The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview

What did the ancient Greeks and Romans think of the peoples they referred to as barbari? Did they share the modern Western conception—popularized in modern fantasy literature and role-playing games—of “barbarians” as brutish, unwashed enemies of civilization? Or our related notion of “the noble savage?” Was the category fixed or fluid? How did it contrast with the Greeks and Romans’ conception of their own cultural identity? Was it based on race?

These are the questions that my first book addresses. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World will be published in the fall of 2018. The book explores both the realities of interaction among peoples of different cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and the ways in which Greek and Roman thinkers interpreted these interactions to create the idea of the “barbarian.”

Here’s a preview, discussing the experience of the Greeks in their colonial settlements around the Mediterranean Sea:

* * *

The history of Greek settlement in Egypt demonstrates the complexity of colonial interactions. In the late 600s BCE, Egypt was under Assyrian dominion. An Egyptian noble, Psammetichus, had been appointed as governor, but when the Assyrians were distracted by internal conflicts, Psammetichus raised a rebellion, bolstered by mercenaries from Greece and Caria, a region of southwestern Anatolia. When the fighting was done and Psammetichus had become king of a newly independent Egypt, he settled the remaining mercenaries in the Nile delta. These settlements also attracted other foreigners, such as Phoenician crafters who made imitation Egyptian artworks on the site for export.

The mercenaries remained in Egyptian service, and it appears their descendants did as well, since some were deployed to southern Egypt under Psammetichus II decades later. One such band carved graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel to commemorate their adventures: “When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine, this was carved by the companions of Psammatichus, son of Theocles, who sailed beyond Kerkis as far as the river went.” The mercenary Psammatichus was evidently named after the pharaoh by his Greek father. Some families went beyond names and embraced Egyptian culture, as shown by the burial of Wahibre-em-akhet, whose name and hieroglyph-inscribed sarcophagus are conventionally Egyptian; the only clue to his foreign ancestry are the Greek names of his parents, Alexicles and Zenodote. Other soldiers left graffiti at Abu Simbel in Carian and Phoenician, another testament to the cultural and linguistic diversity of those traveling and trading around the Mediterranean at this time.

Sometime after 570, the pharaoh Amasis reorganized the Nile delta settlement. Land was granted for the construction of a Greek colony, which, unusually, was collectively founded by nine Greek cities from the coast of Anatolia. Representatives from these cities jointly governed the new community now called Naukratis. Greek ships were banned from landing anywhere else in Egypt for trade. The colony thus became the primary site of exchange between Greeks and Egyptians. Trade connections brought people of many different backgrounds to Naukratis and connected its people to a wider world. One visitor was Charaxos, the brother of the poet Sappho, who traded wine from his home city Mytilene to Naukratis. He met a slave courtesan there, a Thracian woman named Rhodopis who had been brought to Egypt by her Samian owner. Charaxos fell in love with Rhodopis, bought her, and freed her, after which she chose to remain in Naukratis to ply her trade. To celebrate the fortune she had amassed in her work, Rhodopis later made a rich dedication at Delphi in Greece. A hieroglyphic inscription on a stele erected by the pharaoh Nectanebo in the fourth century, dedicating revenues from Naukratis to the temple of Neith, shows that the pharaohs kept an active interest in the administration of the colony. Naukratis retained its importance and trading privileges after the Persian Empire conquered Egypt in 525. It continued to welcome not only traders but tourists and other travelers, like Herodotus, who visited Egypt and whose writings record the existence of a local industry of tour guides and interpreters. The Greeks who settled in Egypt did not exist in isolation but had productive relationships with traders, artisans, and the ruling class alike.

The interactions in and around Naukratis are a window into the complexity of the colonial world. There were Greeks trading with Egyptians, but also Phoenicians making knockoffs of Egyptian art, Greeks assimilating into Egyptian culture, Thracians and Carians negotiating the needs of Egyptian and Greek patrons, and Egyptians making a living off showing the wonders of their country to curious foreigners. Interactions like these were happening all around the Mediterranean. There is no simple way to describe Greek relations with non-Greek peoples in the archaic and classical periods because those relations were never simple.

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed some of my posts about ancient trade connections, the diversity of ancient armies, individuals crossing cultural boundaries, modern peoples’ attempts to claim ancient peoples’ identities for themselves, and the variety of different kinds of “barbarian” you may find something to enjoy in Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World.

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World comes out in September from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $48 / Paperback: $16

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon.

Image: Barbarians paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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Quotes: Trail Goes Down Between Two Hills

“[T]he Pima of Central Arizona have historically embedded in their landscape the stories, histories, and lessons of their way of life and culture. Thus, the Pima, when they wish to remind someone of their past, or of a lesson they would like that person to remember, make what seem to white people abstract references to locations on their territory, such as ‘Trail Goes Down between Two Hills.’ The target of their comments, however, will know what they mean.”

– Matthew Barlow, Griffintown: Memory and Identity in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, 11

Historian Matthew Barlow here cites the work of anthropologist Keith Basso on how memory can be embedded in a landscape to explain how the Irish-Catholic population of Montreal imbued the working-class neighborhood of Griffintown with meanings important to their identity as Irish-Canadians, such that even after the neighborhood was redeveloped, Irish-Montrealers could invoke generations worth of memories by reference to churches, pubs, streets, and other landmarks.

It’s a fascinating way of thinking about how we relate the landscape we live in, but, of course, the first thing I thought of was:

Image: Still from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” via IMDb, text added by Erik Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Jane Austen, Mystery Writer

The great mystery novelist P. D. James has noted that Jane Austen’s novel Emma has all the essential elements of a mystery novel: the plot revolves around secrets which are revealed at the climax but to which the heroine and the readers have been given clues all along. I think we can extend that idea further and say that most of Austen’s novels are, in spirit, mysteries.

The plots of most of Austen’s completed novels are about heroines becoming wiser about themselves and the world, usually by discovering things that make them reevaluate the people around them. Elizabeth Bennet discovers that Wickham is a scoundrel and Mr. Darcy has an honorable soul under his proud manner. Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby is a scoundrel and her sister Elinor has feelings as deep as her own. Catherine Morland discovers that Northanger Abbey is not a Gothic haunted house. Other discoveries and reevaluations made by the heroines and other characters also propel the plots along. Darcy learns that Jane Bennet was actually in love with Bingley all along. John Thorpe learns that Catherine was not in line for a fortune after all. Anne Elliot learns that William Elliot is responsible for her friend’s financial difficulties.

Austen also leaves some clues hidden in plain sight, unremarked upon in the novels but waiting for the clever reader to put together for themselves. Why is Mr. Darcy in such an ill humor when Lizzie first meets him at the Meryton ball? Austen never lays it out for us, but once you know his history it becomes clear that only a few months have passed since his beloved younger sister Georgiana nearly eloped with the scheming Mr. Wickham. Of course the sight of young women his sister’s age freely dancing with men they have barely met puts him in a sullen mood, and it is this mood rather than his natural character on which Lizzie first judges him.

Austen’s great literary innovation, the “free indirect style” in which the narrator stands apart from the point of view character but reflects their judgments and perceptions in the narration, represents a careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity that is important in mystery writing. The job of a mystery author working in the classic style is to present the reader with all the necessary facts to resolve the mystery themselves, but to obscure those facts in such a way that the reader does not get ahead of the detective in working out what happened. Austen’s free indirect style achieves precisely this goal, letting the readers in on what is going on in the world around her characters but coloring the facts with the main characters’ own perceptions and biases.

Austen framed her social satires and ethical critiques in the genre of romantic novels since those were popular in her day. I sometimes wonder, if she were alive and writing today, would she have chosen to write mysteries instead?

Image: Portrait of Jane Austen via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; c. 1810; pencil and watercolor; by Cassandra Austen)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Hoplites

The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.

A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.

Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.

The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.

In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.

Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.

In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.

The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.

Thoughts for writers

Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.

Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 9

We’re back at it again, rewatching and rating another season of new series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on season 9.

  1. “The Magician’s Apprentice” – 4
  2. “The Witch’s Familiar” – 3
  3. “Under the Lake” – 6.5
  4. “Before the Flood” – 6.5
  5. “The Girl Who Died” – 4
  6. “The Woman Who Lived” – 4.5
  7. “The Zygon Invasion” – 2
  8. “The Zygon Inversion” – 2
  9. “Sleep No More” – 1
  10. “Face the Raven” – 1.5
  11. “Heaven Sent” – 5
  12. “ Hell Bent” – 2

This season is a real come down, with an average rating of just 3.5, the lowest yet. There are some reasons why many of this season’s episodes don’t rate very well. The showrunners made the interesting choice of making almost every episode in the season a two-parter. (Only “Sleep No More” stands alone.) This has the potential of allowing for more expansive and complex storytelling, which pays off in “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood,” but in other cases, like “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” and “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion,” what we get is an episode-and-a-half worth of story with the Doctor filibustering to fill out the time.

The lowest-rated episode of the season is “Sleep No More,” which is trying to be a claustrophobic monsters-in-space horror story with a twist, but which can’t escape the absurdity of its premise. Doctor Who has managed to make a lot of mundane things scary, from children in gas masks to angel statues to repeated words, but this was a stretch too far. It doesn’t matter how much first-person shaky-cam footage you use or how much running through darkened hallways your characters do, there is just no way to make the crud that builds up at the corner of your eye when you sleep scary.

Special mention goes to the “Zygon Invasion / Inversion” two-parter, for being not only badly written and poorly paced but also having some troubling undertones. This pair of episodes picks up on the 50th anniversary special which ended with a colony of Zygons—shape-changing aliens that can mimic other life forms—settled on Earth in human form. Here, a splinter group of Zygons refuses to maintain the charade and begins waging a violent campaign against humans and conforming Zygons. The episode ends with the rebel Zygons agreeing to remain in human form. On one hand, the reversion to the status quo is necessary if the series is not prepared to deal with the ongoing consequences of a world full of humans finding themselves living next to starfish-like aliens. On the other hand, the implications of telling a group of immigrants that they can’t live openly and must hide their identity by conforming entirely to the culture of their new home is unsettling in these days of rising nativism and anti-immigrant hate. This is not the open-hearted, compassionate Doctor Who that we are used to.

The best episodes of the season are the two-parter “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” both at 6.5. In this episode, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an underwater station where a crashed alien ship is killing the crew and turning their ghosts into transmitters. It’s an intriguing mystery that develops slowly as the Doctor pieces together the clues. This episode is reminiscent of the season 2 two-parter “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit,” with the Doctor facing off against an ancient evil that uses written language to infect the crew of the station.

This is as far as we’ve gotten in our Doctor Who rewatching project. We’ll update with season 10 when we get around to it, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming season 11 and checking out Jodie Whittaker’s take on the wandering Gallifreyan.

This just wasn’t the season for us. How did it work for you? Feel differently about the season as a whole or an episode in particular? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 9 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

 

Some Random Thoughts on Ant-Man and the Wasp

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • This was an excellent follow-up to the original Ant-Man, making the story deeper and more complex while keeping the wild fun caper tone.
  • As others have noted, it really should have been called The Wasp and Ant-Man. It’s Hope’s movie. Scott is the sidekick this time around, and that’s great.
  • Although Hope’s Wasp suit is form-fitting, it doesn’t overtly sexualize her in the way a lot of other Marvel women’s costumes do. The same goes for Ghost’s suit. I hope this is a sign of things to come.
  • Luis on truth serum (“It’s not truth serum”) may be the funniest thing to come out of the MCU yet.
  • In a media landscape oversaturated with father-son stories, it was a very welcome change to have a movie about fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and found family, with nary a father-son story in sight.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

  • I found Ant-Man & the Wasp more enjoyable than Ant-Man (which I did like!) in many respects. The pacing felt more even, the villain slightly less corny, the cinematography as good or better, to mention a few.
  • AM&tW also felt more aware of itself in that it actively upended or joked about some conventions (e.g., some of the chase sequences, the long-running truth serum gag, even the name of Scott and Luis’ security company).
  • The antagonist setup was refreshingly different. Instead of one ham hock of a megalomaniac we’re treated to two forces grappling with Scott, Hope, and Hank: a woman trying to cope with years of pain and exploitation, plus a wannabe megalomaniac more in line with the usual cheesy MCU villain. Thankfully, the latter is used sparingly and isn’t allowed to lord it over everyone else.
  • The action sequences did so many funny and inventive things with size. I’ll also hazard a guess that the studio has improved their software since Ant-Man—at least to my untrained eye, the CGI looked smoother.
  • I loved how Cassie, Maggie, and Paxton’s family unit had—literally—embraced Scott. His cardboard fort / tunnel system treasure hunt with Cassie was so awesome! We tend not to see enough fathers enthusiastically play with their daughters on the big screen, let alone in superhero movies, so a big Thank You to the writing team for that.
  • I also loved the amount of screentime Hope got, and that there was no father-son story but a mother-daughter one and two father-daughter stories. You could even argue that Bill and Ava’s relationship amounted to an adoptive/adopted parent-child one (for the lack of a better term), or was moving in that direction by the end.
  • It was a funny flick, too. I sniggered all the way through.
  • Michael Peña’s Luis—oh, man! I don’t know how he can deliver the hyperspeed lines so fluently. He’s amazing! It was also nice to see how the ex-con gang worked together and that Dave and Kurt got a bit more development.
  • There’s one detail that stuck to my mind as a little too close to railroading: the countdown clock on Janet’s rescue window. Although, there’s plenty of Pym particle physics that’s merely handwaved aside, so it’s not like it’s alone in the MCU.
  • Finally, my two cents on the two stingers. The first one gave me the kind of genuine “Oh, shit” reaction that the end of Infinity War wasn’t able to. The second stinger felt cheaper, almost perfunctory.

Image: Ant-Man and the Wasp poster via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

I’m Still Angry about How I Met Your Mother

I realize I’m several years late to this particular party, but I have a huge problem with the originally aired final episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It’s not just that I don’t like what the episode did to the main characters and their relationships; it’s that the final episode undid much of what I liked about the series as a whole.

How I Met Your Mother is the story of five friends and their adventures as the main character, Ted, tries to find Miss Right, as told in retrospect by an older Ted to his children. A lot of the charm of the series is the way it plays with the idea of story-telling and memory: episodes often tell events out of order or literalize old Ted’s slips of memory and half-truths (a person whose name Ted can’t remember is just called Blah-Blah, all flashbacks to college-age characters smoking pot have them eating sandwiches instead, etc.). But beyond this narrative playfulness, one of the things I appreciate most about the series is that it undercuts three of the big toxic tropes about relationships that pervade so much of popular culture. Unfortunately, all three of these tropes are snapped right back into place by the final episode.

At its best, How I Met Your Mother showed that:

1. Women do not exist to serve men’s emotional needs

Robin and Lily, the main female characters of the series, are not just emotional props for the men in their lives but are fully-rounded characters with lives, careers, ambitions, desires, and foibles of their own. The Mother, who finally turns up in the last season, is also a well-developed character with her own quirks, history, and emotional life. Although they all have relationships with men, none of them exists solely to serve the needs of a man’s emotional fulfillment.

In the final episode, however, Lily is largely absent, the Mother—having given Ted the children he wanted but that Robin couldn’t have—swiftly dies of a convenient cancer of the plot, and Ted is finally free to pursue Robin at last, who gamely falls into his arms. From three full and interesting characters, the women of the series are at the end reduced to a nonentity, a plot device, and a cereal-box prize.

2. Men and women can be friends

When Ted and Robin split up after a brief early relationship, they don’t just go their separate ways. After an understandable period of awkwardness and division, they remain part of the same group of friends and develop a comfortable, even intimate friendship. They rely on one another, confide in one another, and look out for each other’s well-being. This is what reasonable people do in the real world. The idea that any relationship between a man and a woman must necessarily lead to either romance or heartbreak has robbed the world of too many potential friendships. How I Met Your Mother showed up this lie for what it is.

Until the final episode, when we discover that Ted and Robin’s friendship was just a holding pattern until they were both ready to fall back into each other’s arms.

3. A relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to be good

In fiction, the conservation of narrative detail usually means that any conflict within a couple is a sign that the relationship is either broken and in need of transformative repair or else fatally flawed and doomed to end badly. How I Met Your Mother avoided this trope by showing us how Lily and Marshal have a good, strong, loving relationship despite their conflicts, upsets, and rough patches, just like most real-world couples. The last few seasons show us how Robin and Barney, despite their own individual problems, grow together into a couple that works.

Then the final episode comes around and the need to release Robin to be scooped up by Ted means that Robin and Barney’s marriage has to come apart at the seams. After several years of the characters figuring out how to make their relationship work, one on-screen argument is enough to break it all to pieces.

As I said, I know I’m far from the first person to gripe about the show’s final episode, but the reason it bothers me so much is because it directly undercuts so much of what was good about the series to begin with. Somehow, good things that end up going bad annoy me more than things that are just bad to begin with.

Images: Robin via Giphy; Robin and Barney via Giphy; Lily via Giphy

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Midsummer Fire Festival Transmogs

Alunaria of Alunaria’s Avenue has proposed a new transmogging challenge: transmogs for the Midsummer Fire Festival that also fit with your class. We’re always up for transmogging fun, so here’s our ideas.

Erik here.

For my Tauren shaman, the Midsummer celebration is very important. It is a time to honor the spirits of the fire, which she does by dancing in her Flamedancer Regalia.

My Gnomish warlock is a different case. You see, when it comes to fire, warlocks are professionals, so the Fire Festival is a bit of a bus-driver’s holiday for her. It’s the one time of the year when people who don’t know what they’re doing try to set things on fire, so if she hung around the festivities she would just find herself screaming at everyone:

You’ve built that bonfire all wrong! There’s nowhere near enough kindling, the wood isn’t properly seasoned, it’s too close to the tent, and you put it upwind of the dance pole! Does no one here know what they’re doing but me!?”

So, for her, Midsummer is a time to get away from it all and go have her own private little fire way up in the snowy mountains where no one will bother her. She dresses appropriately for the climate in her Aurora-Seeker’s Garb.

Eppu here.

My fire mage’s hidden artifact appearance mog is already so gorgeous there isn’t really improving it, but I did change a few things to make it more Fire Festival-y.

WoW Fire Festival Fire Mage Braziers 2018

I was able to find a decently matching shirt, so it looks like the dress has sleeves (Elegant Robes plus Golden Filigreed Shirt). Otherwise, I pushed the accent colors (headpiece, boots, gloves, shoulders, cloak) more towards red and orange. Finally, I borrowed a red wand and a red flower (Flash Wand, Penelope’s Rose) from my arcane mage’s Love Is in the Air mog.

Now she’s ready to light up the town! 🙂

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.