Saturday, 30 November 2013

Atlantis: Pandora's Box

I love stories about journeys to the underworld, so I was looking forward to this episode. I’m not quite sure how to judge it yet. It was missing some of my favourite underworld tropes – Jason and Hercules meet a friend they already knew was dead, but not one they had thought was still alive, there’s no sign of the three-headed dog Cerberus, Persephone is mentioned but, in keeping with the invisibility of the gods in this series, she doesn’t appear (though it seems pretty strongly implied that she must exist for the plot to work, which is unusual for Atlantis) and although we see Tartarus its most famous inhabitants, Sisyphus (the rock guy) and Tantalus (the grapes-and-water-just-out-of-reach guy) don’t appear (unless I was looking at my keyboard and missed them). We do get to see Charon and his boat, though – I loved the giant ribcage-thing at Charon’s jetty, and Charon himself was cowled and silent – basic but reasonably creepy.

The appearance of the underworld is fine, though it wasn’t particularly innovative. It’s dark, it’s gloomy (as per ancient descriptions), there’s a lot of dry ice, it’s all sort of blue-ish. I think part of the problem is that it was so obviously a set, and looked slightly flat. Things improved on the way to Tartarus – Tartarus itself is your basic cave (no room for Sisyphus’ hill and rock!) but the winding path down to it was nice and reminded me of a TV version of the story of Orpheus I saw years ago. Also the Black Hole ride at Alton Towers. I liked the slightly zombified look on the dead, with pale skin and hollow black eyes, but again, they could have been used a bit more effectively, or just a bit more. It was nice to see Cyrus from ‘A Boy of no Consequence’ again, but I hope they find a way to go back and rescue him from eternal torment at some point.

Although Cerberus is absent, we do see a much more obscure underworld monster, Campe. The rattle on her scorpion’s tale was rather effective, even if she was a bit unfortunately reminiscent of the Scorpion King. In mythology, she was killed by Zeus, so Jason isn’t just usurping other heroes’ great deeds now, he’s getting in on the gods’ action. Given his possibly foolhardy attitude at the end, yelling generally at the sky (despite the fact the Greek gods live on Mount Olympus, not in a vague upper world), he probably isn’t too bothered about that.

Our guys find out how to get to the underworld from a member of the cult of Eleusis, a man called Eunapius. Pythagoras thought he was the last member of the cult, but there are a few others with him. Historically speaking, the Eleusinian mystery cult (into which you have to be initiated to discover its secrets) was one of the biggest and most important mystery cults in the ancient world. It was dedicated to Persephone’s mother Demeter, as well as, by extension, to Persephone herself, so it makes sense that this cult would hold the secrets to getting to the underworld. (And, in describing initiation into the later Greco-Roman mystery cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis in his novel, Apuleius suggests the experience involves going down to the gates of the underworld, so it all makes perfect sense – except Jason and Hercules should have been initiated into the cult).

The actual process is a bit long-winded and seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Inception, since it involves someone staying awake with the apparently dead bodies while the others’ souls go to the underworld, while the horn they have to blow to get out was pleasingly reminiscent of Narnia. In ancient myth, the underworld was usually approached by sailing to the end of the world or via a cave, possibly carrying a golden tree branch. The blood Pythagoras uses to wake them is a bit of a link with ancient myth, as Odysseus had to pour out blood from a sacrificed animal for the souls of the dead to drink, since they wouldn’t be able to speak otherwise. Pythagoras is ridiculously rubbish at this job, though, climbing all over balconies and getting himself knocked out. Don’t leave candles or the bodies of your friends whose spirits are visiting the underworld unattended, kids.

Our heroes have descended to Hades’ realm, as most ancient heroes must at one time or another, to fetch Pandora’s Box for a debt collector who’s holding Medusa hostage (in ancient myth it was usually a jar, but that’s beside the point). In myth, Pandora opened the box and that’s how evil came into the world, with hope shut inside (it’s the Greek equivalent of Eve and the apple). In Atlantis, it seems there are general evil things in the box, and it can be opened and closed and fresh evils will escape each time. Or something. When Medusa opens it, the consequences are certainly dire for her, but not the apocalyptic scenario Campe seemed to be imagining.

When they come home to find the box open and a bunch of new statues outside, Jason realises exactly what’s happened (he’s fairly well informed on Medusa, more so than some other stories. Perhaps he saw Clash of the Titans. Or Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief). I liked his conversation with the Oracle, in which he snapped at her for not doing anything to stop it, and she pointed out he knew what was going to happen as well as she did. The series hasn’t really done anything much with Jason’s foreknowledge other than make triangle jokes and ensure Oedipus is nameless when they find him, but it would be great if this was the start of him trying to use that knowledge a bit more, which he starts to do here, knowing Perseus’ shield trick for looking at Medusa. The problem is, of course, that in some cases the story has been changed so much he’d just end up very confused if he tried to rely on mythology as a guide. But still, this is a really interesting point to bring up, and hopefully will come up again.

There was some relatively strong stuff in this episode for a family show, from the mildly saucy opening to Kyros’ delightful little bit about heads still living after being chopped off (‘the look of confusion is most amusing’) to Jason coldly killing Kyros and telling him an eternity of suffering awaits him, which is pretty harsh. (I’ve seen several reviews complaining that Jason doesn’t seem to speak like a modern guy, but rather in the pseudo-archaic language used by everyone else in Atlantis – they have a point. You’d think his voice and dialogue should stand out a bit. I’d put it down to whatever the heck is making them all speak the same language in the first place, but then it should all sound modern…). And then there’s poor Medusa. I hope they find a way to save her, preferably one which doesn’t involve Jason chopping off her head. I liked his ranting and raving against the gods and destiny and hopefully he’ll find a way to get out of having to kill Medusa to save Atlantis, since (much as we know how this will, eventually, end) we don’t want everyone in Atlantis to die horribly either. Not yet.

There was some nice touches here – a corpse bearer called Thanos, which means ‘death’, and Hercules, the strongest of them, holding open the trapdoor (he’ll become as heroic as his mythical counterpart one of these days). The idea that the box would whisper to you and offer unbearable temptation to open it is a bit One Ring, but it does help to explain an issue that’s a frequent problem with Greek mythology – people are forever being told not to do things, and then immediately doing them, which is just silly. On the other hand, Jason gives the box to the Oracle who says she’ll make sure no one can find it, because that always works so well… All in all, not a bad episode, but just a bit… flatter than it could have been, despite the dramatic plot developments. And a bit depressing. Poor Medusa! They really need to rescue her – we haven’t seen sight nor sound of Ariadne or Pasiphae in weeks, we need to keep a hold of all the female characters we’ve got on this show.


Hercules: If this is the fate that awaits us when we die, I’m gonna do my best to live as long as possible. The chief sentiment of most ancient stories about the underworld.

Hercules: If you’ve harmed one hair on her – See what they did there?

Jason: Did you know that this was going to happen?
Oracle: We both knew what would become of Medusa.

All Atlantis reviews

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

No Atlantis review this week, because Atlantis wasn't on this week - instead there was this funny little special about some sci-fi show my Mum and Dad used to watch...

Spoilers follow.

I saw 'The Day of the Doctor' in 3D at the cinema, and it was brilliant. It was fantastic to see it with a big crowd - there's nothing like a group of science-fiction fans all gathered in one place to watch something they're really excited about. (I was lucky enough to see the Star Trek: Voyager finale at a convention, and it was brilliant). The 3D was nice too - I can't always see 3D very well unless things are actually being thrown at the screen (even in Gravity, although I flinched when stuff actually started flying at the screen, most of the time it barely made a difference to me). But the Time Lord paintings, aside from reminding me of my beloved Narnia, were a great idea and the 3D at the cinema really showed them off nicely.

I loved the episode - this is my second favourite thing Steven Moffat's written since 'The Doctor Dances' way back in season 1/series whatever-it-is. The whole thing is brilliantly constructed, right down to using Elizabeth I both to establish exactly where we are in David Tennant's timeline (sometime shortly before his final two-parter) and tie off a couple of loose ends from his tenure. Seeing three doctors together was great, but seeing all 12 - no, all 13! (the cinema gasped in delight) - at the end was absolutely brilliant. And of course, the Star Trek problem of wiping out half the series from the timeline is avoided because Doctors Hurt and Tennant think they burned Gallifrey and it's vanished from the current universe, so the continuity of series 1-7 is maintained.

I'm not going to list all the wonderful in-jokes and references and bits and pieces here, I'm sure there are other sites that'll do that. Suffice to say, it was a joy and I loved it. I did particularly enjoy The Hurt Doctor's horror at how young the other two are and at all the kissing David Tennant's incarnation does (though to be fair, the Eighth Doctor started it), and his mocking of the way they keep pointing their screwdrivers at things, which I've wondered about for years ('what are you gonna do, assemble a cabinet at them?!'). I was unspoiled about Tom Baker's appearance too, so that was great, even if, not being a true Whovian, my first thought was 'Puddleglum!' The opening credits and references to 'Foreman' and I. Chesterton were lovely.

Best of all, I really should stop complaining about poor Moffat, because he obviously loves Classics - to my delight, the opening line of the episode is a quote from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is the emperor played by Richard Harris in Gladiator, an emperor who was a Stoic philosopher but who spent the majority of his 19-year reign fighting constant wars. (He could almost be John Hurt's Doctor, except the Doctor probably doesn't have psychotic offspring who like to dress up as Hercules. But you never know). He wrote a collection of philosophical musings (in Greek) called Meditations.

Goodness knows what class Clara's teaching that involves quoting Marcus Aurelius in a secondary school - philosophy? Anyway, she quotes Meditations 10.16, 'Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.' (Μηκέθ̓ ὅλως περὶ τοῦ οἷόν τινα εἶναι τὸν ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα διαλέγεσθαι, ἀλλὰ εἶναι τοιοῦτον. This is the Penguin translation; the Greek says 'but be one', which I think packs even more punch). The irony is, of course, that a substantial proportion of the rest of the Meditations is all about arguing about what a good man should be, but still, it's a worthy sentiment and it applies perfectly to the Doctor's dilemma in this episode. Once we get the Zygons out of the way (they're largely a distraction to get things moving and establish the paintings, plus they offer a parallel to the Doctor's dilemma in Kate's plan to nuke London) the episode takes on the qualities of a Greek tragedy, in which the characters spend a lot of time discussing an apparently unsolvable moral quandry before finally doing something about it towards the end. The Doctor argues with himself about how to be a good man - but Clara shaking her head at him prompts him to stop thinking about it and just be one.

(There's also been speculation online that the Doctor will deliberately choose the Capaldi look for his 13th life, since he told Tom Baker he never forgets a face - Capaldi's Caecilius, aside from being, yay!, a Roman, was the man the Doctor saved when he had to destroy Pompeii to save the Earth, in yet another instance of this same dilemma playing out. Kate asks the Doctor how many times he's killed millions to save billions and he says 'once', meaning Gallifrey - presumably he didn't count Pompeii because that was killing thousands to save billions, or perhaps because in that case there was more of a sense that it was doomed anyway, one way or the other).

The city in the painting is also a Classical reference, as Gallifrey's second city (so, the Gallifreyan equivalent of my hometown, Birmingham ;) ) is called Arcadia. Arcadia was a rural area of Greece that became associated with the idea of a lost rural idyll, of an early paradise full of romantic shepherds and nymphs and... somewhere like the mythical Greece featured in Fantasia, basically. Later writers used to say Et in Arcadia Ego, literally 'and in Arcadia I', meaning 'I am also in paradise', or 'I have also been to paradise' and used by artist Joshua Reynolds in his painting of two women looking at a tomb, showing that Death is also in paradise/a rural idyll.

I'm not bad on my classic Doctor Who references - I was very proud of myself for catching Kate's reference to Operation Cromer being '70s or 80s depending on the dating protocol', an in-joke referring to the fact that Jon Pertwee's adventures were supposed to be set in the 1980s but filmed in 1970s, except that seems to have got forgotten about at some point (not to mention we've all now lived through the 1980s and they didn't look like that) so now no-one's sure when they're supposed to take place. But I don't know if Arcadia has been established as a Gallifreyan city already or not, so I don't know if it was invented for this episode - but certainly the selection of Arcadia as the city that represents the Doctor's lost home, the lost idyll that now exists only in a painting, is not a coincidence.

There's an interesting moment towards the end when Clara says, 'You told me the name you chose was a promise, what was the promise?' and the Doctor answers, 'Never cruel or cowardly, never give up, never give in' (I nearly cracked up and spoiled the atmosphere because this reminded me of Galaxy Quest). It's not the same promise, but the idea of making a promise to become a Doctor is surely reminiscent of the Hippocratic Oath, the most important part of which is, of course, 'I will do no harm.' Which seems relevant.

There was just one aspect of this episode that was slightly disappointing, which was that Billie Piper was in it but not playing Rose, and she didn't even interact with David Tennant. Brother and I have worked out some head-canon to fix that, though. In my head-canon, the rumour about the weapon becoming sentient and developing a conscience was just a rumour, and that actually was Bad Wolf Rose all along, using her moment in which she could see all of time and space not just to bring back Jack and kill a bunch of Daleks, but also to save the Doctor from the worst moment of his life. Brother's version is that Bad Wolf Rose, being able to see all of time and space etc., created the weapon's conscience, or the Moment, in the first place. Either way, we attribute Rose's actions all through this to the real Rose, or the Bad Wolf version of her, not a projection of her form created by a machine.

So Moffat, all is (mostly) forgiven; this was brilliant. I've been hoping the destruction of the Time Lords and Gallifrey in the Time War would be reversed or somehow fixed ever since the idea was introduced in 2005, and this was the perfect time to do it. The only thing better than 'The Day of the Doctor' was the far too short 6-minute webisode 'The Night of the Doctor'. I'm not usually into webisodes, I just want a proper, decent length story that I can watch on my telly and that lasts a sensible episode length, i.e. at least 20 minutes. But this one was totally, totally worth it because against all expectations, we got a whole new six minutes of Paul McGann!

The TV movie was the first episode of Doctor Who I saw properly and I loved it, being a big fan of cheesy US 1990s sci-fi in general, plus McGann is really sexy and a great Doctor. Although I haven't listened to the Big Finish stories featuring him (yet), the Eighth has continued to be my Doctor, and my favourite, so it was a thrill to finally see him in action again, and to see him regenerate, though I wish it could have been a full episode. (They should make movies about the Eighth Doctor - McGann is still young enough and although the lovely shout-out to his Big Finish companions suggests those stories are canon, there's a lot more flexibility when it comes to playing about with his Doctor than if they tried to make a movie about a current Doctor).

(When he regenerated into young John Hurt, which was a very nice touch, of course I saw Caligula, but that's my issue!)

So, in summary, long live the Moff and here's hoping the new Doctor takes Clara on that trip to ancient Mesopotamia, so I can get some more blog posts out of the new series! The only problem is, we may have thought the 1980s/1970s problem was bad, but if we're now going to accept the Hurt Doctor as a proper incarnation of the Doctor, that makes Nine actually No. 10, Ten No. 11, Eleven No. 12, etc. etc. etc.... Luckily, 'Night of the Doctor' comes to the rescue again as I think, if I followed it properly, it implied that he was given an extra life, so maybe that one doesn't count. But still, I foresee a lot of online arguments about that one... Oh, and if you're a fan and you haven't seen it yet, do try to catch Peter Davison's spoof 'The Five(ish) Doctors', which throws in some of the familiar faces who couldn't be fitted into the main event and is hilarious to boot.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2013)

Beware spoilers!

Catching Fire is my favourite of the Hunger Games books, so I was really looking forward to this film, and I wasn't disappointed. It's very well made, Francis Lawrence staying just close enough to the style Gary Ross used on the first film that it feels like recognizably the same world, while also making it his own. This is also one of those films that isn't an adaptation so much as it is the book, transposed as literally as possible onto the screen. (I don't mean there are no differences at all, obviously there are, and there are websites that will list them for you. Plus the movie isn't told entirely from Katniss' point of view. But seriously, just about all the significant content from the book was in there, and there were no major changes.) Since I love the book, I was OK with that, though it'll be interesting to see if the film-makers take the same approach to the less well-received third book (to be split into two movies), Mockingjay.

Overall, there wasn't a lot of overtly Classical content in this installment. The arena's still an arena, obviously, and the show is still supposed to be a fight to the death. Finnick uses his trident, both as a weapon and to catch fish, preserving that link with the ancient retiarius (a gladiator who fought with a trident and net). Plutarch is still called Plutarch (one of my favourite ancient authors, a philosopher and biographer). But the Cornucopia looks even less like a cornucopia than last time and besides the names (Plutarch, Brutus and Enobaria - 'Brutus' again being used to imply brute force rather than king-killing, as Brutus has nothing to do with the conspiracy and actually acts against them), the Classical influences are generally left to sit in the background rather than being foregrounded.

There was one exception. The scene in which the tributes are presented to the crowd in the Capitol in horse-drawn chariots has an obviously pseudo-Roman look to it by its nature, the chariots being small ancient-style war chariots. In the first movie, the parade seemed to take place in some kind of enormous hall, but in this film, it definitely takes place in the open air. This makes the scene more reminiscent of scenes of Triumphs in Roman epic films, especially since, as opposed to the cold greys of the first film and of a lot of this film, this scene is lit to look like everyone is bathed in warm sunshine, making it look even more like a movie version of a Roman Triumph or a dramatic entrance in the style of a Triumph (like Cleopatra. The exception is Gladiator, which colours ancient Rome in a blueish tone to make it resemble black and white film of a Nazi rally).

Really, though, the biggest reference to the Classical world comes in the song at the end. Coldplay's Atlas explicitly compares Katniss to Atlas, the mythological figure who carries (or holds up) the world on his shoulders. It's a lovely, if obvious, metaphor for the situation poor Katniss has inadvertently ended up in - and Atlas wasn't overly keen either.

I loved this film - as a brilliantly acted, beautifully shot and extraordinarily faithful (to the point of being really long) adaptation of a book I love, I was pretty well pre-disposed to like it. There's so much plot that I don't think non-book fans will be bored, although - and I speak from personal experience here - it might be best to avoid buying large Coke to take in with you. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic as ever in what must have been an exhausting role as Katniss spends most of the movie in various states of high emotion - it's a testament to her acting and Francis Lawrence's direction that we aren't tired of seeing her play similar emotions over and over again by the end. Elizabeth Banks is also particularly good, giving Effie fantastic shading and preventing her from being shallow, despite first appearances, and she, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson all do very well at playing people who aren't great at acting (if you see what I mean). My inner teenage girl still has an issue with the fact I found Peeta more attractive in the book but Gale more attractive in the film, but that's beside the point - catch this if you can, it's a great watch.

Read my review of the first film here
and of the book trilogy here

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Atlantis: The Furies

Atlantis dips a toe into the psychologically rich waters of Greek tragedy, sort of. Spoilers for both this episode and the 'Next Week' trailer follow...

This is going to sound really corny because it's the thing we're all sick of hearing about every sci-fi or fantasy movie sequel that ever comes out, but this is a dark episode of Atlantis, literally and thematically. Pythagoras (who really was from Samos, by the way) turns out to have committed manslaughter against his abusive father to protect his mother, something he hid from his younger brother. This is some pretty heavy stuff - Robert Emms is absolutely fantastic in several scenes here (perfecting silent crying while talking, apart from anything else) but there is, inevitably, some lurching in tone, considering the light tone of the opening and closing sequences.

The story sits on a fine line - the grown-up in me rather wishes Pythagoras had deliberately killed their horrible-sounding father, which might be more interesting and would certainly be understandable (not to mention, a lot more like Greek mythology, especially Athenian tragedy. Except for the caring-about-a-woman-over-a-man part, because as we know, the ancient Greeks were a bunch of sexist f***wits - see the conclusion to Aescylus' Eumenides, among other things). But that would probably be too much for a family show, so the series goes for the less dark pushing-someone-who-hits-their-head method of murder beloved of all stories everywhere that need us to sympathise with a not-quite-murderer and avoid too much deliberation in the act to keep their heroes heroic (see especially comic book films and Disney movies. Pushing them so they fall off a cliff or other height is also an option).

(There's also a mildly gross dead body at one point. This show is not for sensitive children).

The representation here of the Furies that Arcas calls down on Pythagoras to avenge his father's murder might be the closest we've come to actual Greek mythology in this series so far. Almost everything about their appearance fits with Greek myth - they were even particularly associated with crimes of parenticide - they burst into existence from the blood of Ouranos when his son Cronos castrated him and they're best known for pursuing Orestes to avenge his matricide in Aeschylus' Eumenides (Eumenides is another name for them). In Classical mythology, there were more options for dealing with them, as you could perform a rite or some task to atone, or call on another god if you're lucky, but to give Pythagoras more options here would spoil the story - to tell the story about forgiveness that the writers want to tell, it has to be up to Arcas to call them off.

A rough, fairly crude image of a Fury in the cave shows a figure with wings, which fits their Classical form, and I love the interpretation of them as an eerie whirlwind that follows our heroes across the desert (screaming, winged female monsters would probably look really naff, especially if the special effects weren't quite up to scratch). I would have loved to see them inflict madness on their victim, but let's face it, this episode was dark enough already, and a windy monster is more family-adventure friendly. The only downside is that these particular Furies seem to have a tendency to grab the wrong person, which doesn't seem quite like them, though they did sometimes punish whole cities, so maybe they're following that logic here and punishing the whole group.

To go alongside all this darkness, Philemon and Baucis come from one of the nicer, more fairy-tale-like bits of Greek mythology, at least in Ovid's version of their story in the Metamorphoses. Like many adorable old women/men/couples in folklore from around the world, they show hospitality to gods in disguise, and in return they're saved from the Noah-style flood that wipes out everyone else. Then they die together and are turned into trees together. Of course, none of that happens here because here they've only just met, but it'll be nice if we can see them again, being generally good people, in a future episode.

There's something strangely disjointed, almost episodic within its own story, about this episode as short bursts of incident happen in between long shots of everybody riding across the desert. The location shooting in Morocco looks absolutely fantastic though - the scenes of the desert are incredibly beautiful and really breath-taking. The whole thing reawakened my desperate childhood wish for someone to make a film or TV series of my favourite of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia besides The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - The Horse and his Boy. (As a child, I planned to make this myself, with me in the role of Aravis, of course. I am now, I realise, far too old, not to mention the wrong ethnicity...)

I have a feeling, from the way the cast talked when I interviewed them for Den of Geek, that this episode may have been slated to run a bit earlier. Certainly, although Hercules is dreaming about Medusa, any other mention of her, Ariadne, Pasiphae or other on-going story-lines are absent and Jason seemed awfully keen on Baucis before she started flirting with Philemon. It's nice to get away on a road trip, away from the ongoing palace politics, though it's a shame that once again, we're watching a bunch of guys and one woman (repeatedly referred to as 'not a lady' by Hercules and considered bad luck by Philemon, who seems to think he's on a pirate ship). I'm not sure a single episode of Atlantis so far has passed the Bechdel test, unless we count Ariadne and Pasiphae randomly snarking each other - but even then, they're usually talking about Jason or Heptarion. Ah well, maybe next week...

Actually, according to the trailer, next week is the underworld. I love stories about journeys to the underworld - I really hope this is a good one!


Oracle: The question you posed was not plain, neither was the answer. Snarky Oracle! I like it. Maybe she'll start telling them the answer is 42 and they need to find a new Oracle to tell them the question...

Hercules: It’s a sign from the gods!
Jason: It’s a dead bird. The ancient/modern disconnect in a nutshell.

Jason: That food’s got to last.
Hercules: How long do you think we’re gonna live?

Philemon: People make mistakes and they should be punished. They should also be forgiven.

All Atlantis reviews

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Atlantis: The Rules of Engagement

I was really enjoying this episode, which was tripping along nicely - it was emotional, it was tense, the characterization was subtler and less broad than it has been sometimes, the jokes were hitting, as usual it looked amazing - and then right at the end, Ariadne did something that wasn't just stupid, it was so phenomenally, ridiculously stupid that there aren't words to describe it and I have been forced to resort to internet memes.

Please, please let Medea turn up to be Jason's love interest next year.

(To be fair, while the mythological Ariadne's story was quite different, she wasn't the sharpest tool in the box either. Catullus' poem 64 basically interprets her story as, she fell hard for Theseus and believed him when he said he would marry her, only to end up alone and not entirely properly dressed on the beach of Naxos, watching his ship disappear. But that's not really stupid, just a bit naive, and it could happen to anyone. What this Ariadne does is much, much worse).

But to go back to the beginning - in this episode, Ariadne is formerly betrothed to Heptarion and to celebrate, Minos holds a contest called a pankration. Except the contest we see on Atlantis isn't a pankration - it's a gladiatorial combat. Which is Roman.

The pankration, in ancient Greece, was a combination of boxing and wrestling that featured, among other occasions, at the ancient Olympic Games. There are some similarities between the Greek pankration and Atlantis' version, chiefly that it had very few rules (just no biting, gouging, or attacking the genitals). It was a sort of ancient Greek fight club, except definitely not a secret. Also, the Greeks usually did all sporting events naked, so the many shirtless men running around in this episode are being positively modest by Greek standards.

However, the Greek pankration did not involve weapons of any kind, and therefore certainly wasn't to 'first blood'. What did go to first blood sometimes was Roman gladiatorial combat, which didn't always have to be to the death. The combat here is also staged, like the bull-leaping, in an amphitheatre. This is a Roman bit of architecture which did not exist in ancient Greece. Ancient sports were held on flat ground, like the running track though for wrestling obviously it would be a different shape, and plays were viewed in semi-circular theatres which in Greece were rarely free-standing, but built into a hillside (and usually found, like running tracks, at religious sites).

Ancient Greek pankration

Essentially what we have here is a repeat of the bull-leaping story - a second episode out of seven that's actually a gladiator story. The plot even makes use of that great stand-by of gladiator stories, the need to make the crowd love you. Heptarion kills people unnecessarily and becomes unpopular, while Jason shows mercy and becomes a hero to the crowd and I think we're actually in Gladiator now. The only thing missing is the thumbs up/thumbs down routine, since technically these fights are not supposed to be to the death, it's just an unfortunate side effect of some of them.

The combat scenes aren't the only part of this episode that feels a bit more Roman than Greek to me. Pasiphae orders a slow-acting poison and starts using it on Minos. At one point, she actually says, "The king's health is already not what it was - but I shall nurse him to the end, you can be sure of that." At which point I think to myself, 'Why not just call her Livia and have done with it?' This isn't an accuracy issue - the trope of the wicked step-mother was as popular in Greece as it was in Rome and it's not really a culturally specific story - it's more about the history of the ancient world on television. The Evil Roman Matriarch is a recognizable trope, and Pasiphae clearly belongs to this category, despite being Greek.

Obviously, as I've said before, Atlantis is a fictional place that may not even be on this planet for all we know, so nit-picking it for historical accuracy may seem rather pointless. It's just very distracting when so much of a story supposedly set in a never-world inspired by ancient Greece is actually Roman. Your brain does a sort of handstand as it tries to shift from 'Bronze Age Greece mode' to 'Roman mode' - well, mine does anyway.

None of this is to say that the episode was bad, though - Ariadne's actions at the end aside, it was very good. I love a good gladiator story, so once you accept that's what it is and sit back to enjoy the ride, it provides a nice, tense hour or so, which is well executed (boom-tish!). Jason assures his friends that he's not just trying to win Ariadne, he's trying to earn them some money which is a nice bit of depth and highlights the issue of how exactly they earn a living, and Medusa and Hercules bond over nursing him (apparently this is all it takes for Medusa to forgive Hercules for attempting to 'enchant' - i.e., drug - her in order to 'go out with' - i.e., have sex with - her last week. SFF writers, please, when writing this sort of story, think through the implications before you go ahead with it).

I did like the little insights into Hercules and Pythagoras we saw this week, even though once again they took a back-seat in terms of overall plot. I loved Pythagoras' world weary cynicism and doomed attempts to make Jason understand the world he's living in. Jason himself seems remarkably concerned about having made an oath to Poseidon. Did his modern family bring him up to worship ancient Greek gods? Maybe he’s just become open minded since mysteriously being pulled into Somewhere Vaguely Resembling Ancient Greece. I also like the fact that Jason takes a lot of injuries and is obviously really hurting after each fight, rather than powering through the lot like a super-hero (even if said injuries are apparently invisible). I really liked the division between Pythagoras diagnosing and treating illnesses, but Hercules working on injuries, that's very ancient. Hercules' confession to Medusa was nice too, even if not surprising.

The other side of the story, Ariadne's betrothal, was also pretty strong up until those final minutes. Perhaps Jason's modernity is showing through again when he expresses horror at the idea that Ariadne should marry someone she doesn't love. She's a princess in a patriarchal society, of course she will have to enter into an arranged marriage for political reasons and not marry for love. If you wonder why aristocrats have to have politically motivated arranged marriages, just watch Game of Thrones and see what happens if you don't. Even Pasiphae's actions towards the beginning, if you leave out the part about torturing Korinna, are not unreasonable for a (step)mother in such a situation, and the hug between them was almost sweet.

(I did wonder why Ariadne didn't just tell her father she really didn't want to marry Heptarion and ask him if there were any alternatives before the betrothal. He seems genuinely to care for her and has clearly realized how miserable she is, so while he might not let her marry Jason, he's bound to be amenable to finding someone other than Heptarion. But no, that would be the sensible thing to do. We can't have that).

Poor Korinna. I've been waiting for her to die for weeks, she might as well have worn a red dress while she ran around carrying everyone else's messages. She and Ariadne obviously suck at subterfuge, muttering in an echo-y public hall about Ariadne's secret not-quite-boyfriend, but she didn't deserve to go this way - punished for the most monumental act of stupidity seen on TV since... some elaborate example probably involving Baldrick from Blackadder.

See, Ariadne decides to tell her father - in front of Pasiphae and Heptarion - that she thinks the gods have given them a sign that she shouldn't marry Heptarion. OK, fine, that's not a bad idea, though I still think she could have just told him the truth (without the Jason part). If she'd managed to convince Pasiphae she really believed this and pinned it on something neutral like the flight of an eagle - maybe even persuade the Oracle to tell a teeny white lie - all might have been well and Pasiphae would have been annoyed and started scheming afresh. But no - Ariadne decides to name Jason's defeat of Heptarion as her sign that the gods are displeased. It is, therefore, blindingly obvious to Pasiphae that she's still in love with Jason, who is put right back in the line of fire, and Ariadne's excuse is not remotely convincing. Sigh.

All in all, this was a good episode. The music’s nice, all sad violins, and although I still can't quite see why Jason and Ariadne are so in love with each other, at least they acknowledge that they haven't known each other long - and it's not hard to see why Ariadne would prefer Jason to Heptarion, who's slimy as all heck. Wishing you could marry someone you actually fancy, however little you know them, is understandable. Ariadne and Jason’s scene in the changing room is probably their best yet, as it’s understated and underplayed, their growing natural chemistry allowed to show through a little bit beyond corny lines or forced romantic interactions. The episode is just let down by those last few minutes, where Ariadne's total failure at palace politics gets poor Korinna killed and puts Jason right back at the top of Pasiphae's hit-list. I'm all for avoiding a forced marriage, but I don't think this is the way to do it, Ariadne. You probably should have just run away when you had the chance two episodes ago.


Pythagoras: People die in the pankration, Jason.
Hercules: They don't just die, they get bits sliced off 'em and then they die!

Hercules (leaving Ariadne and Jason alone): We’ve just gotta go get some bees.
Pythagoras: Why bees?
Hercules: It was all I could think of!

Pasiphae (to Ariadne): You are more stupid than you can possibly imagine. You tell her, Pasiphae. I think I might switch sides...

Hercules: I don't deserve you, Medusa.
Medusa: Life's not fair, is it?

All Atlantis reviews

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Top 5 Classics-y Episodes of Star Trek

Is this the geekiest list you've ever seen, or what?!

This probably requires no further introduction, except to observe that all but one of these are from the original series, which probably indicates something quite interesting about attitudes to Classics and ancient civilizations in the 1960s vs the 1990s. Or - actually more likely - it reflects the popularity of ancient world movies in the 1960s, as opposed to the 1990s. If only there was a current Star Trek series, we might get a few more, since ancient world movies have become popular again since 2000 and Gladiator.

5. Plato's Stepchildren
Is this is good episode? No. It is completely and utterly awful in almost every way.
Should I watch it? Yes. Partly because, as terrible as it undeniably is, 'Plato's Stepchildren' is terrible in a very amusing way, especially if you watch it with friends and some beverages of your choice. If nothing else, at least watch the clip of Kirk's horse impression on You Tube.

Also because it features the first interracial kiss on US television, though the fact they're both being mind-controlled at the time does rather spoil it.

Where's the Classics? The mind control-y aliens claim they've based their civilization on Plato. I don't know what copy of Plato's works they're reading, but it sure doesn't resemble mine.
We can see the Classics in... Spock and Kirk's random laurel wreaths and tunics. And Spock's lyre, though I think that's generally a Vulcan thing.
Worst moment for Classics fans: The bit where the aliens claim their civilization is based on Plato.
Best moment for Classics fans: Erm.... honestly, just watch the horse impression. It's hilarious.

4. Who Mourns for Adonais?
Is this a good episode? Not bad. It's the one with the weird disconnect between Spock reassuring Uhura that she's their best mechanic on the ship (yay, feminism!) while down on the planet, the mini-skirted-female-guest-star-of-the-week is objectified by Scotty and the god Apollo (boo, objectification of one gender but not the other! Although to be fair Apollo isn't wearing much either).
Should I watch it? Yes - after all, on how many shows can you see a giant green hand grab a spaceship?
Where's the Classics? This week's alien with god-like powers who wants to mess with the crew is the god Apollo - considering how much Gene Roddenberry loved that particular plot device, it's actually surprising it took him until season 2 to use an actual mythological god.
We can see the Classics in... Apollo's home is Greek-temple-like. Guest Mini-skirt's sparkly pink dress is less authentic.
Worst moment for Classics fans: Guest Mini-skirt insists that Apollo the Greek god was 'gentle and kind'. Which Greek myths has she been reading?
Best moment for Classics fans: Apollo doesn't like Spock because Spock reminds him too much of Pan.

3. Balance of Terror
Is this a good episode? Yes, very - in terms of pure quality, this is the best episode on the list (it's at No.3 because it's less inventive in its use of Classics).
Should I watch it? Yes, especially if you're a fan of Cold War drama and submarine movies.
Where's the Classics? This is the episode that introduces the Roman-inspired Romulans, and they're at their most 'Roman' here.
We can see the Classics in... I think the Romulans' pink carpet-drapes are supposed to resemble an imperial purple stripe on a toga, but really it's mostly in the names and ranks, like 'Centurion'.
Worst moment for Classics fans: Since the Classics connection is unspoken, there aren't any really wince-inducing moments in this one.
Best moment for Classics fans: The Romulan commander uses his friend and comrade's dead body as a military asset - I'm sure the ever practical and military-minded Romans would have approved.

2. Bread and Circuses
Is this a good episode? Yes, if you ignore that one scene where Kirk takes sexual advantage of a slave girl.
Should I watch it? Yes, you should always watch any episode in which Spock and McCoy have to become gladiators.
Where's the Classics? This is the episode that introduces Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development, and uses it to explain that this is, essentially, a planet where the Roman Empire never fell - so our crew land in 20th-century Rome.
We can see the Classics in... Everything is designed to be a 20th-century version of something Roman - the deliberately flat, painted amphitheatre set for the televised gladiatorial games is my favourite bit.
Worst moment for Classics fans: Despite the fact they literally met the god Apollo a few months earlier, our heroes are under the impression that the Romans didn't have a sun god.
Best moment for Classics fans: The whole extended metaphor about gladiatorial games and (reality) TV, which I liked so much I've written an entire academic paper on it.

1. Muse
Is this a good episode? Yes. Star Trek: Voyager's sixth season was not its best (this is quite often true of sixth seasons, as the ideas start to run out) but 'Muse' was one of the highlights, a really nice, fun episode and a great take on fan-fiction.
Should I watch it? Yes - just pick up an old VHS of this episode or something. Not much more of season 6 is all that great! (Exceptions - 'Riddles', 'Memorial', 'Ashes to Ashes', and I quite like 'Alice').
Where's the Classics? This episode may not name-check Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development, but B'Elanna has clearly landed on a planet in the middle of its 'Ancient Greece' phase.
We can see the Classics in... The costume and set designs in general, but especially the theatrical masks - although the actors hold them on sticks and remove them to talk, in deference to modern tastes and unlike ancient Greeks, the fact that they bother to use them is lovely.
Worst moment for Classics fans: Aside from the fact the episode uses the tired old trope of aliens with superior technology being mistaken for gods, just why does the poet's girlfriend think the audience will be unhappy at finding a goddess in their midst? You'd think they'd be pleased... (maybe they've seen 1960s Star Trek and learned to employ a healthy degree of caution when it comes to god-like aliens).
Best moment for Classics fans: Kelis wants to write a play that can stop a war. Quite a lot of Aristophanes' comedies (and perhaps some of Euripides' tragedies) look like they might have been written with the same intention.

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Saturday, 2 November 2013

Atlantis: The Song of the Sirens

Atlantis starts to get going as it introduces an ongoing plot for Jason beyond the mystery surrounding his parents, and gives Pasiphae a real reason to be scared of him...

This week's plot revolves around a love spell. Love spells are tricky things. The problem is, they sound quite amusing and like a fun idea, but, like some bodyswaps and telepathic mating rituals, the writers don't always entirely think through the implications of what a person casting a love spell on another is doing. They more or less get away with it here - although we don't see Medusa's reaction when she finds out, she does say she thinks a pig is too good for Hercules, so I think we're clear that what he did was wrong, mysterious disease or not.

I confess I wasn't entirely comfortable with Jason and Pythagoras regretting the whole mess being kicked off 'for the love of a woman,' because I never saw Hercules actually asking Medusa out without drugging - sorry, enchanting - her. Either she would have loved him anyway, and the whole thing was unnecessary, or she wouldn't, in which case there's more wrong with Hercules' actions than being carried away by love. On the other hand, it is very Greek - after all, the Greeks attributed the entire Trojan War to Paris being excessively enamored of Helen (whether Helen felt the same way varies between different versions). I found Jason and Pythagoras' conviction that no woman would be interested in a man with no money or prospects - aside from sounding like something out of Jane Austen - rather depressing too. Maybe some women are like that, but you'd hope Jason at least would know that some of us read Little Women and don't put money first (and might even want to earn some ourselves...)

It was nice getting to know Hercules a bit better in this episode, though. In mythology, Hercules' biological father is Zeus, though he's raised by Amphitryon. Since there are no gods in Atlantis, it remains to be seen whether there'll be any great mystery attached to his father, or whether he'll have been an ordinary man who, like his son, was a bit overly fond of telling tall tales. There was a nice nod to Hercules' mythology too, as he claims to have strangled a snake when only a baby (though he obviously doesn't want to push it too far just yet - in Greek myth, it was two snakes). I'm still really enjoying this interpretation of Hercules, though I confess there's a part of me that still finds it a bit weird when characters dismiss the idea of 'Hercules the hero' and tell him things like 'strength isn't everything' - it takes me out of the story for a moment while I process just how different this Hercules is. I think I'd have preferred the cowardly, braggart Hercules to be someone who actually is quite physically strong, just to keep him a little bit connected to his own mythology.

Great to see a witch of Colchis, though still no Medea - hopefully the repeated references to the witches of Colchis mean we'll eventually meet her in season 2. In Greek mythology, Circe is Medea's aunt, and she really is Pasiphae's sister (their brother Aeetes, king of Colchis, was Medea's father - is he the father of Pasiphae's nephew she's trying to marry Ariadne off to?). It's nice to see Circe's maintained her primary ancient characteristic - turning men into pigs. If only Jason had read The Odyssey before letting himself get sucked into the Land Of Something Vaguely Resembling Greek Mythology. I'm not sure what the random scarring down her face was in aid of, though, other than a rather out-dated implication that scars are evil - perhaps they're a result of whatever awful thing it was Pasiphae did to Circe and her family.

By the end of this episode, we find Jason finally facing a truly interesting and difficult dilemma. He clearly doesn't want to commit murder, but he doesn't want to let Medusa die (or leave Hercules as a pig) either. It's a genuinely tricky question. It's tempting to say that murdering people in cold blood is really never OK, but this is the sort of moral dilemma Greek tragedy is built on, and they would certainly sympathise (though Greek writers might be confused at a) why he feels so guilty about having to murder a woman and b) why he's so desperate to save a woman in the first place...).

I was quite glad that no actual Sirens appeared, as they're a bit over-done in popular culture, and they never appear in their ancient, monstrous form. Here, they're vaguely associated with romance and seduction, but only their voices are heard, so I can continue to imagine them as monstrous bird-woman creatures whose voices are the only attractive thing about them.

I enjoyed this episode a lot. I like Korinna, who hovers in the background delivering everyone's messages every week. I can’t help thinking she’s inevitably doomed to a horrible death at some point. Medusa looks very pretty, all done up for her date, and later when she's sick the make-up department do a great job. Poor Pythagoras is still stuck playing doctor, I guess because they can't afford an actual physician - though if Atlantis exists in a time pre-Hippocrates, it does actually make sense that a philosopher would be their best source of medical theory. As long as he doesn't do actual operations, a surgeon should do those. There were also some very rude jokes I caught about getting wet in there somewhere... We heard last week that Atlantis is going to get a second series, and that John Hannah will be in it (if he doesn't organise an orgy or two I'll be disappointed). Since it's definitely improving week on week (and still gorgeous, even if Greece has a few more pine trees here than I remember seeing when visiting it), I'm going to say, for the moment, that this is a good thing.


Hercules: Even as a baby I strangled a snake with my bare hands!
Jason: Is that true?
Pythagoras: [Shrug]

Random guy whose name I can't remember: You have heard of the witches of Colchis?
Hercules: I’ve heard nothing good.

Jason (trying to find an ancient equivalent for 'Is the Pope a Catholic?): Are the gods Greek?
Pythagoras: Well, they have a variety of complex roots...
This is officially my favourite joke Atlantis has ever done, and it will probably stay that way.

All Atlantis reviews

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