Friday, 24 August 2012

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Salem, the Boy


I used to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch all the time when I was younger. It was a natural progression from the fabulous Clarissa Explains It All, as it was basically Clarissa with magic (and sadly without Sam, my favourite character from Clarissa, her neighbour who used to climb in through her bedroom window for no discernible reason). I drifted away from it a bit as first Sabrina went to college, then I did, but I must have seen nearly every episode from the first few seasons. Probably several times.

My favourite character in Sabrina was Salem the cat, who was once a witch but is serving a lengthy penal sentence in the form of a cat for trying to take over the world. He lives with Sabrina and her aunts because Aunt Hilda was one of his accomplices and has been sentenced to looking after him. Quite why the Witches' Council think an unsecured house that's home to a vulnerable teenage girl is a good place to put a dangerous criminal is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Although technically an adult, Salem was much more snarky, sarcastic and generally interesting than Sabrina's aunts (especially Aunt Zelda), who were forced to play the ubiquitous dull role of moralising authority figures as seen in every Nickelodeon sitcom ever.

When I was a teenager, my knowledge of the ancient world was restricted to what I'd seen on I, Claudius, so I tended not to notice random appearances of Romans quite so much. And so it was a very pleasant surprise to discover, when I sat down to re-watch one of my favourite episodes (in which Sabrina arranges for Salem temporarily to occupy the body of Gordy, one of her geekier school-friends) that several minutes of the episode are spent in ancient Rome.

Hilda and Zelda want to throw Salem a party as he's feeling depressed about being stuck in the form of a cat. Trying to work out who to invite, they do a spell to 'take them to Salem's favourite party.' 'Salem's favourite party,' it turns out, is an orgy being run by the Emperor Caligula. Being a kids' show, Sabrina skirts around the details a bit, but the word 'orgy' is definitely used and Caligula clearly wants only one thing out of Sabrina's aunts (while Salem is doing a bit too much to help Gordy and Sabrina's friend Valerie's romance, and Sabrina is being chased by a leprechaun. It's a bit disturbing how much of the humour in this episode comes from attempts at sexual assault, though I suppose the leprechaun's approach to Sabrina is more a very persistent attempt at seduction).

Hilda and Zelda are horrified and leave, but Caligula follows them and chases them around the house as if they were in an old Benny Hill sketch. Eventually, the Witches Council find out what's been going on and summon both aunts and Sabrina to Rome to stand trial for transporting Caligula to the twentieth century and making Salem human again. The aunts are able to explain things, but Sabrina is found guilty (because she is) and, the judge declaring that as they're in Rome, they'll do as the Romans do, she is sentenced to be thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre. Given that Salem's punishment for trying to take over the world was only to be turned into a cat, this seems unnecessarily harsh, but then, this is the same institution that will turn your mother into a ball of wax just for visiting.

Salem and the leprechaun turn up just in time to turn themselves in and save Sabrina from a grisly death. The judge calls for the national anthem to be played, and Salem turns up, playing a violin and pretending to be Nero before revealing himself, and Caligula says he hates it when Nero fiddles. We probably shouldn't let the fact that Nero was four years old when Caligula died, or that they didn't have violins in ancient Rome and he was probably playing a lyre, bother us. The judge doesn't specify whether the national anthem he's expecting is that of ancient Rome or the Witches Council, but either way, it appears to be 'O Canada.' Perhaps all witches are Canadians? I'd suggest Rome as the spiritual ancestor of Canada, but really, I can't think of a single thing the two nations have in common.

The actor playing Caligula has the sort of physique more commonly associated with Nero, and for that matter the character's personality is more Nero than Caligula (he's selfish and after sex, but he doesn't seem especially mad, and makes no reference to animals in positions of political power). Perhaps Caligula was chosen because according to Suetonius, he really did have sex parties in the palace (though you wouldn't put that past Nero either, Nero's were just less professional) and the actor was chosen because of the popular association of Peter Ustinov with the mad emperor. Or perhaps the emperor in question was supposed to be Nero and was changed at the last moment to allow for the 'Nero fiddles' joke. Perhaps I'm over-thinking the amount of historical research that went into Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

This is really just a collection of old jokes about Rome strung together - it's full of nothing but orgies, all the emperors are mad violin-players and it's excessively violent, with the slightest infraction punished by death by wild animal (to be fair they may have a point on the last one). It's good fun though. If nothing else, it's left me with the vague impression that all gladiatorial shows should be prefaced with a rendition of 'O Canada'...

2 comments:

  1. The problem with being in the form of a cat as a punishment.... is that cats already rule the world. Therefore how can it be a punishment?

    ReplyDelete

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