Sunday, 29 September 2013

Premiere: BBC1's ATLANTIS

Sunday, 29 September 2013

What's it about? Fantasy-adventure series Atlantis concerns a modern-day man called Jason; who finds himself whisked back through time to the city of Atlantis before its famous watery demise.

Who's made it? Merlin writer Howard Overman (Misfits) created this BBC show, which is produced by his Merlin bosses Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy through their newly-founded Urban Myth Films. This premiere was directed by Justin Molotnikov (Merlin), who will be returning for future instalments.

Who stars in it? Jack Donnelly takes the lead as Jason (you probably don't remember him from Misfits as 'The White Rabbit' from series 4), joined by Robert Emms as egghead pal Pythagoras and Mark Addy (The Full Monty) as a middle-aged Hercules. Sarah Parish (Cutting It) and Alexander Siddig (Star Trek Deep Space Nine) play Atlantis royalty, with Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) as the city's mysterious Oracle, and Aiysha Hart as love-interest Ariadne.

What's good about it? It certainly looks very impressive. The team behind Atlantis obviously spent five years honing their craft on Merlin, so this premier looked more expensive than I suspect it is. Filmed partly on location in Morocco, it has a similar atmosphere to Sky's short-lived fantasy series Sinbad, but doesn't feel as rough-and-ready. The digital compositing is also well done, with impressive expanding of locations, and a two-headed lizard certainly didn't embarrass the production. The climactic Minotaur beast was also nicely brought to life.

I'm also grateful the marketing team avoided letting us know that Jason is an accidental time-traveller, which gives Atlantis an unanticipated source of mystery and fun. This premiere didn't go overboard with the fish-out-of-water potential of Jason's character, or the fact he can obvious teach these primitive people a thing or two, but that's almost inevitably in the show's future. It also means the writing of Jason doesn't have to avoid modern parlance and references, as he's very much the audience's eyes and ears into this strange world.

The casting is also good, for the most part. Donnelly makes a change from more boyish heroes the BBC has tended to favour in its fantasy shows, although he's a little stiff at times. Addy's the most personable of the bunch, having perfected this character type (Hercules is an amalgam of his Trollied butcher and Game of Thrones king), while Robert Emms was pleasant enough as Pythagoras. In some ways the most interesting presence was Aiysha Hart as Ariadne, whose beauty and screen presence overcame stilted dialogue.

What's bad about it? It's a bit of a mishmash of history and myth, which will irritate some. I'm not too fussed about how loosely the show splices fiction with fact, but I was confused Hercules doesn't appear to have amazing strength on this show. One thus assumes he isn't a demi-God, so it already feels like a missed opportunity reducing Mark Addy to portly comic relief—grumbling over snide remarks about his weight ("I'm not fat, I'm big-boned"). He should have been this show's version of Obelix from Asterix. Oh, and Lord knows why Pythagoras has been included as nerdy sidekick; considering Overman had his pick of many more interesting mythical figures, and appears to only understand that Pythagoras had a thing about triangles.

I also couldn't help comparing everything to Merlin, and it came up short in the sense that Merlin always had a clear goal to aim for. It presented us with the unseen "early years" of the aged wizard everyone's familiar with, so part of the fun was seeing how the writers moved towards that end-game (no matter how slowly or poorly at times).

Atlantis doesn't have the same clear goal, which in some ways is a good thing, but in its place is a vague hope audiences will be gripped by Jason's search for his missing father (who's presumed dead, and appeared to have smuggled baby Jason into the future because he has a great destiny). They might very well be right about audiences getting hooked into Jason's familial mysteries, but perhaps it would have been best to play up the fact Atlantis is doomed to crumble into the ocean soon?

The weirdness of Jason waking up naked on a beach after travelling through an underwater time-hole while inside a submersible, can't be overlooked either. What the hell happened to his clothes? And why was there a handy pile of coetaneous apparel waiting for him on a beach? Jason's lack of culture-shock about finding himself in 'The Lost City of Atlantis' was also a disappointment, considering that stuff's so fun to see. I understand you can't keep seeing Jason look agog at everything he encounters, but it didn't take long for me to actually forget he's from "the future"... and that's not good.

Oh, and let's hope The Oracle isn't Atlantis's version of the Dragon from Merlin; a dull, enigmatic character who only exists to deliver exposition and nudge the hero along to predetermined goals.

Is it worth sticking with? This fills the family-friendly fantasy gap Merlin left behind quite well, even if there are less reasons to keep watching it. Capps and Murphy dropped the ball with Merlin too many times (the chemistry of the actors and production values did the heavy-lifting), but I'm hoping Overman's going to keep this show's narrative on-track.

The key thing to avoid is having every episode tell a tweaked version of a classic Greek myth. The premiere involved the story of "Theseus and the Minotaur" (which was fine), but the trailer for next week's episode confirms an appearance by Medusa. I just hope they don't exhaust the best characters and legends Greece has to offer by the end of series 1!

Anything else worth mentioning? Why did schedulers decide to air this at 8:25pm? By the time it finished a lot of the younger audience will have been sent to bed. I hope they see sense and move it to an earlier timeslot soon, but I suspect the BBC just want it to air opposite ITV's X Factor—seeing as Merlin was so effectively in that 'counter-programming' role during its final, darker seasons.

Where and when does it air? Saturdays on BBC, with a BBC America premiere set for 23 November (the day of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special). Canada's Space channel are getting it over a month earlier, from 12 October.