[WATCHED: August-October 2009] Clash of the Gods
[UPDATE: October 26, 2009]
I have now finished the entire series. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from it. (Not that I considered myself an expert, but you never know what you’ll get from TV series). The biggest surprise was how much this series filled in the gaps of things I half knew, or things that I didn’t know were missing from my knowledge. Can’t ask for more than that!
I’m still a little confused by the inclusion of Tolkien, but that’s okay, it was a good episode nonetheless.
General negatives: I never did get used to the egregiously repetitive imagery (if I never see Zeus pulling off his hood again, I’ll be thrilled). I also got rather tired of that crazy howling wind/scream noise that they used as some kind of dramatic effect. But hey, that’s okay.
The actors and the CGI and all that was fine. They had to include some kind of footage or else it would just be people talking to us, right? I wonder where they got the actors? The women were all quite beautiful. The men were less handsome than I would have expected (but then the male gods were all old, right?). How did they cast these episodes, I wonder? Okay Zeus: can you sit in that throne? Good. Can you remove your hood? Good. Athena: Can you stare smoldering at the camera? Good. I wonder how people tried out for the part of “soul writhing in hell” or whatever it was.
I’m not sure if the “that was the myth, but how does it relate to reality” part was supposed to be the real draw of the show. Some of it was interesting, some of it was weird, and some of it was just stretching plausibility. There’s been a lot if discussions below in the comments about the emphasis on Christianity throughout the series. From a historical point of view I thought it was interesting. Although there were time when I wasn’t entirely convinced.
It was the professors who really impressed me. They were consistently informative, and clearly enjoyed what they were talking about. There were one or two who I would NEVER have wanted in class (their voices were rather sharp) but there were also a few that I would have signed up for multiple times, no question. So thanks to them for doing the show (I know, it was a real drag for them to get out of the classroom and do TV, right).
I’m still trying to find more information about the people involved, but it is cleverly hidden (as is everything else about the show). What is it with The History Channel’s website? This is the only professor who I’ve found with a blog: Wormtalk and Slugspeak. And he tells some interesting details about doing the show. As for the rest, well, you’ll have to watch the episode and write down their names, apparently.
I’ll give a special shout out to the professor at Rutgers, since she’s just down the street, but i don’t remember her name.
[UPDATE: October 26, 2009]
See bottom for comments on final two episodes that i watched: Thor and Medusa (which I missed the first time around).
[UPDATE: October 15, 2009]
See bottom for comments about Beowulf and Tolkien. (I haven’t watched Thor yet).
[UPDATE: September 28, 2009]
See bottom for comments about the Odyssey episodes.
[UPDATE: September 21, 2009]
I’ve been getting a number of hits here with people looking for the Clash of the Gods narrator. So, his name is Stan Bernard. He was also the narrator for Zero Hour and MonsterQuest as well as a few other things. I’ve not seen anything else he’s done.
[UPDATE: September 2, 2009]
See bottom for reviews of 2 more episodes]
[WATCHED: August-October 2009]
I don’t normally review TV shows. There’s just too much to keep up with. But I’m making an exception in this case.
I had heard about this show on a public radio program. The host was talking to some of the guys who were involved in making it, and it sounded fantastic. (I regret that I don’t know which host or even which radio station, I was driving a rental car and just happened upon the program, I think his name was John, which, frankly doesn’t help at all).
I love Greek mythology, and so did the host of the radio show. When he said that the series was designed not only for people who are new to the mythology but that it would also give deeper information for those who were familiar with the stories, I has to check it out.
Two episodes have aired so far, Zeus and Hercules. And the radio announcer was right. The episodes are good. They give the general story of the myth and then throw in some uncommon details. But, perhaps most interestingly, they also include ways in which recent archaeological digs have uncovered information that shows the reality behind the stories. And, even more interestingly, they discuss how some of the myths not only correspond very well to actual historical events, but also correspond to events from the Bible and other cultures’ mythologies. So, Noah’s flood, is recounted in Greek mythology as a Zeus destroying the world. And both are based on what is believed to be a real event in which a volcano erupted and flooded most of the Middle East. The parallels are uncanny.
The stories (narrated by a frankly uninspired narrator) are interspersed with my favorite part: faculty from various universities (and Scientific American magazine) give their historical insight into the myths. And they’re all pretty excited about what they’re talking about (and each has his or her own quirky mannerism which is fun to look for–and they were all apparently told to wear black, otherwise it is an amazing sartorial coincidence).
The absolute worst part of the series (and I fear it will continue through all of the shows since it was in Zeus and Hercules) is the absolutely horrid “reenactment” footage. It’s bad enough that the footage is kind of lame (even if the blue contacts do “pop” on screen as they said they would in the radio interview). But they reuse the same footage over and over again in the same episode–heck in the same segments of the same episode. It is maddening. Are they really telling us that they couldn’t have had Zeus do something other than sit down heavily on his rocky throne? (I think they showed that particular scene 6, maybe 7 times). I realize that if the actor isn’t actually going to speak, there’s not a lot he can do, but come on, show us something else!
And the “fast,” “exciting” editing is just annoying. Hey, I get it, Zeus has spooky eye color! I don’t need you to zoom in on it 12 or 13 times during the episode. Or to try to make the same footage you’ve shown us look more interesting by having it go slightly out of focus.
Oh and in Hercules, we learn that Hera is behind all of the 12 challenges that Hercules must face. But you know what, you don’t have to show that same scene of her skulking around, or the close up of her own colored contacts, ever time you mention her name. I mean, you’ve got these actors, and they’re all made up. You probably had them on set for several hours. I’ll bet you could have them make several DOZEN expressions, not just one. Or, they could even walk around different places.
The reenactments (which feature CGI that is okay but nothing special, but which is also repeated and repeated and repeated (how many times must I watch Hercules get plastered with the same blood?)) are just really bad. It’s like watching Cops. These men and women simply cannot emote in an even remotely convincing way. In the sequence in Hercules when they talk about Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns who sets up his challenges, they show the same shot of the king looking (haughtily? thoughtfully? slyly?) at the camera in a closeup. (So even when they say he is shocked by Hercules’ completion of a task, it’s the same footage of him looking (pensively?) into the camera. I can’t find an image online, but if you watch the episode on the website, you’ll see it. A lot.)
It is so frustrating that I actually find myself turning away from the screen because I don’t want to see the zoom in on Zeus’ eye again, or the footage of the hydra re-growing its head for the 4th time.
I have never really watched anything on the History Channel before. I know some people claim that that’s all they watch, but hey, history’s not really my thing. (Actually, that’s not true, I love history, I just don’t like TV depictions of it). So, I don’t know if this is the way History Channel shows are done, if all of their reenactments are just lame. If so, then I feel justified in never watching the channel before. If not, then this series does a real disservice to the topic with this irritating style.
Having gone on and on and on and on about this, I will say that I completely enjoyed the information presented. I was totally fascinated by Zeus, and I really enjoyed the Hercules story (he’s a character that I’ve never given much thought to before, and I learned an awful lot). I fully intend to watch the remaining episodes in the series.
And here I have to complain about the History Channel’s website for the show. It tells you absolutely NOTHING about the show. You can watch the most recent episode there, but just try and find out how many there are or when they’re on next and you’ll just beat your head against a wall. Who thinks that’s useful?
In fact, it’s hard to find anything about this show online anywhere. It’s like they’re ashamed of it or something. I had to find another blog (from someone who is on the show) just to get this schedule:
* Zeus 8/3
* Hercules 8/10
* Odyssey(1) 8/17
* Odyssey(2) 8/24
* Hades 8/31
* Medusa 9/7
*Lord of the Rings 9/21
* Minotaur 9/28
* Beowulf 10/5
* means the episode has aired already.
And I finally figured out how to navigate their site (more or less). It looks like the final two episodes coming up are:
Oct 5 is Monsters of Middle Earth (!) and
Oct 12 is Thor.
And that should be the end of the series.
I’m especially excited about the Odyssey episodes (there’s so much great stuff there) and Medusa. I’m not so sure about the Lord of the Rings, although I’ll bet it’s quite good too.
So thank you historians and producers for giving us this excellent look at mythology. But next time, film a few extra sequences, please.
[UPDATE: September 2, 2009] Hades & Minotaur
The Hades episode, while suffering from many of the same problems the others faced (excessive reuse of footage) had this dreadful first: excessive re-use of footage from another episode (yes, the reused a lot of the same shots from the Zeus episode to show Hades in Chronos’ belly). Having gotten that out of the way though, the Hades episode was especially good because it incorporated several other myths as well: Sisyphus and Orpheus. This was great because, really the Hades story isn’t all that interesting once the basics are out of the way: he guards The Underworld. But showing the people who tried to escape really made the episode shine.
Minotaur. I was pretty excited about the Minotaur episode because, well, who doesn’t love the minotaur? But the episode felt a little too long; like with Hades, maybe the Minotaur should have had other things in it too? I have to say, I hope I never see the footage of that beard/teeth shot again. Why did they have to show it 25 times? (No, I didn’t count.) I think there’s a Mystery Science Theater joke about “well, we’ve got the set, we might as well use it.” And that’s how this episode felt: we’ve got 4 seconds of screaming people and fake blood splattering, we may as well use them. I wish someone had told the producers how cheap it makes the episode look. Anyhow, the first half of the episode was pretty cool, learning about the myth and the caves below Crete. (And I liked learning about the origin of the word “clue”). But I got kind of bored by the end.
I’ve read The Odyssey twice so I was pretty intrigued by the prospect of this two-parter. And I think this has been my favorite episode (or two) of the bunch. They didn’t rely too much on the crazy repetition (although there were a lot of shots of Penelope with the lurking suitors), and the story was told rather completely.
I appreciated a lot of the background insight that the lecturers gave and even some of the “researchers have recently found” segments. The weird thing about this for me was that even though I had always known of this as a story, a fable, I always assumed that the events were based on something (whether or not the Cyclops explanation is real, I don’t know, but I never thought the story was pulled out of thin air). But evidently scholars are just now starting to think that it was actually based on things? That seems wrong somehow.
I was sort of hoping they would mention the part where Argos, Odyssesus’ dog, having finally seen his master again after twenty years, dies happily. But they didn’t mention that. Alas, they stuck to like the main plot points. But I’m glad they addressed all of the Penelope issues (although who ever thought the suitors were so creepy??) and even the unfaithfulness of Odysseus compared to Penelope. Seven YEARS with Calypso? Come on.
I was even intrigued at the part about The Odyssey‘s link to Mark’s gospel. They seem tenuous, but then it’s an interesting idea.
This was good stuff, and one can only hope it will get people interested in the classic tale too (because see how many of the things you already knew about? Cyclops, Calypso, the Sirens). I’m looking forward to Beowulf, now.
[UPDATE: October 15, 2009] Beowulf & The Lord of the Rings
Beowulf has always been my least favorite epic. I have never tried to re-read it since I last read it in high school. This episode made me want to investigate it again. I was also shocked to see how much I remembered of the story.
I though the Beowulf episode was particularly good, mostly because it was all new footage, but also because the professors provided some real insights into the story. Although I think I’m getting a little tired of wondering if these mythological characters are real or not.
On the plus side, it was fun seeing new professors, once we moved away from Greek myths.
The Lord of the Rings episode was also pretty great. I read The Hobbit and LOTR in high school and loved them. But I haven’t re-read them since. I also didn’t see the films because I went to the first one in the theater and fell asleep (not because it was bad, but because I was tired going in, which is never a good thing). So, in my mind the movie was just a lot of walking through dark lands). I figure I will eventually watch them though.
I appreciated that the actor they got to play Frodo was “not Elijah Wood.” The guy looked an awful lot like him, but in my opinion, even more Hobbit-like: a little rounder, a little less dynamic, so it worked rather well. As always, the professors’ insights were great (I also enjoyed hearing them speak Norse (I think it was Norse)).
I remain a little skeptical about this episode in the series only because I don’t think it jibes with the title. There aren’t really gods in the book (unless you cast the net broadly) and even as a mythos, it doesn’t really fit in with the other tales. Which is fine, because I still enjoyed it, It just seems out of place. The other thing that I thought was weird was that the professors and the narrator spoke of a lot of thinks that “this could be what Tolkien meant” but he died in 1973, so it’s not like people couldn’t have just asked him these things. I mean, the books were successful by then, right? So, that just rang a little false, like they were trying to keep the style similar to the ancient sagas.
But regardless, the episode was cool (although, ugh, the CGI for Gollum was horrible, he looked like a baby dinosaur from one of my kids’ shows). And I’m seriously thinking about reading the books again (and maybe the Silmarillion for the first time–I bought it back in high school and read about two pages before giving up). I absolutely loved finding out that Tolkien created the word mythopoeia, a word I’ve always liked. However, I’ve always pronounced it Toll-ken, but most of the scholars said Toll-keen (although I noticed that by the end, there was more Toll-ken than Toll-keen). So, I’m sticking with my lazy way.
I also got a kick out of reading this blog from Michael Drout, one of the speakers on the show. I especially liked his comments about the Orcs and Wikipedia, and I was delighted to see that they did not undermine his authenticity in favor of Wikipedia. (He’s the guy who did the cool ancient language reading…which if he ever sees this he can remind me what he said).
Oh, and I just knew that I couldn’t watch a series on The History Channel without seeing black and white footage of wars. In my mind, The History Channel owns every piece of stock footage about WWI and WWII. I didn’t expect to see any footage in this series, and yet they managed to squeeze it in!
[UPDATE: October 26, 2009] Thor & Medusa
Thor: I don’t know much about the Norse myths. Obviously, I had heard of Thor, but beyond the names of a few gods, the rest was new to me. I was a little disappointed, then, that they put the Tolkien episode first, since some of the stuff from that episode (about the tree theory with Valhalla and Middle Earth)was then repeated in this episode (which should have been the other way around). But as for CGI, the sea serpent thing was probably the best looking creature they created.
I really enjoyed the idea that Thor was destined to fight this one monster and there were so many opportunities that went awry. Destiny is always a fascinating concept. I also enjoyed the Thor in drag section. I had never heard of that story before, and the lack of subtlety of having his hammer stolen was really funny. This episode definitely made me want to investigate the myths more.
Medusa. I was really looking forward to Medusa, and for some reason, I missed it when it was first on. So I finally got to watch this middle of the series episode (and it was fun to hear some of the Greek professors again!). This Medusa episode was really fantastic.
I did not know the Medusa origin story, which was fascinating and cruel. It’s also interesting to think about it now from a 21st century perspective; what to our minds is a crazy and irrational punishment for (getting raped by Poseidon)–something that was completely not her fault.
What made the episode very cool was that they focused not just on Medusa and her turning people to stone bit. The episode also gave a lot of time to the Perseus story (he’s the demigod who eventually slays Medusa). The Perseus story was also chock full of substance and intricacies as well–the whole thing about his mother being forced into a marriage was a fascinating backstory. This episode was really jam packed.
This actually worked great as a final episode because of its strangely ambiguous ending. You pity Medusa for her unfair punishment. But now she is a murdering monster. Does she deserve to die? Is death putting her out of her misery? It was a very cool philosophical ending.
I’m really glad that The History Channel aired this series.