Atlantis - Hit or Myth? | Fanboys Anonymous

Atlantis - Hit or Myth?

Posted by DAJB Sunday, September 29, 2013
It may take a while to reach foreign shores but, here in Blighty, the first episode of the BBC's new fantasy series Atlantis aired last night. It was trumpeted as having been made by the same team behind Merlin, a series which was an international hit for the Beeb but which, for me, never quite managed to decide whether it was meant for adults or children. Maybe Atlantis would have a clearer idea of its target audience.

BBC show Atlantis starring Jack Donnelly and Mark Addy from Game of Thrones and The Full Monty
A classic in the making? Or an epic fail?

The Greeks have an (English) word for it

To be honest, after all the copper-toned glimpses of the ancient world shown in the trailers for this show, I was expecting a poorly acted, low budget TV version of Wrath of the Titans. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that the story began in the present day with our hero Jason (Jack Donnelly) preparing to take a trip in a submersible. He is following in the footsteps of his father who was lost on a similar undersea expedition. If the show was going to feature parallel plot threads unfolding in both in the modern and in the classical worlds, I was tempted to think it could indeed be something special. Something like a fantasy version of Life on Mars.

Sadly, the promise of that beginning proved shortlived. The modern day backstory was dropped immediately and, within minutes of the opening titles, Jason's mini-submarine was struck by a mysterious undersea light, leaving him stranded on a sandy beach. He'd arrived, of course, in the legendary sunken city of Atlantis.

Mark Addy as Hercules, Jack Donnelly as Jason and Robert Emms as Pythagoras
Jason, Hercules and Pythagoras. Without whom
no triangle would be complete.
He'd also arrived naked but, conveniently, he'd washed up next to a pile of local clothes. Phew! Similarly convenient, it transpired that the native language in this part of Ancient Greece was English. Or perhaps there was a Star Trek team nearby with a Universal Translator. Or perhaps, being a BBC production, the Tardis was parked just down the beach by the fishing boat. We'll never know. It was never explained.

Anyway, five minutes in and I was ready to give the show full marks for not wasting any time before plunging us headlong into the heart of the story, and none at all for building a credible scenario with characters who respond to events in a realistic manner. Even the Pevensie children had the sense to show a little disbelief when they stepped through a wardrobe and found themselves in Narnia.

Jason, in contrast, acclimatised within minutes of arrival and proceeded to take everything in his stride. During the rest of the show he spent next to no time questioning how he came to be in Atlantis and none at all how he might return to the surface world. Tsk! Remember when scientists used to want to search for answers?

New myths for old

Ariadne from the BBC fantasy show Atlantis
Ariadne. Her mother had sex with a bull.
Did you know 'therapy' was a Greek word?

The pattern for the rest of the series was also established very early on. Jason met his two companions: a cowardly Hercules (played by the always lovable Mark Addy) and the triangle-obsessed maths-nerd Pythagoras (Robert Emms). Without giving away too many spoilers, it's clear that these characters are there to provide comic relief and that the show intends to play fast and loose with Greek mythology. Forget about Theseus, Perseus and Odysseus. In this show, it's Jason who's clearly destined to defeat all those ancient beasties as he tries to discover the truth about his father's death and why it is he feels so at home in this alien world.

Of course, feeling at home is always easier if there's a love interest to keep the hero company and in Atlantis Jason is helped by the princess Ariadne. Oh, and he rescues a peasant girl Helena from a particularly gruesome death. It's not clear whether Helena will have any role to play in Jason's future but it seems as if Ariadne is destined to provide a little womanly affection. Perhaps she'll take the place of half a dozen different Greek heroines, just as it appears Jason will be substituted for a whole phalanx of different heroes.

Surprisingly in this age of political correctness, Ariadne has not been reinvented as a sword-wielding, butt-kicking action woman, but is allowed to act as befits the daughter of a king, helping Jason in more subtle ways. As someone who believes the tough action heroine has become as stale a cliche as the damsel-in-distress stereotype it replaced, I found that quite refreshing.

Greek temple or sunken ruin?

For a UK TV production, the acting in Atlantis is actually quite good. It's a little hammy at times but, for the most part, that suits the light tone of the show. Alongside Mark Addy, the best known member of the cast is probably Juliet Stevenson who plays a Greek oracle. Like many film and TV oracles before her Stevenson's role, it seems, is to give Jason just enough information about the future to get himself into danger, and never quite enough to answer the questions he really wants answered. Pfft! Oracles, eh?

Inevitably, the CGI environments are not up to the standards of a Hollywood blockbuster movie and would certainly never fool a Frodo Baggins, but they are reasonably convincing. I was particularly struck by the fact that, while some bigger budget TV productions, like Spartacus, have resorted to monochrome to disguise the shortcomings of CGI imagery, the buildings in Atlantis look light and airy, bright and colourful - the kind of buildings you might actually want to live in and around.

Juliet Stevenson of Atlantis, Truly Madly Deeply, Bend it Like Beckham and Mona Lisa Smile
The oracle. Knows everything but prone to mislead.
You know, like the internet.

So, overall, I quite liked this first episode, but I do question the BBC's decision to pitch this as a prime time evening show. With so many issues glossed over, quickly resolved or even more quickly forgotten, I still see Atlantis as a show for kids, just as I did Merlin. It's a superior show for kids, admittedly, and one for parents who want something that's not too condescending that they can watch with their kids. It's light drama, and I feel it would do much better in an early evening time slot where it wouldn't be compared to far better financed fantasy shows from the US, like Fringe or Haven. If only they'd had access to an oracle, maybe someone at the Beeb would have foreseen that!

Have you managed to see this show yet? What did you think? Is there a future for a show set so resolutely in the ancient past? Or, like Atlantis itself, is it destined to sink without trace?

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