It’s not often that I’m tempted to use the tag terrible or hot mess to describe something but it’s not often I watch something so ludicrous that actual words fail me. I watch a lot of period dramas — click here for more thoughts–and you can basically split them into three categories:
-An amazing show that transcends its genre
-The ‘it’s-so-bad-it’s-good’ or guilty pleasures.
-Unwatchable and pretentious.
In the first category you’ve got Wolf Hall or Pillars of the Earth, shows that remain faithful to the historical period they’re set in while being entertaining. Guilty pleasures usually come in the form of campy, expensive melodramas — see The Tudors or the first season of The Borgias— which acknowledge their source material but are less than faithful to actual events e.g. The Tudors inventing a fictional pope for the sake of a plot-line. The third category is a perfect storm of the first and second groups: they’re shows that are so desperate to be taken seriously that they fall into turgid, boring self-parodies that are usually inaccurate. Shows like The White Queen, The Borgias s2/3 and today’s featured drama, Atlantis, all fall into this group.
Before I start this review and recap, a note: if you like Atlantis, that’s great. If you’re a fan this isn’t meant to offend you, after all, this is just one opinion on the internet, so please don’t spam me with angry emails if I’m rude about your OTP.
So with that said, let’s examine the case of the Greek tragedy that is Atlantis.
We begin in the present day with our attractive yet bland hero Jason in a submarine looking for the fabled city of Atlantis to fulfil his father’s dream of finding it. We then get a confusing CGI light-show before Jason’s sub explodes and he wakes up on a beach. Yep, this is a time travel story folks. Jason then stumbles around the unimaginatively designed Atlantis, attacks a poorly animated lizard and then flees some murderous guards.
It’s now that I’ll touch on the first thing that really annoyed me: the lazy set and character designs. As an entirely fictional city, we have absolutely no record of what Atlantis looked like. There are no remains for us to reconstruct and no historical records outside the world of myths. Therefore, if you’re writing a show set in Atlantis surely this gives you scope to go absolutely off the wall with your creative design right? Sadly, the Atlantis we’re presented with something that could have been lifted from any TV show set in Ancient Greece/Rome. I mean come on BBC, even the Disney movie made an effort to create an original design! Also, YOU’RE IN A MYTHOLOGICAL CITY, surely your costume department could come up with something a little more interesting than a bog-standard toga. And before anyone complains that I’m picky and that the show was trying to accurately recreate Greek clothes, Greek men didn’t wear TROUSERS as they associated them with warriors from the east.
Anyway, Jason is soon rescued by a weedy dude called Pythagoras who (wait for it) “does stuff with triangles.” A quick Wikipedia search can tell anyone that the famed triangle expert was actually from Samos an island in the Aegean Sea and NOT Atlantis. Pythagoras’s heterosexual life partner and roomie is a gruff middle-aged man named Hercules (should be Heracles if we’re going Greek) of the twelve labours fame. Here is a picture of the guy they chose to cast:
Just take that in. Digest that picture and this casting choice. Seriously, I can handle shoving Pythagoras into your cast for a few nerd jokes but casting this Ray Winstone knock off as the most iconic Greek hero? I don’t want or need to see Heracles with a middle age spread and a tendency for bad jokes. I must confess that I found this casting decision ruined the show for me, as it is such a stupid, pointless move to make. That said, this is the only non-contrived original thing about the episode.
Jason is keen to find out how he time-travelled back several thousand years and is packed off for a meeting with the mysterious and back-tattooed Oracle. The Oracle is wilfully unhelpful and implies that Jason crossed over through some vortex and that his dad is a Classical Time Lord (keep up).This is a scene that has been repeated in every episode so far; Jason asks who he really is and the Oracle replies with a vague “you can’t know who you are but you’re very important” answer. Because he’s too wussy to put up a fight, Jason leaves the temple frustrated before conveniently forgetting about it.
Moving on swiftly, we’re introduced to King Minos, the clearly evil Queen Pasiphae and their simpering daughter Ariadne. Ariadne is getting pretty flustered because every year the people of Atlantis are forced send seven sacrifices to the Minotaur as penance for annoying the easily annoyed Poseidon. Sound (sort of) familiar? I have a feeling that the writers are trying to imply that Atlantis is actually Crete but this doesn’t really work on several levels. Firstly, in the original myth, the people who are sacrificed to the Minotaur are Athenian and it’s a consequence of a war between King Minos of Crete and King Aegeus of Athens not a fallout with a god. Academic nit-picking aside, the move to borrow from Creten culture is symbolic of a wider problem of Atlantis. To put it simply the point of Atlantis – as Jason mentions – is that it’s a lost city, it sunk. Last time I checked the modern-day Crete is still afloat.
That night Hercules – forgetting his heroic bravery – decides to flee Crete/Atlantis to avoid a nasty Minotaur-related death. Despite the fact that Hercules has fought sea monsters, three-headed dogs and GODS, the Minotaur is a step too far and yes, I know this Hercules is meant to be a little past it but come on now! Because the plot demands it, Hercules is quickly thwarted and the next day our three protagonists find themselves at the super special ceremony to decide who gets to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Atlantians must simply pick stones from a hat to determine their fate; if you pick a white stone you live to fight another year, if it’s black say your goodbyes now. Admittedly, this could be seen as a subtle nod to the black or white sails that Theseus is supposed to use to signify whether he’d survived his encounter with the Minotaur in the original myth – spoiler alert: he forgets. Again because the plot demands it, one of our heroes – the wimpy Pythagoras – pulls out a black stone and is condemned to death.
Jason, who is suffering from a nasty case of Stockholm Syndrome/Greek heroism, decides to take Pythagoras’ place and slay the monster who has been terrorising people for years. Here is another problem with the plot and its severe lack of focus. The first ten minutes establishes a simple ‘fish-out-of-water’ scenario with Jason acclimatising to Greek culture and coming to terms with the fact he’s living several thousand years in the past; however, it takes Jason about five minutes to befriend Pythagoras and Hercules and adjust to a life without smartphones. There is no character struggle or sense of dramatic tension because any cultural problems are removed before we have time to acknowledge them. In homage to the original myth, Ariadne sneaks over to Theseus Jason and gives him the magical thread that will help him navigate the labyrinth and escape. This is another homage to the original myth but it does beg the question why the writers decided to name our protagonist after a completely different hero!? From here on it’s clear that Ariadne and Jason’s relationship is going to be the season’s big love story, which is a shame because (in the words of the great Mark Kermode) it’s like watching two Ikea chairs mating.
To cut a long story short, all our heroes end up in the dimly lit maze with some other unfortunates waiting to be eaten/crushed/maimed. In true Scooby Doo style, everybody gets separated and Jason inevitably runs into a poorly animated Minotaur. Awkward CGI is a reoccurring trend throughout the series, the characters on screen unable to interact well with their green screen counterparts. This does kill the tension a little but, to be honest, when you’re watching a paunchy Hercules being chased by rabid monkeys – don’t ask – the tension isn’t there anyway. Unsurprisingly Jason kills the Minotaur with ease…seriously in the space of one night this guy has picked up swordplay and gravity defying stunts that would make the Wachowski sisters blush. Finally, thankfully, our episode then ends with the heroes deciding to band together and fight monsters for a living.
So that was the first episode of Atlantis annnnnd it was pretty bad. I’m not angry at its clumsy approach to mythology because not everybody (including me) is a Classicist with an in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology. Instead, I was more disappointed with its startling lack of creativity and overall laziness. The sets were uninspired, the script clunky, and, worst of all, the characters were one-note. It is implied that Jason will discover more about who he really is but he displays so little interest in this that you cease to care about it. I know that sometimes you need to give things another chance but I’m four hours in and it’s not got any better. Every episode introduces a new mythological character for our heroes to encounter and I’ve saved the worst till last. In the second episode Jason and friends run into a pretty young woman called…Medusa. Spoiler: although she’s not yet snakey-haired google images delivered this picture:
She’s still not ugly enough right?! Apart from some poorly animated snakes, that face ain’t turning anyone into stone. FYI it’s implied that she bumps ugly with Hercules, an image that makes me feel cold and dead inside. Although Atlantis is more tragic than anything Euripedes or Sophocles could dream, up I’ll probably end up watching more episodes because I hate myself.
That said, I still hated it less than The White Queen…
Over and out!