Game of Thrones casts a long shadow when it comes to vaguely mystical/historical dramas, so the BBC and Netflix’s big new Saturday night offering Troy: Fall of a City (coming to BBC1 in a few weeks) can’t help but draw a few comparisons.
And in many ways, it ticks a lot of boxes. Vaguely fantastical/historical setting? Tick.
Morally dubious protagonists manoeuvring for political favour? Tick.
The ambitions and reputations of a few arrogant nobles bringing death and misery on their subjects? Tick.
Lots of sex and violence? Tick. Joseph Mawle being in it? Tick.
Inspired by a seemingly endless series of texts penned by a revered old man with a big beard? Tick tick tick.
Of course, there are a few differences. Arguably, the thousands of years of Homer’s Illiad being read by humanity has made the source text for Troy even more significant to our culture than George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adding an extra weight of pressure to any adaptation.
And also, of course, it’s nowhere near as good as Thrones just yet – though in fairness, the first couple of episodes have to do a lot of legwork introducing us to this mythical world and the epic heroes living within it.
We begin our story meeting Paris (Louis Hunter), a shepherd and ladies’ man dragged out of his humdrum life when Zeus (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) forces him to bestow his favour on either Hera, Athena or Aphrodite, each of whom promise him grand prizes in return.
In the end, Paris goes for Aphrodite’s (Lex King) offer of granting him the most beautiful woman in the world, which enrages her fellow goddesses and indirectly sparks off the main conflict in the series later on.
And that’s far from the end of Paris’ adventures. The young shepherd discovers he’s actually Prince Alexander of Troy, lost from his family for years but reunited with them when he first enters the city. The circumstances behind his disappearance are a little suspect (he’s told he was stolen by wolves, but we’re left in little doubt something much darker was afoot) but he’s eagerly welcomed into the fold and sent on a diplomatic mission to Sparta, where he meets King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his mysterious wife – a rather comely woman named Helen (Bella Dayne)…
The rest, you probably know or may have absorbed from the last couple of thousand years of storytelling – Paris falls in love with Helen, spirits her back to Troy and brings the fury of Menelaus, his warlord brother Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks down on his newfound home, resulting in a decade-long siege that will eventually end when someone on the Greek side decides to practice a little equine woodworking.
It’s a lot to absorb in Troy: Fall of a City’s first two episodes (the pair were screened back-to-back for reviewers), and so it’s not entirely surprising some elements feel a little rushed. For example, we don’t really get to know a lot of the characters before they’re plunged into war at the end of episode two, lending some of the emotional scenes ringing a little hollow.
One moment in particular, when a military man faces an impossible choice that raises direct comparisons with an infamous Game of Thrones storyline slightly fails to resonate given that we’ve barely met the soldier – in fact, I’m pretty sure this was the first scene where we heard him speak – and this lack of investment is repeated with a lot of the other characters.
I’m sure it’s annoying that I keep bringing this back to Game of Thrones, but by comparison the real in-fighting in that series didn’t begin until near the end of the first run, when we were several hours into the story, understood the characters and their motivations and were more invested in the subsequent societal collapse. Troy doesn’t have quite that same luxury of time (in fairness, they do wait until the end of episode two to begin the war proper), and loses a little in character development as a result.
Speaking of the characters, the series also slightly suffers from the fact that there’s absolutely nobody to root for. Helen? Selfish. Paris? Idiot. Menelaus? Weasel. Odysseus? Arsehole. Achilles? Heel.
I’m not one of those people who think you necessarily have to identify with or like every fictional person you come across, and I know that the Illiad has some heroes we’d now consider, to put it mildly, problematic, but damn – even in Thrones, we had the Starks to appreciate. The nearest thing we have here is Mawle’s Odysseus, who lies to get out of fighting and then pressures his commander into murdering an innocent. Not exactly Ned Stark material.
Still, some figures in Troy do still shine. David Threlfall makes an engaging and moral King Priam, and his partnership with wife Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) brings a pleasingly egalitarian sheen to Trojan society. Meanwhile, Bella Dayne is impressively convincing as a woman whose absence could conceivably launch a thousand ships, and the mysterious Achilles (David Gyasi, who we see little of in these episodes) exudes a real menace.
I’d have to leave judgement of how well the original myths are adapted to wiser (and more actually qualified) classicists then me, but overall the story in the first couple of episodes takes well to TV – though certain twists have, by nature of the source material, been somewhat spoiled by the last couple of thousand years of human culture (I’ve tried to avoid talking about them here, as the BBC has pointed out that a lot of people won’t be familiar with the story’s twists and turns).
And now that the war has finally begun, I’m excited to see the story and characters develop in the coming weeks. Troy wasn’t built – or infiltrated by an implausible wooden horse – in a day, after all.
Troy: Fall of a City airs on BBC1 in the coming weeks