Saturday, 29 June 2013

Farscape: What Was Lost

I'm writing a series of pieces on Farscape for Den of Geek over the summer, so over the past couple of weeks I've been doing a marathon re-watch of the entire thing. I've started to call hours arns, I refuse to wear anything but black skinny jeans with boots and a leather jacket and I think I may be developing a slight
Australian accent. It's all worth it though, as I was delighted to discover an archaeology-based two-parter in amongst the living warships, wormhole aliens and plot-crucial vomit. (Seriously, there's an extraordinary amount of vomit involved).

In Season 4's 'What Was Lost' two-part story, having been separated by the vagueries of time and fate in the Season 3 finale, our heroes are in the process of getting the gang back together. Crichton, Chiana and Rygel find D'Argo and Jool helping out with/observing an archaeological dig on a planet with dangerous magnetism (or something). Jool is deeply interested in the lost alien civilization that built the monastery they're excavating, while D'Argo is really more interested in Jool.

The primary thing this two-parter needed to achieve, plot-wise, is to write out (but not kill off) Jool. Jool is a tricky character. Brought in to replace fan favourite Zhaan when Virginia Hey was forced to leave for health reasons, she had an uphill struggle to win over viewers, not helped by her sometimes grating personality (the character, not the actress!). Jool is a privileged young woman who repeatedly refers to everyone else as 'barbarians' and who screams regularly with an ear-piercing screech that can melt metal. She had her good points though, particularly her compassion - no matter what she thinks of you, if you're in trouble, Jool will provide comfort (if not actual practical help, though she was also a useful physician). By the time of 'What Was Lost,' her odd couple friendship with Chiana and the gradual unbending of her brittle personality was making her much more likeable - which makes it rather a shame that she's written out in this episode, replaced partly by Noranti (who's very annoying and tries to murder Crichton for knowing too much here - and yet she's not bothered by the whole wormhole thing) and partly by Sikozu (who's unbelievably irritating, though at least her relationship with Scorpius is reasonably interesting).

Jool's sudden interest in archaeology doesn't come across as forced, but fits very well with her personality as established in Season 3. When they discovered, in 'Revenging Angel,' that Luxan D'Argo's new ship responded to Ancient Luxan, she was horrified when he pointed out he couldn't speak Ancient Luxan, and declared how barbaric it was not to learn your civilization's ancient language (excellent point, don't you think?! ;) ). It's revealed here that she ended up on Moya in the first place because she was caught trying to steal archaeological artefacts, which matches the 'true' version of her story told in 'Losing Time.'

She's also one of those terribly useful science fiction characters who seem to have degrees in everything (see also Quantum Leap's Sam Beckett), and these multi-disciplinary specialists always turn out to have, among their half dozen PhDs, at least one in nuclear physics, at least one medical degree, and at least one degree relating to ancient civilizations, for those times you need to track down an ancient treasure or translate an ancient inscription. In Jool's case, her omnidisciplinary credentials may be slightly justified if we assume her culture places particular value on education, but still.

Jool's enthusiasm for the site is endearing (to me, anyway) but not shared by the others, especially not Chiana. Making Jool an ancient historian/otherwordly Classicist/archaeologist does rather feed into the slightly tired trope of the uptight, irritating ancient world specialist who is fairly useless practically and doesn't understand the real world, but at least Jool is reasonably likeable by this point in the show.

Much of the plot of this episode revolves around attempts to recover lost alien technology, another very common theme in science fiction stories about archaeology. In the real world, there aren't any lost technologies we're likely to dig up as far as I know. But I'm at a conference on SFF and Classics this weekend, and this morning Sophia McDougall made a good point that I'd forgotten - if we were Anglo-Saxons, there would be plenty of lost technology that we were unable to replicate all around us in the form of significant stone and concrete buildings. The Romans had central heating, a water supply, concrete - all lost technologies for generations afterwards. So in a way, it's not so much that this is a plot that can only occur in science fiction, more that it can't apply to us unless it's in an SFF context.

I like the idea of a story looking at 'what was lost.' The episode makes it clear that this refers to more than just the alien technology; the aliens also apparently knew the secret to world - or rather, universal - peace, and when Jool stays to help them at the end, she hopes that they will also be able to help others again (they reappear in the final mini-series The Peacekeeper Wars, where they are revealed to be called Eidelons - from the Greek eidolon, shade, spirit. They are literally ghosts, shadows of the past). We may not need to explore ancient Greek or Roman sites looking for technology, and a lot of aspects of their culture may be best lost (slavery, oppression of women etc), but there is always something good about a civilization, and there's a sadness in knowing that no matter how much we try, there are aspects of the ancient world that we will never be able to recover.

The archaeological dig here is on an alien planet in a distant part of the universe, so for the most part there aren't references to real Earth ancient civilizations - with one exception. On a wall and on a small pyramid-shaped toy, Crichton finds what looks like the ancient Egyptian symbol for the Eye of Ra. Ra was an important Egyptian sun god (the Egyptians tended to associate more than one god with their two biggest interests - death and the sun) and the Eye of Ra had a number of meanings for ancient Egyptians which might be relevant, relating to the sun (it's a hot, sunny planet - because of the weird alien magnetism thing/because it's Australia), to violence (there's always lots of violence in Farscape), to death (ditto, and the monks were supposedly killed in a massacre) but I think there's another reason for its presence here. The point of the symbol, plot-wise, is to provide the first concrete evidence that there might be a genetic link between humans, Sebaceans (love interest Aeryn's species) and Jool's species. The presence of the symbol implies that, at some point in the past, there was communication between the civilizations, presumably via lost knowledge of wormholes (knowledge Crichton was gifted by a race calling themselves 'Ancients').

So all the show needs is a recognizable ancient Earth symbol. Farscape aired between 1999 and 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, in a slot adjacent to one of Sci-Fi's big hits, Stargate SG-1. It's no wonder, then, that the Eye of Ra suggested itself as a recognizable ancient Earth symbol! The background music even sounds a little like Stargate's music for a moment as Crichton (whose actor Ben Browder would later, after Farscape's cancellation... star in Stargate SG-1) walks towards the symbol.

There are other common archaeological tropes here too. Like nearly all SFF archaeologists, these guys carry weapons, but for once this does actually make sense, because technically they're not actually weapons. The tools they use de-age material to strip back to the level of the artefact they're after, thus cutting back on all that messy digging (even though they still call it a 'dig' - the only thing they dig is a grave!). If turned on a living person, these tools petrify them. It sort of makes sense, and makes a change from surprisingly well-armed archaeologists running around all over the place.

This isn't a bad two-parter. It suffers from appearing at a point in the series where you really just want Aeryn to turn up again, and you don't want to spend two long episodes just watching Crichton get tortured in a particularly unpleasant way and Braca leading Scorpius around, in his usual black leather and PVC suit, on all fours, on a dog leash. (There's a reason Farscape is often described as the story of one American getting swept up in Australia's bondage scene). On the upside, when we hear the ancient monks doing some weird chanting, they're chanting the show's theme tune, which does at least provide some kind of in-show excuse for the screeching awfulness that was the theme in Seasons 1 and 2. All in all, in a different position in the series (and with less sexual assault) this could have been an enjoyable pair of episodes - unfortunately, in the position it's in, it just feels a bit like treading water, and finding an excuse to replace Jool with Sikozu. Which we didn't really want anyway. Ah well, at least she got a sweet and sensible exit - for now...

Friday, 21 June 2013

Zombies, Ancient and Modern

I keep hearing lately that zombies, unlike vampires (which seem to have a fairly long history in folklore) and werewolves (which date back to the ancient world) are a relatively recent creature feature. In fact, radio experts keep telling me, they were invented by George Romero for his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. I found this particularly interesting because I'm pretty sure I remember writing about a Classical zombie in the final chapter of my MA dissertation, lo these many years ago.

I think what the radio pundit meant was that the modern popular conception of what a zombie is was invented by Romero, rather than the idea of animated corpses in general. So in order to solve this puzzle, we need to spend time on the Classicist's all-time favourite hobby - defining things. We love defining things, and the longer and more complicated the definition, the better. I once read a book that spent four chapters defining 'myth' (and still didn't come to any definitive conclusions, because defining myth is impossible).

The simplest definition of a 'zombie' is that it's a walking, talking corpse. Unlike ghosts, they are still in their physical body (whereas a ghost is the spirit or soul of a dead person, completely separated from their physical remains). Unlike vampires, they don't have to drink blood, and unlike an immortal (who, depending on the mythology, may 'die' and come back to life or may just be completely impenetrable) the zombie is most definitely dead. Their heart does not beat and they do not heal. If you chop off their arm, it stays chopped off. They are the ugliest form of undead, because they exist in whatever state of decay their body would be in, more or less - they don't go gooey and they last longer than real corpses, but they do slowly decay, or show signs of it anyway.

I suspect creatures that fit this broad definition crop up in the mythology and folklore of lots of different cultures. I don't claim to know about any of them outside of Greco-Roman myth and some elements of European folklore, but I have a vague notion there are lot of zombie-types in some African, Caribbean and Southern U.S. traditions (I'm thinking of voodoo, but my knowledge of the culture and geography of the areas in question is woefully lacking. I only discovered New Orleans is in Louisiana when I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse books).

In Greek and Roman mythology and fiction, zombies are usually raised individually, for a short period, to answer some questions or provide a prophecy. There's an excellent book by Daniel Ogden called Greek and Roman Necromancy (with a fabulous red and black cover in the edition I have, it's a great way to freak out visitors to your home) which details the history of Greek and Roman stories about necromancy, the raising of the dead. Ogden defines 'necromancy' slightly more broadly than I do (I wouldn't count Odysseus' raising of Tiresias in The Odyssey as necromancy, I would tend to label it a katabasis, a journey to the underworld) and some of the necromantic traditions discussed involve ghosts rather than zombies, but there are definitely some zombies in there. The tradition of raising the dead in ancient world is connected to the existence of oracles of the dead, and to the tradition in Greece of elevating heroes to divine or semi-divine status. Zombies are raised when more tasteful forms of oracle just won't do the job.

The scene I talked about in my MA dissertation was from Lucan's historical epic poem about the war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, the aptly titled Civil War. (Lucan had written what we have of the presumably unfinished poem by the age of 25, at which point he was forced to suicide for conspiring against the emperor Nero. This makes me feel very bad about the state of my novel, which so far consists of a bunch of half-started first chapters...). Instead of sending his hero on a journey to the underworld, like Odysseus in The Odyssey or Aeneas in The Aeneid, Lucan takes a minor character (Sextus Pompey, Pompey's son) and has him go to a witch to ask if he will survive the war.

The witch, Erictho, goes to a nearby graveyard and raises a corpse to provide the answer - throughout Greco-Roman literature the dead, whether you call up their ghost, see them in a dream, go and visit them in the underworld or raise them as a zombie, have special knowledge of the future. Lucan describes Erictho herself and her habits in great detail - among other things, she likes to tear apart the bodies of the dead, ripping apart the knots on the ropes that held crucifixion victims up with her mouth and pulling the nails out with her hands. She raises the corpse of a recently killed soldier, who proceeds to prophesy about just about everything except what will happen to Sextus before going back to being dead. (This section is towards the end of Book 7, and well worth a read if you like your literature gory! Follow the link to Perseus' very old-fashioned translation, though Susan Braund's more recent translation for Oxford World's Classics is a much better read).

A Classical zombie, then, has usually been raised by a living figure for a short period of time (in Latin literature, usually a witch using magic) to act as a particularly gruesome oracle (there is also a story about a Greek who has sex with a corpse, then foolishly raises her to ask for an oracle, and she points out she knows what he's been up to). The oracle part seems to be the part that hasn't survived so much in later literature. Animated dead bodies certainly crop up every now and again - it's been a long time since I last read The Lord of the Rings (hmm, I should re-read The Lord of the Rings) but Tolkien includes both wights (which are very mysterious, but presumably both dead and corporeal, i.e. not ghosts) and an entire undead army (portrayed as ghosts in the films, but if they're insubstantial, how do they kill people?) as well as the unseen 'Necromancer' of The Hobbit. Edited to add: See comments below on the army of the dead, who are in fact ghosts - it is clearly a lot longer than I realised since I last read The Lord of the Rings!

Possibly what the nice lady whose name I can't remember on the radio meant was that a very particular type of popular zombie was invented by Romero. The brain-eating aspect of the zombies seen in many modern films is apparently even more recent, but it was Night of the Living Dead that gave us an inexplicable plague of very slow-moving dead people attacking the living. It may also have been a Romero movie that introduced biting as a way of becoming a zombie - or possibly that was imported from werewolf mythology. More often, in stories featuring this type of zombie, everyone who dies becomes a zombie automatically - which is very different from the individually raised special cases of older literature.

These zombies are different to most Classical zombies in several ways. One important difference in modern zombies is the idea of the plague of zombies. In Classical literature, if you want to attack people with a plague - you use a plague. In a world where such things were more common, you don't really need zombies for the survival/zombie hybrid type of story, like The Walking Dead. Another is the very slow movement - Romero made it terrifying on film, but in a book (or poem) it would be harder to explain how awful it was for the hero as the monster walked very, very slowly towards him, and the ancient theatre didn't usually show any action scenes, those all happened off stage.

Ancient zombies are also never inexplicable. They are raised by necromancers for a very specific purpose. Modern zombies' frequent mysteriousness is partly because of their plague-like functions, partly (perhaps) a little bit of writerly laziness, but it also relates to their use as metaphors for modern life. Zombies are often a metaphor for being trapped in humdrum jobs or stuck in a rut, or for having given up on life, especially in lighter stories like Shaun of the Dead or Warm Bodies. In the ancient world, the people stuck in humdrum jobs weren't usually the ones writing the literature (and everyone was much more likely to die of plague, war or conspiring against the emperor at any minute anyway).

MINOR GAME OF THRONES SPOILER WARNING. One of the interesting things about George RR Martin's use of zombies in A Song of Ice and Fire is that he includes both the older model and the Romero model. His Westerlands zombies aren't quite Classical - they aren't oracles, and they can last quite a long time. However, they are individual dead people, raised by an individual necromancer for a reasonably specific purpose (they're certainly quite single-minded) and it's implied their 'life'span is not limitless. (They don't seem to decay, once revived - but neither do they heal).

On the other hand, the zombie army approaching from North of the Wall is made up of Romero-zombies, a plague of dead people, and the living who are killed might become them (they may also have necromancers ultimately behind them. I can't even remember exactly which ones are wights/White Walkers/Others/etc etc, I've got so confused between the book terminology and the TV series - but their sheer numbers, their relatively slow movement and the fact the dead become them is very Romero-style-zombie). It'll be fascinating to see what, if any, connection there is between the two, if Martin ever finishes the books.

END SPOILER WARNING. So basically, several of the various quirks of modern zombies can be traced back to Romero and especially to Night of the Living Dead. The most notable is the plague-like aspect. The random attack by shuffling zombies presumably starts with Romero, and the metaphorically juicy plague-like aspect of zombie attacks, plus the potential for stories about hardened groups of survivors, goes back to that film. But if we're defining 'zombie' as a walking, talking (sometimes prophesying) corpse, they're much, much older than a 1960s horror film.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Separate Paths

The end is in sight for Spartacus and his merry band, as the herd starts to get thinned a little in the run-up to the finale...

As we open, Spartacus et al are ambushed by Romans in slow-motion but no one with a name gets killed. A little torture suggests that Crassus and his army are four days behind them. Three days later (by remarkably reliable dead-body-smell-o-meter), Crassus, Caesar and Tiberius are in hot pursuit when they’re interrupted by the return of that dour Roman soldier dude from earlier in the season (Metellus). Metellus snarks Crassus about Maid Marian’s defection, so Crassus beats his face to a pulp because we haven’t had enough face-smashing lately – only Caesar manages to stop him from killing the man. Caesar looks pretty freaked out by this little display of temper, but on they go after Spartacus.

Number One points out they’re nearly out of food and Crixus wants to stop and fight the Romans, but Spartacus is convinced that the man who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Number One’s mood is not improved by the fact he’s still sulking about The Artist’s friendship with the pirate, and the pirate confesses that he is, in fact, after The Artist (I feel like I’ve seen this storyline on Friends). The pirate is happily confident that The Artist likes him too, which I think may be supposed to be sweet and romantic, but actually comes across as a bit creepy.

Boudicca thanks Number One for helping her put up a tent and he says he’s only doing so because Spartacus fancies her and he wants Spartacus to be happy. (So… he’s helping her put up a tent so Spartacus can have sex in it? How sweet. Or creepy…) They’re interrupted by Maid Marian, who’s come to ask for help for a woman in labour, who promptly gives birth to a TV baby. (TV babies come out with their heads all head-shaped and human-coloured, unlike real babies, who have a tendency to come out with their heads alarmingly squashed-looking and grey, not unlike E.T. To be fair, the cost of the special effects required to depict that accurately wouldn’t be worth it – better to save the money for more face-smashing).

It turns out Maid Marian was basically Crassus’ household midwife, and although she tries to claim that her master was some random called Pompo, she has obviously forgotten that she’s got a slave brand labeling her as Crassus’, clearly visible on her arm. Of course, no one’s impressed to realise she was Crassus’ slave and they suspect her immediately. Boudicca sticks up for her and Maid Marian explains why she’s run away, which does gain her Spartacus’ sympathy, so he tells Boudicca to keep an eye on her and lets her go.

Caesar tries to talk to Tiberius about Crassus’ newfound temper and inability to recognise the value of a proportional response, and also lets the little brat know that he’s onto him. Tiberius scowls petulantly. Over in Spartacus’ camp, Crixus and Naevia share a romantic moment and Crixus talks about how he wishes they had a home, baby etc. They’re both doomed. Doomed!

Crixus, not keen on the running-away strategy, wants to attack Rome itself. Spartacus, being a sane person, wants to head north to cross the Alps, and disperse their group when they get to the other side. Crixus is horrified at the thought of turning and running away, but Spartacus is convinced they can’t fight any more, especially given the increasingly high proportion of women and small children in their gang.

Crixus taunts Spartacus about ‘the man he once was when Batiatus fell’ and Spartacus sends everyone else out of the room so he and Crixus can fight it out. Crixus is confident in their success, but Spartacus has a feeling the Romans are getting pretty fed up of them and are about to hit them with the mother of all reprisals. Crixus wants to keep fighting, believing they’ll never be truly free otherwise, because they’ve shown the Republic up too much to be allowed to escape no matter how far they run. Chances are, they’re both right.

Crixus tells Spartacus, ‘With or without you I will march on Rome’ and Spartacus says he won’t stand in his way. So they settle it – Crixus is off at the break of dawn with anyone who wants to follow him. Spartacus asks one final thing of him first, and all our named heroes and heroines go to attack a bunch of defenseless middle class Roman farms together in one final heavy-metal-backed slow-motion rampage. Aw, how sweet.

Our guys have a feast for ‘the undefeated gods’ (really, they’re just asking for trouble with all this ‘gods’ stuff) involving people having sex in the middle of the floor while everyone drinks, shouts and sings ‘My cock rages on’ around them (that’s a great drinking song, I wonder if HBO could get the rights to use it on Game of Thrones – it would fit in perfectly). Gannicus is drinking and making out with Eponine, which doesn’t impress Helga, though she remains confident that he’ll come back to her eventually and shows him what he’s missing by snogging another woman while everyone has an orgy in the bath.

Number One is still sulking (would some Roman please put him out of his misery). The Artist tries to cheer him up, but he’s refusing to drink because he wants to be sober when Crixus leaves, because he’s going with him. Turns out he agrees with Crixus and doesn’t want to go be a shepherd beyond the Alps. The Artist quite happily says ‘fine, we’re going with Crixus,’ but Number One tells him to stay with Spartacus because he’s been watching too many superhero movies and thinks The Artist isn’t a good enough soldier (or knows it’s a suicide mission) – he wants him to live, so he dumps him to save him.

Spartacus comes to have a last drink with Crixus and they share some genuinely adorable banter about how useless they both are sometimes. Crixus summarises their greatest hits and concludes that their constant bickering was what led them to glory. Spartacus prays they’ll see each other again before they die, but they both know that’s not going to happen.

Over in Roman-land, Crassus has managed to damage his own hand beating up Metellus. Tiberius tries to bring up the subject of Maid Marian, which doesn’t improve his mood, but he does ask Tiberius why he thinks she ran away. Tiberius blames Caesar for giving her the opportunity and tries to needle his father into mis-trusting Julius. To be fair, that’s probably not-totally-stupid advice in general, albeit wrong in this instance.

Number One hands in his notice to Spartacus, who thanks him for not making a giant fuss about their disagreements like Crixus did. Number One wishes him ‘comfort,’ i.e. advises him to get laid, so Spartacus goes to find Boudicca. His idea of flirting is apparently to argue about the treatment of slaves but it seems to work. Spartacus tells her he can never love her because she’s Roman and she says that’s fine, she just wants his body. Somehow they manage to find an unoccupied room to get down and dirty in.

Dawn comes and it’s Gannicus’ turn to say cheerio to Crixus. Crixus tries to get him to come with, but Gannicus has apparently decided to settle down with Eponine so he refuses. Spartacus and Crixus say one last goodbye and Crixus says he will always consider Spartacus a brother, and Spartacus says it’s mutual, and it’s all very gooey and at least one of our heroes is going to have to meet their maker by the end of this episode.  Number One and The Artist make gooey eyes at each other one last time, and the two groups go off in their different directions.

Crassus works out that the women and children are off north with Spartacus while his ‘pet Gaul’ is marching on Rome. He, Caesar and Tiberius argue over whether to stop Crixus from sacking Rome or continue to chase Spartacus. Tiberius makes this about him and Caesar, as always, while Caesar is really just interested in not letting the capital city get sacked. Caesar has found out about Tiberius raping Maid Marian (by making friends with a camp follower) but says he doesn’t want Crassus to find out in case it drives him over the edge. Tiberius’ response to this discussion, demonstrating once and for all that he’s had some kind of intelligence-bypass, is to have Caesar seized by his guards and rape him, because that worked out so very well last time.

Time for a montage! (Who else has Team America in their head now?!)

Crixus is fighting his way across the countryside in an orgy of bad CGI flames, artistic blood spatters, pounding soundtrack (which is starting to sound quite classically ancient-world-movie-like) and having a lot of sex in between fights. He successfully leads his army close to Rome, where they have to defeat one last legion, led by Arrius. Crixus gives a stirring speech inspired by the late, lamented DSG and there are some pretty impressive CGI armies involved. Battle ensues. Meanwhile, Spartacus is leading his gang (which still includes Helga as well as Gannicus) through a rather beautiful and peaceful-looking forest, but frets about their inability to defend themselves without Crixus and the others.

Back at the battle, Crixus stabs Arrius in the face (obviously) and Naevia calls him a god and they look across at a blurry CGI city that is supposedly Rome (across what looks like a desert – I’m not sure the makers have ever been to Rome). But no – Caesar or reason won out in the end and he, Crassus, Tiberius and all their armies have come to protect the city. And so they go into battle again (in what looks like a slightly greyer version of the Grand Canyon – seriously, Italy looks nothing like that. They could at least have made the grass look green). Despite Crassus and Caesar both ending up on foot, it’s not looking good for our heroes.

Number One is the first main character to get knocked down, knocked out by a Roman on a horse just after one of Crixus’ favourite extras gets a sword through the neck. Because he is a major character, Number One gets the honour of going down in slow motion with a sad cello/double bass on the soundtrack. Crixus himself is attacked by several Romans at once and ends up in combat with Caesar, who is unexpectedly saved by Tiberius, who runs Crixus through with a spear (apparently he’s not finished with Caesar – which doesn’t bear thinking about).

Naevia is captured and a sword held to her throat, and Tiberius takes his sword back from Crixus (who had it?! must have missed that). Crixus isn’t quite dead and Tiberius wants to crucify him, but Crassus tells them to chop his head off to send Spartacus a message. Crixus and Naevia look at each other dramatically while the violins go all out on the soundtrack, and Tiberius chops off Crixus’ head – which we don’t actually see, we just see a close-up on Naevia crying. Apparently the highest honour a character on Spartacus can be paid is that we don’t see their horrible death. End of episode.

This whole episode is about the split between Spartacus and Crixus and the lead-up to Crixus’ death, and it’s done very well. Because all our evidence comes from the Romans, historians are very unsure about exactly what Spartacus was trying to do and where he was trying to go as he wandered all over Italy – and the only two sources disagree on some of the details anyway. Neither account (Appian, Civil Wars, 1.14.116-121 and Plutarch, Crassus, 8-12) quite matches the way things play out here, but the main gist is there – an attempt to cross the Alps, and the possibility that at the end, Spartacus or someone involved in his rebellion was planning to march on Rome.

Image from

Moving the split between Spartacus and Crixus to these final episodes and framing it as a conflict between Crixus wanting to march on Rome and Spartacus wanting to flee over the Alps makes sense. Aside from keeping Crixus around longer than he might otherwise have been, it sets up a clear and simple dramatic conflict between retreat and further attack, and produces some lovely final scenes between the two characters. Their discussion in Spartacus’ tent, heads close together, talking calmly rather than yelling at each other, is brilliantly done. This is skillful manipulation of the historical story to produce the tightest, most satisfying drama.

The only sour note historically-speaking comes at the end of the episode; Tiberius wants to crucify Crixus, but Crassus has him beheaded in order to send a message to Spartacus about what will happen to him. This doesn’t make much sense. The whole point of crucifying the rebels (as I suspect we’ll see before the end of the series) is that crucifixion is a slave’s death – Crassus is both inflicting a very slow and painful end on them, and reminding everyone of the rebels’ places as slaves. They aren’t paraded through the streets in triumph and garroted (Crassus wanted a triumph, but was informed winning a war against slaves didn’t count), but crucified as runaways, for everyone to see. If Crassus wanted to send a message to Spartacus, crucifixion is exactly what he would do to Crixus. It’s a minor point perhaps, but it irritates in the sense that it takes you out of the show for a moment as you think ‘hang on, that doesn’t sound right’ to yourself (well, I do!).

Most of the episode, though, is very well done. It's great to see our heroes get one last hurrah before it all starts to go downhill in a permanent way. Between the sad loss of Andy Whitfield and the fact that Spartacus isn’t in Gods of the Arena, Manu Bennet’s Crixus is as much a central character as Spartacus is, and he and Agron are the only actors remaining to have been in season one (though Naevia, played by a different actress, isn’t quite dead yet). It’s fitting to see all our remaining heroes, led by Spartacus, Gannicus and Crixus, enjoy one last victory and one last orgy before the end, even as the orgiastic nature of the scene reminds the audience that they are becoming increasingly like their enemy – their wild party in the conquered Roman villa looks not unlike Batiatus’ regular orgies from season one. It’s fitting, too, to see Crixus and Agron go down together (apparently), leaving Spartacus with only Gannicus and a lot of women and children (though to be fair, ‘women’ includes Helga) against Crassus, Tiberius and a really, really pissed off Caesar. A really good episode, effectively building up momentum for the finale.


Spartacus: We cannot turn from any slave wishing freedom.
Agron: Then let her be free to starve with the rest of us.

Tiberius: You over-step Tribune!
Caesar: Many times each day, but in this we both know I do not.

Crixus: I would have us free. Truly free. Do you really believe that Crassus will stop once you crest the mountains? That the Republic will let us quietly slip away? We have shown them vulnerable. We have shown them that a trembling hand can become a fist. We have challenged the idea that a slave must always know his place, accepting rod and lash because he was taught to accept it. We built their mighty Republic. With our hands and our blood and our lives. And we can see it fall at equal cost. You opened my eyes to this, Spartacus. Do not ask me now to close them.

Spartacus: It was simpler between us when the bond stood only as hate.
Crixus: Those days are sadly past.

Crixus: When we were yet of Batiatus' ludus, I spoke of how we may have been as brothers, in another life.
Spartacus: Yet not in this one.
Crixus: Know that I was wrong. And will always hold you as such.
Spartacus: As I will hold you.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Roman Mysteries: The Dolphins of Laurentum

June 8th is World Oceans Day, and it just so happens that I have just (finally) finished reading the fifth in the Roman Mysteries series of middle grade books, which has a particularly watery theme! Of course, technically, the book is set in the Mediterranean Sea, not the Ocean (Oceanus, the personified Ocean, was the great river/sea that surrounded the whole world in Greco-Roman geography, and it lay out beyond the Pillars of Heracles, i.e. the Straits of Gibraltar) but with its themes of sponge-diving and swimming with dolphins, it seems a very appropriate book to put forward for Here, There and Everywhere's annual Oceanic Blog-a-Thon.

I've never swum with dolphins, but it always looks like fun, and I've heard it can be a quite moving experience. It certainly comes across that way here. The Dolphins of Laurentum explores Lupus' tragic and violent back-story. It's a dark book (I've read books about children wanting to commit murder before, but usually books aimed at adults, like the Song of Ice and Fire series or perhaps some of Thomas Hardy's particularly miserable tomes). However, the darkness and violence of the back-story (kept at a safe distance from the child reader by being mostly contained in flashbacks) is balanced by the beautiful sequences featuring the dolphins. The four children's starlit swim with four friendly dolphins is utterly magical and throughout the book, it is the dolphins that bring all of them, and Lupus in particular, a sense of peace that they cannot find in the human world. I have no idea how accurate a description of swimming with dolphins this is, but it certainly made me want to try it!

Lupus was trained in sponge-diving by his father, and the book also describes the process of free diving in detail, as Lupus makes increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve a sunken treasure. The book includes a warning not to try free diving at home at the beginning, and describes the consequences of free diving gone wrong in not unduly graphic, but also not too sugar-coated, detail. (For some reason I've always found the idea of the bends horrifying - possibly because I associate it with then being stuck in a tiny decompression chamber for hours - plus this particular problem also involves swelling eyes, bleeding from all over the place - ew!). Having said that, the exploration of free-diving techniques is fascinating and it's a wonderfully historically appropriate special skill for Lupus to have - plus, it produces exciting action sequences involving a giant octopus, and that's always fun.

One aspect of Lupus' back-story that I particularly enjoyed was a gender-inverted re-imagining of the story of Cupid and Psyche. In his last novel, Till We Have Faces (which I will blog someday when I actually finish reading it), CS Lewis re-told the myth of Cupid and Psyche, focusing on Psyche's 'ugly' sister Orual, and explored the psychology of an 'ugly' woman's relationship with, and jealousy of, her beautiful sister, who is sacrificed by the mob but ends up married to Love himself, a marriage which Orual tears apart. Here, it is an 'ugly' man who tears apart the lives of his handsome brother and beautiful sister-in-law, with masculine jealousy shown being just as destructive as the feminine variety. The most effective moment of all comes when Lupus realises that he has allowed his hate to turn himself into his 'ugly' uncle - it is finding inner peace and letting go of this hate that will allow him to follow in his father's footsteps rather than his uncle's, more than any superficial similiarity.

As ever in this series, there are some lovely light touches in this book. There's a nice nod to Citizen Kane towards the end, and I sensed a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Miriam's story (can one be attracted to a man and his house?!). There's also a fun scene that takes place on a sort of Roman tennis court, or perhaps more accurately, a squash court. We don't really know much for sure about Roman ball games, because most of the evidence is visual, but we do know that they definitely played them - you can see a number of images of different types of Roman ball game here (my favourite is the one that looks a bit like hockey). There's also a mosaic from Pompeii showing what looks like a football. The Romans were certainly keen on ball games, and might have played all sorts of games similar to modern ball games, so it's quite a fun idea to imagine them playing something so recognisable!

The events of this book are kicked off by the discovery of a disaster at sea (poor Marcus Geminus really does get the fuzzy end of the lollipop sometimes) and some of the sub-plots explore the ongoing geological disturbances following the eruption of Vesuvius, both on land and out at sea. Most of the story is set at Pliny the Younger's Laurentine villa (a place we know of from the literature, though we don't know exactly where it was) and much of it takes place on the beach or in boats so it's perfect for readers like me who love the sea, the beach and, as Ratty put it (or was it Mole?) 'messing about on boats.' All the sailing-fun of Swallows and Amazons, but a heck of a lot more actual danger, courtesy of earthquakes, octopi and treasure-hunters! Great stuff.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Gladiators (dir. Peter Watkins, 1969)

The Gladiators is a film way ahead of its time, a mockumentary about a reality TV show in which contestants are forced to kill each other made in 1969.

You might not have seen The Gladiators - it's a bit hard to get hold of. I had to buy it on DVD from France (through, and it only has French subtitles. Since the film is in English, French, Swedish, Cantonese and German, this meant listening to German (which I can read, but sometimes struggle to follow when spoken) and Swedish (which I don't speak, but which is similar enough to German that I recognise bits and pieces of it) while trying to read the lines in French. The subtitles are foreign language subtitles only, not subtitles for the hard of hearing, so the French parts weren't subtitled - I speak French, but like German, I find it much easier to follow written down than spoken aloud, so that was a challenge too. The easiest parts, other than the English, were the Cantonese sections, as I could just ignore the spoken language and read the French!

Anyway, if you can speak French, the film is well worth getting hold of, because it's very good. Sometimes called The Peace Game in reference to Watkins' famous earlier film The War Game, it was made in the same year as the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War and shares distinct conceptual similarities, chiefly the idea that generals treat war like a game, a living version of Risk. Here, the United Nations (referring to themselves as the 'Allies') pit a team of conscripted soldiers against a team drawn from the major Communist countries of the time, led by China, for a reality TV show (filmed in Sweden, which is neutral). They are told to play a war game with live ammunition, the object of which is to reach the control room - except no one is expected ever to actually reach the control room and the one participant who does is left rather bewildered when he gets there.

The film draws overt attention to the gladiator parallel in the opening segment, in which we are reminded that these contests are 'based on the gladiatorial Games of ancient Rome,' though there are some important differences between the two. Roman gladiatorial Games were focused on the show, on pitting fighters with differing weapons or skills against each other or against various animals to produce an entertaining spectacle. Gladiators might gain a certain celebrity, but ultimately they were slaves or people desperate (or bloodthirsty) enough voluntarily to fight as a gladiator, so the audience would not see themselves in these people, whereas the 'soldiers' in the Peace Games are young men conscripted from the general population and chosen to represent their home countries.

The justification for the Peace Games is similar to the sort of argument often put forward for the value of international sporting events, that by directing humanity's natural aggression and rivalry into a sport (in this case, a blood sport) war will be avoided. In fact, the film suggests, the true purpose of the Games is rather more sinister. The very first image of the film is written text (in English, French and Swedish) with a constant, irritating beeping in the background. This, we are told, is the ICARUS system, designed subliminally to force everyone to play the game as hard as possible. In other words, it's a system specifically designed to force people to 'fly too close to the sun,' to do more with the equipment they're given that said equipment is capable of, and therefore to bring about their own destruction. It's a rather brilliantly evil plan, really.

Although there are references made to the Peace Games being the most popular show on television in the Western world (and to sponsors who will be angry if the start of the programme is delayed, a concern that baffles and amuses the Chinese general) because this film was made in 1969, there is not nearly as much emphasis on the wider television audience here as there is in later films like The Hunger Games. More recent productions tend to emphasise the culpability of the audience in perpetuating monstrosities like these Games, drawing parallels with the voyeuristic nature of some reality television. However, here, the audience are victims almost as much as the soldiers are, placated with the ever-popular 'bread and circuses' by 'the System' and led to believe that by watching their loved ones die on live television they are somehow helping to maintain world peace.

There is much more emphasis throughout the film on the generals, who are repeatedly shown watching and commenting on the Games. The relationship between the rival generals is very cordial, even if they snark each other at times, and they form a united front dedicated to maintaining order below. The generals eat, they are amused by the proceedings, occasionally they even fall asleep. This is their Game and they are in charge - and despite the presence of the unseen television audience, they are the true audience of these Games, for whom they're really played.

In some ways, this is a film of its time. French student B-3's personal fight against 'the System' feels very 1960s. The representation of black soldiers occasionally leaves a bit to be desired (one of them seems confused as to why he's there) though there are black generals who are just as cold and capable as the others. There is only one female soldier. She is part of the communist team (so there's no suggestion that the Western allies have recruited a woman) and her presence is necessary to allow the film to introduce a love story without having to venture into non-heterosexual territory, rather than a statement about feminism or representation of women in combat.

Generally speaking, though, the exploration of what would, many years later, become known as reality television and the use of the mockumentary format (carried over from The War Game) puts The Gladiators far ahead of its time in other ways. It's both thought-provoking and cleverly filmed; the violent climax is presented as a series of black and white stills that are somehow more disturbing than moving images, possibly due to their resemblance to real wartime photographs. (I wonder if Gary Ross has seen it, as there's a certain similarity with the way he uses close-up hand-held camerawork to depict violence in The Hunger Games). Well worth a look if you can get hold of it The War Game.
and definitely recommended for fans of

Peter Watkins talks about his aims with this film, and its availability on DVD, at his own website.

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