One of the great television treats of 2010 was Spartacus – Blood and Sand. Actually, no. One of the great television treats of 2010 was watching Spartacus – Blood and Sand develop from something akin to the adverts for shoot-em-ups that I inadvertently see when watching football, into something more like (and I kid you not) “I, Claudius“. With a hit on their hands, Starz prepared to gear up for franchise status when news of Andy Whitfield’s cancer broke. Without the mighty Spartacus, what to do? Starz’s answer was to give Andy some time and make a prequel – hence Gods of the Arena. (Andy is doing okay, but the sequel will be filmed with Spartacus played by Liam McIntyre).
“Gods” tracks the ascent of the House of Batiatus, as it rises with the new arena being built in claustrophobic, clammy Capua by ruthless businessman Tulius. Its sand is destined for gladiators from the ludus of his pet lanista Vettius – or so they think. Fans of “Blood” will welcome the return of its aesthetic – and you really do have to buy into the violence, the painterly, almost impressionistic, sets and speech littered with oaths, both Anglo-Saxon and cod Latin. The fights are even more choreographed – balletic – and the script, though more wordy than in “Blood”, is still beautifully stilted – Romans almost certainly did not speak like that, but you wish they did.
“Blood” rose above the merely impressive to magnificent by virtue of its characters’ development from cartoonish stereotypes to fully rounded men and women, whom you loved and hated. “Gods”, despite its title, is more concerned with the citizens than the gladiators and slaves, so the distance traveled is shorter, but there’s plenty of fine work from John Hannah (Batiatus) burning with ambition, but unable to contain his thuggish temperament (think Coleen with Wayne’s personality). Lucy Lawless (Lucretia) is as good as ever – protective of her husband and genuinely concerned for the well-being of her slave-girls – but utterly ruthless. Amongst the citizens, Jeffrey Thomas (Titus) is brutal as Batiatus’ father, his stubborness forging the son into exactly the man he does not want and Craig Walsh Wrightson (Solonius) is magnificent as the cowed, but learning, lanista on the make.
All good so far – but it is within the walls of the ludus that “Gods” sells its characters short. Lesley-Ann Brandt (Naevia) is allowed little more to do than a biting of the lip, in stark contrast to her wonderfully judged performance in “Blood”. In similar vein, Manu Bennett (Crixus) reverts to the grunting brute of the first half-dozen episodes of “Blood” and Nick Tarabay (Ashur) is confined to a ball of resentment with little sign of his Machiavellian scheming behind those darting eyes. Dustin Clare (Champion of Capua, Gannicus) was always going to suffer in comparison to Spartacus himself and I’m afraid he came across too much like a cross between a WWE wrestler and Randle Flagg from the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand. I found myself unable to care much about the fate of any of the gladiators of “Gods” – and I think I actually loved Varro in “Blood”! The exception is Peter Mensah (Doctore) given the scope to work his sergeant-major up into a sympathetic man that his performance in “Blood” so deserved. Like the citizens, we see exactly how he became the man who cracked the whip at Spartacus.
So good, but not great, would be my verdict with more expected of the sequel next year. In the meantime, Spartacus – Blood and Sand is rerun in the UK on Sky One from Monday May 2 (10.00pm). Don’t miss it – and don’t turn off after four episodes, because it’s only then that it soars like a (Roman) eagle!