Atlantis: The Earth Bull

Spoilers ahoy!

Atlantis is BBC One's new Saturday night teatime family show, replacing Merlin, which finished last year. That means it's a light, PG-rated show with minimal blood and sex - though it does feature male nudity (albeit shot from the waist up) within the first five minutes, so make of that what you will. (Why was our hero washed up on the beach without clothes, but with his special necklace? Enquiring minds want to know).

Atlantis follows the adventures of Jason, a remarkably young marine salvage worker of some kind (is he a marine archaeologist? That would be a handy career for him, as it would imply some knowledge of ancient archaeology...). While looking for the submarine in which his father apparently drowned, Jason is pulled into a white light and washes up on the shores of Atlantis, which he is later informed is another world. Presumably the mechanics of the thing, specifically whether or not he's also gone back in time, will be revealed at some point. What we know so far is that this world is inhabited by a host of characters from Greek mythology, in a typical All Myths Are True format, plus one very real person, philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras.

Assuming Pythagoras is our Pythagoras - and his obsession with triangles would seem to indicate that's very much the case - Jason must be either back in time, or in a world that might spit you out into any era of ours. Or something. Anyway, it turns out he was born there, and there's some big mystery surrounding his birth and the identity of his parents, both of whom are supposedly dead (I fully expect both to turn up sooner or later, especially his father, who apparently 'walks among the dead' - very much not the same thing as being dead).

Mythologically speaking, Jason (of the Argonauts)'s parents were King Aeson and a human woman whose identity is of such little importance that it varies among different accounts, but presumably Atlantis is going for something different here. The Atlantis Jason finds is ruled by a king, but this king has been transposed from a different area of Greek mythology - Minos and Pasiphae were legendary king and queen of Crete. Presumably, as the series goes on, we'll see lots of different bits and pieces of Greek mythology from all over the place incorporated into it, but for this first episode, the writers stick with their decision to go with Minos and draw on mythology relating to Crete - specifically, the well-known story of the Minotaur.

In myth, the Minotaur was the son of the queen, Pasiphae, and a bull she'd fallen in love with. Bestiality being a bit risque for Saturday night family viewing, here he's a man who's been cursed, and he only kills seven adults every year, not fourteen children. The idea of the curse works rather well - Greek mythology is full of cursed people metamorphosing into an array of animals and/or monsters, usually as the result of claiming to be better than the gods (I say 'Greek mythology' but really I mean 'Ovid' - his Metamorphoses is full of these stories). It also makes the Minotaur's end rather more poignant than a basic monster-slaying, not to mention it enables him to spout exposition at our hero as he dies.

The reason the sacrificed people are adults rather than children is that Pythagoras is chosen by lot as one of them - they're referred to a couple of times as tributes, presumably in reference to The Hunger Games. This episode spends most of its time introducing the show's three leads, Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules. Of the three, Hercules has the potential to be the most interesting. I love the show's reinterpretation of Hercules as a slightly overweight coward who's a bit too fond of a drink, though he was persuaded to at least try to rescue Jason from the monster and I'm sure he'll kill something at some point, even if accidentally. Seeing Greece's greatest hero as a man who's all talk but not much good in a fight is a nice twist.

Jason's own position as a modern character - or at least, a character raised in the modern world - is very useful for exposition, as he will be able to recognise the various famous names and immediately understand something about new situations (though he doesn't blink at the name 'Helena' - only time will tell if this is the Helen...). We also get the usual humourous time travel references (telling Pythagoras he's destined to bore schoolchildren in maths lessons for hundreds of years, for example). So far, though, the best use of his out of time status has been his reaction to Hercules throwing a sword at him - he waves it around for a few seconds and is quickly disarmed.I love that, presumably having never held one before, he isn't magically able to use a sword straight away (at least he caught it).

Jason's love interest on the show is the princess Ariadne, who here holds the honour of being the only person in the script - other than Pythagoras and his triangles - who actually does what we expect of her, mythologically speaking. She gives Jason the thread which he can use to find his way out of the Labyrinth (which disappointingly, is a series of caves rather than a maze). She tells him it's been enchanted by the witches of Colchis which was a really nice touch and my favourite mythological reference of the episode - quite apart from explaining why this thread is special and no one has thought of this before, in Greek mythology, the witch of Colchis is Medea, the woman Jason marries and leaves for a younger model, prompting her to murder their children in retribution. I'm hoping she'll turn up sometime, perhaps in season 2 if the show gets that far...

The other significant character introduced here is the Oracle. (A bit of submarine or something labelled 'the oracle' that Jason sees on his way down did briefly make me wonder what language these people are speaking and whether the writing should all be in ancient Greek, but it's probably best not to think about that too much). Juliet Stevenson is suitably other-wordly, though these scenes bear little resemblance to real oracles. You could never consult a real oracle without paying, and the supplicant or the priest sacrificed an animal - usually a sheep or goat - before the visit, not the Oracle herself. Oracles of the human kind would usually speak gibberish interpreted by the priests rather than addressing people directly, as well. None of which really matters, given that her first job is to explain firmly that this is another world, not our ancient Greece, but still.

It may not be Game of Thrones, but this is a lot more nudity than we ever got in teatime dramas when I was little...

All in all, this did what first episodes need to do efficiently and with some nice bits of humour. The show looks gorgeous, making full use of some Moroccan filming (though the CGI on the Minotaur perhaps doesn't quite hold up). Jason's a likable enough lead and the mystery surrounding his background provides a thread to follow through to, presumably, the end of the first series at least. It's hard to tell from a first episode what Atlantis will eventually become, but it should be an entertaining enough - and very pretty - journey to find out.

All Atlantis reviews


  1. I imagine this'll turn up on one of our specialty channels before too long...

  2. It was fun, but didn't hook me enough to be a worthy replacement of Merlin. I would have preferred another season of Merlin (pre-Camlann) involving his magic being revealed to the world and the consequences of that. *sigh*

    So basically this is kind of "Once Upon a Time" but with Greek Mythology? And instead of the legendary figures being in our world, one of ours is transported there... Ok. I'll check it out for a bit longer, but as of yet I'm not sure about it...

    Great review Juliette! :o)

    P.S: LOVED the triangles boring millions of children throughout history line! :D

    1. I think it's hard to tell what something will be like from the first episode, other than in this case that it's very pretty! I didn't watch Robin Hood (I saw ten minutes on a plane once, which happened to be the bit where Marian dies, which had me even more utterly confused than the bit where Menelaus dies in Troy) and I only saw a few episodes of the last series of Merlin, so actually following one of these is new for me! Unless you count Doctor Who of course...

    2. Yeah, that killing of Marian was a shocker! The third series definitely suffered from it and then when Armstrong wouldn't renew that was pretty much it! Between that and the recent Downton kerfuffle I think the U.K. productions should take a leaf out of the U.S. networks' playbooks and sign people up for a 5 year contract! If it doesn't last that long so be it, but don't leave yourself open to the risk of losing key characters before their time! :p

      Robin Hood took me a while to get into because the very modern language put me off in the beginning, but then I got the hang of it and really enjoyed it! I think because of that I didn't have any problems with the language in Merlin when it started.

      Anyhow, as a confessed fanatic of Robin Hood and King Arthur (c.f. there was no way I was going to miss out on either of those series! ;o) And although as a kid I loved Greek mythology, it's not at the same level as with the other two, so this series is going to have to earn it with me. ;o)

    3. I was obsessed with Robin Hood and King Arthur as a child as well, and definitely not with Greek myth. Weirdly, I think that's why I'm more open to Atlantis than the others! I know what I like about Robin Hood and Arthur and neither series really explored the aspects of those stories that appealed to me - or maybe I'm just too attached to my favourites or something (the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, the Disney one, Prince of Thieves, and with Arthur it was all about picture books and complications - screen versions never quite seemed to do it justice! Except Monty Python of course ;) ). But different adaptations of Greek myth is what I do for a living, so I'm more open-minded there.

      It is a shame that cast kerfuffles interrupt shows so much - but a lot of British actors won't do US TV because they're put off by the long-term binding contracts - even knowing most things don't make it past the pilot - so introducing them might create more problems than it solved (though I would suggest at least a 3-year contract for anyone signing on to play Doctor Who...)

    4. compilations, not complications!

    5. What were the aspects of those stories that you enjoy that weren't explored in those series?

      I guess after reading several book series retelling Arthurian myth (and my favourite centred on Merlin) I guess I was open to a different interpretation. Plus both series were a lot of fun (except when they pulled a Joss Whedon on us and killed someone we didn't want them to), had some decent action sequences and had really hot guys! :p

    6. I don't know exactly - honestly, I didn't give them much of a chance! I had a very brief look at Robin Hood and didn't like the costumes - sounds like a stupid complaint I know! I don't mind technicolour Errol Flynn-style costumes - which are hardly historically accurate - but it just seemed like a step too far to me, somehow. My favourite TV Merlin is the BBC adaptation of The Crystal Cave from the late 80s/early 90s. I did start to get into Merlin a bit when I watched season 5.

      I think maybe it's the overt, extreme modernisation that puts me off. I don't mind a certain level of moderisation - as in the Errol Flynn film - but these series have a tendency to feel like they might as well be contemporary, albeit without technology (apart from the forbidden-magic thing). I suppose I want period dramas to feel at least a little bit period, which hoodie-Robin Hood (at the time there was a whole controversy about teenagers wearing hoodies going on - the Daily Mail was involved I think) really didn't. In Atlantis' case, they've just gone all out and made Jason modern, which is somehow midly less annoying.

      I also like the mysticism of Arthurian legend, which Excalibur went a bit overboard on and others - even Merlin with its frequent use of magic - don't always play up so much. I think. I don't really know!

  3. It looks like they can't quite decide just how far off from Greek mythology they want to go. I think they'd be better off going the full Hercules/Xena route than the mish-mash this looks like it's going to be. Right now from your description it looks more like some of those awful two-part TV movies that were popular in the US in the 90s/00sbased loosely on works of literature.

    If they'd done some actual research, they could have done so much more with Pythagoras than a couple of triangle jokes. Music, reincarnation, power over animals, not eating beans. He was supposed to be the reincarnation of the herald of the Argonauts, some Trojan, and a bunch of others and could remember all his past lives. I suppose, since he's just a young twerp here, he'll take all his experiences and turn into the philosopher the Greeks new.

    1. To be fair, I don't think it's a lack of research - they know their stuff (I interviewed them for Den of Geek, and the producers at least are familiar with the source material). It's a choice they've made to reinterpret it quite radically. The inclusion of Pythagoras is a bit random, but they might do more with him in future episodes - most people don't know anything about him beyond the triangle thing, so that has to be the first thing they mention in the first episode, but it doesn't mean we won't see other aspects later (though when I talked to the actor, he'd never heard of the bean-hating, so I guess we won't see that!)

    2. Well, I suppose there's plenty of time for him to fill out, though he seems to be the comic relief sidekick at the moment. I guess he could acquire all those attributes the legendary Pythagoras had. (The real Pythagoras had so many legends attached to him, he was a bit like Davey Crockett.) We'll see what they do with Hercules, but Mark Addy will always be DC Gary Boyle for me, and maybe a little of his character from The Full Monty. It's not easy for me to see past that.

  4. A very comprehensive review, Juilette! Nothing there that I would disagree with. All things considered, it was a pretty decent first episode for a new classical fantasy series, and it seems to be worth sticking with for the time being.

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