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


  1. A good review!

    The underworld without Cerberus seems, well... wrong.

    1. Yeah, they should be faithful to mythology.

      Those look great. I think finally I know what to get for Christmas.

      By the way, great post about The Day of the Doctor. I'm a big Doctor Who fan and I loved the 50th anniversary celebration.


    2. Thanks! I'm something of a fair-weather Whovian, but I keep up with it, and loved the 50th special. Looking forward to Capaldi! (being educated on the Wiliam Hartnell era as well!)

    3. Bad typing day today. I do know how to spell William, really!

  2. They have finally started airing Atlantis in the states; it's very enjoyable although as a former classics major, some of the things make me go "huh?" The main actor reminds of of a young Peter Wingfield (Methos in Highlander) and that's always a good thing. Love the way they are turning the myth of Hercules on it's head. Poor Herc.

    1. Yeah I love what they've done with Hercules! Definitely a lot of 'huh?' moments, like that bit in Troy..!

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