When Atlantis came out of the gates last autumn, it was a light, comic Boys’ Own adventure. Its three male leads – the dishy heroic one, the chubby cowardly one, and the nerdy maths one – faced CGI monsters with a mixture of acrobatics, bickering and slapstick. Forays into the darker world of witchcraft and fate were countered by musical comedy stings and pratfalls. Swords were swung. Mythical creatures were battled. Jokes were cracked. Balconies were vaulted off. And a lukewarm average of 5.4 million UK viewers watched it all.
Hoping to increase that number and earn a third series renewal, Atlantis’ creators (Merlin producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps, and Misfits’ writer Howard Overman) are reported to have overhauled the second series, making it meaner, moodier, better-paced, and more suited to its half-eight time-slot. (Had the original run aired at Saturday teatime instead of later in the evening, it’s likely the first series wouldn’t have been met with as much dissatisfaction from those frustrated by its CBBC tone).
The new Atlantis will be darker, its cast assures, featuring fewer japes and CGI creatures, and more grown-up human drama and serious action. To wit, compare the first image for last year’s series:
To this year’s:
There’s a definite lack of cheeky grins and sideways smiles in this battle-torn image. Hercules is braced for war, having swapped his amphora for a blade. Jason has a shield and a no-messing look. Even Pythagoras is holding a sword this time around. The ‘we mean business’ Photoshop filter has clearly been pushed right to the top of the scale.
“A new dawn” is what’s promised for Atlantis series two, a show that, according to lead Jack Donnelly, has been changed “in every single way they could change it”. After seeing the first episode of the new run (which debuts on BBC One on Saturday the 15th of November), has the show really undergone such a dramatic transformation?
Well, it’s certainly darker. Literally so, as much of the series two opener takes place at night. We return to a sombre state function in Atlantis and swiftly travel to an army camp on the eve of battle. Tensions and stakes are high, and there’s no sign of the comedy clowning that characterised early episodes of the first series.
Nor, it should be said, of the acrobatics that constituted Jason’s touched-by-the-Gods power last year. He’s obviously been to an evening class in between the two series, one that taught him to ditch the fancy front flips and get stuck in with a blade when confronted by a foe, something that happens repeatedly in this episode. Clash follows chase follows escape in the series two opener – Hercules can barely take a restorative sip from his flask before more arrows ping into shot, leading to another breathless confrontation, pursuit, and by-the-whiskers escape for our central trio.
That trio (Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules) are still Atlantis’ leads, but they’re certainly not this episode’s most interesting characters. That honour goes to Sarah Parish’s Pasiphae – now a military leader and series two’s major antagonist (“They’re really going to hate me this year”, Parish announced at the press launch) and new addition Medea (Amy Manson delivering a dose of what Atlantis sorely lacked last year – a central female character with a storyline that takes her outside the palace and into the action). If anyone misses Jason’s ribbon-twirling gymnastics, then Medea looks set to make up the deficit, as proved by one exciting exit from a sticky encounter. Think Firefly’s River Tam in a Raiders Of The Lost Ark homage, and you’re somewhere close.
Aiysha Hart’s Princess Ariadne too, has graduated in the gap between last year and this, from dutiful daughter to political figurehead. Preview clips of future episodes even promise some surprising Xena-like action from her (as well as a late return from Jemima Rooper’s Medusa) which comes as welcome news to anyone frustrated by Ariadne’s insipid romance-heavy series one story.
That romance hasn’t disappeared – indeed, loath as we are to announce it, a love triangle appears to be on the cards for Jason and Ariadne this year – but it’s put aside for this episode, which sets up the arc for series two in no uncertain terms: Atlantis is at stake. Trust no-one.
Which leads us to series two’s overriding theme: betrayal. Backing up the cast’s press launch promises that their characters develop from stock types into flawed human beings this year is an encounter that challenges Jason’s chivalric ideals (between his knightly ethics and – still utterly forgotten – twenty-first century background, he really is a man out of time). Is mercy always the right course, or can benevolence come back to bite you? Time will tell.
Not everything’s changed of course. It may be somewhat graver, but it’s still largely gore-free with a few laughs, the odd silly stunt, and plenty of dimly lit caves and scenes of the gang running through forests. Hercules still gets all the funniest lines and Pythagoras is still basically Spock in a smock.
But add to that a Merlin series five-style prophecy of impending doom, more grown-up fight-scene choreography, a tantalising nod to Jason’s future, and the lure of a large-scale battle on the horizon, and Atlantis may just have done enough to entice back a few of those who jumped ship the first time around. If you’re amongst them, then we’d suggest you lose nothing by tuning in to see for yourself.
Atlantis series two starts on Saturday the 15th of November on BBC One.
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