The BBC’s new Greek mythology family adventure drama Atlantis is designed to take the place of the recently departed series Merlin and to hit the sweet spot between children’s and adult entertainment. I’ll confess that I found the pilot it a bit too far toward the children’s end of the spectrum to be truly enjoyable, but it was a pleasant enough hour if you don’t think about it too hard. I’m willing to give the show a few more episodes to find its grounding, which is about what I gave Merlin before giving up on it.
Fair warning: If you haven’t seen the show or are waiting for the U.S. broadcast in November, you may want to tread lightly over the next few paragraphs, though I don’t think I’m giving away too much that one couldn’t guess from the trailers and a bit of Greek mythic knowledge.
Atlantis opens in the present day with our hero, Jason (Jack Donnelly), aboard a ship in search of his missing father’s destroyed submarine. He descends into the ocean to find its remains only to black out and awaken nude (and he will spend most of the hour bare-chested or nude) on a beach in Atlantis. Dressing in some clothes left on the beach, he wanders into the city, meeting an overweight, grandiose Hercules—the show’s single best reinterpretation of Greek myth—and the nerdy Pythagoras, who is surprised by Jason’s knowledge of his love of triangles. Pythagoras saves Jason from some soldiers, and Jason feels indebted to him.
The three men quickly bond by way of sharing personality quirks with each other, and the show seems content to develop this “bromance” as its central concern. The show’s few female characters are (a) the maiden Ariadne, whose entire personality in the pilot is expressed as a blank stare, (b) the matron Pasiphae, who says and does nothing, and (c) the crone known as the Oracle, who is a liar. The three appear to be teen boys’ half-formed ideas of what women are (sexy, submissive, and/or frightening), though I imagine this will change in future episodes.
This Atlantis is visually interesting, a combination of Classical Greek (and Roman—exterior Corinthian capitals abound) architecture and that of Minoan Crete. By British standards, the CGI backdrops are seamlessly integrated with physical sets in Morocco and on a British soundstage. Yet this Atlantis is all beige from top to bottom, in marked contrast to the riotous color of actual Greek (and probably Minoan) architecture. It’s strange that the stereotype of colorless Classical buildings persists more than two centuries after Johann Joachim Winckelmann first exposed the truth about ancient taste in paint.
The stylized aesthetics of the show fall about halfway between the threadbare sets of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and the CGI-heavy remake of Clash of the Titans, but the budget doesn’t quite allow for the lavish Immortals-style look they’re going for. Mostly, it looks like Sky’s cancelled Sinbad series from last year, and Sinbad’s Arabian feints aside, the two series could easily be mistaken for one another. The soundstages especially contrast markedly with the outdoor work filmed on location in Morocco.
The BBC’s city of Atlantis is apparently meant to be Minoan Crete, following the widespread interpretation of the Atlantis story favored by Rodney Castleden and Gavin Menzies among others. Here, Atlantis’s king is Minos and its queen Pasiphae, identified in real Greek myth with Crete. Beneath the palace are the caves of the Minotaur, though this monster is no longer the love child of a sexually obsessed Pasiphae and Poseidon’s divine bull (Apollodorus 3.1.4). Instead, this Minotaur has a different, less interesting origin, and the climactic battle with him is something of a disappointment, both in terms of staging and in CGI.
It goes without saying that Minos is a cruel ruler, and he demands seven sacrifices for the Minotaur each year, a story taken from the myth of Theseus (Apollodorus 3.15.8, E 1.7-9) but transformed from an Athenian tribute to Crete to self-sacrifice by Atlanteans in the manner of Shirley Jackson’s lottery—literally so in that the Atlanteans must draw lots to choose the condemned. Ancient sources differ: Some held that the Athenian sacrifices were chosen by lot (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 17.1, e.g.) but Hellanicus says that Minos traveled to Athens to take his pick for sacrifice (Plutarch, Life of Theseus 17.3).
Pythagoras gets chosen, and the show’s three heroes spend the night commiserating over Pythagoras’ lot, leading to perhaps the only line I laughed at, when Hercules bellows to a logorrhea-prone Pythagoras, “We’re not going to spend your last supper discussing triangles.” Obviously he wasn’t aware of tomorrow’s Ancient Aliens…
Anyway, it takes no expert to see that Jason will offer himself in self-sacrifice voluntarily, just like Theseus in the version of Apollodorus (E 1.7), nor that the show will follow the usual formula whereby Ariadne provides a clue (a ball of twine) to escape the labyrinth, nor whether our hero will survive. The show includes some dark hints that Jason has an untold destiny that some pine for and others fear. Ariadne seems to be indicated as a future love interest, if her rather blank stare can be indicative of love.
It’s rather interesting that the producers of Atlantis have substituted Jason into a story of Theseus, for commentators on myth have long recognized the very clear structural similarity between the Jason and Theseus stories. I have conveniently summarized the similarities elsewhere, and I’ll repeat the chart here:
It’s also interesting to note that Jason’s ex-wife, Medea, is said to have married Theseus’ father and was therefore Theseus’ step-mother. Perhaps more interesting is the notion that both the story of Jason, Medea, and the Fleece and that of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur shared an ancient origin in an Indo-European story of a passage to the underworld and the resulting marriage to a goddess, a story included a second time in Theseus’ myth when he descends literally to Hades with Pirithous to abduct Persephone for Pirithous’ bride (Apollodorus E 1.23).
This is really neither here nor there so far as Atlantis is concerned, but is an interesting look at how “re-imagined” versions of Greek myth can sometimes strike upon the forgotten core of old stories.
As for the show, we are supposed to wonder whether Atlantis is truly a parallel world or just some figment of a drowning Jason, and whether Jason is really a son of this other world. But such questions won’t be resolved soon, and, frankly, seem designed primarily as an escape hatch should the show falter and need to have some more modern British people show up in the city.
I’m looking forward to seeing if the new version of Greek myths will prove clever and thought-provoking. But I’d prefer a little more depth in future episodes, even on a “family” show.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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