Tuesday 11 October 2016

Atlantis (Popular) Rising #1: BBC's Atlantis (2013-15)

There's 26 episodes in the box, because on broadcast the last two were edited together as a feature length finale.
This is the first of a short series where I'm going to look at media artifacts that are in in some way about Atlantis. In some ways it spins off from my In Search of the Miraculous series, in that it's mainly going to be about how presentations of  Atlantis work in media.

To start with, I'm going to have a rule that it's going to be things dependent on Atlantis as a central theme, and not existing, running media properties that visit the place. I'm not counting Stargate: Atlantis as a thing I want to visit, because that sort of sci-fi leave me cold.

The Underwater Menace was not one of Doctor Who's finest moments. Frankly it wasn't anyone's.

Doctor Who visited two distinct Atlantises in the space (and time) of about four years, and sunk both of them, but one of those stories only exists in part and neither of them are gleaming gems in the British TV canon, so I'll probably give them a pass for the time being. 

In comics, too, I'm simply not qualified to comment on well over fifty years of Marvel superhero comics that visit or refer to Atlantis, and while 2000AD character Sláine met Atlanteans and even Rmoahals in one story arc, I'm not quite ready to go into that (although I might, eventually. It just means digging the comics out of the attic).

So what does that leave? Well, I'm planning to write about Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which is one of the most interesting Disney animations I've seen. I saw the 70s adventure B-movie Warlords of Atlantis as a kid and I remember it affecting me deeply, so I'll give that one a rewatch. There was a weird one-off BBC drama about the sinking of Atlantis in 2004 which was presented as a documentary, and that, in its lunacy, demands to be covered. I'll do one of Robert E Howard's Kull stories (but only one, because I'm not sure I can take more than that, and I think that suggests you know where that is going). And it's going to be fun to do that song by Donovan. That one. You know.  That one.

Beyond that, I'm completely willing to take suggestions.

Today, though, I want to talk about the relatively recent BBC TV series that simply carried the title Atlantis.

I admit, I missed it completely when it broadcast. I think I knew about it, and I remember setting my pvr to record the first season and never getting around to watching it. I heard about its cancellation last year, and did a sad little shrug, and that was it until my sister-in-law gave me the box set for my birthday a couple weeks ago. Over the last couple weeks, I watched the whole lot back to back.

It falls firmly into a genre that is by conception basically derivative,  the British weekend adventure drama. This was a Thing from the 1960s through to the 1980s, where, usually on a Saturday evening, you'd have an adventure show which the whole family could enjoy. The most famous examples were Doctor Who and The Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel, not Captain America and Thor), with a raft of other programmes bubbling under, many of which were required viewing in the days before multiple channels and video recorders. By the end of the 80s, this sort of show had vanished. It came back with a vengeance when the BBC relaunched Doctor Who in 2005. Doctor Who's return has transformed British TV. It's hard to explain to someone abroad who only knows it as a weird cult thing how absolutely colossal it is. It is the sort of show that incites national newspapers to consider casting changes and plot spoilers front-page news.

After a couple of series of Doctor Who owning Saturday TV for a solid three months each time, TV people realised that maybe the Saturday evening adventure format still had some life in it. Leaving aside attempts by rival networks to poach the Doctor Who audience, the BBC has generally broadcast these shows in the gaps between Doctor Who series, and has tried for the same sort of tone with only minor variations.
Robin Hood; Merlin; The Musketeers.

Each of these series has played it safe, taking a well-worn theme and giving you a (hopefully) charismatic ensemble cast playing out genre stories with a light touch. So each episode has a bit of action, a bit of romance, and a bit of comedy. Aside from Atlantis, since 2007 the BBC has broadcast Robin Hood (three series), Merlin (five series), and The Musketeers (three series), the last of which shook the formula up only very slightly by making the violence and sex much more explicit. Robin Hood and The Musketeers both butted against the limits of their source material very quickly, and both became pretty much unglued by their final series, with Robin Hood especially subject to a succession of truly deranged plot reversals that tore the entire premise to pieces. Merlin, which I admittedly haven't seen, mined a much broader, richer seam of source material and was by far the most popular, and it came to a natural end point.

Atlantis, which had one of the most open-ended bodies of source material you could imagine, failed. It only had two series, and unlike any of the others, finished on an end-of-season cliffhanger that would never be resolved.1  
Hercules, Jason, Pythagoras.
Atlantis, then. The central figure in Atlantis is Jason (Jack Donnelly), a young man from 21st century Britain who dives for ruins in the Aegean in the first episode. When he comes up he's in Greek mythology, specifically at the gates of Atlantis. There he discovers he has skills, strength and speed above and beyond the powers of ordinary men. He's a hero, in the sense of someone who is – and this is repeated over and over – "touched by the gods".

He quickly makes friends with Hercules (initially played by Mark Addy as a washed up, boozy blowhard, he became one of the most nuanced and interesting characters) and Pythagoras (Robert Emms), who is exceptionally clever, and fond of triangles (no, really). And he falls in love with Princess Ariadne (Aiysha Hart), initiating a traditional off-on-off-on-off relationship.

Other regulars include wise and resourceful Medusa (Jemima Rooper, a criminally underrated actor in a thankless role), whose curse only kicks in towards the end of the first series,  the all-knowing Oracle (British TV legend Juliet Stevenston) and wicked Queen Pasiphaë (the splendidly villainous Sarah Parish).

A succession of reskinned mythological figures appeared as the series progressed, like Minos (Alexander Siddig), Cassandra (Anya Taylor-Joy), Daedalus (Robert Lindsay) and his son Icarus (Joseph Timms, playing Pythagoras's love interest), and most interestingly, Medea, Jason's other love interest (Amy Manson, another underrated British actor). Well-regarded British actors like John Hannah, Ken Bones, Anton Lesser, Jason Watkins, Julian Glover, Ronald Pickup, and Donald Sumpter all had guest roles. Casting wasn't a problem.  

The significance of the setting being Atlantis is only this: it's a place where Greek mythology happens, and nothing more. It's a mash-up of Classical Athens and Minoan Crete (there's even a bull leap episode).

The Minoan Bull Leap.

The Bull Leap as shown on Atlantis.
The title sequence in the first series pans across undersea ruins which have some of the symbolic trappings of the Atlantean set dressing we see. It suggests that Atlantis is lost, is sunk; of course in the series it isn't. And this is kind of a testament to the show's biggest problem. I have no doubt at all that the creators of Atlantis had come up with the lost kingdom as a setting because it allowed for a graceful, dramatic and definite end, and that if the show had made it to the four or five series it was meant to, the city of Atlantis would have sunk beneath the sea in the finale, with all of the primary cast sailing off into the future. But it didn't, and that's something I'll come back to.

For most of the first series, Jason's status as a present-day man stuck in a society where mythology happens isn't laboured. In fact, it's not explicitly referenced ever again. But for most of those early episodes, it puts him in a place where he's playing the role of the audience, in that he needs the workings of the society explained to him but at the same time knows the Big Stories and so responds appropriately when mythology happens. So when Medusa, who has just begun a tentative relationship with Hercules, gets hit with her curse, and Jason and friends discover all these weird statues around where she's hiding, it's Jason who tells the others not to look, because he's at the very least seen Clash of the Titans and he knows what she's become.

By Series 2, even though he finds out who his parents are, he never mentions his origin again and he's more or less assimilated into to the culture and if you hadn't seen that first episode, you wouldn't necessarily have the first inkling who he is. 
Jason meets the Minotaur.
And a lot of mythology happens. Jason himself, as well as becoming that Jason, the Jason and the Argonauts Jason, also takes on the role of a Perseus and a Theseus.You get Medusa with her snake hair, the Cyclops, the Minotaur, the Underworld, Pandora's Box, the story of Oedipus, Daedalus and Icarus and so on. Some of these stories are subverted. 
DAEDALUS: If you fly too close to the sun, the wax on your wings will melt. You will plummet to the ground and you will surely die.
ICARUS: But it's night. There isn't any sun.
DAEDALUS: Oh. You'll probably be all right, then.
"The Queen Must Die"

Some are just done really badly (they pick the birth of Oedipus to base a story around, for example, which only has any stake at all if you care about Greek Tragedy).

Of course, Atlantis takes liberties with mythology, but then Greek mythology takes liberties with Greek mythology! There is no point in being precious. Like, yes, it should probably be Herakles, but everyone knows who Hercules is. The recognition is more immediate.

The real problem is not the liberties. It's not the performances. It's not the production values. It's that the show took so long to go anywhere.

Taking six episodes of myth-of-the-week before you actually get to the arc and then going back to weekly things might be a reasonable tactic when you're Netflix and you can drop all the episodes at once, but on broadcast TV, it doesn't matter if by episode nine your show starts gathering steam. Few people will watch long enough. And that's how it played with Atlantis. For the first series, all but about four episodes are about Ancient Greek Mythological Thing of the Week, and it frankly gets wearing, particularly when some of those episodes are plain bad ("Hunger Pangs", the werewolf episode, is appalling). There is no time for filler when you only have thirteen episodes to establish yourself, and nearly half of the first season is filler.

By the very end of the series, the arc has kicked in properly. Series Two is all arc. But here, the problem of delays becomes even worse. The early episodes of are full of promise and the last few are great, but in between the series still sputters and stumbles; Pasiphaë goes into exile and then she takes over and throws Jason and Ariadne out and captures Jason and he gets rescued and there's some sexual tension with him and Medea and then Jason and Ariadne force Pasiphaë into exile and then she takes over again and Jason gets thrown into prison and then he gets rescued and there's some sexual tension between him and Medea...

The whole arc of the second series takes about twice as long as it needs to.
Jason and Medea on the first iteration of the sexual tension plot. Or maybe the second.
To put it this way, if you have a show about the Greek hero Jason, or a version of him, taking twenty-five episodes before you even get to a mention of the Argo and the Golden Fleece (and then getting cancelled before you even manage it), is simply not good enough. The show didn't just meander, it actively stalled, repeating plot elements over and over.

And this was a shame. There was a lot of potential in Atlantis, and it was squandered.

The very name Atlantis promises a cataclysm. You can't have Atlantis without it sinking in some way. And the show didn't deliver on that, at all, and I'm positive it would have; but it took so long getting round to the good stuff that some of it never even happened.

No wonder it sank. It suffered the humiliating fate of being cancelled after its last episode – a cliffhanger – was in the can. So it didn't finish. The makers apparently held out hope that it might get picked up by Amazon or Netflix but to be honest I don't think enough people cared. The second series was a massive improvement, and its last three or four episodes were genuinely good, but what difference did it make? The good episodes should have been at the start of Series One.

Still, at least there was a bit when they got to fight the skeletons.

1Unlike American TV networks, who just yank series from the air when they're cancelled (the most celebrated example being Firefly whose last four episodes weren't even broadcast), the BBC as a public service broadcaster has to account for any money it's spent, and has to broadcast TV it has paid for, no matter how unpopular or lacklustre it might be. This means that sometimes BBC shows are terrible and the BBC know they're terrible, and kill them dead pretty much before they're even on. Hyperdrive, for instance, was never given the first chance (and dammit it wasn't good but I liked Hyperdrive because what is not to love about Miranda Hart in space?)
I am probably the only person who owns the Hyperdrive box set.

Sometimes it means that a show that's tanking really badly gets moved unceremoniously to times when no one is watching, meaning that often these show's plummeting ratings become self-fulfilling prophecies. One classic example is the 2011 sci-fi show Outcasts, which was originally broadcast at 9.00pm on a Monday; its last few episodes were shown mid-week at about half an hour to midnight. Orphan Black, too, which is a great show made with BBC money and a monster hit on BBC America, was such a huge flop in the UK that the second series was shown on the wasteland digital channel BBC3 at 11pm on a weeknight, and the third was dumped on iPlayer as a block with no fanfare. (back)