Res Gerendae’s been quiet for the summer. One of us was exiled to Dacia where, I’m reliably informed, it’s just horrible; one of us had to go down to the Underworld to consult the shade of a 19th-century German philologist regarding a footnote; another unfortunate went to Turkey for a conference, got lost while hitch-hiking home and is now shacked up with a strange lady and her large collection of pigs. We expect them back some time in the next decade.
But with term about to start, the Fates decreed that Res Gerendae should return. And what better way than with a review of Atlantis, the BBC’s new sort-of-Classics-themed sword-and-sandals Saturday night effort.
Having followed the pre-launch buzz of this series with, if not interest, then at least moderate curiosity, the group of us that gathered a couple of nights ago to watch had a pretty good idea what we were in for. Atlantis is the latest in a line of shows aimed at filling the Doctor Who slot when that series isn’t on, but which never come close to equalling it. Most immediately, this is the pseudo-Minoan themed replacement for Merlin, a series I found so bad I didn’t make it to the end of the first episode but which I know a lot of other people quite liked. We already knew the main trio of characters was Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules, so we weren’t expecting the slightest bit of historical or mythological accuracy. That wasn’t what we were hoping for. Instead, we were holding out for a so-bad-it’s-good dose of cheesy Classical camp in the vein of the old B-movies by Harryhausen et al. which have been entertaining us for some time now.
Mehercle! Were we disappointed! Sorry everyone, I’m afraid I’m going to have to unleash the hunting-lions.
Atlantis is terrible. Not because it’s a historical jumble (though it is). Not because it’s camp. Atlantis is dire because there’s not a single spark of imagination or life in the whole thing. The three main characters are devoid of personality, either in script or acting. Hercules fares best: he’s a bit cowardly and fat. Pythagoras likes triangles. Jason is a blank-faced, blandly attractive pec-transportation vehicle whose other main skill is to occasionally stare into the middle-distance in front of azure Mediterranean vistas, in scenes that have him resembling a cut-price Michael C. Scott. There are some women in supporting roles, but they have hardly any screen time and are even less developed.
If the main cast disappoint, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s tuning in for the story. It’s the Minotaur myth. Yawn. No innovations, no new twist. Just your bog-standard Minotaur myth done in thoroughly workmanlike and cursory fashion and with a few utterly generic oracles and arc-plot hints which fell off the back of Life on Mars’s lorry some time ago, have been run over a few times to the point that they now lack any depth, and are here dusted off and waved in front of us in a vague attempt to keep us watching. Jason’s looking for his missing father… He had an accident and now he’s mad, in a coma or back in time… There’s a by-numbers Oracle who drops a few cryptic hints about his destiny…
And what about Atlantis itself? Well what about it? It’s an utterly generic beige town that could belong to any time, any place. The architecture is somewhere between Renaissance Italy and Ottoman, with a few random columns here and there. The fabled Labyrinth is a dingy cave. Apart from it supplying a few randomly-selected character names and the CGI monster, there’s no engagement whatsoever with the Aegean setting.
Without imagination or innovation, Atlantis plods through its poorly-written script, ticking off all the requisite boxes for various demographics with all the effortless ease of a Cyclops on the asymmetric bars. Jason/Pythagoras slashbait for the ex-Merlin shippers: check. Hints at flirtation with attractive girl for those who prefer their shipping that way round: check. Cursory fight scenes and CGI monster for the little boys: check. Game of Thrones and Star Trek alumni to reel in the older SF/fantasy crowd: check. Attempts at humorous banter: check (but failed: they all fall horribly flat). It’s just all so utterly formulaic and rote. Nothing sparkles. Nothing convinces.
You might argue I’m being unfair: it’s only the first episode and there’s a lot to establish. Fair enough, but compare this with the first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who, ‘Rose’. Both are about ordinary people who fall out of the modern world and into a strange, monster-filled one. ‘Rose’ arguably has a harder job in that it has to re-introduce a concept with 40 years of baggage and a reputation which had been in the doldrums. Now I don’t much care that episode, but it manages to give the character Rose more depth and personality in its opening 5 minutes than any of the Atlantis cast acquire in a whole episode. Not everything works and there’s no denying the actual plot is underdeveloped, but there are moments that shine, moments of humour, moments of genuine whimsy and surprising darkness. You can do a first episode of this kind of series and not make it a bland, pointless expanse of beige. All Atlantis had to do was watch its forebears, learn and improve. Instead it is so desperate to be all things to all people that it ends up being nothing.
If you want the BBC’s take on Minoan Atlantis, watch the Time Monster. If you want a new take on the Minotaur story, watch the Horns of Nimon. Both are, by any objective measure, terrible bits of television. But both have more love, more enthusiasm, more humour and, most of all, more fun than Atlantis can ever dream of.
After watching Atlantis, we watched this as a palate-cleanser. We all felt better afterwards.