on the soundtrack. I start thinking of better films I could be watching, like Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, and wishing there was a Balrog in the mountains).

(Our heroes reach a big frozen lake).

Me and ORO (clearly having reached the only bit of the film we remembered): Oh, it's the bit with the ice!
ORO: Keira Knightley would be so cold by this point she wouldn't be able to draw a bow.
OMF: Why haven't they raised their shields?

(Film continues. We wonder where the snow suddenly went).

Me: Where's Titus F***ing Pullo?
ORO: I think he died hon.
Me: No! You can't kill Titus F***ing Pullo!

(Film continues. Our attention drifts and we chat about weddings and booze for a while).

Me: Oh, sex is happening.
ORO: She's found a curling device as well.
OMF: D**m, he didn't get to finish.
ORO: D**m, she didn't get to finish.

ORO: This film needs to decide who the enemy is - the natives, 'cause they kill everyone, or the Romans, 'cause they're mean, or the Saxons, 'cause they kill everyone.

(Dramatic slow motion and yelling).

ORO: Oh, this is the bit where Keira Knightley puts two belts around her boobs and thinks she's dressed.

(At this point I take the notebook back and write something completely illegible. Essentially, all three of us take apart the various nonsensical elements of the battle scene. We miss an important plot point and decide we don't really care).

OMF: Shall we just not bother watching the end of this and watch Gladiator instead?
ORO: Why is no-one talking, they're all just looking at each other! We're going into battle and no one has said a word except one character has talked to his bird.

(We discuss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory for a few minutes. ORO reminds us all of the differences between Vikings and Saxons again. I agree).

ORO: I'm Saxon, stop making us the bad guys!

(We complain about the length of the battle scene and wish I hadn't bought the Director's Cut).

ORO: Everyone's standing around staring again. This must have been the shortest script ever!
Everybody: I'm confused.
ORO: There's a group of women killing a man like a group of vampires dragging down a man.
Me: When does this film end?
ORO: Never. It will never end.
Me: Is that non-sexy Tristan?
ORO: The only romantic story in this film is Tristan and his bird.

(At this point, my writing in the notebook becomes completely unreadable, and the discussion on the recording a tad unrepeatable. We wonder if viewers of the film realise that the Saxons will, eventually win. We are mildly surprised by the death of Lancelot. Finally, it ends).

ORO: I have one word for that film: Why?
OMF: Me too, only mine's 's***e'.
Me: I'm just completely confused.

I have now re-watched the film (sober) and assembled some more coherent thoughts. Oddly enough, it's actually better sober, as the story does make a bit more sense now, though it's still a complete travesty as far as history goes.

There is no 'historical' Arthur and writers wanting to present a less fantastical Arthur have several choices concerning how to approach it as an historical drama rather than a medieval fantasy. There's the Late Roman becoming British angle (The Last Legion), the offspring of Romans and Britons (Merlin in The Crystal Cave) or the British defender against the Saxons (Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy). Although Romans are quite frequently involved in some way, this film chooses a much more strongly Roman option than many, making not only Arthur himself Roman, but his knights, although British, veterans of the Roman army.

The reason for this, I think, is that the filmmakers wanted to depict Arthur and his knights as soldiers. Too often, Arthurian knights are such perfect examples of medieval chivalric ideals, they don't behave in a way remotely similar to any warrior who's ever lived. These knights, while they are as noble, brave and honourable as Arthurian knights should be, are also tough, hard to impress, they drink hard and they make very rude jokes. They behave as you imagine a group of fighting men would. Making them members of the Roman army reinforces this military vibe. They are part of a recognisable army, with uniforms and a command structure - which means they can embody all the military stereotypes you might find in a war movie. These stereotypes would look rather different on the itinerant wandering knights of medieval Arthurian legend. When it comes to fighting, the Romans seem rather more familiar than fantasy medieval knights.

The film is daft, and suffers from trying to be a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Gladiator, while being vastly inferior to both, but I do rather like this interpretation of the knights. It's quite fun to see Arthur and his knights actually behaving like soldiers and it offers a fresh take on some very old characters. It's just a shame the film has to be so pretentious. If it dropped any claim to historical accuracy and was happy to be a entertaining story based around Arthurian legend, I would have little trouble with it. It's that opening crawl, and the desperate insistence that we should take it seriously, that is its biggest problem.
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