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The BBC's Orientalist Odyssey

July 6, 2015 at 3:16 pm

It seems every television production set in the Middle East or North Africa has an obligatory scene where a woman is stoned to death. The one in new BBC drama Odyssey (produced by US television network NBC) was quite creative – the viewer got to watch from behind the sack covering the accused’s head whilst angry, bearded men in traditional dress crowded round her with rocks in their hands.

The lead protagonist of Odyssey is US Army special operative Sergeant Odelle Ballard, played by Anna Friel, who became famous for her role in Brookside when she played a character who buried her dad under the patio and kissed another woman. But that was the nineties and this is 2015 – now Friel is on a mission in Mali to hunt down Islamic terrorists.

In the opening scenes we learn the US army have shot and killed one of the top dogs of Al-Qaeda, after which Ballard finds encrypted files proving that an American corporation (SOC) was wiring millions of dollars to Al-Qaeda in order to fund their activities. Ballard uploads the documents onto a USB key she then hangs around her neck, and things quickly take a turn for the worst. SOC realise Ballard has the information and want it back; a drone attack in the desert wipes out Ballard’s unit, of which she is the sole survivor even though everyone back home thinks she’s dead; Ballard joins a pilgrimage to Timbuktu posing as deaf a man (but looking very much like Anna Friel in a headdress) in an attempt to escape SOC and bring the USB back to safety.

At some point in this chain of events, Ballard is helped out of a makeshift jail by a young man called Aslam, but not before he has spent a few minutes deciding whether he should help her escape SOC’s mercenaries or simply kill her. He then photographs her face and texts it to Al-Jazeera (though no one is sure why, or how, he has a direct line to Al-Jazeera from the middle of the Malian desert.) Next he utters something along the lines of, “If they find you they’ll stone you to death,” as a warning, yet doesn’t seem to notice the irony that him broadcasting Ballard’s face around the world is likely to give the game away sooner rather than later.

The picture gets picked up by the media back in the US and somehow brings together Ballard’s family, the future Greek Prime Minister, an ex-US attorney, the son of a high-flying journalist, a hacktivist, and a shady character who appears every so often pretending to be a reporter but wears mainly black, which helps the viewer to conclude that she is probably not who she says she is.

Back to the trek across the desert, and an unexpected complication has occurred en route. Ansar Al-Deen, the local terrorist gang, have got their hands on Ballard’s picture and arrive on a truck to collect her, sporting huge guns and instilling fear in the pilgrims. They have been styled to be every bit the scary terrorists of our imagination. They are also friends with members of Al-Qaeda and initially at least they share a single goal: to behead Ballard as “vengeance” on the American Empire.

There are various attempts to critique western wars in Muslim lands, the government, corporations and the misty practice of bankrolling people we shouldn’t be bankrolling (a cursory nod to Western nation’s arms trade, perhaps). There is more than one mention of the fact that Alam’s name literally means “peace”; but he seems to have been planted as a tokenistic gesture to prove there are good Muslims in this world. It is patronising.

Odyssey represents exactly the kind of Orientalist, camels through the desert, busy medinas at night and snake-charming programme that serves to fuel simplistic, stereotypical portraits of a complex and varied part of the world. It is best avoided; we have more than enough of that kind of nonsense already.