Have you been watching ... Atlantis?

Is the BBC's fantasy drama a worthy follow-up to Merlin – or just Game of Thrones without the fun bits?

Like many people, I've had a Merlin-sized hole in my heart for months. I've spent most of this year staring listlessly into the middle distance, fruitlessly waiting for a stupid new fantasy show for children about people falling backwards in slow motion a lot to come along. Although it's still early days, I'm starting to suspect that Atlantis might just be that show.

Admittedly, I suspect this because Atlantis is exactly the same as Merlin. I mean, it's exactly the same. It's created by the same people who created Merlin, and it's on at the same time of the same day. It's set in a wildly inaccurate fantasy setting, just like Merlin. The title flashes up before the cold open, just like Merlin.

The theme tune sounds like something you'd hear during a massage at a spa with a rubbish Tripadvisor rating, just like Merlin's theme tune. And, like Merlin, there's even a character whose sole responsibility is to give annoyingly vague answers to questions about the future, although in Atlantis this character is Juliet Stevenson with a tin bowl instead of a giant dragon with John Hurt's voice, which is probably more sensible from a budget perspective.

What Atlantis lacks, though, is the inbuilt time bomb that drove Merlin forward. At least that was based on a story that everyone knew. We knew about Excalibur and Mordred and the round table, and most of the fun came from guessing how the series could incorporate the legend into a kid's show about farting goblins. Atlantis doesn't really have any of that. The mythology is already so skewed – Hercules and Pythagoras both live on Atlantis, and they're besties, and Hercules fancies Medusa, and sometimes there's a minotaur – that anything could happen. Presumably Atlantis will sink at some point, but nobody's particularly fussed about that at the moment.

Perhaps the answer lies with Jason, the show's uncomfortable young lead. In the very first scene of the very first episode, Jason is a present-day submarine pilot who ends up in Atlantis after being sucked into an underwater vortex. Is he really in Atlantis? Did he die? Is this all an elaborate coma fantasy? It's the same trick that helped propel Life on Mars to success except, bewilderingly, it hasn't actually been mentioned in any meaningful way since the first 10 minutes of the pilot.

If I was in Jason's position, I'd be freaking the hell out. I'd never stop freaking out about suddenly being in Atlantis. Especially if, like Jason, I'd developed superpowers as well. But Jason is quite happy to meander along, killing beasts and making fart jokes, like he's been there forever. Will Jason ever actually acknowledge the submarine thing? Will he try to get home? Or was this all a lazy gimmick that the producers never intended to follow up? It's gone unmentioned for so long now that it's actually starting to get a bit distracting.

But all of these worries are offset by the simple joy of watching Atlantis. It's unashamedly silly – every week there's witchcraft or voodoo or slowed-down bits of parkour that seem to happen for absolutely no reason. It's like watching your nan play Assassin's Creed. It's Game of Thrones without the fun bits. It's Spartacus without the unshakable suspicion that you're an almighty pervert for even watching it. The performers – especially the more experienced ones – are all having a blast, too. Mark Addy, in particular, is tremendous as Hercules, bringing subtlety and nuance and a generous dollop of slapstick to an otherwise underwritten role. And then there's the evil queen, played by Sarah Parish, who chews all available scenery with such glorious abandon that you end up wanting her to win.

BBC1 has faith in Atlantis – it has just commissioned a second series – and so have I. There are still plenty of creases to iron out but, with a bit of time, hopefully it'll blossom into something just as brilliantly silly as Merlin.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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