Episode 6 is the first from the New Testament and the breakneck speed the series has whipped through the Old Testament in just 5 episodes (about three and a half hours) shows no sign of abating. In some ways this is necessary and those of us who would like to see things fleshed out a bit more are in a tiny majority; the series' viewing figures show that the producers got this just right. In other ways though it's a bit annoying. This episode starts moments before the annunciation and it's preceded by a long, drawn out and violent fictional example of the Romans collecting taxes complete with slow motion shots and scenes of extras clashing in the streets. It's the kind of scene that has happened a lot in the series, and it's beginning to infuriate. I can't deny that these scenes do add some historical context - whilst fictional they are nevertheless, in a sense, truthful. The problem is that whilst these scenes attempt to add that context they strangely also lack context themselves. The Romans violently extorting their taxes, but we don't know why. Sure, sometimes they probably just did, but the lack of motive, or back story, or explanation makes good history into bad drama. And for this scene to play out, at some length, whilst other key scenes, like the annunciation, or Jesus' birth, are done and dusted in a similar length of time is a bit frustrating. I did mean to start this post with a rant, but, well there you go.
It's a particular shame because the annunciation is particularly good. In fact it's one of a handful of scenes where the creativity of the storytelling is at the fore. Because it's in the middle of this carnage, symbolising the extent to which the Jews are under Rome's thumb, that an angel appears to Mary. It's a bold move, given extra power by intercutting between multiple scenes. "He will be a saviour" the angel says, as a soldier chops a Nazarene just around the corner. So many of these films portray the moment as one of serenity, it's quite powerful. The intercutting is used a few times in this episode to great effect. Another hugely effective moment is in the temptation scene where Satan's promise of kingship is accompanied by alternating images of an enthroned Jesus receiving a golden laurel wreath and a beaten Jesus being tortured with a crown of thorns.
At the same time I can't help wondering if this was inspired by the intercutting in The Passion of the Christ for example Mary seeing the adult Jesus stumble under the weight of a cross compared with footage of the boy Jesus stumbling up a couple of steps. I say this because the preview footage of the crucifixion scenes looked incredibly similar to those in Gibson's film and there's another element in this episode that also seems to be inspired by that particular Jesus movie - the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Here the temptation is the one at the start of Jesus' ministry. Jesus is fasting in the desert, kneeling on the ground in prayer when a snake weaves its way past him. The snake is, of course, Satan who quickly changes into human form. But the use of the snake is striking as is the fact that the human Satan does all the talking. And the human Satan also looks a lot like the one in Gibson's film - tall, hooded, bald-headed and with a thin face.
Some of you probably thought I was about to say President Obama then, because this series will probably go down as the one that made Satan look like the current inhabitant of the White House. I don't want to go into this as some have done, suffice to say I think it's undeniable that the two look similar. It's no good the producers trying to distance themselves from this fact by wheeling out the actor in a different lighting, clothing and make-up and showing that in real life he looks nothing like the president. In the film he does. At the same time, however, the claim that this was a deliberate decision (even despite persistent and repeated denials by the filmmakers that it wasn't) seems a bit stupid. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it was someone's subconcious, but to suggest it was a deliberate political statement seems fairly silly. I'd love to know what actually happened, but no-one will ever really know. For some reason there was rather less hoo-har about the fact that they chose David Brent to play Herod Anipas.
I was actually fairly surprised at how far through the gospels this episode got, ending with Jesus' calling of Peter. I quite liked this portrayal actually. It had its faults, but it was a fairly original take. I liked the image of Jesus wade through the water to get to the boat, the idea of him dipping his hand into the water, the shot of him from below the waves (a fish eyes' view?) and the final pan around an astonished Peter's boat, intercut with the execution of John the Baptist.
And as a watch that final moment I'm reminded of some of the things this production does really well. There are some great images - some of those of the magi are actually pretty staggering, CGI or not. The music is really emotive, memorable and hasn't yet annoyed me. I'm not saying I'd complain complain if they found another theme to weave in here or their, but overall it seems to strike the right, um, note. Where things have been a let down in general is the dialogue and the delivery of that dialogue. I can't quite work out which is primarily to blame, but either way both are at fault.
That's more or less it for this episode. Apologies if the writing is junk and littered with spelling mistakes, but it's one of those if-I-don't-do-it-now-(badly)-it'll-never-get-done-at-all thingsand there have been a lot of those over the last two years.
*Yes sorry it's going to be confusing, isn't it, that the show aired as five double episodes, but the DVD/Blu-ray has 10 single episodes. Here's a simple trick if only saw it on telly and you're easily confused: take my episode number and divide it by two. It's a miracle!