This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

The Week’s TV Including Greeks, Romans, the Indian Ocean, Apocalyptic Volcanoes & More

I’ve decided to change the way I’m writing about TV programmes, because we’ve increased the amount of TV we’re watching (to try not to run out of space on the PVR) and it’s been taking a lot of time to write long posts about each programme. So instead I’m going to do a post a week of mini-reviews of what we watched, and perhaps every now & then a longer post about something that particularly catches my attention.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb

This one off documentary was about a relatively recently discovered tomb in the catacombs under Rome. In 6 linked chambers there were the remains of about 2000 bodies, and at first the discoverers had no idea who they were, when they’d lived or what they’d died from. Michael Scott presented the work that’s been done in the last 10 years to try & find out some answers – it’s still a work in progress so he offered no “proof” or “solution” just the theories so far.

The bodies definitely weren’t all interred at the same time – not enough space in the chambers, carbon dating shows a range of dates & the few bits of jewellery & coins do too. So they seem to date from the 1st to 3rd Centuries AD, in several batches. There are no signs of violence, particularly not the sorts of trauma that end lives. Work has just started on trying to identify any pathogens from DNA traces left in teeth. Most of the bodies are young adults or teenagers, both men & women. They were buried in a high status fashion. The chambers are directly underneath what’s known to be the burial ground for an elite cavalry unit, and Scott speculated that these mass burials could’ve been members of this unit and their families & slaves who succumbed to plagues that swept through Rome in this era. He also speculated that these chambers might’ve been the nucleus of the later custom of burying people in catacombs under Rome.

Interesting, and also nice to watch a programme about a historical & archaeological mystery that didn’t “solve the mystery” but instead was willing to present the theories so far.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The BBC just recently re-showed an older Simon Reeve series about the Indian Ocean. The first episode covered the region from the tip of South Africa to the island of Zanzibar. As seems to be Reeve’s style we saw not just the beautiful scenery etc, but also the less savoury side of life round the coast. In South Africa and in Mozambique this was centered around trade in luxury foods to China – abalone in the former case & shark fins in the latter. The abalone trade is particularly unsavoury as it’s linked to the drug trade – both in that addicts poach the shellfish & sell it to the drug gangs to afford to buy drugs, and in that the drug gangs are involved in smuggling the abalone out as well as the drugs in. There was also foreshadowing for Somali pirates showing up in a later episode. But on a bit more of an optimistic note Reeve visited an old hotel in Mozambique which is now a refugee camp – the optimism comes from how it’s formed into a functional mini-state, with elected officials & rules, so the people have more stable lives than one might expect.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor

This programme doesn’t really belong in either fact or fiction so I’ll just include it here. The BBC announced who the next Doctor was going to be live on telly – we hadn’t really planned to watch it, but did anyway. The build up involved interviews with random celebrity fans (more than half of whom I failed to recognise), and also past Doctors & companions. I also didn’t recognise Peter Capaldi’s name, but J pointed out we saw him play one of the politician/civil servant people in the Torchwood Children of Earth series, so that’s why I vaguely recognised the way he looked.

I’m already tired of the “is he gonna swear as the Doctor *teehee*” meme based on whatever it is he’s famous for … the man’s an actor, I’m sure he can play different characters differently, he’d not be very good otherwise.

Ancient Apocalypse

Mystery of the Minoans

We’d watched the first episode of this series some time ago, possibly not long after it aired (in April last year, when I wasn’t writing up TV I’d watched). It was about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, hence why we watched it so quickly, but the other episodes are about other apocalypses. Mystery of the Minoans was about the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

The basic idea is one we’d seen before (in a Bettany Hughes programme we watched in 2010 (post on LJ)) – the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) is the remains of a volcano that erupted 3500 years ago, just a few decades before Minoan civilisation collapsed and was conquered by the Myceneans. The various experts in this programme showed us evidence of how massive the eruption was (possibly bigger than had previously been thought) and what effects that would’ve had both immediately & more long term. Immediate effects included wiping out the towns on Thera itself, which were an important part of the Minoan trade network. They also included devastating tsunami that hit Crete, and would’ve destroyed a lot of towns & infrastructure and killed a lot of people. Longer term there was a noticeable effect on the climate – for instance we were shown tree rings from preserved tree trunks in the Irish bogs which showed no or very little growth for 10 years after the eruption.

It felt a little shallow, which was a problem with the first episode too if I remember correctly. Not dreadfully so, but more than once I’d’ve liked a little more detail on the data they were presenting – for example a brief explanation of how they had dated their tree trunks so precisely would’ve been nice. Or giving the date ranges for the various different bits of evidence so we could judge for ourselves how much it all added up. (Possibly I expect too much here 😉 )

The Maya Collapse

Sadly the third episode, about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was more shallow rather than less. The worst piece of padding was when we got a couple of minutes of jaunty mexican music while our hero archaeologist walked up a set of stairs and then back down. With the camera lingering on his cowboy boots because he was a Texan. But there were several other bits of fluff that could’ve been cut out as well and replaced with a bit more info about the subject of the programme.

It concentrated on the end of the Mayan civilisation which appears to have been rapid and comprehensive – about 1200 years ago there were Mayans, and then the cities & villages are abandoned with only a few people who survived. The archaeologist we followed (I’ve forgotten his name :/ ) was an ex-banker who’d become obsessed with the question of what happened & after his bank collapsed had gone back to university & got an archaeology degree so he could work on the question. He actually came across rather well, despite the attempts of the programme to shoehorn this into a “those academics were too hidebound it took an outsider to think of the answer” story.

The apocalypse in this case was drought. The Yucatan region has no rivers or lakes & so the people who live there both then & now are completely dependent on the rainy season to fill up man made reservoirs. If the rains fail, disaster strikes. The archaeologist looked at various different bits of evidence (ice cores, climate models, old records of past climate, mud cores and more) and discovered that around the time of the Mayan civilisation vanishing there was the worst drought in the last 7000 years. In addition to the lack of water directly killing off people there is some evidence that the priests were blamed for failing to get the gods to make it rain, and so were violently killed – and also for society in general descending into violence & unrest.

Who Were the Greeks?

This is a two part series about the Greeks presented by Michael Scott (the same one who presented the programme about a Roman tomb I wrote about above). He’s taking as his jumping off point the idea that we all think we know about the Ancient Greeks – they were philosophers, the first scientists, artists, inventors of democracy. And in this first episode at least he was telling us about how they were also a culture that seems completely alien to our modern eyes. So the first part of the programme was about the Greeks as warriors – not just Sparta (although he discussed Spartans at length) but also the other city states including Athens. He also talked about the Greek notions of sexuality, which are not the same as our modern ones at all. There wasn’t this distinction between straight and gay, instead there were differences due to a man’s age – a young unmarried man was expected to want to form a relationship with a young teenage boy. Then he was expected to grow out of this (in the same way he’d grown out of being the boy in such a relationship) and to marry by the time he was 35. There were also cultural rules about what sort of sex was appropriate with one’s wife and that was different to what was appropriate with one’s mistress or a prostitute.

Scott also discussed the blurring between what we’d consider the seperate domains of science & religion – no actual concept of religion as we know it in Greek culture at the time. Instead the gods & their involvement in the world were just a part of the way the world is, and you could both expect the gods to come to you in a dream to cure you of an illness whilst also seeing a physician who prescribe treatments more like what we’d recognise today. He also talked about slavery, and how even the democratic society of Athens was built on a slave-holding society – sure it was a democracy, but only male citizens had rights & a vote.

One of his other themes for the programme was the way Greek society put a high premium on perfection – both of the body & of the mind. Babies were exposed if they were imperfect & weren’t expected to live, men were expected to work on their physique, and were expected to display their education & ability to think. Life was lived mostly in public, and scrutinised by your peers.

Royal Institute Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last lecture in the series was mostly concerned with the social aspects of how our brains work. So there was some stuff about empathy & about how we develop a theory of the mind as we get older (I’m always surprised when I remember it kicks in as late as 3 or 4 years old). Both of which are a sort of mind-reading that lets one fit into groups better, by being able to work out what other people might be thinking or how they might react. And there was also a magician who did a few tricks during the lecture – using the way we instinctively follow someone’s gaze or look where they’re pointing to direct our attention away from where the substitutions & so on were being performed.

It’s been a bit odd watching this – I remember when I was a kid the Christmas Lectures were awesome and I didn’t think they were very “child oriented”, but now it seems very much aimed at the kids. But still quite fun to watch the series.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

The Secret History of Genghis Khan was a programme we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while. It was a mixture of re-enactment with voice-over and a few talking heads. The narrative was based on a text written after Genghis Khan’s death by his adopted son, which was part hagiography & part teaching tool for his successors. It has survived only in a Chinese copy discovered some centuries after it was written. The programme as a whole felt a little too uncritical of it’s source to me. Yes, it did present a different (and more nuanced) view of Genghis Khan to the traditional Western memory of him as solely a brutal butcher. And they did mention that it was written for a purpose rather than necessarily accurate, but I think it would’ve been nice to have more of an attempt to point out which bits were backed up by other evidence or not (for instance). It was definitely entertaining to watch, tho – the live action re-enactment scenes had a vaguely Monty Python air to them. Like the scene with a priest blessing the Christian knights before they went into battle who suddenly turns round with wide, startled eyes to see the Mongol army riding at him right now.

(More than once they had shots of people playing big drums and the music had drumbeats that sounded like they should be from those drums … but visuals & noises didn’t match up. Didn’t bother me that much, but it was driving J bananas!)