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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  1. I'd be quite displeased in Spartacus' shoes (sandals, bare feet)... getting awakened from dreams of hot sex with the wife.

    And the Doctor Freud responses are priceless!


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