Saturday, 12 October 2013

Atlantis: A Boy of No Consequence

Atlantis continues to be very pretty, and Medusa continues to be the most interesting character in it.

There's a strange thing about this story for an ancient historian. It's not a flaw exactly, it's just weird. Atlantis is, we presume, set in a culture vaguely resembling ancient Greece - though since Jason reached it through a magic portal, of course, it's equally possible to assume it's a purely fantasy place made up of familiar elements, but not exactly like any one era, like Westeros or Middle Earth. But so far, it's mostly been presented as basically ancient Greece, more or less.

This story, however, is a gladiator story. Gladiators are Roman.

Bull-leaping is Greek - famous frescoes from the Minoan (Bronze Age) site at Knossos, on Crete, show images of bull leapers and there are some small statues of them too. And maybe they were slaves forced to do it as a punishment - though I think that's extremely unlikely. Real bull-leapers, whether slave or free, were presumably trained gymnasts and they performed in order to impress people with their ability to leap the bulls, like a circus act. Although presumably being gored by the bull was a risk, it's unlikely to have been the reason people watched them. Deliberately watching people get killed or seriously injured for entertainment is specific to gladiatorial combat.

And what happens to Jason, Hercules and Pythagoras here is clearly a gladiator story. They're forced to leap the bulls as a punishment - fighting (humans or animals) in the arena was a punishment for criminals, as well as a job for slaves, in the Roman Empire. The sets and costumes throughout the bull-leaping scenes are all typically gladiatorial, from the cells and bars, to the leather  outfits (and occasional lack of shirts) to the arena itself - which, when we see it from a distance, we see is a Roman amphitheatre, complete with Roman arches. As our guys walk out into the arena to face the bulls, the camera lifts a point of view shot directly from Gladiator, and then they salute the king as those 'who are about to die'.

As I said, Atlantis isn't necessarily set in the real ancient Greece, so it's not that there's anything wrong with this, exactly. It just feels really weird, as a viewer, to be watching a story supposedly set in Greece (or something resembling it) but that feels like it ought to be set in Rome (or perhaps something resembling Rome). The story itself is a fairly typical, slightly cheesy gladiator story - I liked the new characters it introduced, but unfortunately they left at the end. Apart from the one named after a Persian king (Cyrus) who insisted he was ever so tough and used to sleeping with one eye open and then fell prey to the oldest 'I'm-about-to-kill-you' line in the book ('have you told anyone else?'). I hope our heroes end up visiting Shabaka (whose name I unfortunately mis-heard as Chewbacca) in his home sometime soon.

In other differences between Atlantis and actual ancient Greece, the whole idea of a person supposedly being sacred to a god is an odd one too. There were lots of way to violate the laws of the gods in ancient Greece, but attacking a specific person who's supposedly looked after by the gods was not one of them. Greek heroes in myth are often exiled for murdering random people, and in real life hubris - a crime against the gods - could take many forms. Sexual violence, vicious attacks and murder (sometimes even of a slave, despite the fact the ancients didn't tend to be very good on human rights for slaves) might be punished as an act of hubris if it was done irrationally, unjustifiably, especially violently or similar.

In Greek myth, if you hurt someone or something precious to a god you were in serious trouble - but that's on the assumption that the gods exist and take an active interest in what humans are doing. You kill Artemis' favourite deer, Artemis makes the winds blow against you so you can't go to war, etc. Atlantis, however, hasn't shown any gods to actually exist or have any power. In a way, Pasiphae's nephew is a sort of blend of two ideas - it's as if he's fulfilling the role of a deer special to Artemis or a bull beloved of Poseidon or whatever, except the god themselves is nowhere to be found, it's a status awarded by humans, who then carry out a punishment for the hubris of attacking the god's favourite.

Pasiphae is still scheming in the background, using voodoo dolls, which is not totally out of line for the ancient world. She also mentions witchy deity Hecate, and the ancients were very keen on curses. But her spells are in Greek, like the hymns to Bacchus last week, which I wish they weren't because all this achieves is to draw attention to the galactic-sized plot hole concerning what freaking language everyone's speaking! I can forget it most of the time and just enjoy the ride, but it's hard to ignore when I'm having ancient Greek shoved in my face.

As a character, Pasiphae's not overly interesting yet, but Medusa is, and by far the best scene in the episode is Medusa vs Pasiphae. The outcome of the bull-leaping is never in doubt, but although I was reasonably sure Medusa wasn't about to cop it either, there was more tension in her scene and some uncertainty as to how she would actually succeed, while the only uncertainty in the boys' story was exactly how much Pythagoras and Hercules would gurn in a supposedly comic fashion as they jumped over the bull. I quite like the idea of her and Hercules, though I think we need to see a bit more of what exactly they're attracted to about each other, and I wish they'd lay off the weight jokes a bit.

Bull-leaping fresco from the palace at Knossos

The show is still gorgeous, some bits of very dodgy CGI aside. I love the blues on the royal costumes and the rich colours in the sets. I'm also still enjoying Hercules, who is once again brave, despite Pythagoras' insistence that this is very uncharacteristic. All in all, this episode is more of the same following the first two - a little bland, a little basic, but oh so very pretty.


Hercules: Medusa and I have a connection that goes beyond physical appearance.
Jason: Does she know that?

Pasiphae: You are heir to the throne. Your marriage must be about more than love.

All Atlantis reviews


  1. Where do you stand on the bull leaping as a real thing vs. depiction of mythic/astronomical scene? I admit I'm influenced by having read Mary Renault at an impressionable age, but I've always found the arguments against it rather flawed.

    1. Honestly, it's not my area and I don't really know much about that particular argument. But I don't see any reason to think it wasn't a real circus-act-type performance.

    2. The argument I've heard most often is that modern Spanish fighting bulls pull their heads to the right when they toss, and therefore bull leaping is impossible. To me, this ignores 3500 years of bovine breeding and focuses on one narrow breed. I've also seen it claimed that the typical fresco like the one you posted actually represents Orion, Taurus, Andromeda (I think, maybe some other constellation), and Perseus above.

      And speaking if Hercules, I just saw a trailer for a Hercules film coming out next year (there are supposedly 2!) and there was a lot, and I mean a lot, of gladiatorial stuff. Frankly the whole thing looks really awful; just a mish-mash of 300, Gladiator, and a few others of that ilk with subpar effects, fight choreography, and acting.

    3. Typical! At least if the Pompeii film has gladiators, they'll be in the right period!

    4. So, it turns out the second Hercules movie next year is a Dwayne Johnson vehicle. At least the acting will be better, since it also has Ian McShane and John Hurt in it. This one is based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, so we'll see. At the very least, now you know you have two posts for next year guaranteed!

  2. I must have the same hearing problem as you, 'cause I could have sworn his name was Chewbacca too! :p

    I do hope they go the Hercules-Medusa route, and not have there be a "thing" between Medusa and Jason 'cause I'm a bit fed up with love triangles at the moment! Or I guess I should say quadrangle? 'Cause that's what we'd have, an Ariadne-Jason-Medusa-Hercules cuadrangle. No thanks!

    As cool as Jason looked leaping that bull, may I point out how badly those scenes were done from the special effects point of view?! So obviously fake, they weren't integrated well at all (the actual jumping guys and the arena a bull behind them), it was painful! :o(

    1. The CGI was really bad, wasn't it?! Maybe they're saving the budget for the finale...

  3. I've heard of that Hercules film just today for next year.

    Apparently this show will indeed be running on this side of the Atlantic.


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