Saturday, 29 September 2012

The West Wing: A Proportional Response

Previously on The West Wing - we were introduced to Morris, Bartlet's doctor, a man so obviously immediately doomed that he might as well have been wearing a red shirt. Safety tip, folks - if you are a character on a TV show, do not introduce yourself to your new boss by showing him pictures of your wife and newborn baby and then tell him you're flying out to a particularly dangerous part of the world.

In addition to some other storylines about Sam and the call girl and the introduction of Charlie (yay!) this episode is about Bartlet dealing with his first military operation, and working out what sort of Commander In Chief he's going to be. How he reacts to Morris' death will indicate (in theory) how he will approach foreign policy and military issues. His military advisors are suggesting he make 'a proportional response' to the attack that killed Morris. Since this episode was made in 1999, the story comes out broadly in favour of restraint in the interests of not being at war, but Bartlet, contrary to expectations based on his lack of military experience and liberal views, doesn't immediately come to that conclusion.

The propotional response, by the way, is code-named Pericles 1, after the famous Athenian general and political leader Pericles - presumably in the hope that Bartlet will decide he wants to emulate him. Since Pericles was something of an imperialist, this may indicate that his military advisors secretly want to conquer everywhere as well...

Bartlet himself angrily demands to know the value of a proportional response, goes right through eye-for-an-eye-style vengeance and comes out into let's-kill-them-all mania, from which he has to be talked down by Leo. (This is also the episode in which Bartlet's smoking habit is revealed. He always smokes when he's trying to be badass). As they argue over the issue, Bartlet declares that he's basing his attitude on the Romans, because in the Roman period, a Roman citizen could travel all over the world protected only by the words civis Romanus ('I am a Roman citizen'), because the Romans would come down so hard on anyone who hurt one of their citizens. It's worth quoting this in full:

Bartlet: Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation? He could walk across the Earth unharmed, cloaked only in the protection of the words civis Romanus -- I am a Roman citizen. So great was the retribution of Rome, universally certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens.

I have numerous problems with this particular argument. For one thing, whatever Bartlet says, this would only apply to the Roman Empire itself. No Pict or German or Parthian from outside the empire would hold off killing someone because they were a Roman citizen (it might even encourage them). So the analogy only works within the United States (which Morris wasn't) - unless Bartlet's suggesting they actually start conquering places.

For another thing, while I fully believe there is probably some ancient primary source somewhere that claims this was true, it's not remotely plausible in reality. The parable of the Good Samaritan - a fictional story, but parables work by reflecting real life as closely as possible to make them relateable - shows how dangerous some parts of the Roman Empire could be, and it doesn't seem remotely likely that, if the Jewish victim in that story had declared he was a Roman citizen, the bandits would have said 'Oh, sorry mate,' and refrained from beating him up and stealing all his stuff. Similarly being, presumably, a Roman citizen doesn't do the character Charite much good in Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses. There are stories of particularly successful bandits in historical sources as well (Cassius Dio 76.10, Herodian 1.10), like Maternus and Bulla Felix (a sort of Robin Hood-type character). The evidence for them isn't overly reliable, but they do seem to have existed, and I doubt very much telling them you were a Roman citizen would have done you any good.

It's certainly true that bandits like these were punished, and Roman punishments, as is well known, were particularly brutal. So perhaps, if you wanted to avoid being crucified, thrown to the lions, or executed in an exotic mythologically-inspired way in the arena, you would do better to avoid a life of crime. It's also true that your crime would be considered much worse, and your punishment would be more severe, if you had killed or injured a Roman citizen - how far the Romans would care if you hurt other people is hard to say, and if you killed a slave you would owe their master money. So to an extent, it's true to say that killing a Roman citizen was probably not a good idea and you might find yourself in hot water for doing so. The Romans certainly determinedly went after Bulla Felix and Maternus, though the fact they seem to have been running major operations verging on Spartacus-levels of rebellion might have had something to do with that. But to say that every single Roman citizen all over the Empire could wander around telling bandits they were Roman citizens and expecting to be left alone is clearly ridiculous.

Where being a Roman citizen could help you more, of course, was in a more formal situation. St Paul was famously able to appeal to the Emperor because he was a Roman citizen - it gave you certain legal rights and you were probably more likely to get a decent trial if you were a citizen. But that's all it would do.

When Bartlet breaks out the fags, it's best to stay out of his way.

I don't know exactly where Bartlet got this idea from, though I'm sure it's in some source somewhere. But that's exactly what it is - an idea, an ideal. There's absolutely no way such a stance could ever be a practical reality, especially in a world without telecommunications and fast transport. But in a way, it's the perfect example to use in a show like The West Wing, which is all about ideas and ideals. The West Wing's relationship to reality is tenuous at best, but it holds up an ideal of what many people would like to think politics could be, so it seems only logical that The West Wing's President calls on a Roman ideal with little relationship to reality to make his point.

More West Wing reviews

Monday, 24 September 2012

Top Five Tear-Jerkers

I love a good cry at a properly tragic film. (Anything bittersweet or vaguely downbeat, on the other hand, will annoy me intensely). My three favourite films of all time are The Lord of the Rings (in the books I weep over the death of Theoden, in the films it's the moment where that flute plays as Sam and Frodo are struggling up Mount Doom), Gladiator (see below) and Titanic (sob-fest for most of the second half).

A few weeks ago I compiled a list of top tear-jerking episodes of geek TV for Den of Geek, which, naturally enough, got me thinking about Classically-themed weepies. There were fewer obvious candidates than I'd expected, possibly because Classical films tend to put more emphasis on the blood and guts and less on the soppy stuff, but if you have something stuck in your eye, one of these might help to get it out.

5. Jesus Christ Superstar
OK, this one might be the Catholic in me rather than the Classicist, but it still makes me well up. The role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is not always the easiest because it can rather easily be over-shadowed by the potentially more interesting part of Judas. But Jesus gets one big moment in the spotlight - his solo in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he wrestles with his desire not to get horribly executed. Ted Neeley's performance in Norman Jewison's film version is powerful and impassioned, and ensures that Jesus, as well as Judas, is presented as a conflicted and interesting character.
Tear-jerking moment: Most of the solo is shot with Jesus climbing a mountain, getting higher and higher and yelling at the sky, but as he sings 'see how I die,' the film shows a montage of medieval and Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion which are somehow more powerful than any number of filmed versions.
You might be all right until: 'Just watch me die! See how I die!'

4. Rome, Passover
Julius Caesar kind of had it coming. He fought several civil wars, turned the remnants of the Republic into a dictatorship, terrified one co-consul into hiding in his house for a year and was responsible for death on a massive scale. And yet, there is something moving about the passing, no matter how well deserved, of such a towering historical figure; made all the more emotive in Caesar's case because he was killed by former enemies to whom he had shown mercy and who he had pardoned after the civil war. To top it all, in Rome, we see Caesar's slave Posca, someone who seems to have felt genuine affection and love for the man and was probably the closest person to him, distraught at the sight of his bloody body.
Tear-jerking moment: Posca weeps over Caesar's body and covers Caesar's face with his toga (historically, Caesar supposedly did this himself while dying).
You might be all right until: The shot of Posca weeping over Caesar slides into Vorenus weeping over Niobe (much as that is at least partly his own fault).

3. The Hunger Games
All of The Hunger Games is pretty tragic, given that it's about children being forced to kill each other. But the really gut-wrenching moment is the inevitable death of young Rue, Katniss' ally whose tactics involved mostly running away and hiding (and, er, getting Katniss to do her dirty work for her). The book's version is very affecting, as you feel Katniss' grief with her, but the film version is perhaps even more tear-jerking because we also get to see the reaction to Rue's death in her home of District 11.
Tear-jerking moment: Katniss salutes towards the cameras she knows are all around, and a man who may or may not be related to Rue, mad with grief and anger, starts a riot in District 11. The revolution starts here.
You might be all right until: When Katniss starts crying, so will you.

2. The West Wing, Two Cathedrals
I've waxed lyrical before about how I think this is one of the best episodes of television ever made, and it must rank up with the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth as one of the greatest weepies in series television. Perhaps it's true that the tears will flow most freely in the final scene, as Bartlet walks out to meet the press (in dramatic rain, natch) to the strains of Dire Straits' 'Brothers in Arms,' which has nothing really to do with Classics. But the emotional low point of the episode, in which Bartlet yells at God, in the National Cathedral, in Latin, is also pretty amazing and thoroughly sniffle-worthy.
Tear-jerking moment: Bartlet is the picture of good Catholic respect until the moment the doors are closed and he's alone, at which point he starts calling God a feckless thug.
You might be all right until: 'What was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son! What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name?'

1. Gladiator
Much like Titanic, I'm generally in tears for half the film in this case. From the slowed-down battle sequence, to Lucilla mourning her father and slapping Commodus then kissing his hand, to Maximus discovering his families' bodies (that's some Oscar-winning snot in that scene) to the deaths of Proximo and the German dude, the whole thing is weepier than Steel Magnolias. And it's all helped along by the great Hans Zimmer's best score (it's since been much imitated, and it may sound quite a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean, but this one was the original). But top crying props must go to the finale, as Maximus goes to the afterlife (a Spanish vineyard, which sounds pretty nice as an afterlife to me) while Lucilla asks if Rome is worth one good man's life while everyone completely fails to care about the very recent death of Emperor Commodus. Totally unhistorical of course, but I'm past caring by this point in the film.
Tear-jerking moment: The surviving male characters (including tiny Lucius) come forward to carry Maximus' body away. Commodus is left lying in the sand.
You might be all right until: 'Who will help me carry him?' Or perhaps, if you hold out a really long time, 'I will see you again - but not yet!'

Bubbling under: The Roman Mysteries, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius' (death of Pliny the Elder); I, Claudius, 'Poison is Queen' (death of Augustus); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (death of Dobby the house elf); Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, 'The Bitter End' (perhaps surprisingly, death of Batiatus); Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii' (death of really quite a lot of people, but importantly not of Caecilius and his family).

More Top Five Lists

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Battlestar Galactica: The Hand of God

I was sent seasons 1 and 2 of the new(er) Battlestar Galactica (plus the mini-series) by a friend ages ago, and have been making my way through them very slowly - so far Disc 3 of season 1 is as far as I've got! For some reason, I just can't seem to get into the show and I find it a bit slow and dull a lot of the time. I like Starbuck, Sharon, Helo and the engineer (who I mostly think of as 'Scotty') and Stands With a Fist is fine, but I find Tigh and even Adama boring, and Apollo doesn't seem to be much more than a pretty face so far. Oddly enough I like Sharon a lot, but find Boomer irritating, which is probably a testament to the writing and Grace Park's acting.

There's lots of Classical stuff to talk about in Battlestar Galactica. Obviously, one of the lead characters is actually called Apollo, the name of the sun god (well, his callsign is Apollo). Another is called Gaius, which has less obvious symbolism beyond a general feeling of Roman-ness but is worth mentioning. (It was the Emperor Caligula's name, but although Gaius Baltar's sanity is definitely a wee bit questionable, so far he doesn't seem to have much in common with that particular namesake, and hasn't yet claimed to be a god - he thinks he's an instrument of God, but that's not quite the same thing). Helo's surname 'Agathon' is from the Greek 'agathos,' meaning 'good.'

The religious system in Battlestar Galactica is also Classically inspired. The humans' religion (the only human one we've seen so far - Caprica seems to have had an unusual lack of religions to choose from) is focused on worship of the Lords of Kobol, most of whom are the Olympian gods of Greek mythology (whenever a Greek god is mentioned, they're usually described in the same terms as the 'real' mythological equivalent). The scripts put this polytheistic religion up against the Cylons' monotheistic religion, which is clearly modelled on Christianity. The relationship between the two does not quite match the contrast between Christianity and ancient paganism, because ancient 'paganism' was not one religion with set gods, but the Olympians were among the most important gods and were the main state gods, so there's a clear Classical inspiration there.

In this episode, President Laura Roslin has some disturbing hallucinations during a press conference (a side effect of a drug she's taking to treat her terminal cancer), and asks for advice from a woman who is presumably a priestess (this may have been clear from an episode I watched ages ago and can't remember!). The priestess asks if the images were 'prescient,' implying a fairy strong belief in premonitory visions in her religion. Roslin describes the snakes she saw crawling all over the podium, and the priestess is astounded, saying, 'You read Pythia and now you're having me on.' In Battlestar Galactica's world, it emerges, about 3,600 years before the mini-series, an oracle (the implication is, one of several) called Pythia wrote a sacred scroll about the exile and rebirth of the human race, and about a leader with visions of snakes, who would not live to see the new land.

In real life, the Pythia was another name for the Delphic Oracle, the richest and most important oracle in Classical Greece. The myth attached to the site was that Apollo, god of prophecy, killed the huge serpent/dragon the Python, which guarded the shrine at Delphi, and claimed the oracle for himself (serpents and dragons were very similar, almost interchangeable creatures in Classical mythology). The Pythia herself was a woman who would rant and rave in answer to a question, inspired by the god, and the priests at the shrine would 'interpret' her ravings (i.e. presumably come up with something plausible and likely to please the inquirer).

The scrolls described here sound more like the Sibylline prophecies from ancient Rome. The Sibyls were Roman oracles, not unlike the Pythia, except there were several of them and they were said to have written a collection of prophecies that were preserved, and consulted by the Senate during times of emergency. Some politicians and emperors had a tendency, occasionally, to 'discover' new Sibylline prophecies. The way characters in Battlestar Galactica talk about 'sacred scrolls' learned in school (Gaius Baltar mentions reading Pythia in the sixth grade) is much more like the Christian attitude towards the New Testament, a sacred text learned (about) in school, than the Sibylline prophecies, which were part of a religion with no sacred or dogmatic texts and were consulted only by the powerful. The Sibylline oracles are clearly the inspiration for the Pythia's text, though.

The Viper spacecraft are identified as the serpents from the prophecy by Baltar's semi-hallucinatory  Cylon friend Six. The victory is won thanks to Baltar choosing a spot to bomb at random and it working out - Six claims that (the Cylon, single) God guided Baltar to the site, in order to provoke an eventual confrontation at the home of the gods (which is a bit odd if her religion is monotheistic). This is what convinces Baltar that he is an instrument of God.The wider significance of this, and of the two religious systems, and of the Pythia's prophecy that 'All this has happened before. All this will happen again' will not fully be revealed until the series finale, but in the meantime this episode has some fun playing with the symbolism, throwing around references to snakes and Apollo by having Roslin's vision relate, in immediate terms, to a victory won by the character Apollo using the Vipers.

I will definitely persist with Battlestar Galactica, as it has some intriguing long-term storylines on the go and an excellent fake swear word ('frak') to use alongside 'frell,' 'smeg' and 'Belgium.' It's just... so... slow... My favourite episodes so far were the two dealing with Starbuck's background, her relationship with the Adamas, and her crash-landing on some planet somewhere, though my favourite characters are Sharon and Helo. I also appreciate some of the subtle nods to Star Trek, particularly the badges which are sort of triangular, though I'm less sure about having the main black female semi-regular play, essentially, Uhura. And maybe the pace will pick up a bit if Baltar ever bothers to tell anyone Boomer's a Cylon...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Warrior... Princess

Xena: Warrior Princess does The Prince and the Pauper (and establishes that, as far as I can tell, she's not an actual princess, which I've been wondering about for a while).

Xena switches places with a princess who looks exactly like her, to find out who is trying to assassinate the princess and prevent her marriage and the abolishment of slavery that is intended to go with it. This sort of set-up always promises to be fun and the episode does not disappoint. OK, Lucy Lawless' 'princess' acting is largely restricted to a squeaky voice, but there are some great moments here, like Xena breaking all the strings on a harp to avoid having to play it (preceded by a beautifully framed shot from the harp, close-up and on a raised dais, menacingly looking down on Xena approaching it). There's also a great sequence in which the princess throws what she refers to as Xena's 'round thing' (I call it that too), causing everyone present including Argo to duck, which is hilarious. Xena fighting off a bunch of ninjas behind prince Philemon's back and looking innocent whenever he turns around is very funny too.

The girly, pink-swathed princess is named 'Diana,' which is a bit incongruous. Diana was the Roman name for Artemis, the virgin huntress sister of Apollo. She was a tough cookie and probably not into pink. Mind you, that's not as incongruous as an incompetent assassin called Plato. Meanwhile, Gabrielle is still trying to be poet, though she's moved on from bardic oral performance to written poetry.

The episode also addresses the issue of arranged marriage, which is of course common in many parts of the world and many historical cultures. Diana is reasonably content with the idea until she falls in love with someone else, but Xena is firmly against it. This seems a slightly awkward attitude to take in the pseudo-feudal culture she's currently inhabiting. In this case the joining of two kingdoms will bring about the end of slavery in the region, which of course she's all for - so surely breaking off the marriage could be disastrous for many people. Also, arranged marriage is not forced marriage and many couples who willingly enter arranged marriages are perfectly happy. Luckily, the man Diana's really in love with is the brother of her intended husband and just as capable of helping her end slavery, so it all works out OK in the end, but still, the issue is half brought up and then left aside without really exploring the ramifications of Xena's attitude.

Overall, this is a really nice, fun episode in which Xena gets to wear a succession of very pretty costumes, culminating in a great short skirted action version of a wedding dress (complete with metallic corset) which actually does look like something the goddess Diana would wear. It's also got love, and a bit with a dog. Classics 1990s adventure material.


Tesa: I thought you might want to cover your costume.

King (re recently dispatched assassin): It would have been nice to interrogate him!

Diana: Amazing... it's like looking in a mirror. Before I've brushed my hair.

Diana: I took care of them all with my trusty round thing.

Xena (to Gabrielle, re finding a man who makes her happy): Just don't be afraid to speak when it happens.. of course that's never been a problem with you, has it?

Disclaimer: Neither Xena nor her remarkably coincidental identical twin, Diana, were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords

I have now read up to the end of Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire (both parts), which I continue to think of as Game of Thrones. I haven't read any of Book 4 yet, though, so please, please, don't mention anything that happens after the end of Book 3 in the comments  - not even vague allusions to what happens (e.g. I knew one character death in advance because of the facial expression Brother pulled when I said something, which was entirely my fault for insisting on talking about it). UPDATE: I have now read all of the published books - I won't edit this post so it remains safe for anyone who hasn't read books 4 and 5 yet, but you can read my thoughts on the latest two books here. I just got past all the spoilers I'd already picked up! This post contains spoilers up to the end of Book 3.

Fantasy novels, for reasons best known to CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, are usually set in a pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe. When the time comes to travel south, there are two main options; medieval Arabia, as seen in Arabian Nights (and the Chronicles of Narnia), or the Classical world, particularly the Roman Empire and Roman Africa (Tolkien went for a variant - the southern parts of his fantasy world are loosely reminiscent of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire that continued after the fall of the West until the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453). Elements of Ancient Egypt are optional.

The Roman Empire seems a particularly natural fit for A Song of Ice and Fire, since George RR Martin's fantasy world already incorporates elements of the Roman Empire in the wall that separates Westeros from the distinctly Scottish-accented Wildings* (I am most disappointed that the TV series has so far continued with Northern English accents for the wildlings, but perhaps some of the more northern Thenns and so on will have Scottish accents in season 3).

The lands south of Westeros (actually east, maybe south-east of the more northern parts of Westeros - but they feel southern) are, as usual, made up of a mixture of elements. There are elements of Arabia in there, especially in some of the names, while the Dothraki horse lords seem like a cross between the Klingons and the Rohirrim (I'm sure they have a real life parallel, but I'm not familiar with it). There is also, though, quite a lot of Classical stuff, and it's an eclectic mix.

Perhaps surprisingly, there's more Classical Greece in the Lands of the Summer Sea than Roman Empire. There are several city-states like Meereen and Astapor, which provides a big advantage plot-wise, as it allows Daenerys to conquer a whole city-state relatively quickly, in one siege. This matches the political landscape of Classical Greece, with surrounding farmland etc, but the entire population taking refuge in the city when under attack. King Cleon, the butcher-king of Astapor, is named after Cleon, an Athenian general who was popular with the masses and something of a war-monger (with an occasional habit of executing lots rebels en masse), referred to as a tanner by Aristophanes because that's where his family's money came from. There are also several references to Greek mythology. The harpies that are the emblem of Meereen are particularly Greek, though here they're mixed with a Great Pyramid that's obviously inspired by Egypt.

In terms of the action taking place in the south, though, we're back to Rome again, as Dany's modus operandi is to free large numbers of slaves and get them to fight for her. In real life, in the ancient world, slave rebellions were extremely rare and the three largest all happened within a few decades of each other, in the south of Italy, in the Late Roman Republican era (which would imply that there may be other socio-politico-economic factors at play beyond just the desire on the part of slaves to be free). Daenerys' conquest of at least two city-states fits that pattern quite nicely, as it's her political agenda and her money (well, her valuable dragons) that are the driving force behind the revolts. Dany's strategy at Meereen would be unlikely to work in the real world because it involves large numbers of slaves being inside the city, when normally slaves would be most numerous outside in the fields and the mines. Having said that, there must have been a lot of slaves in Athens when everyone was sheltering there during the Peloponnesian War, and presumably quite a few slaves in Rome during major Games, so it might have been possible in a Classical context (even if no one actually did it).

The most satisfying aspect of this plotline so far is that we start to see the long-term results of these revolts. Daenerys herself is against slavery as a concept (and the Unsullied are a particularly nasty variant, far nastier than anything I've come across from real life). However, the rest of the people she conquers and even the slaves are not, which fits with the slave revolts from the ancient world - Spartacus wasn't trying to end slavery, he was just trying to escape himself (with his own people). After Dany has swept through and turned the world upside down, behind her things start snapping back into place, and she realises that if she wants to make a lasting difference, she has to stay and rule in person.

I'm sure there were lots more Classical references scattered throughout the book, but it's such a very long book it's rather difficult to remember them all now! One of the most popular elements of ancient Rome for fantasy writers is gladiatorial-style contests, and there are definitely a few of those in the southern/eastern/hot areas. I expect as we see more of the Summer Isles and the Lands of the Summer Sea in the following books, we'll get more Classical references and Classics-y stories.

I'm enjoying these books, more and more since I started skipping some of the lengthier descriptions and most of the prologues. I'm a bit frustrated by how little of the plot is based on positive feelings or affection for other people (other than mothers for their children) - I'm perfectly willing to accept that a lot of the world is cruel and self-serving, but I prefer my stories to include some relationships based on love and/or mutual affection. Still, I like Jaime and Brienne a lot (I never would have guessed that the incestuous knight who started out by shoving a small boy out of a high window would be one of my favourite characters), and Jon, Sam and Gilly, and Bran. Also Arya, Daenerys and Tyrion are awesome, just in general. If I can just continue to skim the boring bits (something I've never been very good at but I'm getting there), I'll get through the series yet!

My review of Game of Thrones, Season 1

*Yes, I am aware that at the time of the Roman Empire, Scotland was inhabited by Picts and Ireland by Scots.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

I have to confess, I'm still not quite getting Moffat-era Who. I liked most of his episodes back in the RTD era a lot (with the exception of 'Forest of the Dead') but somehow, I've just not been connecting with the show completely over the last few seasons. There've been individual episodes I've loved ('Vincent and the Doctor,' 'The Doctor's Wife,' maybe 'The Girl Who Waited'), I like Amy and Rory, I warmed to Matt Smith after seeing him in Christopher and his Kind, but it just isn't working for me on an emotional level. Ah well, nothing will appeal to everyone I guess. It's still a fun show.

With expectations thus lowered, 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' turned out to be rather better than I at first thought. All through the publicity and the first ten to fifteen minutes of the episode, it felt like Spitfires vs Daleks in Space (or, to show that RTD was just as bad, Daleks vs Cybermen) all over again - a daft idea that the writers have to find a way to squash together, not always convincingly, rather than organic story development. But actually, once we stopped jumping around doing pointless things like having an engine room that looks like a beach, this story held together rather better. There was a solid, plausible (even better, mythologically inspired) reason for there to be dinosaurs on a spaceship and the plot was, in the end, reasonably tight.

There was also, in the end, a genuine plot-based reason for having Queen Nefertiti on board as well. Aside from a bit of posturing about being Queen, she didn't really give any outward sign through language or behaviour of being from ancient Egypt (perhaps surprisingly, Charlaine Harris is still the author who's produced the most convincing period characters in an SFF situation I've read recently - her old vampires really feel like they come from a different era in a way that most vampires/time travellers/alien abductees don't). But she was a fun character and there was a point to her being a famous Egyptian queen, as it made her a prime target for an extremely creepy alien bounty hunter of the mean, slimy, slaver-type kind (not the action-y Bobba Fett variety). Throw in a big game hunter who earns his place shooting dinosaurs with tranquilizers and I felt happy that all the madness in this episode had a genuine purpose and was pulled together into an interesting story.

The mix of companions here was fun and reminded me how much I'd love to see an historical companion for a change, like the Second Doctor's Jaime (and I should add that I have no idea how the new companion is going to be introduced, only that it looks increasingly likely that she won't be from the contemporary UK, which I'm quite happy about). I just love the idea of a character with a different perspective and a different knowledge base, and maybe even slightly different values, travelling with the Doctor and reacting to the madness around them in fresh ways. I also like seeing a fuller TARDIS in general (I'm really going to miss both Rory and the balance of having a three-person TARDIS). Mark Williams as Rory's dad was fun too, much as I kept expecting him to say 'My name is Olaf Peterson, and I am very good in bed.'

I'm not sure how I feel about the odd nature of Amy and Rory's presence in these episodes though. It makes sense, logically, that the Doctor would pop back for them every now and again, and they are obviously building up to something with this storyline, given Amy and the Doctor's conversation, but still, there's something jarring about the way they have to be picked up and shoved into an episode and then dropped off again. The episode implies that the Doctor has a few 'occasional companions' hanging around that he does this too, which could be fun and introduce a lot more variety to the show, but is also a little bit disconcerting, since we're suddenly presented with random new faces who apparently have long histories with the Doctor (as in 'A Good Man Goes to War,' though it worked better in the context of that episode). I'm really looking forward to a bit more stability when the changeover happens at Christmas.

Rupert Graves' big game hunter was also fun, I hope we see him again.

Overall, the ancient world specifically may have been a bit of window-dressing here but most of the mad elements earned their place, even if Rory's dad's part was a bit too convenient ('oh look, it's the first ever example of something that needs two family members to pilot it, and we just happen to have a father and son on board, isn't that lucky?!). It was really only that random beach that bothered me in the end...

All Doctor Who reviews

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953)

Before Richard Burton was Mark Antony or Alexander the Great, he was Marcellus Gallio, who crucifies an troublesome Jewish public speaker only to be guilted into dying for the aforementioned person by his holier-than-thou slave. Gallio's slave, that is, not Jesus'. Except metaphorically.

Slavery is, obviously, a pretty big theme in this film. It resists the urge openly to declare that Christianity brought about the downfall of slavery (which it didn't, at least not until the 19th century) but it does insist in the prologue that there were more slaves than free men in Rome, which is daft (the usual estimate is around 35% of the population I think).

The prologue also introduces some of the ancient gods with, unsurprisingly, a rather disapproving tone. The gods selected are Love (represented by a statue of two people kissing), War (Ares/Mars, the statue looks Greek to me), Drunkenness (Dionysus/Bacchus) and 'huntresses' (Diana). The inclusion of 'huntresses' doesn't say much for the filmmaker's opinion of strong women, but on the other hand, the lead female character is called 'Diana' and the lead couple spend half their time on screen together kissing each other, so all in all it's sending out a bit of a mixed message there.

The opening of the film in a slave market has a rather nice, fairly realistic feel to it. A slave market is always a good place to open a story set in ancient Rome, because it highlights the similarities (salespeople sound the same everywhere) and the differences between our own world/1950s America and ancient Rome. Unfortunately, this tone is not maintained all the way through, and when the story gets to the crucifixion, the down to earth tone is completely lost. The crucifixion scene is filmed in a way that is reverent to the point of ridiculous, and it's rather jarring compared to the approachable feel of the rest of the film.

This determination to make the scenes relating directly to Jesus look somehow - churchy? spiritual? portentous? - carries through into the dialogue. This is, sad to say, completely terrible throughout, with special awfulness points going to Marcellus' anguished cry of 'I'm mad!', but whenever anyone needs to speak about Jesus or pray, they suddenly slip into the language of the King James Bible, which sounds utterly ridiculous.

Fortunately there are still some nice, more human, touches, which pulls it back from the daftness. I rather like the suggestion that Roman soldiers might be a little bit squeamish about crucifying someone for the first time, and fortify themselves with alcohol - after all, no matter how hardened you are, that's a nasty thing to have to do. Pilate's sigh that 'even my wife had an opinion' on Jesus is quite funny, and sexist in a plausibly Roman way.

I also quite like the way Tiberius' two advisers, a doctor and a soothsayer/priest, are set up as complete opposites, and in the end neither is quite right (the film obviously embraces Christian beliefs including Jesus' resurrection, the various phenomena accompanying his crucifixion and his mysterious hold over people's emotions, but at the same time it is made absolutely clear that the robe itself is not exactly magical, more symbolic - Marcellus' problems stemmed from his own guilt).

Tiberius himself is depicted as a rather benevolent old man who's exasperated by his (still living) wife and amused by extispicy. It's quite nice to see a positive portrayal  of Tiberius and his concern over the political stability of the empire in the face of fanaticism is nicely drawn. But he is also at the centre of the film's determination to completely re-write Roman history, sometimes for no good reason.

Some of the historical inaccuracies are understandable - Caligula did not persecute Christians in particular, he was far too busy antagonizing the Jews, and Tiberius dies rather too soon after Jesus, but these changes keep the story moving along and ensure that Marcellus is still a young man when he goes off to matyr himself.

However, the inclusion of Tiberius' wife Julia is downright bizarre. Julia died in exile soon after Tiberius became emperor because he didn't feed her properly, and they never saw each other after Tiberius went off to sulk in Rhodes for a while and Augustus kicked Julia out. The film obviously didn't want to acknowledge that, as it would get in the way of the positive portrayal of Tiberius, but there seems no reason to include her at all, other than to depict her as an annoying wife who wants Caligula married to Diana.

Caligula himself is an interesting mix. The reference to him as Tiberius' heir and regent is an interesting idea and quite plausible, with Tiberius on Capri and Sejanus gone, though Caligula should be behaving better in his early scenes rather than being cross and tyrannical, as everyone liked him before he became emperor; thanks in part to his famous father, he was very popular. Although Diana calls him insane at the end, throughout the film Caligula comes across as slimy, unpleasant and high on power but not actually mad (that would require him to call himself a god, which might complicate things). This is a bit of a shame, as a story that set up the spiritual madness of a Christian holy fool (OK, a concept not popularized until the Middle Ages, but that's beside the point) and the apparent madness of the emperor would be really interesting. Instead, Marcellus stops acting mad as soon as he converts and Caligula just seems a bit like a poor man's Nero, only more sane, as he lacks any pyromania or absolute conviction of his own artistic brilliance.

There are some nice ideas here, but they're often not quite delivered convincingly. I rather like the idea of Marcellus being sent to Jerusalem as a punishment (rather like the way Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister lived in fear of being sent to Northern Ireland), though suggesting it's a death sentence is going a bit far. The idea of stories about Jesus being passed among Christians through songs and ballads is rather good, but the execution of it is not so good - the scene showing Mariam playing and singing is cheesy and vaguely nauseating to watch. I like the lack of music in the fight scene between Marcellus and Quintus, which makes it seem that much more brutal (within reason) and real, but later the film gives into temptation and produces fight music worthy of The Adventures of Robin Hood (which works fine for an adventure story, less well for something supposedly serious).

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film. The dialogue is absolutely awful and the sets cheap, but the pacing is rather good - it whips by much more quickly than other films of the period. For every toe-curlingly corny scene (the less said about the final shots of Marcellus and Diana, with her in a white dress evocative of modern weddings and both of them against a heavenly sky, the better) there's a nicely underplayed moment, like the one where Marcellus casually leans on the cross and gets Jesus' blood all over his hand. And no matter how terrible the dialogue, Burton is fantastic to watch. He sells all but the most ridiculous scenes and puts in a great performance, easily head and shoulders above everyone else in the film. It's worth the ticket price/DVD rental for him alone.

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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Top Five Classical Dream Sequences

I've spent the last week finishing off the manuscript of my book, which is based on my PhD thesis, so I'm once again all about the dream sequences. I've posted on dream episodes before - I reviewed Buffy's 'Restless' and Star Trek: Voyager's 'Waking Moments' back when I was finishing the thesis, and I've written on my favourite five dream episodes of SFF television over at Den of Geek. But there is also a lot to be said for the dream sequence, a shorter sequence which appears during the course of an otherwise normal (for any particular show's given value of 'normal') episode. And so I bring you my top Classically-themed dream sequences - expanded beyond my usual strict rules about what does or does not constitute a 'dream' so I could get my favourite in there.

5. Spartacus dreams about Varus, Spartacus Blood and Sand, 'Old Wounds'
Whose dream? Spartacus.
What sort of dream? Guilt/anxiety - Spartacus is feeling thoroughly ashamed of himself for killing his best (indeed, only) friend.
What does it mean? Eventually, Spartacus will feel guilty enough to do something about it. Eventually.
What would Freud say? 'Spartacus sees the late, lamented Neighbours Reject and gold pours out of his bodily orifices... I knew there was something up between those two.'
Would you be sorry you woke up? Spartacus Season 1 included a lot of dream sequences, mostly involving Spartacus and his wife having sex, which I'm sure he was very sorry to wake up from. This one is a bit less appealing though. It's on the list because I love the imagery of this sequence, with coins pouring from Spartacus' open wound while Neighbours Reject looks on and judges. I think this dream does something a bit more interesting than most of Spartacus' dreams sequences as well, getting a bit deeper into Spartacus' mindset than just reminding us that he used to have a hot wife. But it's pretty gross to watch - you'd be thoroughly relieved to wake up.

4. Xena has to fight her way through a dreamscape to save Gabrielle, Xena Warrior Princess, 'Dreamworker'
Whose dream? Xena (and possibly, in places, Gabrielle - they meet up at one point)
What sort of dream? Combination guilt/symbolic, probably. Since this is actually a full dream episode and everything is controlled by Morpheus (god of dreams) it's a bit unusual, dream-wise.
What does it mean? Xena must accept her Dark past and move forward.
What would Freud say? 'My colleague Jung will tell you that this is your Dark Shadow-Self. I think you probably want to have sex with it.'
Would you be sorry you woke up? Since this is one of those dream-episodes where our heroes are in real danger, they're pretty relieved to wake up. The dreams here are a bit obvious - Xena feels guilty about all the killing in her past, but without her dark side she isn't as strong a warrior - Captain Kirk could have told her that. I was tempted to swap this episode for 'The Bitter Suite,' except I still can't work out whether 'The Bitter Suite' is supposed to be a dream or not. But the imagery is quite nice and it's a good summary of Xena's basic internal conflict.

3. Jonathan has a near-death experience, The Roman Mysteries, 'The Pirates of Pompeii'
Whose dream? Jonathan, while in a coma.
What sort of dream? Symbolic crossed with literal prophecy.
What does it mean? Jonathan must fight his way out of his coma, but in the meantime the dream offers him a glimpse of the kidnapped children he and the others will need to rescue.
What would Freud say? 'You say your father was looking for you in this dream. Did that make you angry?'
Would you be sorry you woke up? Jonathan nearly dies of asthma/ash inhalation, so everyone's pretty relieved when he wakes up. There's some beautiful imagery here (achieved partly through some gorgeous location shooting). I particularly like the image of Jonathan lying in the middle of a desert, struggling, though the realisation of white-glowy-floating-in-the-sky Jonathan, an indication of this as a near death experience, is a bit cheesy.

2.  Maximus sees visions of his dead family while delirious, Gladiator
Whose dream? Maximus
What sort of dream? Wish-fulfilment - he sees his wife and son as they were when they were alive. Or possibly their ghosts are visiting him. But it's probably wish-fulfilment.
What does it mean? Even after they're dead, Maximus' basic motivation throughout the film is to get back to his wife and son, as they're waiting for him in the afterlife. Sniffle.
What would Freud say? This is a clear-cut case of simple wish-fulfilment. Freud would be very happy as it would appear to confirm his basic theory.
Would you be sorry you woke up? Maximus wakes up to a dead family, life as a slave and a bunch of maggots crawling underneath his skin, so he's pretty sorry he woke up. The dream imagery throughout Gladiator is nicely done - it's never made explicit whether there's an extent to which Maximus is seeing visions of his family's spirits (especially the images he sees while he himself is dying at the end), or whether it's all just his own fevered mind, which is what's good about it. Ambiguity keeps everyone happy.

1. Claudius sees images of his dead relatives, I, Claudius, 'Old King Log'
Whose dream? Claudius - it's a bit unclear whether he's nodded off, or is awake and hallucinating, but either way, he's seeing things.
What sort of dream? A message dream from a whole assortment of dead people. Not that they have any particularly useful messages for him. His mother tells him his nose is running.
What does it mean? Depending on your reading of the sequence, it could mean that Augustus has been pleasantly surprised by Claudius' achievements (and Caligula has realised that he is not a god) while no one else has let dying change them one bit. Or, it means Claudius is old, tired, and cracking up. Either way, he walks out and never sets foot in the Senate again.
What would Freud say? 'Most people want to sleep with their mothers, but yours is so mean even in the afterlife, you'd probably rather go for your murderous grandmother.'
Would you be sorry you woke up? As a viewer, you definitely feel a bit sad when this dream ends, and since everyone's dead except Nero and Agrippina by this point, Claudius is probably sad about it too. I, Claudius was mostly pretty realistic, but at the beginning and the end it slipped a teeny bit into the fantastical - with the Sibyl's remarkably accurate prophecy at the beginning, which comes from the book, and then at the end with this brilliantly realised bit of television. Basically, it's a curtain call for the incredible cast, many of whom we haven't seen in weeks as their characters have long since been killed off. BRIAN BLESSED is a sight for sort eyes as he strides up to Claudius to tell him 'well done.' And John Hurt's expression as he explains he wasn't the messiah after all is hilarious.

Honourable mentions: CS Lewis expertly problematised our use of the word 'dream' when he introduced the Dark Island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the recent film sadly completely missed the point of this island) - what if your dreams came true, and not daydreams or wishes, but all the weird crap you actually dream about? Sci-fi and fantasy shows are often good at dream sequences in general, prophetic or otherwise. I'm particularly fond of the ones on True Blood, but that's not really down to their artistic merit so much as their, well, visual content...

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