Monday, 21 October 2013

Atlantis: Twist of Fate


So far, poor Atlantis has met a rather lukewarm reception in most places as far as I can see (Tony Keen has posted on it here, and Dave Adamson is reviewing it for Den of Geek). For myself, I'm not sure I'd be watching it if it weren't using Greek mythology, but at the same time I quite enjoy it and I don't find it any worse than early episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess or late episodes of Merlin. Perhaps the problem at the moment is that it lacks a strong central character with an inherently interesting story-line. Xena was always about a formally vicious woman trying to redeem herself, while Merlin had his secret magic, and was driven by his need to hide it from everyone around him while learning how to use it (it also helped that they were played by Lucy Lawless and Colin Morgan. Every show should feature Lucy Lawless if it's at all possible).

Jason's past is certainly mysterious, but so far it's so mysterious that it fails to be intriguing - we simply don't know enough about whatever his deal is, other than that he can catch spears and run quite fast, to be really engaged. Even the character's own parental issues and search for answers is referenced mostly with quick facial expressions rather than any kind of substantial discussion - I spotted Jack Donnelly's sad look when growing up without a mother was mentioned, but struggled to remember why it was relevant, because the show has barely mentioned his back-story or goals. He doesn't even seem that bothered about the fact he's apparently stuck in ancient Greece (or somewhere like it) without a phone, TV or games console. I'd be going mad without my computer.

Having said all that, I liked this week's Atlantis more than the previous three episodes. The humour is still a little forced, the Three Men and a Baby thing not quite working (I worry if Jason at least, who's a modern guy, doesn't know that a baby that age can eat neither sardines nor olives). But it was a little more character-driven, it featured Medusa in a reasonably substantial role - this show's other main problem being the lack of visible female participation beyond floating around the palace looking pretty and/or mysterious - and it helped that it references one of the best and most famous tragic plays of all time, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

Although the show could really do with exploring Jason's feelings about being stuck in a world without microwave ovens a bit more, it does make good use of his modernity in other ways, particularly when it comes to negotiating the severely outdated aspects of Greek mythology. The practice of exposing unwanted infants was common and would have appeared unremarkable throughout antiquity. In real life, children were often exposed in urban environments, near the town dump, for example, so that if anyone wanted to pick them up and raise them as their own or as a slave, they might have a fighting chance. If the parents lived in rural Greece and the purpose of exposing the child was because the parent specifically did not want the child to live - perhaps if the problem was a physical abnormality, which many ancients and especially Spartans tended to see as a reason to choose not to raise the baby - then they might be exposed on the mountainside, and in myth, they are nearly always exposed on the mountainside, because the reason for exposure, as here, is that the parent actively wants to kill the child.

There are instances of a father wanting to expose a child but the mother not necessarily feeling that way as well. In real life, we have a letter from a husband to his pregnant wife from Roman period Egypt in which he tells her if the baby is a boy, she should keep it, but if it's a girl, she should expose it. In myth, Ovid tells the story of baby girl Iphis, whose father gives the same order, but whose mother raises her as a boy, and who is eventually transformed into a man by the goddess Isis. So the idea of a father exposing a child over the mother's wishes is a genuinely ancient one (and even in Oedipus Rex, Jocasta sounds mildly miffed at the whole business, which has put her off divination all together).

Whatever some mothers' feelings, infant exposure was a common practice - but not one especially well known in our culture and one that seems horrific to modern eyes. As an audience, we need Jason to voice his horror at the idea, and to insist on saving the baby. Without his modern background, we'd be faced with three family-viewing heroes who don't blink at an attempt to kill a baby through cold and starvation, which might not go down too well.

One of my favourite scenes in this episode was the brief conversation between Hercules and Pythagoras, without Jason, wondering if they have done the right thing. For Jason, there is no hesitation - a baby will die unless he helps it so he helps it. From a modern perspective, this is clearly the right and only thing to so. From an ancient perspective, and particularly in a mythological context, in which supernatural mysteries are a serious force to be reckoned with, things are less clear cut and one of the themes of Oedipus Rex is the inevitability of fate and the will of the gods (in that case, everything Laius has done to try to stop the oracle being fulfilled only ends up leading to its fulfillment). It was nice to see the two ancient characters wondering if they should be messing with what appears to be the baby's fate, even though ultimately of course they agreed with Jason.

It was also very amusing to see Jason's look of pure "Oh sh*t!" when Pythagoras named the baby Oedipus (which does, indeed, mean swollen foot - in Sophocles' play, Laius has hobbled the baby just to make sure, unsuccessfully of course, that he dies). Clearly, Jason's knowledge of Greek mythology is decent but doesn't go into any depth, as he didn't recognize Laius' name or wonder at the prophecy (though to be fair he hadn't heard the mother-marrying bit, which Tiresias only told Pythagoras).

Tiresias, in classical mythology, is a prophet and appears in Oedipus Rex, though here he seems to be just a servant of Laius. There are various stories about Tiresias, most of which involve him going blind at some point, so it will be interesting to see whether he returns and whether his blindness - or powers of prophecy - will be touched on within the series. Oedipus has been sent off as an infant, so it also remains to be seen whether we'll see any more of his story. The spectre of him marrying his mother has been raised, but presumably, as with Arthur/Morgana/Mordred in Merlin, the show won't do a full-on incest story. Killing Laius seems more likely, as despite Tiresias' insistence that he's not a bad man, Laius is instantly established as a bad guy through his interactions with eeeeeeevil queen/step-mother Pasiphae, and her obvious liking for him.

I enjoyed this episode, and as I've said every week, the show still looks gorgeous. Next week's trailer promises actually to give Ariadne something to do, which is desperately needed if she's to be remotely compelling as a character or as Jason's love interest. Hopefully we'll see a bit more of Alexander Siddig as King Minos as well, and continue to follow Hercules and Medusa, who are a rather sweet couple (until it all goes horribly wrong in a few weeks, anyway...)

Quotes 

Hercules: Some wine?
Medusa: At this time of day?
Hercules: It’s after breakfast!

All Atlantis reviews

6 comments:

  1. Even more interesting with Teiresias would be if they do the other thing he's famous for and turn him into a woman. If nothing else, it gives them an out if they want to bring him back and can't get the actor.

    Wine at breakfast (heavily watered or used to soften yesterday's bread) wouldn't seem at all out of place to an ancient Greek. They weren't real big on breakfast anyway, usually just some leftovers from the day before or handful of olives, but it certainly would have been part of a "healthy breakfast".

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  2. Hmmm. Maybe I'll give this show a try...

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    1. I quite like it - it's not amazing, but it is gorgeous. I'm hopeful it'll improve over the course of the first season, though it really needs to give the girls more to do!

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  3. It sounds like the show needs a bit of time to find its bearings.

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    1. I think that's true. It needs to ease up on the bad jokes and decide what it wants to be...

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  4. The bad jokes are definitely a problem for me... But I'm starting to be more interested in the characters.

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