Just when the gap between series of True Blood was becoming too much to bear and we were all left alone in the dark, crying out for a good drenching of blood and gore spliced in with lots of shots of people's naked bodies doing all sorts of enjoyable-looking things with each other - Spartacus is back! Hurray!
Well, sort of. Season 2 was delayed while star Andy Whitfield received treatment for cancer, so in the meantime this prequel series, set in Batiatus' gladiator school, was made. Tragically, Whitfield's cancer has recurred and the part has now been recast for Season 2, which will go into production soon.
Since we know so little about the historical Batiatus and anything we do know was covered in the series proper, this is basically pure fiction, which is rather fun. The practical aspects of ancient Rome are one the things Spartacus usually does reasonably well (horribly obvious greenscreen work aside) so this promises to be a particularly satisfying slice of almost-Roman life.
We open with a flashback to Batiatus, Xena and the others' sticky ends from the Spartacus: Blood and Sand season 1 finale, followed by some choice moments of throat-cutting, head chopping and general blood-spilling from the series as a whole. Batiatus' end is given a sense of genuinely epic tragedy, his ambitions finally destroyed in a bloodbath that also spells doom for his entire household. This is, of course, rather necessary to make us care about seeing exactly how he ended up in such a position, but it really is very well done and only the flashback to Barca's and Mrs Spartacus' deaths remind us how throughly he deserved it by the time it came around.
And then - half a face! This gladiator didn't even bother to aim for the neck. We must be Quite Far Into The Past, because the colour has gone a bit green, Xena has her own hair and Batiatus is wearing some kind of hair piece. The white-haired guy from season 1 is a friend of Batiatus and sporting some truly fabulous earrings. Neither are running the show - they appear to be providing gladiators but a blond guy who looks a bit like the older Octavian from season 2 of Rome is running the show. Xena is with them, watching, because this show is still very much not interested in the idea that women could not sit quite so near the action during a gladiatorial show, accurate or not. I must say, the young make-up on all of them is pretty impressive - I wonder if they're all botox'ed up to the hilt.
We're introduced to Batiatus' current (i.e. past) champion gladiator, who has a long name beginning with G (Gannicus, according to IMDB - is that a Roman name? It's unusual, anyway, and he's supposed to be Celtic...) and whom I shall therefore refer to as G.
Tits! Both out at once, less than five minutes in. Not!Octavian is unimpressed when Batiatus' gladiator does for his own No. 1 in a scene reminscent of that bit in The Addams Family where Wednesday and Pugsley perform the final scene of Hamlet in the school talent show. At which point the rock music kicks in, and everyone who hasn't just been bloodily slaughtered is having a rather good time.
Il Doctore isn't here yet either, rather a slightly shorter and stockier New Zealander is training G. I hope Crixus and our own DSG (Drill Sergeant Guy) turn up soon. This one talks about hubris, our Greek word of the week, which I believe was mentioned before - are the writers running out of Latin/Greek vocabulary?
As Xena and Batiatus wander around the streets, people are being mercilessly flogged as if they were auditioning for a Mel Gibson film and a whole row of naked slave girls are waiting to be sold. This is actually reasonably accurate, unlike the tits on display in the arena, though, I hope, a bit less of a turn-on. (Possibly. Don't tell me, I don't want to know).
I hope they're not going to keep up the Matrix-green colour palette all series long. I can't see the blood properly.
Next, Batiatus and Not-Yet-White-Haired Guy have a chat while using the loo which is, again, entirely accurate. Spartacus is a programme that strives even more than the others (and Rome and I, Claudius went quite far with this) to present Rome as Other, as a mad, violent place totally unlike our own society. In this episode, they're doing this unusually well. Most shows (including, frequently, this one) depict Romans engaged in all sorts of extreme and sometimes horrific behaviour in an attempt to make them seem exotic and wild, when in reality, some behaviour is considered beyond the pale in most societies. This, however, is a perfect example of a way in which Roman society really was different - and rather less delicate - than ours, since this is a perfectly accurate representation of Roman toilet facilites (and the same goes for the line of naked slave girls. The whipping I'm not so sure about but crucifixions were, of course, carried out in public so that's probably fair too). (If you want to know more about Roman toilets, see Caroline Lawrence's posts on them here and here).
Thanks to Caroline for this screenshot of the sponge stick and toilets - the sponge stick having just been used, so it's being handed to a slave for cleaning
Next up, we're introduced to Crixus! Yay! He's got long hair and beard, so he clearly hasn't got himself properly trained up yet. Batiatus buys him.
We haven't had a sex scene yet and we've got all the way past the first commerical break, so the slaves have a quick orgy of sorts to make up for that. This is intercut with gladiator training because sex and violence can be metaphorically related, you know (I almost expect someone to sprout fangs and drain the nearest girl's blood at any minute).
G has a lady-friend who seems much more cheerful than most of the non-Xena women on this show so far. And a-ha! Doctore! He's off sick apparently, with some exciting scars that have somehow disappeared by season 1 of the main show. And he has a name, but I'll stick to DSG, it's quicker to type. He is apparently married to G's lady-friend, so that'll end well
We also see Naevia, looking happier than usual as well, and Xena appears to have a genuinely pleasant and sane (and brunette) friend - which apparently means we need a lesbian subtext to their friendship. Considering Xena liked using Naevia to get her started in season 1, this actually makes sense, as she is presumably bisexual, though that's not a thread that was really followed in season 1. We discover that Xena and Batiatus have recently go
Crixus bonds with some fellow gladiators who say they were eight of them when training began and now there are three. This is really daft. It was bad enough when season 1 depicted Batiatus throwing away valuable gladiators on party favours and rich people's whims, b
Ooh, there's an exciting cliff-shot. It sort of looks like Saruman's army should attack it.
Xena's friend spots Xena and Batiatus having sex, tits flying everywhere, and masturbates to it while standing up in the corner of the room, entirely unnoticed, which is something of an acheivement, though they were probably too preoccupied to notice any noise she made anyway.
Crixus is practicing with a man sporting a very, very silly beard. DSG is fighting Barca, who has also been raised from the dead thanks to the flashback. Not!Octavian accuses Batiatus of having no business sense, which is true, but in this particular case (that of Crixus) Batiatus is actually right for once. Not!Octavian has a creepy blond accomplice who looks very familiar for some reason and who I think is probably evil... (Later: oh my goodness it's Max from Neighbours! Not sure why I would think he's evil on that basis, I quite liked Max, though I seem to remember it all going a bit pear-shaped with him shortly before I gave up on the show).
Batiatus explains to DSG that he wants to replace his current Doctore because the previous one is his father's man and implies there might be a promotion to Doctore in it if he g
G is standing on the edge of the cliff singing drunkenly about his cock. DSG tries to persuade him that this probably isn't a good idea, but sadly he doesn't go plunging off the cliff as I'd rather hoped - he's only been around for half an hour and I'm already sick of this guy. Luckily, the whole point of this series to to see how Crixus replaces him, so he'll get his comeuppance eventually.
Batiatus and Not!Octavian have a little grudge match in the street, which someone points out is not really proper but they do it anyway. G is set against a huige guy whose armour is, despite this, too big for him, called Otho. Batiatus has rather stupidly boasted that G could beat any of Not!Octavian's men blindfolded, so G is forced to do just that and does surprisingly well (endearing himself to me a bit more in the process). Unfortunately, DSG's wife is rather impressed by this as well. Slimy peroxide blonde guy is impressed and Batiatus' fortunes are looking up at last, or so it seems.
Barca's boyfriend obviously hasn't turned up yet because he's snogging an older man, who will therefore almost certianly die horribly soon. G refuses to share his reward wit
Back in the villa, I love the way Batiatus still sometimes speaks in weird, abbreviated English ('expect late return' etc). It's presumably a way of emulating the brevity of Latin, a language with many fewer words than English in which you can say things much more quickly, and it's brilliant.
Xena's friend provides some drugs for them. Slimy Blonde
Xena's friend Gaia, who you may remember as the original woman in the BBC's con-man drama Hustle. Whether or not it's significant that she's named after the goddess of the earth remains to be seen.
All in all, an excellent start to the prequel series. It's great to see these characters back from the dead - one of the most worrying things about season 2 is that so many of the most colourful characters have been bumped off. Everyone seems a bit more cheerful here (not that this will last, of course) which gives the show a greater energy and prevents it from falling into scenes of characters moping about, as season 1 occasionally did. I'm also really enjoying seeing more of life at the ludus, and being able to sit back and let the story happen without co