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.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Poseidon's Gold (by Lindsey Davis) (radio adaptation)

As ever, spoilers follow, mostly regarding the personal side of the story rather than the case itself!

Poseidon's Gold is another of Falco's more personal cases, and another fairly early one. We get to meet Falco's father, who's an interesting character, and a fun one to read about. Falco's relationship with him is tense, strained, yet ultimately he still cares at least a little - all of which makes it feel very real and makes it very interesting to read!

We also see a little bit of tension in Falco and Helena's relationship, which is refreshing too. I've no desire to see them break up or anything, but the odd difference of opinion is what makes their relationship realistic. I can't remember anything about the book version of this story - though I think I read it - but as I listened I thought Falco's repetition of his defense that the incident with his brother's girlfriend happened before he met Helena was a bit weak. I think if I was Helena, I would be crosser about the fact my other half had a possible daughter he'd told me firmly was his niece, rather than about something he did before he met me. I think maybe the emphasis in their argument got a bit lop-sided in the radio adaptation - the issue is certainly brought up, but the argument is a bit short, so hops about a bit.

This play is, however, slightly longer than The Silver Pigs, which is good. We get a reasonable amount of time for both the personal side of things and the actual case here, which is important, because they're not as closely connected as at first they seem. Festus is, as we know from the beginning, the key to everything, but the problem that led to Falco being chief suspect turns out to be largely separate from the motive for the actual murder. What's nice about this is that it keeps things pleasantly unpredictable, though you miss that wonderfully satisfying feeling you get from a complicated story that turns out to be intricately connected at the end.

The most interesting thing about this story for an historian is that it touches on that most frustrating theme, lost works. Robert Graves played with this a lot in I, Claudius - teasing readers by having his characters refer to works like Pollio's history, which are now lost and which we're all desperate to get our hands on. Davis' use of that idea here is really interesting, because of course, her characters have lost a Phidias too (a sculpture by a famous Greek artist - his statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). The difference between us and them is that they may still be able to get hold of other Phidias sculptures, and we only have Roman copies, but we share their frustration and disappointment at the loss of such a valuable piece of art. The story also highlights the dangers and difficulties of sea trade of course, which applies to most of history, not just the Classical world.

All in all, another fun story, and the radio adaptation is excellent as ever (Helena is played by a new actress, but equally good!). There's something about Falco that really does work well on the radio - perhaps it's the world weary sarcasm that Anton Lesser gets across so beautifully!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Treasury of Literature for Children

A while back, I posted about an illustrated collection of stories about King Arthur for children, and mentioned that it was one of two illustrated anthologies that were my particular favourites when I was little. This is the other, a collection of sections from children's classics, poems and short stories including things like 'The Smuggler's Song', Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' and an extract from Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

The book includes Nathaniel Hawthorne's re-telling of the story of the Labours of Hercules. Hawthorne's version is fine. It's bowdlerised, of course; it skims over Hercules' murder of his wife and children, referring to it vaguely as 'some evil deed'. It uses the Roman names for gods and goddesses, which makes no difference, and it skims some of the Labours themselves, focusing on what Hawthorne presumably considered the more interesting ones - he skips over the Stymphalian birds and the bull in one sentence, but devotes a large section to the Apples of the Hesperides, for example. He also describes the Pillars of Hercules as the Straits of Gibralter, which would help children to understand where they were, but introduces a more modern tone. Overall though, the re-telling is a bit functional, but perfectly fine.

Like the King Arthur book, I'm afraid I had no interest in this particular story as a child. Unlike the King Arthur book, though, the problem wasn't the subject matter - it was the illustrations. Each story in the volume has its own illustrator, and its own style of illustrations, and as a small child I was attracted to the stories with nice or interesting illustrations. The illustrations on the Hercules story, however, were not attractive.

The problem wasn't caused by the illustrations showing unpleasant things, though some of them certainly do, especially the image of the man-eating mares of Diomedes doing what they do best. But one of my absolute favourite stories was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, from The Jungle Book, which contains some quite frightening images - especially if you're my Mum and you're frightened of snakes. In Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's case, though, although the subject matter is frightening, the style of the illustrations themselves is not.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi illustration

The man-eating mares of Diomedes

In the case of the Hercules illustrations, however, the illustrations themselves, as well as the subject matter, were rather frightening to me. This picture of Atlas looks rather unnerving, and he has a very peculiar expression. Images of Amazons on wild horses and Hercules himself, wearing his traditional lion-skin and looking small, distant and tough, did not endear me to the story.

This is not to say that the subject matter is completely irrelevant. Another favourite of mine was What Katy Did, which benefited from cosy, safe illustrations, partly because it's a story about young women set in middle-class drawing rooms.

Illustration for What Katy Did

But I think it was the nature of the Hercules illustrations that put me off - they were too alien, too strange, too cruel and not warm or familiar enough. The cobras in the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi illustrations were alien and scary, but they were balanced by a cute mongoose and presented in a realistic and therefore familiar and comforting way. And this close insight into the workings of my eight-year-old mind is a useful reminder that often, the things we value or consider important are not those a child will - and the impression people get of Classics in popular culture may depend on the most random of elements.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Apologies for the slight delay with the latest blog post. I've come down with some nasty winter bug, so haven't been able to get a fresh post written up just yet. Normal service will resume shortly, and upcoming attractions will include a Couch Potato-style viewing of the Clive Owen-starring King Arthur featuring OldHousemate(theRomeone) and OldestMaleFriend, a review of the radio play of Lindsey Davis' Poseidon's Gold and a look at one of Star Trek's least finest hours (taboo-breaking kissing aside), 'Plato's Stepchildren'.

In the meantime, I thought I'd offer a few posts from the archives; some classic British comedy:
Yes, Minister: The Bed of Nails
Yes, Prime Minister: The National Education Service
The Brittas Empire: Not a Good Day
The Black Adder
Blackadder the Third
Blackadder: Back and Forth

And, in honour of Remembrance Sunday, World War One drama Joyeux Noel.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Silver Pigs (by Lindsey Davis) (radio adaptation)

Beware, there be spoilers ahead!

The Silver Pigs is the first Falco novel, and as well as introducing our intrepid hero, it is in the course of this novel that Falco first meets and falls in love with hte love of his life, Helena Justina. I read The Silver Pigs a long time ago, and my memory of it is pretty vague, but I had remembered most of the important stuff. Although the Falco novels have always contained plenty of humour and Falco himself has always been the sharp-tongued cynic we know and love, the earlier novels are, to use a cliched term, a bit darker than the later ones, and this one is particularly tragic.

The death of poor Sosia Camillina about a third of the way into the novel is a nasty shock, made worse by the fact it might not have happened if Falco hadn't been imprisoned and unconscious at the time. The tragedy is slightly offset by Falco and Helena's later successful escape, but it's still terribly sad. Several of Falco's cases are quite personal and involve members of his or Helena's family, but this one is perhaps the most personal of all, and this gives him that air of ground-down depression that fictional private eyes so often have. We also learn a lot about his character from the fact he holds back from allowing the naive young Sosia to get too close to him, but is more successfully seduced by the older and more experienced widow Helena.

The other thing that makes Sosia's death particularly painful, of course, is that the murderer can never be brought to justice, because he happens to be the son of the emperor. Davis introduces all three Flavians here. Her characterisation of Titus fits well with his reputation as emperor, though his supposed riotous side and occasional curelty, mentioned by Suetonius as qualities he overcame when he became emperor, are left out (and Berenice is nowhere to be seen so far). Domitian is an out-and-out villain, which certainly fits later historians' view of him to a T. The plot is nicely based in the specifics of Flavian Rome and Roman Britain, with the titular pigs a properly Roman concept - this is a story that could not be told in another time and place.

This radio adaptation has been squeezed into two hours, so the plot has been slightly compressed, though it's basically intact. I think it's the first half of the story that's been cut the most - Sosia's death seems to happen a bit too early and I seem to remember Falco's terrible experience in the silver mines being more prolonged and described in more detail in the book. The second half felt a bit less rushed, and seemed complete (though I have to say, the sound of people kissing on the radio is not pleasant!)

Anton Lesser sounds older than I imagined Falco, though he plays him perfectly. All the voice cast are excellent. The Flavians' accents are rather fun too - Domitian is all upper class villainy, Titus sounds reasonably posh but slips into a Northern accent when he gets angry, and Vespasian sounds like Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe. It's a great short-hand to their characters and although it perhaps overplays the humbleness of their less-aristocratic-than-the-Caesars background a little, it makes a nice point about their down-to-earth personalities.

The Silver Pigs has always been one of my favourite Falco novels. Just like the Gordianus books, I enjoy reading about the earlier, rougher Falco who lives in a cheap flat and gets hassled for bodily fluids by the local laundrette. I like the illicit side of his and Helena's early relationship, and his struggling, underdog qualities (oddly enough, I don't feel quite so strongly about this when it comes to the Discworld's Commander Vimes, though Night Watch, which plays off the changes in Vimes' life between his earlier and later appearances, is one of my favourites). I like the way just about every character is implicated in the mystery and, of course, any appearance of Roman Britain without either Boudicca or the Ninth Legion is something to be celebrated (if we ignore the fact that Falco's a veteran of the Boudiccan revolt, talked about less in the radio adaptation than in the book). This is a very enjoyable adaptation, and a great way to re-discover the novel.
Actual lead pigs - without silver in them, presumably

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Death in Chains

A cracking early episode of Xena about death, love and giant rats, you can see the show starting to settle in here and work out what it can do and how it can best work with the ancient material.

Unusually for Xena, this episode is more or less a straight re-telling of an ancient myth. It's also a version of the myth that we know mainly from fragments (Sisyphus and his punishment appear in the Odyssey and other underworld scenes, but the story of him chaining Death is less common), which means the writers had pretty free rein in terms of interpreting it.

There were some lovely nods to wider Greek mythology here. Sisyphus refers to having angered Zeus trying to get water for his people, which isn't part of the ancient story - ancient kings are rarely as generous as that - but in several versions, he had angered Zeus by telling a river god that Zeus had abducted his daughter, so the explanation sort of fits (this is why Sisyphus is still alive at the end, which is only briefly explained in the episode - his body wasn't actually dying in the first place, Zeus sent Death to him to punish him). Sisyphus' declaration 'Don't count me out yet!' in the face of apparent certain death is rather good too, as in several versions, even once he's in the underworld, Sisyphus tricks Hades into letting him return to the world above for a visit, and then refuses to come back. This is why his punishment when he finally does come down to the underworld for good is so cruel (he's the guy who's constantly pushing a rock up a hill).

A few of the alterations to the myth are there to increase the tension in the episode, and to give it more of a sense of urgency, especially the addition of the candle that, if it burns out, will kill Death. Or something. Most, however, are thematic or artistic. The Greek Thanatos (Death) is male, bearded, and has wings, but I really like the interpretation of Death here. A female figure in white, veiled and moving in that fabulously eerie glide, like Buffy's Gentlemen, she looks both more beautiful and creepier than more traditional masculine images of Death. Maybe it's because I used to read so many ghost stories about women in white dresses as a child or something.

The most important innovation is, of course, the inclusion of Talus, the latest of Gabrielle's doomed boyfriends. While the episode is full of characters whom Xena is trying to kill, or who are incapacitated and suffering, Talus provides the essential note of tragedy the episode needs to work emotionally - just sick enough that he has to die, just healthy enough that he looks pretty doing it. The actor does a great job at making him likable enough quickly enough that you feel it when he goes, and without that tragic note, the episode couldn't work, as our heroes would probably seem to be taking death a little too much in stride. The afterlife Death leads Talus off to looks a lot more Judaeo-Christian than Greek to me - all light and implied niceness, no empty souls and creepy river - but I'm OK with that. It would be hard to root for Xena & co. to rescue Death if the afterlife was presented in the Homeric style, which is thoroughly depressing (it's no wonder Sisyphus wanted out).

I'm a sucker for stories about ghosts, the afterlife or Death, so I really enjoyed this episode. And, although this was a fairly downbeat story, Xena always remembers to bring the funny - in this case, Gabrielle trying desperately not to scream as an enormous rat nuzzles her ear while she hides behind a curtain. This is a really nice re-telling of an ancient story - fingers crossed for more like it!


Talus: It's not how long you live that matters, it's how well you live.

Sisyphus: Don't count me out yet!

Disclaimer: No Jumbo Sized Cocktail Rats were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Roman Mysteries: The Slave Girl from Jerusalem (TV adaptation)

This is the last episode of the TV series based on The Roman Mysteries (sniff!). There's a lot of sniffing involved in this one, so turn away now if you don't want to be spoiled!

Seriously, big spoilers ahead, in the book review as well.

Like the book it's based on, this episode opens with Jonathan experiencing a premonition that someone close to him will die. His dream is beautifully shot and also just creepy enough without being too scary - unlike the mangled eye new character Nonius is sporting, which would have totally freaked me out as a child (I'm one of those people who freaks out at the thought of eye trauma).

This story features pretty heavy stuff from beginning to end, so a new character was introduced for the television, who has since cropped up in some spin-off stories. Floridius is a rather pathetic soothsayer who nevertheless comes in handy when our heroes need a Roman citizen at short notice and who claims that his gestures were admired by Quintilian. He provides a welcome shot of light relief amongst all the trauma and a nice visual, entertaining way to introduce oratorical gestures to the audience. His interactions with Lupus also give Lupus something to do in a story in which he could easily have got lost.

I love the cliffhanger between Parts 1 and 2, in which Nubia offers to let herself be tortured to death so that no one else will die and Hephzibah will be freed. Nubia is awesome. It's also the perfect way to illustrate the dangers of slavery to a young audience - a serious threat to one of our main characters but one which, ultimately, won't actually happen. I love Jonathan drawing his knife to protect her as well, though I doubt he'd have won that particular fight.

The childbirth scenes are PG-rated of course, though that doesn't make poor Miriam's demise any less traumatic. Jonathan's off-hand remark that Miriam's not the first to have a baby doesn't quite ring true; as a boy, perhaps he wouldn't know as much about childbirth as the girls do, but with Flavia's mother having died in childbirth and that being relatively common in the ancient world, I think even a young boy would be aware that there was a certain level of risk involved, whether or not it's twins. The rush to fetch Gaius while Miriam is in labour is very dramatic, but also feels perhaps a bit too modern - on the one hand, obviously they want to get him there before Miriam dies, but on the other hand, Miriam screaming 'Gaius why aren't you here' feels wrong - these are Romans, fathers don't attend births and you wouldn't be screaming for the father until the baby was born or until you knew you'd had it. The timing doesn't really work either - Hephzibah's trial isn't finished, so she ought to be in court.

On the other hand, kids watching wouldn't notice any of this - they would be thinking the same as Jonathan, wondering why Miriam was so tense about giving birth, and they would expect her to want the father there because that's what we do. Swapping the conclusions to the two stories also allows the series to have a happy ending, which is especially important given that this is the last ever episode. With that in mind, I think these minor inaccuracies are for the best - they may irritate me but they make the story much more comprehensible and enjoyable for its intended audience.

The writers have wrapped up the series nicely in these episodes - all our four heroes get a moment in the spotlight (though poor Jonathan's is as unhappy as ever) and Flavia and Flaccus are clearly destined for each other, even if they're not quite married yet. There wasn't room for Nubia and Aristo's romance, but that couldn't be helped. The last scene, with Marcus Geminus asking Fortuna to bring 'the children' - both the twin babies and our four heroes - good luck is lovely. Ironically, despite ending on the most tragic of the books, the end of the TV series is actually slightly more upbeat than The Man From Pomegranate Street (except for the wedding scene in the epilogue to that book, which is also lovely). I have to admit, though, that child-me would have totally missed the ending through being so upset about Miriam (I was a right wuss - Mum still remembers the fuss I made over some movie about a pit pony, where I thought the pony had died and didn't stay to the end to see that it lived...). A solid end to a great series. Maybe I should start an internet campaign for a movie...

All Roman Mysteries reviews
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