‘Period drama’ is a funny term. It can include anything from tory dross like Downton Abbey, where there’s a titillating bit of ‘old-fashioned attitudes’ for us to sneer at but which ultimately refuses to meaningfully criticise the exploitative nature of the class-ridden society depicted (and aren’t they just so effing charming, in their fancy olde-time costumes, and aren’t all the servants so gratifyingly grateful – they know their place, guv), to the magnificent Call the Midwife, which looks nice and fluffy on the surface but doesn’t blink or flinch away from the poverty and abuse of 1950s Poplar (one episode features a young woman who serves as a prostitute on her father’s ship; another ends with some children who end up being sent off to serve as farm labour in Australia under the [Home Children][home] scheme; this is all presented matter-of-factly, with no gurning and pointing ‘look how bad things used to be’, which makes it all the more powerful), to the sublime brilliance of The Devil’s Whore.
The BBC’s latest effort in this field, Banished, falls somewhere between Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. It’s got a pretty interesting, underused setting – the first British colony in Australia. There’s a lot of potential there: there are a hundred soldiers in charge of a thousand convicts, and both groups should naturally hate each other. There are food shortages, and nobody present is really a farmer (most of the convicts are from London). British colonisation of Australia led pretty quickly to many acts of genocide against the Aboriginal Australians. All of this could be very interesting to explore; alas, it is mostly rendered as a background for some sexual intrigue.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little sexual intrigue in a show, but it just overshadows everything here: the werewolf from Being Human really wants to sleep with his best friend’s wife; the major in charge of the soldiers wants to ‘share’ one of the convicts who is ‘claimed’ by an underling…
…I’m pretty sure this is some ahistorical nonsense, but: all the soldiers have had a chance to claim one of the female convicts as their own personal sex-slave. It’s nasty, but the part of the show to deal with this focuses on a soldier and a convict who wuv each other – it doesn’t really deal with the sheer godawfulness of the situation that’s been set up. The major in charge of the soldiers is presented as a really horrible bastard and a rapist, but… Banished doesn’t really seem to realise that all the soldiers are also rapist shit-sacks. Even giving it the benefit of the doubt, this is a really cheap way of going for ~moral ambiguity~ or whatever – too many of the soldiers (and the governor and so on) are too nice, except for this one utter tablefucker of a major, who serves as the token evil guy.
This is making it sound like I hate the show. But… I don’t. It’s one of the better things I’ve seen on TV recently, and I’d recommend it to anyone. But it could be so much better. Ah, well.