TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

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Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is one of the great stories of archaeology. It’s got everything: buried treasure, international intrigue, irresponsible speculation, a spurious story about a curse. It’s got everything but a love story.

Or perhaps I should say that it didn’t have a love story until ITV got their hands on it.

Tutankhamun (the TV series, as distinct from Tutankhamun the person) is a four-part miniseries that follows the adventures of Howard Carter (Max Irons) from the 1900s through to the beginning of his partnership with Lord Carnarvon (Sam Neill) and then to his discovery of the tomb in 1922. To its credit, it then pushes on with the years of excavation and post-excavation work until the dig finally ends in 1930.

This does mean that visually things are a bit odd: Max Irons is in his early 30s, which is about right for Carter in the early 1900s. But Carter was 48 when the tomb was found and well into his 50s by the time the excavation wrapped up. This leads to a much younger, more heroic-looking Carter on screen than existed in reality.

That may be because Tutankhamun is very focused on its love stories — one between Carter and a lady named Maggie Lewis (Catherine Steadman), who I believe is fictional, and one between Carter and Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn (Amy Wren). I am given to understand that the idea of a relationship between Evelyn and Carter is something that has long been rumoured, although I don’t know of any reason for it other than that neither of them were married and they spent a lot of time around each other. Perhaps there’s more to it; I’m not an expert.

Actually, let me correct myself here: the love stories aren’t the main narrative focus of the show, something I realised as I was writing the previous paragraph. They just stand out because they’re the things that aren’t a more or less straightforward retelling (condensed and hyped up, of course) of the process of discovery. Everything else is exaggerated: for instance, the story starts with Carter just straight-up punching a tourist, which is not what happened, I don’t think. He actually just took the side of site workers against the tourists in an argument. Again, perhaps there was more to it: I’m not an expert. But the point is that it’s a sexified version of something that genuinely did take place. There are lots of other instances where complex situations are rendered simple; that’s pretty common in historical TV but it can lead to characters seeming a bit dimmer than they ought to sometimes.

One thing that Tutankhamun does that’s quite good is give some impression of the political and social context of Egypt in the 1920s. Again, it’s not a perfect portrayal, but it does avoid some of the worst problems: this kind of exploration story can easily drift into colonial-adventure narrative, so it’s nice that this one does do something to locate its setting within its colonial context, even if it’s a little simplistic.

You could say that for the show overall, really. Many of the relevant points are sketched in, and it’s nice that some of them are addressed that often aren’t in shows about archaeology, but it’s a little too realistic to have a satisfying central conflict and a little too melodramatic to be completely educational.

So Tutankhamun is … not bad. It’s well-made and the parts are adequately to well acted. I think my favourite appearance was Rupert Vansittart as Flinders Petrie, who is only in one scene but completely steals it. It’s not terribly innovative and the dialogue is occasionally clunky, but overall it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, and if you’re already knowledgeable about the story I doubt you’ll learn much. I learned a certain amount, but I am not sure people share my habit of watching historical TV while obsessively looking things up to fact-check. Shame, really; sometimes I think that’s the best way to do it.

TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

There’s a certain enterprising charm to the way that Netflix UK sells slightly shopworn programmes as exciting new things. Case in point: Saints and Strangers, a two-part historical drama about the colonisation of Massachusetts first shown on the National Geographic channel over Thanksgiving 2015.

It’s one of your prestige historical dramas, two feature-length episodes with lots of grey mist and lovely South African scenery. It’s got some medium-sized names in it: Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha McElhone, Raoul Trujillo and the inescapable Ray Stevenson.

The interesting thing about dramatising “the first Thanksgiving” is that the nicest way you can play it is as a tragedy — after all, this initial moment of rrrreeeeelatively peaceful interaction between Europeans and Native Americans is all going to go to bloody hell by the end of the century. The show does address that point — including a real sucker punch at the end in which they reveal that an adorable moppet who appears during the first Thanksgiving scenes grows up to be Josiah Winslow, the colony governor who commanded the English forces during King Philip’s War.

As a drama shown on the National Geographic Channel, Saints and Strangers does seem to take its educational mission pretty seriously. In some ways, this is a good thing — it presents quite a complex, ambiguous image of Squanto, for instance — but in other ways it’s a weakness. After all, the real history, by dint of being history, resists convenient narrativisation. We’re left with Kartheiser and Stevenson being agonised about the morality of their action, which is … a little sickly-feeling, since we know how it all ends. I am not in a position to say that they didn’t agonise, but there is something a little distasteful about retroactive agonising over convenient deaths.

Like a lot of historical shows, this one struggles with the dialogue. All the English-speakers speak in a schmancy, convoluted way, talking about how things are diminutive or how they will unleash a wrath of violence or whatever, but it only occasionally sounds like something someone from the 17th century might say. And they say ’tis. And then every so often they ask someone if they’re OK. I mean, I get that it’s not going to be Shakespeare, but all you would have to do is pick half a dozen expressions that were in use in 1620 and not in the modern day and use those strategically. That or just have them speak in modern English. I know it’s a difficult line to walk, but they sound like LARPers used to sound.

Native American parts are played by Native American actors speaking Abenaki, a related language to the one the locals would have actually spoken. So that’s good, especially since it means we get to see Raoul Trujillo playing an older, wryer version of his usual badass warrior.

Overall: it’s OK. It’s definitely a bit of a pageant, and I wouldn’t move it to the top of you list, but it has some good bits and it looks nice.

I gotta say, though, I like Ron Livingston, a bigger fan you won’t find, but I don’t know that he’s quite right for his part in this.

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)

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Everyone knows that at the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allies put the leaders of Nazi Germany on trial for various war crimes — indeed, not only the traditional violations of the laws of war, but for crimes committed by the regime against its own people and for starting the war in the first place. In Japan, too, the Allies put the leaders of the defeated nation on trial, but the trial is much less well-known outside Japan. Now we have Tokyo Trial, a four-part English-language miniseries created by Japanese broadcaster NHK in cooperation with various Canadian and Dutch bodies.

So what’s it like?

Well, the drama is primarily about the behind-the-scenes deliberation of the justices in the trial, viewed through the eyes of Bert Röling, the Dutch judge on the tribunal (Marcel Hensema). Some parts of it are bits of documentary, presenting actual testimony from the trial. There are personal subplots relating to the experience of postwar Tokyo, but most of it takes place in a conference chamber or courtroom.

Hoo boy, it is worthy. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. One of the problems of approaching really grim, serious subjects of massive historical importance — a huge, multinational war-crimes trial, for instance — is that any hint of action or excitement might be seen as disrespectful, and the historical characters are so important that introducing personal drama into their narratives might not be appropriate. That means that some historical films descend into a certain confining stateliness — slow, with grandiose music and lush cinematography, but fundamentally history lessons. Most historical movies that get away with this are war movies, because battles are dramatic, spectacular events no matter how serious you’re being about them.

But Tokyo Trial has a further challenge, which is both one of the most interesting and the most challenging things about it. It is a totally international production, with cast members from all over the world, and a presumed audience likewise. Which is good, great, but it does mean that the English you are listening to isn’t quite the English you speak, if it’s English that you speak. If you watch a lot of Indian or Chinese films, think about the way you hear English in them. It’s English, of course, and presented for an audience that can sometimes be quite fluent, but who still don’t have the intuitive familiarity that a native speaker would. So it’s a little slower, with longer pauses, and things are explained very clearly. Again, that’s a good thing — it makes it accessible to a wide range of English ability levels — but it doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama.

It’s also very specifically educational — like, there’s a scene in the first episode where the Chinese justice (David Tse) explains to Röling why the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies, like he wouldn’t already know. I expected them to go “I know that.” “I know you do, Justice Röling — but the audience doesn’t.”

I also don’t think there’s a character in this thing who is a genuine character rather than a mouthpiece for a particular viewpoint. Occasionally we do get little moments that humanise characters, or bits where a performance gives life to a set of stock phrases (Irrfan Khan is strong as Radhabinod Pal, for instance). But most of the dialogue is just the various arguments of the trial, which is not … not ideally suited to being expressed in the form of a television drama, shall we say?

Which is a shame, because it does try to be thorough in its exploration of the issues: the division between civilian and military leadership, tensions between the different Allied powers, the implications of the judgement for colonialism, the lack of an existing body of international law, the thorny issue of the Emperor’s culpability. I was interested to see where those would go. In my limited understanding of the popular view of this period in Japan, these are all tricky issues. MacArthur (Michael Ironside) even talks about the role of the emperor in the post-war reform program, which I started but never finished an undergraduate dissertation on back in 1998.

It also does a pretty good job of portraying a group of justices who are on pretty shaky legal ground and under intense political pressure while also trying to find some kind of just outcome. International law is a dicey proposition at the best of times, and much more so back then than now. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that sound technical legal arguments were overruled by the argument of might, but that nonetheless there were sincere attempts to reach a decision that furthered the interests of justice and world peace.

I mentioned Radhabinod Pal earlier, for instance. Pal is an interesting and complex figure, whose objection to the trial verdict seems to have rested partly on procedural questions about the tribunal’s legal validity and partly on an anticolonialist interpretation of the 30s that viewed Japan’s response to American economic pressure as not that unreasonable. He believed that war crimes had been committed, but that they could be addressed under existing war crimes statutes. Pal definitely gets the hero treatment here, which is in line with how he’s viewed in Japan today — he’s very popular in particular with Japanese nationalists. I made the “hrm” face, although the show doesn’t suggest that Pal’s position was all that simple. Author Michio Takeyama (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is given the role of being critical of Japan’s wartime response to militarism.

Some of the events are really rushed — for instance, the American judge, Higgins, leaves partway through — which really happened — but his reasons are given very short shrift. He says “I have made proposals and they have been rejected,” but we see him sort of disagreeing with the group once for about thirty seconds. Perhaps that’s symptomatic of a general issue: things are explained much more than they’re shown.

It does give you some sense of the scale of the trial, especially toward the end: years of work, huge teams of assistants writing thousands of pages of opinion. The ending of the story goes on and on about sentencing, particularly the sentencing of Togo. The result is that it’s a bit long.

It has the unfortunate quality of some historical shows in that it gets better as it goes on, which means that the first episode doesn’t give a fantastic impression. But still, it’s long, talky, self-important and a little undramatic. It’s clearly intended to be educational, so maybe it’s for people who want to know more about Japanese history but don’t know much about it? It seems like the kind of thing you might watch in class? But it’s nearly four hours long, so maybe not.

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

(Contains spoilers for the ninth century.)

So it’s been quite a while since I last updated my ongoing account of watching Vikings. And in that time, well … a lot has happened. The fourth season is now wrapped up and things are pretty different from back when they started. Honestly, back in season one I assumed that the plot currently developing — the death of Ragnar and the invasion of England by the “Great Army” — was going to be the main plot of the whole series, but now we’re halfway through the second part of season four, a group of episodes that I still maintain is actually season five. So let’s get down to it.

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Now, I thought the first part of this season — oh heck, let’s call it season 4.1. 4.1 boldly hacked away all the plots no one gave a crap about, like Yidu and whatever Odo was up to, killed off the characters and forgot about them. But it looks like 4.2 is warming up to kill off all its main characters and replace them with an entirely new generation. Ultimately the show is gonna be about Alfred vs the Ragnarssons.

Now, that is very in keeping with the idea that this is a saga, isn’t it? A generational story full of revenges and curses and what have you. If you were going to make a Viking story, that’s the kind of story you would make, even if the details don’t marry up with any particular saga or any particular series of historical events.

But it’s an odd kind of television series. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s very close to its most obvious model, Game of Thrones, which has shed quite a lot of main characters and gained new ones along the way. Still, Game of Thrones does keep a number of its leads from its first series, while by the time this is done there’s going to be almost no one left in this thing. Like I said, interesting.

As always, the historical accuracy is pretty … approximate, and the costumes and sets are more Skyrim than early middle ages. It continues to look good — it’s well shot, and they’ve clearly spent some money on it. The writing still lags behind the production, although many of the performances are excellent.

Anyway, I have six or seven episodes to cover, so I will just give a quick overview of the points that caught my attention:

  • I do like the way that they have sort of split up elements of Ragnar’s personality among the sons: Ivarr the devious little bastard, Bjorn the warrior, Ubbe the politician, Sigurd and Hvitserk the … other ones. UPDATE: I guess Sigurd is the sensitive one.
  • The geography of the show continues to be maddeningly unclear. In this season they talk as if they’re from Norway, but I could swear that in previous seasons they were in Denmark. Hedeby is undeniably in Denmark, despite its icy mountainous landscape. They talk about Sweden as if it’s the moon — people have come from as far away as Sweden! — but didn’t they go to Sweden back in season 1?
  • Egbert remains simultaneously interesting and infuriating as a character. Writers often want to make a character devious but struggle with the external constraints that would make that deviousness work, since that kind of worldbuilding is not considered to be good television.
  • I like the way Lagertha’s shieldmadiens have turned into a sort of elite corps/personal bodyguard in an army that otherwise includes both women and men.
  • I assume Ivarr wears a scarf over his face when riding his chariot to hide the fact that he’s a stunt double most of the time?
  • Harald’s love interest(ish) is called “Elisif,” which I always thought was a Norse way of saying “Elizabeth,” which is weird in a pagan culture, no? Also, is it just me or does that plot go precisely nowhere? It’s not like the narrative isn’t pretty crowded already.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard has been the high point of pretty much each season, and nothing changes in this one.
  • I do like the idea that political and military turmoil back home happens when the army is off invading places — this was a very real feature of medieval warfare.
  • Aelle is, once again, a circumstantially convenient idiot. He’s totally taken aback by the size of the Ragnarssons’ army, because … his guys who spotted the attacking force don’t know how to count ships and multiply them by the number of dudes in a ship? Again, the “heroes” get to look good by the simple expedient of having their opponents take a dive like idiots. See also breaking formation to do a wild infantry charge at approaching cavalry.
  • Rituals and magic continue to be eerie and interesting. Is this the first time this series has had genuinely supernatural omens? I mean, Harbard was left ambiguous as best I remember, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention after he turned out not to be a trash-talking magic ferryman like the actual Harbard.
  • The destruction of the Winchester sets we’re so familiar with is surprisingly moving.
  • In terms of defensive strategies in a town made of wood and thatch, starting a huge fucking fire seems like it should be toward the bottom of the list, but filmmakers are obsessed with the idea of lighting things on fire.
  • Aw, poor old Torve. Didn’t see that one coming ha ha j/k they gave her a line about how she would definitely see Bjorn again. What did we think was gonna happen?
  • Hey, it’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers! Playing The Sex Bishop! That’s not what I think of when I think of Saint Heahmund but to be honest I have never really thought of Saint Heahmund until this very minute, so.
  • Main character death count so far: Aslaug, Ragnar, Helga, Egbert. Not-main-but-important characters dead: Aelle, Torve. Who-gives-a-shit characters dead: Egil, Elisif, whatsername (aside: if this show was gonna have only one Muslim character, I don’t know about making her a war orphan / suicide knifer, no matter how richly Helga deserved it). Are the only characters left alive from Season 1 Floki, Rollo and Lagertha? I mean, OK, Bjorn was in Season 1, but different actor. Was Aethelwulf in Season 1? I don’t remember.
  • Perhaps all my criticisms simply amount to “it looks good but don’t think about it too hard.”

 

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

TV Tuesday: Frontier

I have only watched one episode of Frontier, the new Canadian historical drama showing on UK (and presumably other) Netflix, so this isn’t really a review of the show. It’s more of a commentary on what on earth is happening in the world of entertainment and what that means for historians and history lovers.

So, first things first, I don’t know if this show is any good yet. It is definitely an attempt to fit into the gritty-historical-violence school of things. I watch Netflix shows with the subtitles on, and the captions were all bloodcurdling scream and wet stabbing sound for much of the show. It starts with three dudes getting their throats cut and pretty much goes from there. So it’s definitely going for that RomeGame of Thrones audience, I suppose. Jason Momoa plays a half-Irish, half-Native American fur trapper operating rogue outside the limits of the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly, with Alun Armstrong as the Company official sent to stop him. Those are your big names (well, apparently Raoul Trujillo is also in it) but then there are various scrappy thieves, drunk priests, up-and-coming businessmen, world-weary barkeeps, ambitious young officers, desperate Native American warriors, beardy voyageurs and so forth in the rough and tumble 18th-century wilderness.

Now that sounds like a pretty good premise for a show, and it’s entertaining enough, although pretty predictable for the most part. But what is completely bizarre is that I stuck this thing on my Netflix list and later that day said to my wife “oh, I added this new show where Jason Momoa and Alun Armstrong play fur trappers in 18th century Canada.” I mean, just think about that statement. That is nuts.

It’s not that there have never been historical television shows before; of course there have, your I, Claudii and so on. The BBC churned them out to a consistently high standard. And there are definitely certain genres that keep recurring: westerns, for instance. But I do think it’s weird that there’s a … what looks like a relatively high-budget … adventure show about fur trappers in 18th-century Canada. I mean, at least Black Sails is about pirates. Everybody loves pirates. Do Canadians think about fur trappers in the same way as everyone else thinks about pirates? Canadian readers of this blog, I’d love to know. Because, I mean, I’m going to watch it, obviously, but it seems like a tough pitch for most people. Or maybe the pitch is just Jason Momoa smouldering at the camera.

It just seems like an era for this kind of thing, and in a way that is sad, because it means that some quite good shows get left behind. It’s like … if you had told 12-year-old James that in his adulthood there would be so many DC Comics TV shows that he literally wouldn’t have time to watch them all, he would have laughed at you. But it’s true! And there are more coming! And the same applies to weird little historical dramas. Of course, thanks to Netflix I can just stick ’em on the list and catch up at my leisure. Perhaps that’s the difference; with a transformed model of TV viewing, you can target directly to your history buff audience or what have you.

I don’t know; I just thought it was an interesting example of a change I’ve been noticing.

 

TV Tuesday: Frontier

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

So it’s been a few weeks since the last time I wrote about my continuing … love-hate relationship isn’t right. Enjoyment-bafflement relationship? … with Vikings. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on since then.

So Lagertha and Aslaug are set up as rivals this season, a rivalry that gets off to a good start when Lagertha imprisons Ubbe and Sigurd and takes Kattegatt back from Aslaug. In the meantime, Ivarr and Ragnar get shipwrecked on the English coast. The irritated crew mutiny, but Ivarr stabs them up to reinforce the point that he is not to be messed with. Bjorn, together with Halfdan and Harald plus Floki, rocks up to Rollo’s castle to meet the kids. Rollo decides to tag along on Bjorn’s Mediterranean adventure because, I dunno, he longs for the old days of sailing the wide world etc.

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Anyway, Ragnar and Ivarr arrive in Winchester only to find out that Ecbert isn’t home, the one thing they were not counting on. Aethelwulf does what Aethelwulf does and has them locked up. Aslaug gets one of yer Viking funerals that everyone loves so much while Lagertha gloats. Ecbert comes home and gets Ragnar out of the dungeons to do some devious Ecbert stuff with him. Young Magnus shows up for the first time in his older version, and Ragnar says he never had sex with whatsername, which messes things up a little. There are a lot of children of dubious parentage at the West Saxon court, aren’t there?  Anyway, Ecbert has a good old jaw with Ragnar about the absurdity of religion or destiny or something, or maybe just their shared love for Athelstan. Ragnar sets up his plan to introduce — dare I say it? — the main plot of the series! And only 40-whatever episodes in.

This show has a real problem with deviousness, which I think is a combination of budget concerns and the influence of Game of Thrones. See, in Game of Thrones, everyone is always going into negotiations with uncertain allies and then getting assassinated. This is because the setting of Game of Thrones is a functional medieval society that is now falling apart. So people keep relying on outmoded concepts of law or political influence to protect them and discovering that they no longer apply, while a new breed of bastard and/or hero thrives.

But we’re supposed to believe that this is pretty much how things work in Vikings. And logically, all the characters should know that. That being the case, why doesn’t anyone act like it? Lagertha makes a peace agreement with Aslaug — who is, remember, widely believed to be descended from a literal god — and then shoots her in the back as she walks away. In front of everyone! That has got to be a blow to her reputation, surely.

(Does that mean that when Aslaug was sleeping with Harbard she was having sex with her own grandfather? Ick.)

Anyhow, my point is — given that Ubbe and Sigurd presumably know that anyone could turn on you at any time, why would they just walk into a trap like a couple of idiots? If Aslaug knows (and remember, she’s supposed to be the politically savvy one) that Lagertha, a famous general with a full-sized army, can march into her town without anyone knowing until she’s forming a shieldwall at the city limits, then why on earth would she allow Bjorn to sail off with all the warriors? (Unless Bjorn’s in on it, of course, which would be kind of neat, but still.) Over and over, this show sets up a political dispute and then has it resolved by someone getting knifed in ways that make dramatic sense but little real-world sense.

Now, I’m not saying people don’t get assassinated or massacred in real life. But successful assassinations and massacres as means of ending conflicts are probably quite rare. Usually killing one guy or even one group of guys doesn’t solve the problem like you’d hope it would. Whack a Viking warlord, and you may find that they have uncles, cousins, brothers, followers, whatever, who will come back to haunt you. Those people (usually) don’t exist in this show because of principles of narrative economy, but I dunno, it feels like a cheat. I’m aware I’ve said this before.

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

TV Tuesday: Narcos

So Narcos is this show Netflix keeps trying to push as some kind of big prestige drama, but nobody I know seems to be watching it. I thought I’d give it a spin, since these days shows set in the 80s and early 90s are historical shows. And it’s … interesting.

It’s a bold move, frankly, and I’d be interested to know more about why Netflix decided to make it the way they did — are they pushing into Spanish-speaking markets? Because, I mean, this thing doesn’t have anyone really famous in it, and about two thirds of it is in Spanish. Which makes sense, but it’s not exactly a formula for success in the Anglophone world.

It’s a dramatisation, not a historical retelling, and it’s up-front about that fact. Some of the characters are real, but others are fictitious or based on real people. So the reporter, Valeria Velez, is based on a real reporter, Virginia Vallejo, but their fates are very different between the show and real life. Similarly, Colonel Carrillo from the first part of the show is fictitious, while the guy who replaces him, Colonel Martinez, was real.

There’s an American POV character who is treated like the hero of the story to begin with but whose importance declines as it goes on; he kind of reminds me of Marco in Marco Polo, the increasingly unnecessary point of viewer identification. But the main attraction is clearly Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, and he’s good.

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Its most obvious model is The Wire — a crime drama that’s really an exploration of a particular setting built up of many small strands — and like that show it also succeeds in evoking a look and feel in a way that’s impressive (I mean, I wasn’t in Colombia in the 80s, but this feels like it could be what that looked like).

It also showcases some of the flaws in historical storytelling on television, especially in the contrast between its first and second seasons. The second season covers a year or two in which the cops, rival drug cartels and paramilitaries are all hunting for Escobar after he escapes from jail. It’s a relatively short period of time with a cast of characters many (though not all) of whom were developed in the first season, and it’s compelling. But it comes at the expense of a first season that covers over a decade of history and has to introduce almost all of those characters. As a result, the first season feels a little more disjointed and grab-baggy. It has a lot of great scenes and performances, but it’s the weaker of the two — which is a shame, since it’s the first one people will see.

Anyway, it’s definitely worth watching as long as you either don’t mind giving a show your full attention or speak Spanish.

TV Tuesday: Narcos