Hardline classicists probably will want to give a wide berth to BBC America’s Atlantis, a new fantasy series premiering tonight. For the rest of us, however, this lavishly produced and imaginatively written riff on well-known yarns from mythology adds up to some first-rate and generally family-friendly entertainment.
Tonight’s premiere opens in the modern world, where a young man named Jason (Jack Donelly) is preparing to make a dive in a mini-sub in search of some clues to what happened to his father, who vanished from this particular stretch of ocean without a trace. Jason has had only a glimpse of what may be some related underwater wreckage when his craft is rocked by mysterious turbulence and bathed in eerie lights.
The next thing Jason knows, he is regaining consciousness, naked and disoriented, on a beach. Grabbing some conveniently abandoned clothing, he makes his way to a nearby city that looks to be the stuff of legends, where he inadvertently sets off a ruckus in the marketplace before being rescued by a bookish math geek named Pythagoras (Robert Emms, War Horse). Jason learns he is in Atlantis, where he feels an uncanny sense of familiarity. This impression of déjà vu is only heightened after he meets the revered Oracle (Juliet Stevenson, The Hour), an enigmatic seeress who offers Jason guidance and her personal protection.
He’ll find use for the latter almost immediately, too, because Jason has appeared in Atlantis on the day when all local citizens are required to draw stones in an annual lottery ordered by King Minos (Alexander Siddig, 24) to determine which of them will be sacrificed to the town’s fearsome monster, the Minotaur. Offering further help in this quest, however reluctantly, is none other than Hercules (Mark Addy, Game of Thrones), a formerly great hero now gone to seed.
Sharing the nearby palace with Minos is his beautiful but cruel queen, Pasiphae (Sarah Parish), who may well have a secret command of the dark arts, and their daughter, the princess Ariadne (Aiysha Hart), who takes an immediate liking to Jason.
Created and written by Howard Overman, who did likewise on the British cult hit Misfits, Atlantis has top-notch production values and zippy dialogue that mingles pseudo-classical speech with contemporary, self-aware irony (Jason tells Pythagoras at one point that his triangles and theorems “are destined to bore children for centuries!”), while the extended sequence inside the dimly lit maze of the Minotaur is satisfyingly creepy and suspenseful.
“It is both a privilege and a delight to have the opportunity to take audiences on a journey into the fantastical world of Atlantis,” Overman says. “Drawing on the Greek myths for inspiration, we aim to tell classic action adventure stories in unexpected and exciting ways.”