“It is the 16th Century. From all over Europe great ships sail west to conquer the New World – the Americas. The men eager to seek their fortune – to find new adventures in new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries; to find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes. They dream of following the path of the setting sun that leads to El Dorado, and the Mysterious Cities of Gold.”
…The iconic opening sequence for the Mysterious Cities of Gold, unforgettable if you grew up in the 80s 🙂 . As promised in an earlier post, here is a recap-analysis of MCoG: the first episode (the original, non-imposter series mind you). I’ve split it into three separate posts (here’s part 2 and 3), because I found so much detailed characterisation in this first episode: it sets the tone for the entire series, and is pivotal as an opening – a fantastic piece of visual story-telling which really draws the viewer in for the long haul. So, let’s begin…
Episode 1: The Child of the Sun
“The year 1532; Barcelona in the rain…”
The voiceover immediately sets the historical tone for the entire series, and transports us back in time: this is Spain, at the height of its global power, bastion of Catholicism, pioneers in the ‘Age of Exploration’, and less gloriously, land of Inquisition. We are introduced to young Esteban, dashing out carefree in the rain in his hooded robes. A concerned monk calls out to him, and says a prayer for the boy. So we learn that Esteban is cared for, and he appears to be a happy child… but all is not well, and in fact the child’s happiness shows a blissful ignorance of a grave situation: his guardian, Father Rodriguez, is seriously ill. We do not see him yet, but the connection between the Dean of the Cathedral and Esteban is established from the beginning – important because it helps us to understand the gravity of Esteban’s loss later in the episode.
The rain and clouds cast a dim gloom over Barcelona, the masts of a ship rising in the background above the timber roofs of houses; but Esteban is unfazed by the rain – he seems in a hurry, set out on a purpose…Esteban sneaks into a local tavern and climbs above the barrels, unnoticed by anyone it seems, to listen to the tales of the voyagers.
Two animated sailors, Pedro and Sancho, are holding forth, trying to convince people to fund their expedition to the New World in search of untold treasures. They are greedy for gold, that much is clear; but they have initiative, and they have spirit too it must be said: they believe in the legendary City though others dismiss it as fairytale – these two are willing to put all at risk to go in search for gold in distant lands.
Their pitch is interrupted by the entrance of an important looking man, calling on everyone to help him find the young Esteban, he is needed for the city festival. We learn a fascinating fact: apparently Esteban is the only one who has the power to stop the rain in time for both the festival and departure of the sailing fleet. A whole bar of gold is promised to anyone who can find him. With that and an excited chatter, everyone piles out of the tavern to hunt for the boy. Suddenly, the background score stops, and (noticeably for the first time) we have complete silence…
The silence tells us to pay attention. We thought everyone had left…but no, someone still remains. Sitting with his back to us is a man ruminating on the reward, weighing it up it seems. Others ran out the at the mere mention of gold, here this man still seems to be considering its value – is it worthwhile? Does he want it enough? He seems to have resolved in his mind one way or the other (we’re made to think it’s a ‘no’), because he then turns around swiftly with a swish of his blue cloak, and calls out knowingly: ‘You can come out now little lad, it’s just you and me here now’.
For whatever reason, this man seems to inspire confidence in Esteban who indeed crawls out from his hiding place. He didn’t have to do so, but he obeys straight away…It might have been the man’s choice of words ‘little lad’, or what appeared to be his apparent lack of interest in the ‘reward’. He seems to be an honourable person, the only one who isn’t obsessed with gold, right?
He doesn’t betray people ‘for a miserable piece of gold’ he assures us. And he seems to be observant. Esteban is a quick-witted kid, managing to hide from everyone in the city, even when he is under their very noses. But this man found out his game – he spotted Esteban climbing up the barrels and into the tavern when no-one else did. Instead of socialising with the others, he was paying attention to the silent stuff that others had ignored – the outsider, with his wits about him.
This, in fact, explains why Esteban comes out and engages with him – the man earned his respect: adults are usually too stupid or too busy to notice children’s subtleties and little plans – but this man was neither. I think this makes him interesting to the little boy, who feels free to ask him in an innocent way whether or not he will betray him…he obviously assumes he will get an honest answer. Esteban then immediately goes on to ask the man about the topic that is of the most interest to him – the Mysterious City of Gold, does he think it really exists??
Esteban’s questions show a strange level of confidence in this mysterious man’s knowledge. In a matter of seconds the boy learns two attributes about him: he figures the man is smart, smarter than others, for he outwitted Esteban, who had himself outwitted everyone else. And the man briefly earned his trust by not rushing out for the sake of gold…of course, he is merely waiting, and biding the right time…but to Esteban it appears to be a lack of interest in gold altogether. The man’s lack of impulsive haste is interpreted – half in error and half in truth – as trustworthiness. But the moment the blue-caped man seems to play his hand, and cries out: “Is it really you?” the boy flies, like a little bird who suddenly realises he is in danger.
Esteban tries to elude his would-be captors by amusingly running down the street in a sack (until he is rumbled by a cute little pup). After a brief chase he climbs up a wall, and we discover Esteban’s biggest weakness: vertigo. Suddenly a splash of water from behind throws Esteban off balance, and he tumbles into the arms of the crowd below.
But who was it that threw the water?? Ah…none other than the mysterious blue-caped man at the tavern! So, he did betray Esteban after all! With Esteban carried off shouting and protesting, the man standing on the wall cackles heartily: his pensive and measured demeanour has another mischievous, in fact dubious, side to it. Esteban really does not want to take part in the ceremony, and the blue-caped man acknowledges it as much but in a mocking way; the nonchalant chuck of the bucket from his hand shows his dismissive attitude to the fears of this young boy: harmless, sure, but not exactly the paragon of sensitivity: “Well, Esteban, it seems you don’t wish to take part in the city festival!…” And the man’s response? “Hahahahaha!!” – i.e.: well tough luck, you will be taking part now!! Gloating in Esteban’s misery. And presumably pocketing a nice bit of gold in the process. Oh dear, not nice…
Keep reading here: in Part 2 ‘A Death and a Revelation’ …