Today, I thought I’d review the Science Channel’s Sunday night lineup, even though it turned out to be much less interesting or impressive than the marketing made it seem.
My on-screen guide called Sunday night’s Science Channel special by the title Atlantis: The Dark Secrets, which is a lot more interesting than the show’s actual on-screen title, Finding Atlantis: The New Evidence, a show that bears the hallmarks of being a Euro import with new American-accented narration dubbed over it. I watched the whole damned thing until I found out that it was a “BBC/Discovery Channel/France Televisions/Prosieben co-production,” and despite being listed as “new” in my cable guide, it was actually first broadcasted on the BBC in 2011. I feel like it was on before here in the U.S. before, but a Google search doesn’t turn up any immediate evidence of it. Maybe it aired under another name?
The first episode of the two-part special shown Sunday night was a bit of a bait-and-switch, using Atlantis mostly as framework to talk about the exploration of Pavlopetri, a five-thousand-year-old sunken city off the coast of Greece. A group of archaeologists are followed as they attempt to reconstruct what Pavlopetri would have looked like by combining archaeological data and with comparisons from other early Greek sites, including those of Santorini, Crete, and the Mycenaean territories.
The second episode focuses more on Atlantis itself, beginning with the claim that Atlantis is “the greatest legend of all time,” and a recitation of Plato’s account of Atlantis. The narrator suggests that Plato’s texts might lead us to “the real Atlantis,” even though the narration and the talking heads recognize that Plato’s Atlantis is not a real history but rather a moral and political allegory. However, Angie Hobbs of the University of Warwick and “experts” say that Plato must have drawn on real history in creating his Atlantis. To my mind, that’s a bit like hunting for the “real” Hogwarts because J. K. Rowling must have drawn on real British boarding schools in creating it.
After the first few minutes discussing Atlantis, the show does another bait-and-switch, devoting the rest of the hour to discussing the Minoan society of Thera (Santorini), the island destroyed by a volcanic eruption around 1600 BCE. The claim that Thera was Atlantis was put forward in 1909, but there remains no evidence that the Greeks had any knowledge of Thera’s former civilization. A rather ridiculous claim used to support the identification revolves around the role of women. Historian Bettany Hughes said that for her Thera had to be the “lost world” of Plato’s Atlantis because the Minoans treated women better than the Greeks. This had nothing to do with Atlantis, but apparently it felt politically correct.
Floyd McCoy, a volcanologist from the University of Hawaii, falsely asserts that “the collective memory of man” preserved the knowledge that the Thera eruption had destroyed an advanced civilization, and historian Bettany Hughes agrees that Plato must have drawn on oral traditions of Thera. The trouble with that is that no other Greek writer said anything of it, nor did they recall the Minoan civilization very well (aside from the Daedalus and Minotaur myth), and no one bothers to explain how it is that everyone failed to notice that the volcano did not destroy Minoan civilization, which continued on for two centuries before falling to the Mycenaeans.
“Experts agree that there is only one candidate for the real Atlantis,” the narrator says. And that, of course, is Thera. Except for all the parts that don’t match anything about Atlantis. We can forget about those and call them fiction.
There is really nothing wrong with Finding Atlantis except that it has nothing much to do with Atlantis. The producers clearly wanted to make a documentary about the underwater archaeology of the Aegean and seem to have discovered that broadcasters do not want to show documentaries with a “sexy” hook, so they have grafted about the bare minimum of Atlantis content possible onto what otherwise would have passed for an episode of Nova or Horizon.
The plot of the episode revolves around pit traps for catching animals. Our heroes decide that a set of “mysterious” pits could be the remains of Viking hunting efforts, even though they are much larger than those used in Scandinavia in Viking times. The men recognize that the Vikings might not have dug the pits, but they pretend they did anyway and try to imagine how and why, engaging in a lot of outdoor adventures and wild speculation with the stated purpose of proving that “my cousins” were marching around beyond L’Anse aux Meadows. They also visit a small private museum in Newfoundland where some objects alleged to be Viking tools are on display.
But despite all of the histrionics, it’s not really all that “incredible,” as Nelson calls it, to look for Vikings on the exact same peninsula where L’Anse aux Meadows stands. I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to suggest they explored the region surrounding the settlement, if only briefly. It’s interesting in a historical way, but in terms of “rewriting” history, it’s more footnote than revelation.
The second half of the show descends into a discussion of Viking ships and their capabilities, giving Arbuthnot and Nelson an excuse to go sailing on a recreated Viking ship, just like every other TV host who does an episode about Vikings. They basically recreate Josh Gates’s Viking episode about sunstones from an early Expedition Unknown, but thirty seconds of facts take up nearly half the running time of the hour. Basically, our heroes follow Carl Rafn’s suggestion from the 1830s of taking the Icelandic Sagas literally. Because they say that the Vikings traveled two days from their first landing point to reach Vinland, they believe that they can locate the best possible location for Vinland by timing how fast a reconstructed Viking ship can travel and then using that speed to see how far south from Nova Scotia (why Nova Scotia?—just because) they might have traveled. This places them 200 nautical miles from Nova Scotia, conveniently the right distance to hit Cape Cod, where in a future episode they can lust after the same fake rune stones that Rafn found so compelling. Arbuthnot should know a thing or two about that—he was there for the America Unearthed episode where Scott Wolter did the same thing and “found” Vinland in the same place.
Overall, S01E02 “Mystery of the Sea Raiders” is minimally competent, unchallenging, and dull. It’s painfully clear that it has been modelled on America Unearthed and its imitators, but though it pains me to say it, it fails to live up that show’s low standards. The production values are low. The cinematography is uninspired, the lighting harsh and flat, and the editing plodding. The hosts appear to be wearing middle-aged dad clothes from their own closets. Vikings looks like an imitation of America Unearthed—right down to the suspiciously similar title card—and every element, from the monotone narration to the long stretches of wasted time, is just a little bit worse than the name-brand original. It’s the store brand of vaguely racist pseudo-documentaries.
And when I say vaguely racist, there is something weird about the premise of lustfully hoping to find Vikings deeper and deeper into North America, and choosing to explore this potential (which is a legitimate, albeit increasingly unlikely possibility) through the prism of the host’s feelings of ethnic pride in their accomplishments. That approach has nearly two hundred years of associations with explicitly racist efforts to recreate the history of North America in the image of northern Europe, and to see it recycled here, even in innocent naivete, only highlights how little consideration anyone involved in this slapdash production put into thinking through the actual history that they dance over in their eager fantasy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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