In the UK: Sunday 8th May, 9pm, BBC1. Available on the iPlayer
Ah, drama documentaries? Is there a more benighted category of programming? The idea is simple: documentaries are dull things in which people who know stuff talk to you; a drama-documentary makes it all exciting, and it comes to life since it's dramatised.
However, while there's the occasional exception - usually when there's a reasonably good amount of evidence to go on - the average drama-documentary combines the worst aspects of both dramas and documentaries: not enough information for a proper documentary, too little time to do a decent, well written story for a drama.
So it is with Atlantis, BBC1's recent one-hour documentary about the Bronze Age volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini (aka Thera) that destroyed much of the island and pretty much ended the 'Minoan' civilisation that had thrived on both it and the nearby Crete for 1500 years. It was this that possibly inspired Plato's tale of Atlantis over 1,000 years later. A combination of history documentary, geology documentary and a doomed romance, Atlantis wasn't without its merits and indeed in some areas was very good, but it wasn't on a par with any of the great Bettany Hughes' documentaries on the subjects, even though she was one of its advisors.
Here's a trailer.
Featuring spectacular visual effects, this factually-based drama tells the gripping story of the greatest natural disaster to shake the ancient world, a disaster that triggered the downfall of a civilisation and spawned a legend.
Around 1620 BC, a gigantic volcano in the Aegean Sea stirred from its nineteen-thousand year slumber. The eruption tore the island of Thera apart, producing massive tsunamis that flooded the nearby island of Crete, the centre of Europe's first great civilisation - the Minoans. This apocalyptic event, many experts now believe, led to the eventual downfall of the Minoans, and provided the inspiration for Plato when he later wrote about the people of a mighty island, Atlantis, which sank beneath the waves and was lost forever, 'in a single day and a night of misfortune'.Based on the work of leading scientists, archaeologists and historians, this film immerses viewers in the exotic world of the Minoans.
Was it any good?
Although it had its good qualities, Atlantis was lumbered with a whole lot of things that made me hope desperately for the volcano to explode and end all the human 'drama'.
Essentially, it was about 50% documentary, 50% drama. The documentary part was narrated by Tom Conti - who of course was Shirley Valentine's Mykonos love interest - and talked a little about the Bronze Age civilisation of the Minoans and the archaeological excavations on Santorini. However, it was mainly interested in the geological side of things, detailing what happened to the volcano to cause it to erupt so spectacularly.
Of these two aspects, it was hard to find fault (ho, ho) with Atlantis. It was detailed enough to explain what happened during the explosion. It wasn't especially detailed in terms of detailing Minoan culture, but was generally okay and there were some beautiful shots of the findings on Santorini, including the wall friezes and the excavations at Akrotiri (which were closed to the public when I went).
As always, I'd refer you to the great Bettany Hughes: this time, I'd recommend watching her Channel 4 documentary The Minoans if you actually wanted a bit of useful information. Ironically, Hughes also did a similarly good Timewatch documentary on the Minoans and Atlantis last year, which BBC2 repeated on Monday and you can still watch on the iPlayer: here's a clip.
Note, as our Bettany points out, how important women were in Minoan culture - I'll come back to that.
While all this useful documentary stuff was going on, we were also getting a dramatised re-enactment of the last few days on Thera before the volcano exploded.
Now, this did look very impressive, despite employing the Spartacus/300 green screen technology. Through this, we got re-enactments of the bull leaping at Knossos - not with the now-extinct Cretan bull, of course, although no mention of that fact in the documentary - the religious ceremonies, etc. That was just about as authentic as you could expect, although since it was the BBC, no women went topless, despite our being shown friezes of exactly that, and I'm pretty sure bull-leapers didn't wear underpants.
As with Spartacus, et al, though, the green screen did give a very muted, cold palette to everything. This is how Thera was shown to look:
And this is what Santorini's caldera looks like in real life.
Do you see the slight colour difference? And that's not even the green screen stuff. That's pure CGI, but I assume they had to match the lack of sun outdoors to the lack of sun in interior scenes. Greece has a very specific, piercingly clear quality of sunshine and this didn't have it at all.
Problematically, though we were given quite a drippy love story as the framing device for all this: young boy from Thera goes to Crete to get married, brings her back, she suspects he's still in love with another girl and then the eruption happens and they get separated. Meanwhile, the father of the boy is pissed at the gods enough to disbelieve in them because his wife is a priestess and he feels they've stolen her away from him.
Now, this is where we part ways. This is very much a normative account, imposing modern, particularly patriarchal values on a civilisation that was considerably different and matriarchal. Women, we can pretty much tell, had much more sexual freedom, were more able to pick their partners - multiple ones potentially - especially if they were of the priesthood, and men were a lot more excluded from power within Minoan culture: what they had was granted by the women.
But we got a modern day love story of a jealous girl and her potentially cheating husband, despite their presumably having an arranged marriage anyway. It plodded. It was dull. None of the characters had enough development to be worth paying attention to. None of the actors gave them any charisma. They were largely there to give us something to make us watch the beautiful recreation in the background.
Intriguingly, though, while we did have the narration of Tom Conti saying how the Therans could never have done anything to stop the eruption through religion since it was all geological, the drama told a different story: here we have a girl prophesying the future during a religious trance and the eruption seemingly being triggered by the priestess's husband's loud voice of atheism.
And when the volcano did erupt, it was so vividly recreated you could understand the term 'Act of God'.
On the whole though, despite these problems, dramatically, I did like Atlantis. There have been better documentaries but few that have looked so good. And yes, it did actually bring things alive very faithfully. But if you are going to watch it, be prepared to be bored by the drama, but not the documentary.
Here's a "making of" vid.
- May 25, 2011: Question of the week: what do you think of the state of TV documentaries?
What do you think of the state of TV documentaries?
- June 11, 2012: Question of the week: are modern documentaries worse because they're shorter or because they're stupider?
Are modern documentaries worse because they're shorter?
- September 30, 2013: Review: Atlantis 1x1 (BBC1/BBC America)
A review of the first episode of Atlantis