Sunday, 29 December 2013

Atlantis: Touched by the Gods, Part Two


Atlantis’ first season finale, in the grand tradition of first season finales, answers some questions while raising rather more of them. Overall it’s an intriguing episode, interesting enough in itself but more importantly, setting up some plot arcs with potential for season two. Spoilers follow.

As the episode opens, Ariadne is about to be executed by a particularly gruesome method; roasted alive in a huge bronze bull. According to ancient legend, this particular method was preferred by a 6th century BC tyrant (in both the ancient and modern senses of the word) of a Greek colony in Sicily. Phalaris, tyrant of Acragas, had a reputation as a legendarily cruel leader and having his enemies roasted alive in a bull, with their shrieks sounding like the bull bellowing, was one of his most famous nasty habits. How true any of the stories attached to Phalaris are is hard to say, but this was certainly a well known and widely reported one, starting with poet Pindar’s Pythian Ode 1 (‘Phalaris, with his pitiless mind, who burned his victims in a bronze bull, is surrounded on all sides by a hateful reputation’) and mentioned by numerous poets and historians throughout antiquity. In the Roman period, a bronze bull found in Carthage was thought to be Phalaris’ bull and was a popular tourist attraction.

Hercules finally gets his chance to be heroic here, preventing Jason from wandering off to die with Ariadne and helping him to rescue her instead, with motivational speeches mainly. He even gets to use his strength later in the story, which is rather nice. Unfortunately he then spoils it all by peeking at Jason’s girlfriend while she’s undressing, demonstrating that he still hasn’t learned how to behave in a respectful manner towards women. Pythagoras, poor thing, comes off even worse; his enthusiasm for the mechanical genius behind the bull is funny but it’s a bit morbid and it's all he really does, besides also trying to peep at Ariadne. Still, both of them are better off than Medusa, who’s mentioned to remind us that she’s still around and we’ll deal with her in season two, but doesn’t actually appear. To be fair, there wouldn’t be room for her in this story.

The heart of this story is the question of Jason’s parentage, and the most interesting and effective scene is the one between his mother and father as they stand over him. (It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the hero spends by far the most gripping scene in this two-parter unconscious, but never mind). Last week’s trailer spoiled the appearance of Jason’s father, though the Oracle’s advice that Jason should go ‘walk among the dead’ would have been a pretty big clue. ‘Walking among the dead’ turns out to be code for a leper colony, so Aeson is alive, if not well. (It also seems clear that they're all natives of wherever and whenever Atlantis is set, but Aeson took Jason to the modern world for his protection. Jason is surprisingly unfazed by much of this (and apparently the very dangerous and contagious disease of leprosy holds no fear for him), perhaps because he’s too excited to meet Batiatus.

His mother is more of a surprise, though one that a fan of The Tenth Kingdom like myself should have seen coming. Pasiphae, it turns out, had a relationship with Aeson before somehow giving him leprosy, and both Pasiphae and Jason are ‘touched by the gods’ (are they descended from gods? Do the gods exist in Atlantis? These things remain unclear). Pasiphae had already gained an extra dimension when she actually expressed some regret for Ariadne’s death earlier on, while her determination to finish Jason off herself is reasonably impressive (as is her breastplate, which is quite something). Evidently she still has enough human feeling in her to refrain from killing her own son, though since Jason is apparently fated to ‘destroy’ her she may yet change her mind. Sarah Parish and John Hannah are great here, creating a complex relationship within a few lines of dialogue that left me wanting to see much more of them.

The whole thing gets wrapped up rather abruptly at the end, as the Oracle’s assistant discovers (finally) that Minos is being poisoned by the evil maid hired by Pasiphae and (somewhat implausibly) cures him almost immediately. Minos, restored to health, revokes the sentence passed on Ariadne and pays Jason off with a warning that since she’s royal, they can never be together (whether he would feel more or less inclined to let them be together if he knew Jason was actually her step-brother is impossible to say). More intriguing seeds are sown for season two, as we’re reminded that the Oracle has ‘always said’ that Minos has no right to the throne, but considers him a lesser evil than Pasiphae.

This was a satisfying finale – there are lots of loose threads hanging, but since it’s only the end of season one I think we can consider them a series of mini-cliff-hangers for season two rather than a lack of resolution. And there is enough resolution here to keep us happy for now, with Heptarion finally dealt with and the mystery of Jason’s parentage solved, even if it’s still unclear why he and his mother are both ‘touched by the gods.’ If next year the series can just cut back a bit on the awful ‘comedy’ music and give us a few more three dimensional female characters who have more to do than look pretty and inexplicably fall in love with
our heroes, it could become something really good.

Quotes

Hercules: We will stop this or we will die trying!

Ariadne: I have been a fool. Yes. Yes you have.

Pythagoras: Teeth the size of cats? Really?

Hercules: That’s the problem with these oracles, they only ever tell you half the story.


Saturday, 28 December 2013

Atlantis: Touched by the Gods, Part One


The main job of Part One of Atlantis' two-part finale is to start tying up some loose ends and set up Part Two, which promises to at least discuss the issues of Jason's parents and magic death-avoiding skills, though whether it answers them remains to be seen. Major spoilers follow.

This episode is primarily concerned with advancing Atlantis' own plot, so the amount of material taken from Greek myths is minimal. Aside from bringing back the character of Circe, the main mythical element here is probably the general theme of princesses who betray their families to help handsome strangers, as indeed the mythical Ariadne did. 'Betrayal' is perhaps not the best word in this particular case as this Ariadne is working against her wicked step-mother, rather than her innocent father - she's certainly not going to the extremes of Jason's mythical love interest, Medea (I know, I'm obsessed with Medea. She's awesome though). Anyway, the point is, the idea that the handsome young hero is helped by the princess who's fallen madly in love with him is certainly Greek, even if it plays out a bit differently here.

Meanwhile, Pasiphae is still doing her best Roman matriarch thing, apparently killing Minos with drinks of some kind (I’d have gone for figs). She’s also randomly threatening guards, just to remind us that’s she’s evil. It's not entirely clear what her end-game is at this point, as Ariadne still refuses to marry Heptarion, but perhaps she's confident she'll be able to force Ariadne to do so once Minos is dead.

Never mind the actual ancient stuff though - my favourite part of this episode by far was the lovely tribute to the Harryhausen/Chaffey Jason and the Argonauts, as, following Circe's (apparent - she is a witch after all) death, three skeletons rise from the ground to attack our heroes. The special effects looked good to me, and the whole idea was just really nice, and put a big smile on my face. It may have little connection to ancient mythology (even less here than in the Harryhausen version) but films like Jason and the Argonauts are part of how we in the modern world experience myth, and the concepts and elements they introduce become part of the myth for succeeding generations. That's what myth is, after all, a story that is constantly in flux, constantly being re-imagined by new generations in new ways (though a lot of Euripides' ideas seem to have stuck, over the years!). Anyway, it was a really nice shout-out to the film and to other iterations of Jason's story.

The rest of the episode, while there was nothing particularly wrong with it, didn't work quite so well for me, mainly because I was having trouble sympathising with any of the protagonists. We open, for example, with our three heroes sitting around having a chat about how they're going to cold-bloodedly murder someone. (I thought Hercules' latrine idea was pretty good, I don't why the others were so dismissive of it).

Now, as the script points out, Pasiphae is not very nice, and the boys feel they have no choice, because they'll all die if she doesn't. The audience can see that Pasiphae is clearly a murderer, as she’s in the process of murdering Minos at the time. But the trouble is, the guys don’t know that, and anyway, whether or not that justifies killing her while she sleeps is debateable. And no matter how much they angst about it, there's something slightly uncomfortable about watching them plan her murder, and it's hard to root for them as they break into the palace to do so. Then the comedy music kicks in for some of Hercules and Pythagoras' misadventures and the whole things gets even worse. When Jason changes his mind and runs away and Pasiphae has all the guards out because there was an assassin in her room, what she's saying is completely true, the whole thing would be terrifying from her perspective, and my sympathies are almost with Pasiphae in these scenes.

Ariadne's dislike of Pasiphae is more immediately sympathetic, as she's much more aware of how nasty Pasiphae is (she doesn't seem to have worked out Pasiphae is poisoning Minos, but she does know she had Korinna murdered). She loses my sympathy, however, towards the end, because once again she is just utterly stupid, to the point where I don't really care what happens to her. First, she lets Jason out of a door only the royal family have keys to and doesn't notice the massive bloodstain they've left there. Then when her maid finds blood all over her bedsheets, she tells her it wasn't hers and actually tells her it was the intruder, because she completely trusts this woman. Not only does she have no reason to do so, this is the replacement for the maid Pasiphae murdered, so surely it stands to reason that this woman is probably spying for Pasiphae. There must be other stories she could think of - she could have been sacrificing a goat or something. And then she confesses that she wants Pasiphae dead to the whole court, but cries and begs for mercy when she's condemned to death for treason. A crime of which she is completely guilty. I kept thinking of Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones during Ariadne's scenes, and of how much more intelligent Sansa is compared to Ariadne. This does not speak volumes for Ariadne.

Of course, if Ariadne wasn't in a family show - and had two brain cells to rub together - there's an obvious explanation a woman can give her maid if there's blood all over her bed that wouldn't raise any suspicion at all. And this is another issue with this episode, as alongside the really dark material concerning whether or not our heroes should commit murder is a whole lot of dancing around the issue of whether or not Jason and Ariadne had sex while they snuggled in her bed all night. Apparently, you can plot someone’s cold-blooded murder in a family show, but heaven forbid there should be any clarity on the subject of sex (though Hercules clearly implies they did it and Jason doesn't contradict him).


It's not impossible to do a show suitable for the whole family that deals with serious plots while being a bit coy about sex so the kids can watch - Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, included reasonably harrowing depictions of the effect of prolonged torture on a person while making only limited references to sex. But romantic plots in Star Trek were only ever peripheral, so it didn't matter if younger viewers didn't catch everything. The romance is so central to Atlantis' plot that something about the whole thing just feels slightly weird and disjointed, like it can't quite work out who it's actually aimed at.

Of course, all of this is just Part One of two, so it may all come together next week. In fact, it does a pretty good job of feeling like a distinct episode in its own right, much more so than many Part Ones. I loved the skeletons scene and Jason and Ariadne's romance is finally starting to take off a bit as well (their bedroom scene was unoriginal, but nicely done). It's just plagued with some of the same issues the show has been having throughout its first season, an unevenness of tone and a difficulty blending comedy with drama. Let's hope it all comes together a bit in the finale.

Quotes

Hercules: I’ll have you know, I once tossed a rabid bull off a cliff.
Pythagoras: How is that even remotely relevant?

Ariadne: I’d be free to meet a simple boy of my own choosing.
Jason (confused): Are you calling me simple?

Pythagoras (to Hercules): Fleeing the city and growing beards is your answer to everything.


Monday, 16 December 2013

Atlantis: Hunger Pangs


In this episode, Jason suffers from an unfortunate little problem at night, and we're reminded that he and Ariadne still fancy each other...

Atlantis hits the same pet peeve of mine this week that Plebs did back in the spring, as Jason suffers from stealing food offered to the gods. This particular mis-understanding of ancient religion drives me batty. Religious people are not stupid. The Greeks and Romans were not stupid. When food was offered to the gods, the gods got the bones and the fat, the priests or the people (depending on the occasion) got the meat. You don't kill a valuable animal and then waste the best bits on the gods, that's a quick way to starve yourselves. You might offer the gods first fruits, but that's on the assumption that it's harvest time and there will be plenty more fruits to eat. There was a whole special myth - part of the story of Prometheus - to explain why humans got to eat the good parts of the animal and the gods got the useless bones. No one would suffer, socially or magically, for eating the meat offered to the gods. I suppose in this case Jason took the bones as well, but still.

Other than that - and the bit about turning into a dog, of course - the representation of the cult of Hecate is pretty accurate. Hecate was goddess of witchcraft, ghosts and necromancy, and therefore associated with the underworld. Her statue was often a triple woman, facing three ways, as she was also associated with crossroads (crossroads being associated with danger and magic in ancient mythology). She was also associated with black dogs, and with Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. Her temple here is nicely atmospheric, and I especially liked the three-headed statue. Obviously, the bit about people who take her offerings turning into dogs is an invention of the show - though it does once again raise the question of just how present or absent the gods are in Atlantis, as it would seem to imply that Hecate herself is punishing Jason - unless her priest is behind it, using witchcraft (which would make sense).

This is a "funny" episode. You can tell from the music, which is painfully jaunty and desperately 'light' and 'comic' from the start. It reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot in places - particularly 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered', which featured Hecate, accidental nudity and people looking for a rat (albeit not to kill it) and 'Phases', in which we discover that Oz is a werewolf. I've always liked Buffy's 'funny' episodes, and I've nothing against the idea of throwing in a lighter story in between the heavier emotional stuff in the ongoing arc. The downside is, humour is a subjective thing, and for me, it wasn't especially hilarious - though I did like Hercules covering Pythagoras' eyes and Pythagoras peeking when Jason appears naked in the doorway. Addy and Emms are talented actors, and that was nicely played.

Although no one ever says the word, this story is essentially about Jason turning into a werewolf, just without needing a full moon to change. He's even cured with silver (kids, do not try drinking molten silver at home). There were stories of werewolves in the ancient world, as well as the myth of Lycaon (from 'lykos' or 'lukos', 'wolf'), a king who was turned into a wolf, so it's possible the show will revisit werewolf mythology in its more classic form at some point, though this story is so close to it, it would seem a bit redundant unless they do something very different with it.

Pasiphae, Minos, Heptarion and Ariadne turn up again for the first time in weeks here. Heptarion, Pasiphae and Minos are mostly there to remind us they're still alive - in Minos' case, only just, as Pasiphae is carrying out her plan to poison him slowly. Ariadne, however, has an important part to play in the story. My favourite bit of the episode was probably the moment where Hercules and Pythagoras realise they need silver and go to Ariadne for help, because they remember that the princess is in love with Jason and will probably be willing to donate some silver to help him. I love it when characters on TV act like real, intelligent people and do things you would genuinely do in that situation. I was less keen on Ariadne half-trusting her new maid, who is clearly spying on her for Pasiphae.

Heptarion. Still alive, still chasing Jason even when he doesn't know it's Jason.

Having spent all weekend barely conscious on the sofa with some horrible virus (as have many of my friends and family this week, I think), this was the first week I actually sat back and watched Atlantis without taking notes throughout the show. I have to admit, it made a nice change - I was able to sit back and enjoy the chemistry between the actors, the pleasantly light tone (even if I didn't actually laugh all that much) and most of all the still-gorgeous lighting and set design. With wind and rain howling outside and feeling awful, watching our heroes run around gloriously sun-drenched sort-of-Greece was quite pleasant. I also enjoyed the moment at the beginning where Jason does his best impression of Disney's Aladdin, though unfortunately he's not very good at it. The episode dragged a bit in places - especially, ironically, the conversation about measuring time (the Romans definitely had a concept of hours, but whatever period Atlantis takes place in, clearly they don't). A little bit more character work on Hercules and Pythagoras rather than a random conversation drawing attention to how little was happening might have been better there. Still, it was a pleasant enough way to fill the evening. Next week, things look like they'll be taking a more serious turn, so it'll be interesting to see where the show goes from there.

Quotes

Pythagoras: Scientific reasoning tells us that there is another solution to everything.
Hercules: What is it this time?
Pythagoras: Run!

Hercules: I was born to wrestle lions and wolves, not rodents.

All Atlantis reviews

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Atlantis: The Price of Hope


Hmm. I don’t know how I feel about this episode, exactly. There was good stuff in here but somehow the whole thing just felt… all over the place. Almost like it’s a really messy middle part of a trilogy.

It seems that Medusa has been cursed and missing for a little while now. Hercules finds out where she is and somehow his head has translated Pythagoras promising he’d look for a cure into him actually finding one. (Ariadne, Pasiphae and Minos, by the way, are distinct by their absence for the third episode in a row. I don’t miss them, to be honest, but wasn’t Jason supposed to be murdering Pasiphae or something? Maybe there’s no particular timescale on that). The whole episode then goes through a series of vignettes of a sort, which end up with everyone more or less back where they started, albeit in possession of a couple of new tidbits of information.

The first of these involves Jason asking the Oracle to lend him Pandora’s Box, in case that provides any clues to a possible cure. Apparently Jason is the Faramir of Atlantis and has never even been tempted to open the thing, even though it’s still doing its One Ring Whispering trick. The most interesting thing here is that the Oracle, who didn’t expect to see Jason so soon after his hissy fit last episode, looks genuinely, properly pleased to see him. Just as I typed the words ‘Is she his mother?’ into my notes, Jason started asking her about his mother and insisted she was lying when she said she’d told him all she knew. I am now completely convinced that the Oracle is, in fact, Jason’s mother.

Next we get to meet Daedalus, and a throwaway reference to his ‘foolish son Icarus’ suggests we’ll get to see that story at some point, possibly in season 2. I like Daedalus a lot, he’s cranky and slightly bonkers, that always entertains me. Pythagoras calls him ‘a man of science, an inventor’. I don’t like it when people call anyone from the ancient world ‘scientists’ because there were no scientists in the ancient world – ancient philosophers didn’t test their theories, they just thought and thought so much that sometimes they came up with fairly accurate ideas. Sometimes their ideas were crazy town banana pants (I always illustrate this point with the mirror story). They had very little sense of which was which. I don’t mind in Daedalus’ case though, because he’s mythical anyway, so what the heck. I love the way his workshop makes him seem like a sort of Atlantean Leonardo da Vinci (complete with, of course, wings hanging from the ceiling).

Then we’re off into the woods, which are full of Scythians who capture you, then let you go so they can hunt you. Scythia was a real place, near the north coast of the Black Sea. Herodotus tells all sorts of stories about how barbaric and vicious the Scythians were involving human sacrifice and drinking blood (possibly from human skulls, but I can’t remember for sure). I don’t remember anything about hunting men for sport but it's quite possible it's in there, and I'm sure Herodotus would find it plausible. Of course, Herodotus finds quite a lot of things plausible, up to and including giant gold-digging ants…

The business with the Scythians goes on for ages, until our heroes are inevitably rescued by the female hand holding a bow we saw earlier as they were passing through a grove sacred to Artemis. It turns out to belong to Atalanta, who, in the world of Atlantis, is apparently not only a huntress but also a witch, and has grown up in the woods protected by Artemis (how? The gods supposedly don’t play an active role in Atlantis…). Does every female character have to be either a monster (Medusa) or a witch? Between Circe, Pasiphae, Atalanta and, assuming she turns up next season, Medea, this is starting to get silly. On the plus side, Atalanta is awesome. Our heroes seem to agree; Atalanta tells them they’re destined to meet again and they seem quite happy about that.

Finally we get to Medusa in her cave, Hercules tries to sacrifice himself to save her, Medusa won’t let him, and we’re back to where we started except for the discovery that Jason can look at Medusa all he wants without turning into stone. But we’re no closer to finding out why that should be. Essentially (and notwithstanding my complete forgiveness of the Moff the other week) we’re looking at the Steven Moffat Doctor Who Problem again – lots and lots of ‘mystery’ attached to characters that are more plot device than three dimensional person, that drags on forever and never seems to get any payoff.

There were some really weird tonal issues with this episode in particular that quite often affect Atlantis in general. For one thing, I hate the ‘comedy’ music that plays to tell us we’re watching a funny bit. Harry Potter 5 did that too and it drove me insane. The jokes, if I’m brutally honest, often aren’t that funny, but any humour there is, is drained out of them by the music that's telling me I should be laughing. I’ve always preferred comedy played straight, like in Airplane! – a completely insane movie, but acted and filmed as if it were serious, which is what makes it funny. For another, the show lurches between deadly serious and crude comedy without warning – one minute we’re watching Jason talk about how murder ‘doesn’t feel amazing’ and get stabbed, the next we’re watching Hercules do some kind of pratfall routine involving bird poo. The two scenes don't mesh at all.

Then there’s the plot contrivances, like Pythagoras suddenly opening up to Atalanta, a total stranger, about how Hercules can cure Medusa by sacrificing himself despite the fact he hasn’t told Jason yet, which of course Hercules overhears. I suppose he might feel more comfortable talking to a stranger than to a friend who knows and loves Hercules, but still. Atalanta saves them because the goddess told her to, which is all nice and convenient, but again, the gods supposedly play no active role in Atlantis, so what happened? Did she dream about them? Did she talk to the Oracle? And I can’t help feeling the reason Atalanta is a witch is so that she can cure Jason, rather than because it’s important to her as a character.

I sound a bit down on the show this week, which is a bit unfair, as this was enjoyable enough. But this installment just felt so… messy. Atalanta is promising; I’m already much more interested in her than I am in Ariadne (sorry Ariadne). I liked the reference to the story of Alcestis and Admetus (though the bit in Euripides’ play version in which Hercules goes back to the underworld to fetch Alcestis back again for everyone to live happily ever after is, for obvious reasons, left out!). I like the central characters and as ever, it all looks beautiful (if a tiny bit Welsh, woods-wise). The whole thing just felt too much like there was no beginning and no end, just a series of bits of middle.

Next week, Jason is a vampire. Or a werewolf. Probably a werewolf. It’s more Greek.

Quotes

Pythagoras (re Daedalus): He’s a genius. To him I’m a fool.
Jason: What does that make the rest of us?

Hercules (to Pythagoras): Most men dream about women, you dream about triangles.

Hercules: Can we stop talking about poo? Yes. Please. Seriously.

Pythagoras: Hello? Has anyone been turned to stone yet? OK, the joke was completely inappropriate at that moment, but I did smile at the delivery.


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