Review: Atlantis 1×1 (BBC1/BBC America)

Slightly damp Greek myth

BBC1's Atlantis

In the UK: Saturdays, 8.25pm, BBC1. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Saturdays, BBC America. Starts November 23
In Canada: Space. Starts October 12

Ever since Plato first mentioned it (and perhaps even before that), people have been fascinated by the story of Atlantis, a fabulous city that eventually sunk beneath the waves at the behest of Poseidon. Depending on who you talk to (and leaving aside some of the more exciting and loonier of theories), it was either a morality tale that Plato entirely fabricated or a memory of a genuine place, possibly even the Minoan colony on Santorini, which was destroyed c1600BC. Finding, locating and exploring it have been dreams of men and women ever since.

Equally, TV has been fascinated by both Atlantis (witness BBC1’s recent drama-documentary Atlantis, Stargate: Atlantis, Aquaman, The Man From Atlantis et al) and Greek myth (I ran down a big list of them a while back, if you’re interested), so it seemed natural that sooner or later there would be a show that united the two*: in this case, Atlantis from the producers of Merlin and the creator of, surprisingly enough, Misfits.  

However, as we discovered with Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans et al, there is something of a temptation as soon as the setting is ‘BC’ and Greek myth and/or history is involved to take 2,000 years of history and countless cultures from across the Mediterranean and squish them all into one big lump.

So brace yourself purists, because here we find a (seemingly) modern day guy called Jason (possibly of the Argonauts) sent back in time to Atlantis, a city that looks very craggy and North African and almost everyone dresses like they’re in a Sinbad movie (or even Prince of Persia or Sky1’s Sinbad). There he meets Pythagoras (sixth century Greek philosopher and mathematician from the island of Samos) and Hercules (Roman name for the Greek hero Herakles, who in myth lived around the 14th and 13th century BC and pretty much everywhere in Greece except Atlantis).

Surprisingly, Atlantis is ruled by King Minos (13th or 16th century BC ruler of the island of Crete) and he has to preside over a tribute of Atlantean victims (originally, victims demanded in tribute from Athens by Minos in return for continued peace) to a half-man, half-bull creature called the Minotaur, who was a man cursed by the gods for some reason (actually, the son of Minos’ wife Pasiphaë, who had a passion for bulls, after Minos decided to keep the bull Poseidon had given to him especially to sacrifice). Guess who’s going to have to kill it? I’ll give you a clue – it’s not Theseus, future king of Athens.

Sigh.

Nevertheless, for all that messing around with myth, Atlantis is a relatively fun but flawed piece of Saturday night family entertainment that’ll probably keep me watching for a while, at least. Here’s a trailer – minor spoilers ahoy after the jump:

About
A fantasy drama set in a world of legendary heroes and mythical creatures. Far from home, Jason washes up on the shores of the ancient and mysterious city of Atlantis.

Is it any good?
Actually, it’s more promising than Merlin when it first started. It has a whole host of problem, but it’s fun enough.

So obviously, it’s got a pretty good cast – at least among the adults. We have Mark Addy (Game of Thrones, The Full Monty) as Hercules, whose reputation might be bigger than his abilities, even if he weren’t a colossal coward and old and a bit portly now. Interviews with Addy suggest that the show is going the Kevin Sorbo route and making Hercules’ strength not conditional on his physique but on his divine heritage. Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Falcón, Da Vinci’s Demons) is Minos and Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply) pops up as an Oracle, who may or may not be Jason’s mum.

Things take a slight downturn among the younger members of the cast. Although we do still have the wonderful Jemima Rooper (Lost in Austen) to look forward to as a pre-snaked Medousa/Medusa, Jack Donnelly is a little uninspiring as Jason. Yes, there are lots of shots of him without his top on, showing off his chiselled physique. But he’s from the same tradition as every other BBC action show hero of late, being buff but lacking import or real charisma – he’s no Stephen Amell, let’s say.

The character of Jason is interesting though, with more mystery than you expect. Rather than Jason having a Merlin-like secret to keep, here, everyone (well, Juliet Stevenson and the Minotaur) already seems to know the answers and even the questions that Jason doesn’t but should. The slight question of how a modern day guy who ends up on Atlantis after his submarine is sucked into a glowy light is able to speak Mycenaean Greek or Minoan is covered by Jason (spoiler alert) originally coming from Atlantis without knowing it, because his dad took him away when he was a kid. Jason also has some innate gymnastic and fighting skills even he didn’t know he had that hint that perhaps his father (or even his real father) might have a touch of the divine about him – or perhaps there are gods helping him…

Pythagoras (Robert Emms) is the token nerd, good at maths and being beaten up and ribbed by Jason and co, but no actual use beyond friendship and making Hercules do the right thing (cf Zeb in The Almighty Johnsons). Emms is fine with a thankless role, but enthusing about triangles and looking like a puppy who’s been caught in a rain shower is about all he’s called on to do.

There are some women on Atlantis other than Stevenson, although you’d be hard pushed to know why, given how little interest the producers and writers have in them. Aiysha Hart (Ariadne, daughter of Minos) has the traditional role in the Minotaur myth of giving a piece of string to Jason to help him through the labyrinth, as well as the traditional role in boys-own stories of standing around looking pretty and complaining about bad things happening to good people and being told to shut up. Pasiphaë (Sarah Parish) has little to do beyond slap Ariadne around – no hint of her divine blood yet and there probably won’t be, any more than Jason is going to take on the rest of the Theseus role and ditch Ariadne on Naxos where she’ll find true love with the god Dionysos.

It’s a bit disappointing, given the strength of women in Greek myth and religion, but apparently modern day boys and men are actually less well equipped than classical Athenians to deal with strong women and their concerns. Hey ho.

With this slightly Merlin-esque foundation in place, the story then clips along at a reasonable pace, although it sags quite a bit in the middle. There’s some surprisingly good CGI and some equally surprisingly good fight scenes for a British TV show. There are a few nods here and there to other myths: the ‘witches of Colchis’ are mentioned by Ariadne at one point, for example – Jason eventually heading in myth off to Colchis with the Argonauts to get the Golden Fleece and marry the witch Medea, who is Pasiphaë’s niece. Virtually none of the story of Jason the Argonaut, whether Apollonios’ version or otherwise, are hinted at here, but there’s obviously a ways to go, although the quest for a missing father is new.

The show also has a slightly odd relationship with the Greek gods. They are at least mentioned here, albeit in their more familiar classical naming, rather than the Mycenaean/Minoan naming (Poteidan rather than Poseidon, for example) and there’s no mention of the mistress of animals, so far. However, the producers are intent on not showing the gods, even though the Atlanteans do worship them, magic and Minotaurs do exist, and oracles prophesy correctly. Whether the producers go the Homeric route of having the gods possess people or appear as normal, random mortals to work their plans, rather than having specific, repeating manifestations, we’ll have to see.

They’re also going for more of a Xena/Hercules take by having the gods being 100% cruel, even reshaping the story to absolve Minos and Pasiphaë.Whether that’ll change over time or there’ll be revelations to come, etc, is one reason to watch at least. Certainly, there is the occasional nice touch, with the Oracle this week saying that Jason’s father ‘walks among the dead’, Jason taking that to be a bad sign, when we all know that a katabasis down to Hades/Erebos is not just possible, but scheduled for next week, according to the listings mags.

Nevertheless, the show is exciting enough and smart enough that it’ll be worth watching some more episodes I reckon. There’s story arcs and mysteries hinted at, which should make it engrossing in other ways. It’s just a shame that not only are the three heroes so badly misconstrued, the female roles are so lacking. Fingers crossed, Medusa will change all that.

* Yes, I know there was an episode of Xena all about Atlantis




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  • Jimbob

    I had absolutely no hope for this show when i heard it was from the makers of Merlin, which was the most badly written, woodenly acted, waste of the lisence fee i've ever seen. Stargate Atlantis is by far the most creative interpretation of the Atlantis Myth, and i dont expect anyone to better it.

  • bob

    Some of Merlin was well written (the Howard Overman episodes) and the actors were superb making it a huge hit for the bbc with fans across all generations.

    Atlantis doesn't seem to have the charismatic actors that Merlin had but they could grow on me. A really shame about the lack of female characters though which could really hold it back if it is not remedied.

    I actually assumed that the queen was Jason's mother (nothing like an incestuous will-they-won't-they with the princess…).

  • It was certainly the show farthest away from the myth…

  • Pasiphaë? That would be a radical re-interpretation of the myth, to say the least, but possibly par for the course here.

    Not sure I'd say all the cast of Merlin was superb, but there are certainly fewer good actors here, notably Jason himself. I think Jemima Rooper should shake things up but there's the probability that they'll do a Morgana with her.

  • bob

    “but possibly par for the course here”
    It honestly never occurred to me that they were keeping to any myths- it's just a mess of ideas, much more so than Merlin.

  • Definitely more a mess than Merlin, although Merlin was a mess in its own way. They are drawing on myth, although how much that comes from original research and how much comes from Wikipedia, I wouldn't like to say (maybe they got Saturday's line about the Maenads being able to create honey and milk from rivers by reading Ion. Or…).

    But Minos being married to Pasiphae, being a king, having a daughter called Ariadne and so on aren't just random pluckings from myth, so they're not skirting it altogether, just drawing on it and putting their own dodgy spin on it.

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