Sunday, 27 January 2013

5 Awesome Moments from Spartacus: Add a Subtitle Here

Spartacus: War of the Damned, the third and final season of Spartacus: The Show with Constantly Changing Subtitles, premiered in the US last Friday and is coming to UK screens on 11th February, and I'll be recapping/reviewing it here as usual. This is the season that promises us Caesar and Crassus, death and glory, and hopefully one heck of a finale.

It may be that some of you have yet to try Spartacus: Make Up Your Own Joke Here, perhaps because it's on too late, perhaps because the 300-style graphics are off-putting, perhaps because the ending is, it has to be said, something of a foregone conclusion. Spartacus is loud, brash, sweary and ridiculous, its depiction of sex and violence not so much 'graphic' or 'realistic' as 'what we'd get if Quentin Tarantino remade Caligula,' but it is also loads of fun. What other programme would give us a completely realistic depiction of a Roman toilet?! The characters are compelling, the scripts and both gripping and witty (I will not watch a show with no sense of humour) and the drama, while extreme, is also very human. If you haven't yet given it a go, and as long as you can tolerate cartoon-ish violence and graphic sex scenes, I'd urge you to tune in for its swansong.

Unlike other shows, Spartacus will be easy to join for its final season, because we already know what's going on with Spartacus and his rebels (they escaped slavery and are roaming the countryside) and because - spoiler alert! - all the the Roman characters are new, since the old ones all died. I'm really excited to see what this show does with Caesar and Crassus, and now is, I'm sure, as good a time to jump in feet first as any.

If you're thinking of trying Spartacus out, this list should give you a sense of whether or not the show is for you, and if you're a fan gearing up for the new season, here are five reasons to be excited about it.

5. Spartacus and Crixus take down Theokoles, 'Shadow Games'
Who's being awesome? Spartacus, Crixus and, to be fair, Theokoles, the 'SHADOW OF DEATH!'
Why are they being awesome? Pretty much in the course of being gladiators, paired up together against an opponent who has killed every man he has ever fought except for Oenomaus.
How awesome? Pairing up two men who hate each other against a stronger enemy is hardly a new idea but it's done well here. Spartacus and Crixus will never quite reach buddy-movie levels of friendship but their mutual respect and their ability to work together throughout the rest of the series is built on this fight. It's also the first time we see Spartacus' trick of jumping off of Crixus' shield, which would reappear in the season finale.
Minor Awesomeness: Theokoles' ability to keep going despite multiple fatal wounds is... impressive.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: Crixus uses his helmet to blind Theokoles. Also Spartacus chopping off Theokoles' head to the roars of the crowd, of course.
Ilithyia: Do you fear being in the arena with Theokoles?
Crixus: I long for it.

4. The arena is burned down, 'Libertus'
Who's being awesome? Spartacus, Mira, Gannicus, Agron, Crixus, Oenomaus... basically everyone.
Why are they being awesome? Crixus and Oenomaus have been sentenced to death in the arena and have been given rubbish swords to put on a bit of a show. Their executioner is, of course, Gannicus, because Lucretia likes to mess with them. Meanwhile, Spartacus and Agron sneak in to rescue them and Mira sets the (historically accurately wooden, temporary) arena on fire.
How awesome? This is the last episode to feature our heroes fighting as gladiators, and it ends in spectacular and symbolically appropriate fashion, with the the arena collapsing around them while their loyalties and tested and re-affirmed.
Minor Awesomeness: While all this is going on, Spartacus kills a particularly unpleasant character from Gods of the Arena and Glaber smashes his irritating father-in-law's face in, which is nasty but quite satisfying.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: Really any shot featuring the fall of the burning arena.
Gannicus: I am for wine, and the embrace of questionable women (that was earlier in the episode, but it's a great line).

3. Naevia kills Ashur, 'Wrath of the Gods'
Who's being awesome? Naevia. Crixus and Spartacus offer moral support.
Why are they being awesome? I'm not usually a fan of rape-revenge dramas, but Naevia slicing Ashur in the balls is extremely satisfying.
How awesome? Poor Naevia was somewhat victimised for much of Season 2, with Mira taking on the Action Girl role. But in this moment, with Mira dead and having persuaded Crixus to train her, Naevia becomes a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Yes, Ashur is injured, but that just keeps it plausible (since he can apparently take on several Roman soldiers by himself).
Minor Awesomeness: The looks on Crixus and Spartacus' faces as they watch the fight unfold and resist the urge to help are wonderful.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: After telling Ashur what's what, Naevia hacks at his head until, eventually, it comes off. The balls-slicing moment is also pretty awesome.
Ashur: My death will not heal the scars you bear...
Naevia: No... but it is a f*cking start!

2. Lucretia reveals her nefarious plan, 'Reckoning'
Who's being awesome? Lucretia, in a Magnificent Bitch sort of way.
Why are they being awesome? Because she's a Magnificent Bitch.
How awesome? Lucretia is a softer character for much of Gods of the Arena, and one of the fun things about the prequel series is seeing her become the ruthless person that she is in Blood and Sand. It is in this moment that she reveals that she has always been a schemer, a wicked female poisoner in the grand TV-Roman tradition. Here, she shows just how far she is willing to go, explaining to her father-in-law that she made him sick when he lived with them, and that she has stepped up to murdering him in order to frame Tullius and avenge the death of her friend Gaia. The scene is beautifully played between the two and could almost be a scene from I, Claudius - high praise indeed.
Minor Awesomeness: Titus' death is inter-cut with the sudden, shocking and tragic death of Melitta - not awesome from the characters' point of view, but a great piece of writing and direction.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: See Quotable.
Titus: Tell me you're not the serpent I thought you to be.
Lucretia: I am not. I'm far worse.

1. The climax of 'Kill Them All'
Who's being awesome? Everyone, but especially Andy Whitfield's Spartacus.
Why are they being awesome? This is the event the whole of Season 1 has been leading up to - the rebellion and escape from Batiatus' ludus.
How awesome? Where to start? Crixus stabbing Lucretia in the abdomen, given that she's pregnant, is more unpleasant than awesome, but pretty much everything else from Spartacus' super-human leap from Crixus' shield into Batiatus' balcony to the final moments is awesome. After thirteen episodes of building tension, the entire audience knowing that this was what it was all leading up to, the execution of the escape/massacre is brutal, bloody and thrilling.
Minor Awesomeness: There's lots of awesomeness going on, but Aurelia murdering the little snot who had her husband killed deserves a special mention.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: Covered in blood, the slaves walk, determinedly but not hurriedly, out of the ludus and off into freedom (in different directions).
Spartacus: I have done this thing because it is just. Blood demands blood. We have lived and lost, at the whims of our masters for too long. I would not have it so. I would not see the passing of a brother, for the purpose of sport. I would not see another heart ripped from chest, or breath forfeit for no cause. I know not all of you wish this, yet it is done. It is done... Your lives are your own. Forge your own path, or join with us. And together, we shall see Rome tremble! (The last lines of Season 1, and Andy Whitfield's last lines as Spartacus).

Spartacus: Various Subtitles reviews

Friday, 18 January 2013

Doctor Who: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead

What is there left to say about River Song's debut? Well, for one thing, I liked it a lot better than I remembered. I remembered this two-parter as my least favourite of current showrunner Steven Moffat's Russell T Davis-era Doctor Who episodes (my favourites are his first, 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,' and they go downhill from there. Yes, 'Blink' is a bit low down. I'm a rebel). And I still have problems with it, but I have to admit, when I re-watched it, I cried. And that's always a good sign. Spoilers follow. (Haha. See what I did there? I actually like spoilers though...)

Professor River Song is an archaeologist. One of my favourite things about this episode is that it offers a vision of future archaeology that feels real. Archaeology tends to be thought of as 'digging' but it doesn't have to be. Archaeology is the study of all the material culture of the past, including perfectly visible material culture like buildings. And so an archaeological expedition to a standing library, with the archaeologists wearing space suits in case there's no atmosphere or something, feels pleasantly like this really could be the future of archaeology. The team feel plausibly like archaeologists as well - their exact roles are undefined, but the money/landowner is there (Lux) with his assistant, and presumably the others include a pilot/technician for their spaceship and some more archaeologists. Even River herself behaves much more like a Professor and less like a super-soldier in this episode.

Of course, River's character changes quite a lot in later episodes, which tend to represent River as the gun-toting archaeologist of fantasy who never seems to do any actual work - indeed, for much of her time on Moffat-era Who, her primary identity is as a prisoner convicted of murder, not an archaeologist. 'Convicted murderer' is a very, very different character description than 'archaeologist' and River's character is correspondingly different: more violent, more aggressive, much less inclined to talk about history (not that she does that much here either, unless you count her personal history, which she talks about a lot). The River we meet here seems, frankly, a bit softer than the later incarnation that is actually a younger River. She does carry a gun, but only gets it out once and in extreme circumstances. She seems very shaken by Miss Evangelista's death despite all the horrors we now know she's seen (though that might be down to the super-horrible 'ghosting' that's going on at the time). She does mention that she's 'always lying' though, which certainly does fit the River we know and love. Perhaps 'Professor' Song has just mellowed in her old age. (And since she's part Time Lord, how old is she? Does she get centuries?).

That's about it for the blog-relevant content in this episode, though it's worth noting that Strackman Lux and his family are called 'Light' in Latin, as every Harry Potter fan knows. How very symbolic. Also, I think most Classicists, historians, archaeologists and other academics would be very happy with the idea of a library that covers an entire planet (though perhaps we could live without the continent of Jeffrey Archer books). Interestingly, the Doctor observes that no matter what technology came along as humanity developed, 'people never stopped loving books... you need the smell,' showing that like many of us, he likes the smell of proper paper books. And just recently, the Wall Street Journal has suggested that perhaps reports of the death of the print book have been exaggerated. Sure, e-books have their place and they're here to stay - but that doesn't necessarily mean that print books will disappear all together.

I have whole problems with the end of this two-parter that have nothing to do with Classics or archaeology. I get the impression that it's supposed to be a happy ending, with everyone living forever in this fantasy world. But I find the whole concept unbelievably creepy. Basically, they're all trapped in The Matrix forever? OK, a nice Matrix that they can bend to their will, but still. Anita told the Doctor that she'd like an old age, and that's exactly what none of them will get - they're frozen at the point they died and CAL's been a child for a century. Plus, I find the idea of spending eternity in a computer programme really unpleasant. Maybe if you're an atheist, and it's the computer or nothing, that seems like a good thing, but since I believe in an afterlife, the idea of my soul being trapped in a computer instead of going there (wherever there is) is chilling. I suppose it could be read the same way I've always understood Rimmer's hologram on Red Dwarf (the soul goes wherever it goes, the hologram is a separate entity - which makes his quest to be alive again rather pointless) but still. Creepy.

If you haven't seen the episode, I should probably mention that the Vashta Narada are also really creepy.

Random Who-type observations:

River's chronology really doesn't work now that we've seen more of it - why would she think Ten might have done the Crash of the Byzantium? Surely she must know the order of her husband's regenerations.

If the dust in sunbeams was a flesh-eating monster, I think we'd have noticed.

At one point, the Doctor and River appear actually to be using the sonic screwdrivers as screwdrivers. At other times, 'screwdriver' becomes a much dirtier-sounding euphemism than 'dancing' was.

At one point, River and the Doctor are both distressed at Donna's apparent death - presumably River's also thinking 'I guess the universe is pretty screwed now too.'

The whole Lee-stammering-and-missing-Donna thing is so spectacularly irritating and such manipulative story-telling that I pretend it didn't happen.

Is it worrying when you start recognising perfectly respectable actors as 'hey it's that guy from Strictly Come Dancing'?!

Miss Evangelista looking like the woman in black is rather cool. The effects when she takes off the veil, less so.

The Doctor and River are remarkably un-bothered about the fact they got Other Dave killed. This is why Nurse Redfern is my favourite.

It's handy that the guy who actually knew what was going on didn't get got by the Vashta Narada isn't it?

I miss Donna.


Doctor: Head's too full of stuff, I need a bigger head!

River: Got a problem with archaeologists?
Doctor: I'm a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists!

Miss Evangelista: My dad said I have the IQ of plankton - and I was pleased!

Doctor: She's a footprint on the beach, and the tide's coming in.

Doctor: I don't give my screwdriver to anyone.
River: I'm not anyone.

Donna: This isn't my real body? But I've been dieting!

Also, 'We're going to need a chicken leg' is almost as good as 'Get the cheese to sickbay!'

More Doctor Who reviews

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Roman Mysteries: The Secrets of Vesuvius

It's Volcano Day - Vesuvius erupts while our heroes are staying nearby at Uncle Gaius' farm in an exciting if sad installment of The Roman Mysteries. Spoilers follow for this book and for The Assassins of Rome.

When a volcano erupts and kills thousands of people, you have to include some death, even in a children's novel; but at the same time, you don't want to drift too much into tragedy (hence Doctor Who saves the named characters, the family the audience care about, making up for the Cambridge Latin Course being less kind!). The Secrets of Vesuvius strikes a very nice balance by killing off only one named character that we care about, and that one is Pliny the Elder, a real person who actually died during the eruption of Vesuvius. At the end of the book, it looks like Lupus' girlfriend Clio and most of her family have also been killed, but this is not certain, and in The Assassins of Rome, it turns out that they escaped, which I think is a good thing (especially as Clio had already had a miraculous escape/faith healing in this book, and it would seem a waste to kill her off almost immediately afterwards).

The death of Pliny keeps the book grounded and acknowledges the real life tragedy without being too traumatic for sensitive child-readers (I am always thinking of this because I was ridiculously over-sensitive as a child. Seriously, I used to cry through every Friday assembly and bury my head on my best friend's shoulder because I was upset by our headmaster's tales of survival against the odds. And those stories always had happy endings! For some reason I still loved A Tale of Two Cities though. And A Night to Remember...). If any children are upset, it can gently be explained to them that this really happened and Pliny really died (i.e. there's not a lot anyone can do about it!).

The book's description of Pliny's death follows Pliny the Younger's account exactly, and the characterisation of Pliny is beautifully done and very funny ('It does appear to be getting a little worse,' he says as the earth quakes, ash and pumice rain down on them and Vesuvius prepares to cover all of Pompeii and Herculaneum with a pyroclastic flow). The book states outright that Pliny had asthma, which is how I've always interpreted Pliny the Younger's reference to his uncle's chest complaint as well. Pliny the Elder is one of my favourite ancient authors so although it's sad to read about his death, it's nice to see him appear and get a moment in the limelight.

The story is carefully constructed to follow each stage of the eruption as closely as possible, Lupus travelling all over the Bay of Naples while the others watch from Stabiae. The Author's Note at the back mentions that there is some debate over the precise sequence of events, but the story follows a probable scenario and fits with the best evidence we have, Pliny the Younger's description. There are several exciting sequences and the story gets into the heads of Roman children who have no idea what's going on very effectively.

There are other subplots in this story - the children don't know that a volcano is about to erupt, and spend the first two thirds of the novel pursuing mysteries as usual. The central mystery features an appropriately named blacksmith called Vulcan, which is quite fun, and the solution plays an important role in everyone's movements during the eruption, so the novel hangs together properly - it doesn't just stop the mystery story to pay attention to the volcano, but makes the eruption and everyone's reaction to it part of solving the mystery. Flavia also solves a riddle in Latin - it might be a bit frustrating for young readers to be unable to solve the riddle themselves, but hopefully it might encourage them to learn some Latin! Really, though, all other plots fade into the background in comparison with the eruption of the volcano, which is the big climax both this story and, to an extent, The Thieves of Ostia as well have been leading up to.

Dog lovers should be warned that there is more violence to dogs here! Luckily Ferox still appears to be alive at the end of the story. Ferox, Uncle Gaius' ferocious guard dog, must have been inspired by the famous mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii that shows a fiercesome black dog and says 'Cave Canem,' 'Beware of the Dog.' It's a really nice touch and I have a very clear mental picture of Ferox!

I've always been fascinated by the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, and hopefully children who read this book will be too. Although our heroes can't possibly understand pyroclastic flow (or get caught in it, as that leads to certain death) the eruption is described as clearly as possible and culminates in poor Pliny's real death, and may, hopefully, get children interested in finding out more, geologically or historically!

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still (by Malcolm Pryce)

What do you get if you cross The X-Files, Raymond Chandler, an ancient epic poem and the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth?

Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books are Raymond Chandler pastiches set in Aberystwyth, a small town in mid-Wales where my parents met while at university. (It's pronounced Aber - IST - with by the way, or sometimes Aber - UST - weth). Private Eye Louie Knight takes on cases from a collection of weird and wonderful characters with the help of his young assistant Calamity, his father Eeyore (a retired policeman who now leads the donkeys on the beach) and his friend Sospan the philosophical ice cream seller. I absolutely love these books - they're fantastically quirky and brilliantly funny, and when you spend so much time reading about exotic foreign places, it's nice to read about horrible murders happening around the crazy golf course at Aberystwyth every now and again!

Sometimes Pryce moves things around a bit (we think he moved the railway bridge from Barmouth to Aberdovey at one point) but for the most part these stories are set in towns and lakes we know well, but with a twist. Aberystwyth is overrun with shady Druids who manipulate the naive girls who pose for the pictures on the Welsh fudge boxes, haunted by the ghosts of the long ago Patagonian war and while the students at Aberystwyth university are peculiar enough, nearby Lampeter is full of gloomy student undertakers. The books are capable of rather beautiful prose at times and some real poignancy (one death scene in a damp underground prison cell was particularly memorable) but mostly they're just very funny.

The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still is the sixth book in the series, and probably the most out there genre-wise, dipping its toe into science fiction just a little, as well as detective noir (Last Tango in Aberystwyth came close, but ended in a more Scooby-Doo style twist). It's also the first to have a distinctly Classical theme running through the novel. From the Prologue's re-writing of the Biblical story of Jezebel to the introduction of a character called Ercwleff (Welsh for 'Hercules,' supposedly - if I had to guess at pronunciation I'd say Er-coo-leff) in the first line Classicists know they're in for a treat, and Pryce scatters little Classical references throughout the story - he makes great use of the handily named Coliseum cinema, for example (which is a real cinema in Aberystwyth, of which my parents have very fond memories. It's still going). Beyond the smaller references though, the whole story takes on some of the structure of an epic poem. Spoilers follow.

The most obvious link to Classical myth is, of course, Hercules, and that's the reference Pryce really expects his readers to know. Ercwleff's link to Hercules is his physical strength. The character himself, who accidentally kills rabbits by hugging them too hard, is more like the big guy from Of Mice and Men (I think - I've never read Of Mice and Men, it sounded miserable), but a bit more dangerous and nastier. His unfortunate tendency to attack innocent people isn't entirely unlike the mythical Hercules, who was famously driven mad by Hera and killed his wife and children (and there are several other myths about him murdering other random people as well). Ercwleff ends up in a fight with a character from previous books called Herod, who was named for his tendency to cause the death of small children, and the way the whole book ends up with a fist fight between Herod and Hercules is rather amusing.

Aberystwyth Prom at night. 'Neon is the ink of heartache scribbled across the night sky...'

The other major Classical link is more significant and brings in the epic poem structure that crops up every now and again throughout the book. Early on Sospan the philosophical ice-cream seller introduces Louie to Katabasis ice cream, explaining that its named after the Greek word for a journey to the underworld and opens the doors of perception, and that it was recommended by Hunter S. Thompson. There is, of course, only one way this is going to end. Louie's katabasis comes rather later in the book than its usual position in an epic poem (where it tends to appear about halfway through) but his story in this novel follows a basic structure of prophecy - katabasis - fight - victory and new leadership position, easily recognisable to anyone who's read the Odyssey or the Aeneid.

First we have the prophecy. In the opening chapter, the mayor has Ercwleff bust up Louie's desk because his 'soothsayer' has told him Louie will be poking his nose into the mayor's business - that turns out to have a mundane explanation, but not long afterwards, Louie and Calamity come across a mysterious old lady with cat called Eightball who tells Louie she's only too happy to make a cup of tea for the next mayor of Aberystwyth. Regardless of whether a given work is genre fiction or not (this is something I'm doing some work on at the moment!) if you hear a prophecy like that, especially from a mysterious old woman with a cat called Eightball, it will come true. And sure enough, a little later an old friend of Louie's asks him to consider running for mayor and although he declines, when he interrupts the fist fight between rival candidates Herod and Ercwleff, Louie ends up acclaimed as mayor by the crowd.

(I suppose I should reassure everyone that this is not, in fact, how the mayor of Aberystwyth is chosen, but I think that's obvious. I don't know who the current mayor is but they're properly elected - a few years ago it was Judith from Monty Python's Life of Brian).

The katabasis eventually occurs near the end of the story, and you really have to love a book with lines like:

Doc Digwyl pressed his lips together... as if this was the final confirmation of what he had long suspected: Erik XIV poisoning. 'We have no choice,' he said... 'We must use the Katabasis ice cream.'

Having been administered with the hallucinogenic ice cream, Louie goes on a journey in which he is swallowed by a giant Herod Jenkins and ends up in its innards, before having to climb once again to daylight, out through the ear. The purpose of a katabasis in ancient epic poetry, other than gothic imagery, is to remind the hero of the past and reunite him with a dead colleague or two, and to provide a more specific and useful prophecy of the future than the one that got him to the underworld in the first place. And so Louie encounters the witches from Macbeth who address him as 'Mayor of Aberystwyth,' sees his current girlfriend leave in the manner she plans to, and sees Ercwleff turn the other cheek in the fist fight (having been told several times already that Ercwleff will take a dive in the fifth round). While in Herod's insides, Louie is reunited with Marty, the old schoolfriend Herod drove to his death many years before, echoing Odysseus' encounter with Agamemnon and Aeneas being reunited with his father (Marty reassures Louie that he and the other dead boys plan to give Herod indigestion).

View of the town from the top of Constitution Hill

Naturally, Louie emerges from this experience stronger and wiser, breaks up the fight and ends up being made Mayor of Aberystwyth, and his epic journey is complete. What this means for the series I don't know, but I hope Pryce plans to write more about Louie in his new role - and if he could throw in some more Classical references in the next book, that would be even better!

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