Atlantis sinks, harpooned by its own lack of ambition
There used to be a running joke on SFX whenever a new Harry Potter film was released. Each time the cast and crew would promise that the latest film was “darker” than the last one. In which case, we mused, the final film would have to be a black screen for two hours. The producers of Atlantis clearly don’t think it was a joking matter. We assumed when they claimed that series two was going to be darker, they were talking thematically. But after six episodes of squinting at gloomy fights in badly shot forests and barely lit caves it was clear they literally meant: “darker”. At times, with all that grunting and brief murky snatches of bare flesh in the gloom it was like watching fly- on- the- wall live dogging.
To be fair, that’s hardly the main reason the show was haemorrhaging viewers, but it can’t have helped. Any problems with series one of Atlantis weren’t going to be solved by darkening it up with a few more deaths, the cast looking permanently glum and the lighting director being sacked. What Atlantis needed, simply, was cleverer, slicker, more surprising scripts. Instead series two stuck so rigidly to formulaic action/ adventure storytelling that it often looked like someone had Photoshopped some togas onto an episode of Merlin.
Too many episodes featured Pythagoras and Hercules assisting a wounded Jason through forests or across deserts. Problems inevitably required a quest which invariably resulted in Jason being yet another riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside some clunky attempt at foreshadowing. Pasiphae rode around on a horse glowering like she had a saddle sore and sending various henchpeople off to be useless. It was all so dispiritingly predictable, especially if you were enjoying the central bromance, the occasional impressive action setpiece and the sumptuous location photography.
The series also failed to pay off on basic audience expectations. With something called Atlantis you expect some kind of watery theme, but the show was increasingly landlocked. The city itself – which as the “star” of the show should have been a place full of wonder – looked like any old dusty stop- off point on a package tour round the Mediterranean. The show was based on Greek mythology, but monsters, gods and magic were thin on the ground.
All these blighted series one. All were, incredibly, exacerbated in the first half of series two. Worse still, there’s no longer even any lip service paid to the fact that Jason is from our time. What was the point?
Few will mourn the passing of Atlantis but so soon on the back of the announcement that the BBC has also axed In The Flesh, it also makes you seriously wonder if Auntie feels any commitment to replacing it with something similar. Outside of Doctor Who, CBBC and new BBC Three series Tatau, the only other British telefantasy in the pipeline are miniseries like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Frankenstein and
Beowulf. It’s not a healthy state of affairs, especially when US TV is churning out great SF and fantasy.
That’s not to say the BBC should continue series that are not proving popular just for the sake of keeping telefantasy on air. But there is a clear hunger for decent small- screen sci- fi and fantasy, and the BBC charter means that the corporation shouldn’t be driven by audience chasing, so let’s hope when they say “we have to make difficult decisions to bring new shows through”, some of those new shows have us in mind, and not the Downton watchers.
Still remember that this is a time travel series?