Spartacus: Blood and Sand – Xena for adults…?

Spartacus depicts extreme sensuality, brutality and language that some viewers may find objectionable. The show is a historical portrayal of ancient Roman society and the intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period.”
— Pre-screening warning


Yeah, “suggest” would be the key word. For, historically, there’s little known about the man – he falls into the same category of neo-legendary characters as Robin Hood or King Arthur. This allows artists to portray him pretty much how they want, without much chance of being proven wrong. Said creator Steven S. DeKnight, “We take the Spartacus legend, we turn it on its side, and we beat the crap out of it” and added, “While we may bend history, we try to never break it.  But I will always opt for what delivers the most dramatic impact over a strict adherence to historical fact.”

Hence the comparison of the title – a pretty loose description, but one that isn’t too far away from the truth. It’s set roughly around the same time, in the same part of the world, stars Lucy Lawless and also springs from the long-time collaboration between Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, who produced this along with Joshua Donen. But the mythical and mystical aspects, of gods and monsters, are basically absent, in favour of a much more grounded approach. And the pre-broadcast warning is entirely justified: the blood flows in digital torrents, particularly during the gladiatorial battles, the nudity is copious, and the sex too, in just about every combination possible [though we need more lesbians…]

As you might have guessed, In centers on Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), a Thracian who leads a battalion of soldiers supposedly allied with the Romans. But when he ends up inciting a mutiny, he is condemned to die in the arena, and his wife becomes a slave. However, his execution ends up in the death of the four gladiators he faces, and he is sold to Batiatus (John Hannah), who runs one of the local troupes of arena performers, who sees possibilities in the new arrival. The rough edges are hewn to fine precision under the training of Doctore (Peter Mensah), but the rising fame of Spartacus makes him an enemy in current champion Crixus (Manu Bennett). Meanwhile, Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lawless) are angling to use Spartacus’s popularity to enhance their own standing with the local nobles, who currently despise the gladiator’s owner as beneath them.


It’s marvellously excessive soap-opera: perhaps its nearest cousin would be the WWE, with Hannah playing the role of Vince McMahon, manipulating those beneath him for his own ends, as they fight for the amusement of the masses. It’s really his show, perhaps more than Spartacus, with he and Lawless splendidly slimy and hedonistic, yet honourable on their own terms and deeply devoted to each other. It’s a bit of a shock to see the star of the Mummy films, or Four Weddings and a Funeral, dropping F-bombs and yelling “By Jupiter’s cock!” at people – though I feel life would be enhanced if we all used such colourful expletives in moments of stress. Similarly, Lawless shows a good deal more skin here than she ever did as Xena, and is wearing nicely into her forties.

In contrast, Whitfield is a little less memorable: the first episode is somewhat dull, until Batiatus shows up, and for the first half of the series, he is rather too single-minded, caring about nothing save being reunited with his wife. That’s how Batiatus gets him to agree to fight in the arena, by promising to re-unite Spartacus with his one true love. His master delivers – but in a twisted fashion that sets in motion the train of events which eventually hits the buffers in the final episode of the first season, with Spartacus’s rebellion kicking off in arterial fashion. I trust I am not spoiling this for anyone, since it’s historical fact. Whitfield does have his moments, not least when forced to battle his best-friend for the amusement of a teenage boy.

It is, however, the violence which really makes this stand out from the pack of historical TV series cluttering up the airwaves of late [hello, The Tudors]. It “glories in slaughter” (to borrow a quote from Dennis Healey about Mrs. T) in a way unmatched by any TV show I’ve ever seen, and only rarely reached by movies e.g. Shogun Assassin and Bad Taste, for my money going well past anything Eli Roth or other alleged “torture porn” directors have ever done. While it’s almost all CGI, the limb-lopping, blood-spatter and finishing moves worthy of Mortal Kombat (the game, of course) are done with deep affection and impressive style – why else bother having digital blood splashing on the camera lens?


Morally, you could certainly argue that there, the series is on dodgy ground. It portrays slaughter as entertainment, for our entertainment: the underlying feel is “Tsk, tsk – weren’t the Romans terrible people? Now, stay tuned, as we’re going to show you just how terrible they were…” But it’s just such unashamed fun to watch. Hannah and Lawless are superb, and it’s hard to see how the second series – commissioned before the first episode had even been screened – will be able to cope without one or perhaps both of them. Which as about as much as I can say without getting seriously spoilerish.

However, there may be bigger problems. Star Whitfield was diagnosed last month with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer. It was caught early, and the prognosis for recovery is good, but it has already delayed filming, with discussion being directed towards a possible prequel series instead. That would be a shame, and I hope the disease is just another in the line of enemies soundly-defeated by our Spartacus. There’s nothing else like it on TV, and we’ll miss our weekly dose of ultraviolence until it returns.

Going Home: A Temporary Return to Scotland

They say you can’t go back. And for a long while, I didn’t. I hadn’t been back to Britain, since we were married in July 2002. It was a combination of factors: kids, jobs, exchange rates, etc. I hadn’t seen my parents either: I had explained to them that planes fly West as well as East, but they preferred to spend their holidays in Sri Lanka and Thailand, rather than Arizona. [I reckon they are actually senior citizen agents for MI6, because wherever they go somewhere, internal turmoil seems to follow] But 2010 was their 50th wedding anniversary, and when we got the invite, filial loyalty kicked in: time off work was booked, plane and train tickets booked and arrangements made to handle dogs, kids and mother-in-law left behind.


It seems like the gods were hurling obstacles, both natural and man-made, at us as we tried to head to the UK. During the weekend before the departure, there was an earthquake, measuring seven on the Richter Scale, with the epicentre 210 miles from Phoenix. Both British Airways and the rail unions were engaging in industrial action that threatened to leave us hitch-hiking our way to Scotland (which might have been tricky on the Atlantic). And we just got back home when Iceland blew up, sending all airspace over Britain into an unprecedented complete lock-down.

But the unions and Mother Nature got their act together and cleared our way to London on British Airways. This was despite a nasty moment when I sat down in my chair and discovered the pin holding my tray-table locked and in an upright position, as they say, was broken clean off. Those of you who have seen Final Destination will understand why this triggered some moments of trepidation, but you’ll be pleased to hear the plane did not plummet to the ground in a fireball immediately after take-off. The stewardess brought some tape from the first-aid kit, and an emergency repair was done, which fell into the “not pretty but practical” category.

We arrived in London and made our way through the labyrinthine Tube system to our hotel. That was an experience; never realized quite how many stairs there are in the Underground. Poor Chris was reduced to tears at one point, due to an escalator malfunction which left us making our way down a very long set of steps, laden with suitcases, as a stream of rude Londoners pushed brusquely past. It was at this point that I realized, with some horror, that we had become what I had always despised while living here, e.g. “fucking tourists.”

We arrived at our hotel near Bayswater, and discovered our tiny but mostly-functional room. The only way you could have swung a cat, would have been if it was a short-tail variety and you kept your arms tucked in by your sides. Still, it was functional enough, and we had little intention of doing much more than sleeping there. Shame about the leaky tap in the bathroom, which did nothing more than drip weakly for the duration of the stay. Oh, my mistake: that was the shower. Water-pressure. It’s vastly over-rated… While lounging, we discovered that no sooner had I returned to the country, than Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called an election. I felt like President Aquino returning to the Philippines. Without the whole assassination thing, obviously.

I prepare to harpoon a nutritious (Scottish) meal

The original plan was London for a couple of days, but maternal “concerns” cut that short. We did get to hang for the evening with the old TC crew: it was great to see everyone. and startling to realize how little people had changed. I think our cultural interests must keep us young. Quizzed them on how Britain had changed in the last decade: not much, was the consensus, though this may be because it’s harder to tell from the inside than when you come back after years away. Two things stood out to me, both media-related. When I left, most people had only five channels of terrestrial television, but now, there is, if not reaching the American level, a lot more “choice” [quotes used advisedly]. You also still see people reading newspapers, especially on the Tube: that’s an almost lost culture in the US, where newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.

The next day, we took the train to Scotland, through countryside that seemed remarkably green after a decade in a desert, where the only green is on the golf-courses. I amused myself thanks to the train having wi-fi, Chris amused herself by yelling, “Look! Sheep!” every time we passed a flock. Which was a lot. She thinks we need a lamb as a pet, to keep the yard free of weeds, but I convinced her that, much like pit-bulls, while the young are adorable, the adults are only tolerable when chopped up into meal-sized portions and placed in the freezer. Yep, I don’t like pit-bulls much: the wasps of the canine world. Chris made do with a tuft of wool picked off a barbed-wire fence later in the trip.

Home in Scotland, where my parents picked us up and we headed back to the house – they’ve lived in the same place for almost as long as they’ve been married. It was built in 1815, which is kinda cool – but, inexplicably, the builders at that time failed to take wi-fi into account when putting it together. The three-foot thick walls basically meant the only way to achieve an Internet connectivity was to hold the laptop, at about shoulder-level, while standing directly in front of a window. However, my parents had at least installed central-heating since my previous visit: I recall some winter trips where, rather than getting out of bed, you would pull your clothes into the bed with you, wait for them to defrost, and dress under the covers.


The next four days were largely of interest only to members of the McLennan family. At times, I felt like I was on some kind of state visit, as a parade of relatives marched through the house, to meet the now-overseas branch of the family. I occasionally had to “translate” for Chris, when the accents of some members reduced her to a stare of blank incomprehension – this consisted of me repeating the statement in the form of a question e.g. “Oh, so you’re just back from holiday, are you?” There was also a lot of food eaten, culminating in a 16-ounce deep-fried haddock fillet at a local restaurant, which went on the menu by the name of “The Whale.” By the end of the trip, I realized that when someone says something like, “You’re looking well,” that this is Scottish for “Who ate all the pies?” In my defense, by the end of the trip, I was feeling like the Hindenburg, all traces of my normal, gluten-lite diet having been flushed from the system by a tidal-wave of sugar and lard.

Otherwise… Well, the highlight was probably getting to see the new Doctor Who while we were there – mostly because it provoked the intense jealousy of our son. [Brief opinion: he’ll do nicely, and is surprisingly similar to the much-loved David Tennant] The 50th-anniversary party itself is worth mentioning, however, since it took place in the local masonic hall, which they rent out for parties – kinda defused the theory of the Freemasons being the master behind the New World Order, in my opinion. Some of my cousins are masons, I think including one who is among the top cops in Glasgow – my maternal grandfather was as well. But this was the closest I’ll get to being an “insider,” and peering at the memorabilia and wondering what the grave-shaped trapdoor in the floor was for, occupied some idle moments.

The journey back started the next evening, and took approximately 32 hours in total, from the time we left the house in Scotland, to the time we arrived back in Phoenix. Car, sleeper train, walk from Euston to King’s Cross, Tube from there to Heathrow, about six hours hanging around there, and then the flight back to Phoenix, where our daughter was waiting. To be honest, it didn’t feel much like a “holiday” in the true sense of the word. Especially when the jet-lag kicked in, around 5am the next morning, and continuing for much of the remaining week. But seeing my parents was worth it, and we vowed that it will not be another eight years before we head back to Scotland again. But this time, hopefully for an actual break