Critique : BBC Atlantis (Television)

(By Arianne Lapierre)

English television broadcasters seem to have an unhealthy fondness for dramas that are bound to end in tragedy. It seems especially true (but not exclusively) when it concerns original British dramas produced by the BBC. That is the first reason why I was very dubious when the BBC announced the new show that was going to fill in the hole left  in the Saturday programming by Merlin, which ended (tragically) on Christmas Eve (nonetheless!) 2012.

Why was I dubious? Well, because Atlantis is the one myth in which I’m pretty sure everybody can legitimately die drowned in saltwater during a two-parter finale a few years from now. But since it hasn’t happened yet, let’s just talk about that first series, yeah?

In Atlantis’s first episode we meet Jason, who lives in our contemporary world and is trying to find his father who has disappeared after diving into the ocean inside a small submarine. So naturally, Jason jumps into a little submarine himself and goes exactly where his father’s submarine disappeared… and is sucked up in a bright, white light. Following this event, Jason wakes up – completely naked – on a beach. I emphasized on the protagonist’s nakedness as much as the producers of this show did, because there is a lot of… unnecessary topless men in this first series. But hey, why complain about boys being naked when more than half of the women in the media also seem to have mandatory partial nudity scenes?

bbc altlantis2Bad call, I know. Anyway, even if I was dubious, I do have to admit that I grew more and more fond of it as it progressed. Jack Donnelly is an inexperienced but talented and charismatic lead for the show. The addition of Robert Emms as nobody else than bloody Pythagoras himself is a nice twist that will make the average viewer curious about the character. It makes the show interesting at first sight, and the fact that he is essentially Jason’s more grounded and nerdy sidekick is another thing that works well for the show. Among other well known characters freshly handpicked from greek mythology books are Ariadne, Medusa, Hercules and Pasiphae,  who is brilliantly played by Sarah Parish. Ariadne is not half bad, except I found her character to be very sluggish in personality and way too submitted to her father (Minos) and Pasiphae’s power every episode she was in. Not every female character has to be a strong, independent woman, but I really hope they show that Ariadne can do anything else other than look pretty and frustrated/sad/afraid all the time. I dearly hope her character grows in strength as the story progresses.

The bad news is… this first series doesn’t seem to have a direct plotline. Pasiphae makes a nice villain but other stories sometimes feel like character explorations and brainstorming session. It is especially true in “The Furies” where the main plot shows Hercules, Pythagoras and Jason travel into the desert to bring a cargo to another city. It feels and looks like a  clumsy pretext to explore Pythagoras’s backstory. The highlights of the series are surely the pilot episode and the last two, “Touched by the gods: Part 1 and Part 2” which brings on many twists and higher stakes that promise a great second series. In the meantime, the whole atmosphere feels cozy, with the cute romance between Jason and Ariadne and the brotherly relationship with Pythagoras and Hercules.

Then, because the BBC drama village seems to only have 7 sets, 10 actors and a handful of extras’ costumes, the series feels and looks exactly like Merlin, up to the point where you’d think they emptied Gaius’ physician workshop when they wrapped up Merlin and moved the furniture around to make it look like Pythagoras’ flat. It somehow makes Atlantis feel unoriginal, as if the BBC wasn’t ready to have a popular show such as Merlin end and asked the producers to make exactly the same thing.

Looking back at it, I’ll have to admit; except for the visuals, Atlantis doesn’t quite seem to be an improvement on the Merlin series like Jack Donnelly first said in an early interview. Rather, it seems to take it back right where it started. While Merlin’s later series had a much stronger plotline, Atlantis’s first series is all but a repeating pattern where filler episodes are the norm and the main plot remains all foggy and barely explored, the main problems being prophecies and money.

But what is it to love to this new series so that it can be renewed? Well, for one, it’s really, really nice, cute and light family entertainment. It looks a tiny bit like real life cartoons, has loads of brilliant jokes now and then, enough drama to interest the adults and characters who are still working on their group chemistry but hold a promising potential. It has charm and it gets wittier every episode. It gets more and more interesting as the characters develop. Moreover, and again in a similar fashion than Merlin did for the Arthurian legend, it pulls a fresh twist on greek mythology. Let’s face it, that Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere and Morgana were young people was far more interesting than to see a child and an old man build a kingdom together. In Atlantis’ case, it is far more interesting to see Jason hang out with Pythagoras and fall in love with Ariadne than to suffer through endless hours of greek gods pulling off tantrums and ahem… flirting with each other.

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