Relic Hunter isn’t televisual literature, and the lighting makes it look cheap. It has minimal continuity and no responsibilities; it’s a show made for re-runs and junky binges. The former of which was where I found my familiarity with it, the latter where we got reaquainted last December. The first time I came in contact with the show was in 2004, when I saw a box set during a closing-down sale. It made me laugh. I texted my boyfriend about it. Lol, there’s a total Tomb Raider knock off, a SERIES, starring Cassandra from Wayne’s World?
Relic Hunter is a knock off of Tomb Raider. It’s also a knock off of Indiana Jones. A roped arrow in the underbelly of one, a grappling hook over the lower rail of the other, Relic Hunter dangles daringly betwixt. It’s everything I ever wanted.
The show stars Professor Sydney Fox, a hot, thirty-something Ancient Studies lecturer at an American University. In her spare time she travels around the world “hunting” for “relics.” (Tomb raiding.) Sydney is accompanied in her adventures—scholastic and extra-curricular—by her teaching assistant Nigel Bailey, who is younger, svelte, and English-posh in the falsey, real-enough way that American fan fiction writers adore to reproduce. To elaborate: his brother occasionally cameos and is played by Crispin Bonham-Carter. Nigel has a DiCaprio flop in 1999—the show’s debut—and retains it until the last episode in 2002 (by which time DiCaprio had gone short and was growing his Beach crop out again). The third character is Sydney’s secretary and PA; seasons one and two feature Claudia, who is replaced for the last (weakest) season by—you’ve heard it all before—a worse character, whom I do not like. The actress is fine! But the writing, and the wardrobe, are not.
I’ve got ahead of myself. Let’s begin again. Relic Hunter is a very sexual show.
Sydney and Nigel meet in the first episode. Nigel just started the job assisting her while he completes his (Masters? PhD?) important academic work. He arrives (America! Oh boy!) to find Sydney performing an amalgamated, dance-based ritual in front of a class—with a bikini and grass skirt and weapon and flower crown. He’s out of his depth. She’s got no time for coddling. They have to go to Nepal!
Sydney does take the time to explain that her performance isn’t a legitimate tribal ritual and that it’s her own creation, which owes debts to various peoples and cultures. She explains that she chooses to introduce her class to a mash-up on purpose, to ensure their attention and interest at the beginning of a year.
Nigel and Syndey go to Nepal, and on a long long train journey—in a place he never expected to go at a moment he thought he would be in class, conducting research, or otherwise finding his feet in a slightly different culture to his own academic structure—Nigel admits that he’s running on empty. He doesn’t know what to do. This is not a life he’d planned for. Sydney tells him he’ll learn, and that he’ll love it. She becomes his mentor: a glorious, free-roaming woman giving a bookish, semi-launched younger person the gift of recognition and confidence. She says she sees the (relic) hunt in him. It’s magic, every bit as much as it’s corn, cheese, or hokey.
Anyway, they find Siddhartha’s magical ever-producing bowl. Then they put it back. The first season of Relic Hunter emphasises the basic justice of returning a relic to the people of its land, allowing the connection between ancient and modern resident to flourish and the continuity of culture to deepen. Those are my words, but Relic Hunter’s gist.
The second season emphasises cruel violence and CG. The third is just kind of not so good.
Relic Hunter’s Wikipedia page claims that Nigel is “secretly in love” with Sydney. This is nonsense—somebody’s headcanon. In truth, theirs is a story of platonic love, and an early episode in the third season, which should have served as its finale, Nigel confesses his love to Sydney. It seems that, this time, they really are about to die: last chance to confess. He specifies that he doesn’t mean sexually or romantically, although of course she is very beautiful—he over-explains and messes it up, like a stupid awkward Englishman. But he loves her, and she loves him, because they are best friends. Often, Nigel thinks Sydney wants to have sex with him or that she’s offering him sex or (once) that they have had sex. It always makes him shifty, because he doesn’t love her romantically, but he does love her. “Should I make love to my friend?”
By prioritising sex, in the Sydney-Nigel relationship, sex is effectively defused. Their intellectual companionship, their shared support, and their complementary partnership that is not “true love” would withstand the test of fuck. We know this, because that test is constantly on the table! Seeing Nigel be afraid of the weighty meaning of sexual intimacy, and seeing how his fears are misplaced, makes male/female friendship less alarming, in a show cleverly geared towards a rather conservative, binary, and hetero audience.
Not to suggest that Relic Hunter doesn’t try to appeal to the ol’ gaze. It does! It constantly does. There is a blonde hottie in a low-cut top in practically every episode of the first season, and later Sydney’s horrified to find her own father has married a frosted, boosted, mini-skirted woman her own age. Sable, of WWF and Playboy fame, makes an appearance. (So does Chyna though. Yeah! Chyna!) Of course, these women are generally career-minded individuals with wide knowledge bases—Sable plays a museum director with expertise in Ancient Egyptian relics. Sydney’s new mom is fluent in rural military Chinese diplomacy, so it’s easier to stomach than you might think. And Tia Carrere, Cassandra from Wayne’s World, gives a beautiful performance as a woman who does not give the tiniest shit about who sees her body naked or in lingerie.
Regularly, Sydney will get her top off. And every time, she’s like “wot?” Not a sexual, come-hither, “What? This?” But a brusque, amused, triumphant challenge. Wot, my bod? Nah, not a sex thing, mate. Your prob is you think it definitely is, and that it’s thus diminishing. I’m just a bit nude, let’s get on with things, lots to do. An episode in which Sydney, Nigel, and a guest star must hide from villains in a launderette sees the owner of the business demand that they either use one of his machines or leave. Nigel splutters, their guest companion grumps, Sydney just whips off her tank top and juts her chin at the man. Next scene, all three of Team Syd are in their keks, Nigel sulkily covering his nipples, guest companion stood like a sack of shame, Sydney leaning her probably-thonged ass against a public washing machine, glorious in her victory and lack of care. Tia Carrere knows how to perform sultry, conciliatory, and suggestive. She knows how to express “agreeably sexy, centrefold-style.” And she does not do it in this role. Sydney Fox is vigorous.
All that might come to nothing in my eyes if all the lingerie she’s seen in didn’t fit so damn well. Not a bra goes by without it looking comfortable! That’s so vital for a character’s believable sex positivity! If a body is presented to an audience in garments that hurt it, disrespect it. If the erotic raiment, as-bought, is prioritised over the person, body, wearing it, it’s impossible for me to feel respected as a viewer. “If I were in this situation, if I were the actress here, I’d be called upon to wear things that hurt and chafe.” That’s not an entertaining thought. Relic Hunter certainly markets the commonly denominated attractiveness of Syndey Fox, but it does so in such a way that allows me to be impressed with her character as a constructed goddess instead of unsettled by her as a fetish object.
To summarise, the baseline of Relic Hunter’s randy shenanigans include:
- Sydney Fox has a type. The type is “herself, but masc.” Much stubble. Very danger. Wow. Such bang.
- Nigel is intimidated by Sydney’s physical confidence. He’s afraid to approach her sexy event horizon, lest he be destroyed. Often, he has on no shirt. Nigel wears Calvin Kleins.
- Claudia is the horniest girl in the world. Her appetites are fearsome.
All this, and international galivanting, arrow-dodging, curse-avoiding, and boulder-fleeing fun. Jodhpurs and tank tops! Suede waistcoats and safari shirts! Boots, leather, hard-wearing backpacks, and then shower off and slip on a skirt-suit. Relic Hunter feeds me gorgeous scenery, sweaty climbing stunts on ancient rock faces (literal faces, I mean; carved giants), the magic of fantasy archaeology (stay tuned for my Top Ten Quest Thrillers, coming soon, if that’s your bag), hardcore m-f friendship, and joyful raunch. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it’s a cultural tomb worth raiding.
Also, great theme tune.