Saturday, 28 September 2013

Atlantis: The Earth Bull

Spoilers ahoy!

Atlantis is BBC One's new Saturday night teatime family show, replacing Merlin, which finished last year. That means it's a light, PG-rated show with minimal blood and sex - though it does feature male nudity (albeit shot from the waist up) within the first five minutes, so make of that what you will. (Why was our hero washed up on the beach without clothes, but with his special necklace? Enquiring minds want to know).

Atlantis follows the adventures of Jason, a remarkably young marine salvage worker of some kind (is he a marine archaeologist? That would be a handy career for him, as it would imply some knowledge of ancient archaeology...). While looking for the submarine in which his father apparently drowned, Jason is pulled into a white light and washes up on the shores of Atlantis, which he is later informed is another world. Presumably the mechanics of the thing, specifically whether or not he's also gone back in time, will be revealed at some point. What we know so far is that this world is inhabited by a host of characters from Greek mythology, in a typical All Myths Are True format, plus one very real person, philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras.

Assuming Pythagoras is our Pythagoras - and his obsession with triangles would seem to indicate that's very much the case - Jason must be either back in time, or in a world that might spit you out into any era of ours. Or something. Anyway, it turns out he was born there, and there's some big mystery surrounding his birth and the identity of his parents, both of whom are supposedly dead (I fully expect both to turn up sooner or later, especially his father, who apparently 'walks among the dead' - very much not the same thing as being dead).

Mythologically speaking, Jason (of the Argonauts)'s parents were King Aeson and a human woman whose identity is of such little importance that it varies among different accounts, but presumably Atlantis is going for something different here. The Atlantis Jason finds is ruled by a king, but this king has been transposed from a different area of Greek mythology - Minos and Pasiphae were legendary king and queen of Crete. Presumably, as the series goes on, we'll see lots of different bits and pieces of Greek mythology from all over the place incorporated into it, but for this first episode, the writers stick with their decision to go with Minos and draw on mythology relating to Crete - specifically, the well-known story of the Minotaur.

In myth, the Minotaur was the son of the queen, Pasiphae, and a bull she'd fallen in love with. Bestiality being a bit risque for Saturday night family viewing, here he's a man who's been cursed, and he only kills seven adults every year, not fourteen children. The idea of the curse works rather well - Greek mythology is full of cursed people metamorphosing into an array of animals and/or monsters, usually as the result of claiming to be better than the gods (I say 'Greek mythology' but really I mean 'Ovid' - his Metamorphoses is full of these stories). It also makes the Minotaur's end rather more poignant than a basic monster-slaying, not to mention it enables him to spout exposition at our hero as he dies.

The reason the sacrificed people are adults rather than children is that Pythagoras is chosen by lot as one of them - they're referred to a couple of times as tributes, presumably in reference to The Hunger Games. This episode spends most of its time introducing the show's three leads, Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules. Of the three, Hercules has the potential to be the most interesting. I love the show's reinterpretation of Hercules as a slightly overweight coward who's a bit too fond of a drink, though he was persuaded to at least try to rescue Jason from the monster and I'm sure he'll kill something at some point, even if accidentally. Seeing Greece's greatest hero as a man who's all talk but not much good in a fight is a nice twist.

Jason's own position as a modern character - or at least, a character raised in the modern world - is very useful for exposition, as he will be able to recognise the various famous names and immediately understand something about new situations (though he doesn't blink at the name 'Helena' - only time will tell if this is the Helen...). We also get the usual humourous time travel references (telling Pythagoras he's destined to bore schoolchildren in maths lessons for hundreds of years, for example). So far, though, the best use of his out of time status has been his reaction to Hercules throwing a sword at him - he waves it around for a few seconds and is quickly disarmed.I love that, presumably having never held one before, he isn't magically able to use a sword straight away (at least he caught it).

Jason's love interest on the show is the princess Ariadne, who here holds the honour of being the only person in the script - other than Pythagoras and his triangles - who actually does what we expect of her, mythologically speaking. She gives Jason the thread which he can use to find his way out of the Labyrinth (which disappointingly, is a series of caves rather than a maze). She tells him it's been enchanted by the witches of Colchis which was a really nice touch and my favourite mythological reference of the episode - quite apart from explaining why this thread is special and no one has thought of this before, in Greek mythology, the witch of Colchis is Medea, the woman Jason marries and leaves for a younger model, prompting her to murder their children in retribution. I'm hoping she'll turn up sometime, perhaps in season 2 if the show gets that far...

The other significant character introduced here is the Oracle. (A bit of submarine or something labelled 'the oracle' that Jason sees on his way down did briefly make me wonder what language these people are speaking and whether the writing should all be in ancient Greek, but it's probably best not to think about that too much). Juliet Stevenson is suitably other-wordly, though these scenes bear little resemblance to real oracles. You could never consult a real oracle without paying, and the supplicant or the priest sacrificed an animal - usually a sheep or goat - before the visit, not the Oracle herself. Oracles of the human kind would usually speak gibberish interpreted by the priests rather than addressing people directly, as well. None of which really matters, given that her first job is to explain firmly that this is another world, not our ancient Greece, but still.

It may not be Game of Thrones, but this is a lot more nudity than we ever got in teatime dramas when I was little...

All in all, this did what first episodes need to do efficiently and with some nice bits of humour. The show looks gorgeous, making full use of some Moroccan filming (though the CGI on the Minotaur perhaps doesn't quite hold up). Jason's a likable enough lead and the mystery surrounding his background provides a thread to follow through to, presumably, the end of the first series at least. It's hard to tell from a first episode what Atlantis will eventually become, but it should be an entertaining enough - and very pretty - journey to find out.

All Atlantis reviews

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Roman Mysteries: The Enemies of Jupiter

The Enemies of Jupiter is the last of the Roman Mysteries I needed to read. I've been putting it off because I was worried it would be depressing, which was silly, because this story is all about dreams and ancient medicine, so it's perfect for me!

Of all the Roman Mysteries, this is probably the closest to fantasy as a genre. Major plot developments are kicked off by dreams and there are genuine prophetic dreams in the story. In addition to the dreams, there's one other touch of fantasy in here - the Ark of the Covenant makes an appearance! Obviously, this being historical fiction, there are no melting Nazis, but the description of the box treads careful line between offering historical plausibility - it's situated in a pool of light, carefully placed in a richly adorned room - and suggesting that just maybe the thing glows all by itself. Since everyone is too scared to open or even touch it, the possibility remains that had they done so they would have melted, and that it will eventually be discovered by a fedora-wearing, whip-wielding archaeology professor and melt some Nazis. You never know.

There are loads of different types of dream here, reflecting the different types of dream featured in ancient literature (as categorized in an excellent albeit slightly pricey book on the subject! ;) ). Titus' dream is a classic prophetic dream, and all the dreamer's attempts to prevent it coming true actually ensure that it does come true. Judging from Suetonius, Titus wasn't particularly superstitious but did consult horoscopes etc., so giving him a prophetic dream and having him pay attention to it as a warning from the gods fits him well enough.

Later in the story, Nubia has both straightforward anxiety/trauma dreams, and more apparently significant ones. She dreams that the slave-dealer Venalicius is alive again - although ancient authors often acknowledge the existence of meaningless anxiety dreams, Flavia takes the equally well attested ancient approach of dismissing this as a false dream, mentioning the gates of horn (true dreams) and ivory (false dreams) described in the Aeneid (and the Odyssey). Nubia's fever dream in which she senses that Jonathan is in danger is a less common ancient type of dream, though occasional stories of people being linked through dreams and one dreaming of something happening to the other crop up in many different periods and places.

One of my favourite parts of the book was the children's investigation of the doctors treating the plague. The 'plague' is written as some kind of flu epidemic, not unlike the 1918 Spanish flu. This makes sense - in the ancient world, 'plague' meant a disease that spread quickly and hit epidemic proportions, not a specific disease like bubonic plague. Our heroes meet four very different types of doctor - one who wants to bleed everyone, one who recommends 'fasting, abstinence, walking, rocking and massage,' one who swears by diet restrictions and drinking urine and Jonathan's father Dr Mordecai, who recommends steam, broth and rest. Since this is a children's book, of course, Dr Mordecai's advice is the best as young readers need to see our favourite characters doing the right thing, though only the bleeder is really a liability. This is a great reflection of the realities of medicine in a world where no one is quite sure what's really best, where no one person has all the answers, and where everyone is just muddling through, doing the best they can. Ancient medicine was often about taking one step forward and two steps back, and this exemplifies that perfectly.

The narrative emphasises throughout that sick people in the ancient world did not choose either to pray and sacrifice to the gods or to take the advice of doctors - they did both. In fact, Suetonius specifically mentions that Titus did both during the plague. Too often, modern stories imply that foolish ancient people might rely on priests while more sensible ones consulted doctors, which is a basic misunderstanding of how religion in general works most of the time. You don't choose whether to pray or listen to a doctor - you do what the doctor says, and you pray. It's great to see that represented in fiction.

There were other bits and pieces I enjoyed a lot here, too. I love the idea of 'open a Pandora's box' being the ancient equivalent of 'open a can of worms' - I can't remember if that comes from an ancient text or not, but I like it. And there was a brief scene set at the Lupercalia! This is the festival in which aristocratic men ran naked through Rome in February, which I am always disappointed to see left out of productions of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

There are some lovely touches scattered throughout the book. As the fire spreads, Jonathan sees a young man carrying an old man on his back, echoing the story of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises out of Troy. Even more subtly, at one point that group stand next to a 'statue of a Trojan and his sons being devoured by sea serpents.' That would be a Roman copy of the Laocoon, or something like it - a Hellenistic Greek statue that doesn't survive (but a Roman copy does) of Laocoon, who tried to warn the Trojans not to take the horse into Troy. He and his sons were killed by snakes, because the gods had decided Troy had to fall. Similarly, Titus experiences a (god-sent?) dream which partly prompts him to send for the children (along with Jonathan's letter), and in doing so he invited the Trojan horse - Jonathan - into the city.

Plaster cast in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, of the Roman marble copy (now in the Vatican Museum) of the bronze original of the Laocoon. So this is a plaster copy of a marble copy of a bronze statue.

All in all, this wasn't quite as depressing as I'd feared. Jonathan's attempt to Parent Trap his parents actually works unusually well - but Jonathan lives in a much more dangerous world than the children in more usual Parent Trap-type stories, and the unintended consequences of his actions are much more drastic than would be possible for most - though you suspect it would have happened without his intervention anyway. And it's all a perfect lead-in to my absolute favourite of the Roman Mysteries - The Gladiators from Capua!

All Roman Mysteries reviews.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Mindy Project: Harry & Sally/Harry & Mindy

I have a huge weakness for American 30-something hangout sitcoms, and I really like The Mindy Project. It has a cute central couple, supporting characters who make me laugh and a British character who's clearly a deliberate expy of Hugh Grant from Bridget Jones's Diary, but somehow isn't annoying and feels like he might really be British. (The best British character on US TV, by the way, is Shivrang from New Girl. He drinks shandy, and when riding a white horse in colourful traditional dress as part of his traditional Indian wedding, says, 'This is embarrassing...'). The show is just starting its second season in the US, and meanwhile I'm catching up on old episodes from its first season.

Anyway, much of The Mindy Project is built around riffs on romantic comedies, and these two episodes are, of course, a sort of homage to When Harry Met Sally (which, of course, requires our protagonists not to realise that the two people they're trying to date aren't Harry and Sally, they are). The reason I'm blogging them is that the guy Mindy is trying to date in these episodes is a Latin professor.

The best thing about Jamie the Latin professor is that his job has nothing to do with his role in the story. Normally, the only reason anyone on TV has a job in Classics, ancient history, Latin etc. is that there's some kind of plot-specific reason their job is needed - to translate alien languages derived from Latin, or to translate ancient rocks with demons inside. Sometimes it's a more character-based reason, perhaps to show how fuddy-duddy the character is, or to allow them to show off in front of someone else, but there's always a reason.

So the really refreshing thing about Jamie is that his job is just his job, and his character is not defined by the description 'Latin professor.' He's no more old-fashioned or fuddy-duddy than anyone else - yes, he expresses a liking for high culture, but that's just realistic for someone studying a dead language. He's not especially snobby, he's not a sex-less bookworm who never leaves the library, he's no more geeky than any other character on The Mindy Project - he's a normal human being who happens to work teaching Latin, just as another love interest in these episodes (in a strange echo of Scrubs) happens to work as an oceanographer.

There are references to Jamie's job, of course. There are some jokes about 'dead' languages. In an attempt to get him to give her a second chance, Mindy turns up at his college dressed as female Indiana Jones, which I assume was the inspiration for this particular career to be given to this
character. Best of all, he sings a little song with guitar accompaniment to help his students learn their verbs (though why he's teaching the first verb you learn in February, I'm not sure. Maybe it's a catch-up class). This is all fine and quite funny - once you give a sitcom character a particular job, you want to get some jokes out of it. But the point is, this is just part of the (fairly minor) character of Jamie - he's not defined by it as a person. And that's very refreshing.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Top 5 Awesome Women From Greek Mythology

Later this year, the BBC will be bringing out a new Saturday teatime show called Atlantis, to replace Merlin, which finished last year.

The Beeb have been releasing little bits of fresh information about Atlantis slowly over the summer, and keep an eye out for lots more Atlantis coverage over the next few weeks over at Den of Geek. This week, we got our most substantial look yet at the show, in the form of the first proper teaser trailer.

There's lots of good stuff here - attractive lead, lots of action, fire, arrow-dodging, Dr Bashir, mysterious oracles and Hercules as played by King Robert Baratheon. Just one thing - so far, the publicity for the show is just a wee bit boy-heavy.

Now, clearly, there are women in Atlantis. We saw brief glimpses of Juliet Stevenson, Sarah Parish and Aiysha Hart in there, among others, playing the Oracle, Pasiphae and Ariadne. But so far the website's 'meet the heroes' just introduces the three boys, Jason, Pythagoras (yes, I know - I'll talk about that when the show starts and we see what they've done with him!) and Hercules, while the poster also shows only the guys. Where are all the girls?

This is particularly intriguing in an adaptation of Greek mythology. One of the quirks of ancient Greece was that, although women in the real world had few rights and not many were able to make much of an impact on Greek history, especially in Athens where rich women seem to have been kept highly secluded, some mythological women kicked ass. They usually did so in a feminine context - a few went to war, mostly Amazons and goddesses, who were exceptional - but they were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to the action. OK, they were often totally psychotic and not a little bit evil as well. But that's not the point.

I have no idea what Atlantis is planning, and hopefully when the show appears on our screens, it will turn out to be chock-full of complex, intriguing female characters, who can be added to my existing list of Kick-Ass Heroines. But in the meantime, I thought I'd put together a few suggestions for anyone looking to spice up their adaptation of Greek mythology with some truly fascinating women.

5. Antigone

With her father also her brother and her mother also her grandmother, it's perhaps unsurprising that Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, grew up with a strong sense that proper family relationships should be respected and maintained at all times. In Sophocles' Antigone, after her brothers Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other in a civil war, new king Creon orders that Eteocles should be given a proper burial, but Polynices must be left to rot. Antigone insists on burying her brother properly and, well, things escalate and she ends up killing herself while walled up in a cave, causing her fiancee, Creon's son Haemon, to kill himself as well.

Why does she kick ass? The best known version of Antigone's story is Sophocles' play, and it's no coincidence that most of the women on this list are best known from Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy frequently sets up oppositions between loyalty to family and loyalty to the state, and women are at the heart of the family unit. In this case, Antigone stands up to the king, Creon, placing her loyalty to her family over her loyalty to the state (i.e., she stands up for the men in her life, even when they're dead. Greek writers would have been utterly bemused by the very notion of the Bechdel test).

Here's your homework: Sophocles' Antigone.

Or alternatively... Antigone hasn't featured all that much in popular culture, but adaptations of, or works relating to, Sophocles' play are quite common and have been known to experiment with radical new interpretations, such as Athol Fugard's The Island, which follows prisoners at South Africa's notorious Robben Island jail putting on a production of the play. Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes is a modern translation/update. She also appears in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode 'Rebel With a Cause.'

4. Electra

We first hear of Electra in Greek tragedy, as she's one of a few characters who appear in the surviving works of all the three major tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Electra is the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, sister of Iphigenia and Orestes. After Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia so that the winds will change and he can sail to Troy, Clytemnestra finds a new man, Aegisthus, and together they murder Agamemnon when he finally gets back from ten years sitting outside the Trojan walls. Orestes does not approve and murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in turn, with Electra's help.

Why does she kick ass? Like Antigone, Electra is motivated entirely by what is in the best interests of her menfolk, so she's not exactly doing it for the girls. Indeed, her entire story is about valuing one's father over one's mother; matricide is a terrible crime, but because their mother has killed their father, and fathers are, to a Greek, more valuable than mothers, Orestes and Electra don't think they have a choice. But she makes the list for, like Antigone, sticking up for what she believes in and taking action, particularly in Euripides' version, in which she actually physically helps Orestes to carry out the murder.

Here's your homework: Euripides' Electra (and Sophocles' too).

Or alternatively... Again, she only really appears in popular culture in adaptations of Geek tragedy. Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is an updated version of Aeschylus' Oresteia, his three plays about Orestes and his family.

3. Penelope

Penelope is Odysseus' wife, and a rare character on this list who doesn't owe her fame to Greek tragedy. While Odysseus is away fighting, getting lost and having affairs with minor divinities for twenty years, Penelope stays at home, raising their son and resisting all attempts by other men to marry her, take Odysseus' throne and disinherit Telemachus.

Why does she kick ass? Again, everything she does is in service of her men and their interests, but Penelope is just so cool in the way she does it. She's best known for her weaving trick; to keep the many suitors plaguing her house calm, she tells them that she'll re-marry one of them as soon as she's finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus' father Laertes (who is, by the way, still alive. She's just being prepared). Every day she weaves it, and every night she stays up all night unpicking it again. Apparently she is a superhero, who can both see in the dark (oil lamps are not that bright) and never needs sleep. In Homer, she also snarks Odysseus a little bit when he finally comes home - I like to think she knows who he is all along and just wants to give him a hard time.

Here's your homework: Homer's Odyssey.

Or alternatively... Holly Hunter plays a particularly acerbic Penelope in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad is a modern re-telling of some of the story from her point of view, and she also appears in Xena: Warrior Princess episode 'Ulysses.'

Kate Mulgrew as Clytemnestra in modern adaptation Iphigenia 2.0

2. Clytemnestra

Agamemnon's wife. He tells her he's taking their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to marry Achilles, but instead he sacrifices Iphigenia to Artemis to get a good wind and sails off to Troy for ten years. Clytemnestra finds a new lover, Aegisthus, and they rule while Agamemnon mucks about for a decade. As soon as Agamemnon comes back, with his new slave, the Trojan prophet Cassandra in tow, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus get rid of the pair of them for good.

Why does she kick ass? Clytemnestra does not get favourable treatment from the writers of Greek literature, largely because unlike the women so far listed, she values a woman's life more highly than a man's political interests, and dares to place her love for her daughter over her duty to her husband. Clytemnestra doesn't care how badly Agamemnon wants to go to Troy or how cross the goddess Artemis is with him; he murdered their daughter and she wants revenge.

Here's your homework: Aeschylus' Agamemnon.

Or alternatively... Like the most of the others, she tends to appear in adaptations of Athenian tragedy, though there is also a ballet about her, which sounds rather cool.

1. Medea

Part-divine witch, and princess of Colchis. Medea falls madly in love with Jason (of the Argonauts) and betrays her father to help Jason to get the Golden Fleece. Forced to run away from home, she marries Jason, but their children come to a sticky end. There were various interpretations of how this happened, but the best known, which became broadly canonical, is Euripides'; when Jason leaves her for another woman, she punishes him by murdering their children. Then she flies away on a chariot pulled by dragons. As you do.

Why does she kick ass? There are two parts to Medea's story, and in both she is awesome.

In the first, Medea helps Jason and the Argonauts after falling madly in love with Jason at first sight. When her father Aeetes made Jason yoke fire-breathing oxen, she gave him some oil to protect him from the flames; when Jason was attacked by men sprung from the dragon's teeth he'd just planted, she told him how to get them to turn on each other instead of him; when Jason was supposed to fight and kill a sleepless dragon that guarded the Fleece, Medea simply gave him a potion to put it to sleep.

Once Jason had hold of the Fleece, Medea distracted her father so that they could escape by murdering her brother and scattering his dismembered body, so Aeetes had to stop and pick up all the pieces for proper burial. Sailing home, they ran into the giant bronze guard Talos, who was killed when Medea either tricked him or drugged him. When they finally got back to Iolcos, Medea got rid of the usurper Pelias by tricking his own daughters into killing him.

Basically Medea is awesome and Jason, possibly the rubbish-est hero in Greek mythology, would be nowhere without her.

Then, of course, there's the second part, her marriage to Jason and the fate of their children. Euripides gives Medea a fantastic speech in his play in which she talks about how much harder life is for women, comparing childbirth (unfavourably) to a battlefield and pointing out certain inequalities in the ease of divorce for men and women. I have to say, I can't help feeling that any sympathy the audience is supposed to feel for her is rather negated by the fact she commits infanticide shortly afterwards. But still, she does get to fly away on the dragon chariot (origin of the phrase deus ex machina) so that's pretty cool.

Most of Medea's story is, once again, about helping out her man, though in this case she chooses her lover over her father and brother. Even her infanticide is aimed at hurting Jason; she loves her children, but she is so consumed with anger at Jason and her life revolves so much around him (having left her homeland for him) that her ties to him and the breaking of them mean more to her than her children's lives. In terms of feminism, Clytemnestra is really the best example here, as she is the only woman on this list who takes action in her own interests and those of her daughter. But Medea is just so fantastically capable, with a witchy solution to everything and skills with magic that, up until the infanticide thing, she uses to help our heroes rather than hinder them, that she has to be No. 1.

Here's your homework: Apollonius' Argonautica, Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, Euripides' Medea.

Or alternatively... A slightly less kick-ass version of Medea appears in Jason and the Argonauts. She doesn't help Jason and kick ass as much as act like an Orion dancing girl from Star Trek in this version, but it's a start. Pasolini's Medea incorporates both parts of her story into one, though perhaps with more of a focus on the second part.

Honourable mention 1: King Leonidas of Sparta's wife Gorgo is a real person, though the stories told about her are so much second, third, fourth or hundreth-hand that it's hard to say how far any of them reflect the real woman. (This goes for all Spartan women and, indeed, for Sparta in general. Women do seem to have had more rights, more of a voice, and certainly more exercise in Sparta, which is just one of many reasons why Sparta is more interesting than Athens).

At the age of eight or nine, Gorgo informs her father King Cleomenes (Sparta had two kings at once, she didn't marry her brother or anything) that he should not trust the trouble-making stranger who wants him to come and make war against the Persians, and later the famous boast that Spartan women are the only ones who can rule men, because they are the only women who give birth to men, is attributed to her. She's brilliantly played by Lena Headey in 300.

Honourable mentions 2 and 3: Most female warriors are divine or Amazons, but Atalanta was a fairly kick-ass virgin huntress who took part in various adventures alongside male heroes, until she agreed to marry whoever could beat her in a footrace, and Aphrodite helped Hippomenes to do so by tempting Atalanta with apples mid-race. (Why ancient men thought women were such suckers for apples is a mystery...). Caenis/Caeneus was a woman who was raped by Poseidon, and then offered one wish of sorts in recompense. She said she wanted to make sure it never happened to her again, so she was turned into an invulnerable man and became a great warrior called Caeneus.

I don't know whether any of these women will turn up in Atlantis, or whether Pasiphae or Ariadne's rather less awesome stories (bull-sex and being abandoned on an island, respectively) will be beefed up with some details from these more pro-active ladies. We can only hope that things have moved on a little bit from ancient Greece and that, at the very least, they might occasionally take action for their own reasons and their own benefit, and won't just be restricted to helping out the men around them!

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