*”Milattan önce” is Turkish for “before Christ,” but here means “before Milat.”
Turkish national TV station TRT’s latest effort in a series of moves to rebrand the channel through a combination of big-budget projects and pro-government messages appeared on April 3rd in the form of the new international spy drama Milat. As with the channel’s biggest success to date, the pre-Ottoman costume drama Diriliş Ertuğrul, the new series borrows heavily from an already established program. But while Ertuğrul‘s homage to the globally popular Magnificent Century is primarily a question of inspiration, Milat openly adopts the themes, characters, and plot of the 12-years-and running Valley of the Wolves franchise, tweaking the formula in only one respect: whereas Valley weaves open praise of the current AK-Party government throughout its plot, Milat is such overt propaganda that it threatens to destroy the willing suspension of disbelief so necessary for drama to work.
Both shows center on the actions of a central male figure who was orphaned as a child and comes into a national intelligence service. In the case of Valley it is Polat Alemdar (né Ali Candan) who joins the fictional KGT (Kamu Güvenlik Teşkilatı – Public Safety Organization); in Milat it is Hamza who joins the “real” MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teşkilatı – National Intelligence Organization). (In fact, the show’s name, “Milat,” is the Turkish for “the birth of Christ,” but the logo is designed to reveal the letters “MIT” in reference to the group.)
In both cases there is a father figure who represents traditional values and to whom our hero can turn in times of trouble. Valley’s Ömer Baba, Polat’s adoptive father, was known to viewers as a muezzin who played the ney and practiced ebru; Milat‘s Agah Bey appears to be a retired intelligence operative who practices Islamic calligraphy.
An action drama can’t take place without a love interest and Milat has taken a move from the Valley playbook in positioning Duru, an optimistic lawyer who wants to do good in the world, under the wing of a father who heads a large and corrupt holding company. This is Ender in Milat, the head of Ender Energy, and his Valley counterpart would be Davut Tataroğlu, the media magnate whose daughter Inci had a troubled relationship with Polat, at one point bearing his child.
Characters are not the only thing reprised by Milat, as actors Demir Karahan, Volkan Özgömeç, and Yasemin Öztürk all had roles in Valley as well. The stylistics of the show are also similar, particularly when it comes to action scenes. Milat may actually outdo Valley, however, in one of that show’s key claims to fame: the glorification of violence. The first episode contains an extremely graphic medium shot of the head of a militant being gunned down by one of the MIT team in Nigeria. (This also appears in the introductory sequence at the start of show. Of note, the militants in this attack are described as fake Islamists financed by the “west” to interrupt Turkish Airlines traffic to the region, thereby retaining “western” control of Africa. ) Images far more tame than this got Valley censured in its early years, but since Milat airs on TRT, it may have less to worry about from RTÜK, the state-run commission tasked with regulating TV.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of mimesis comes not through characters, cast, or style, but, rather, the overarching effort to create a world that straddles the line between fact and fiction. In only the first episode we are introduced to two corporate tycoons (the aforementioned Erdem and the ascot-garbed Yıldıray), who are clearly meant as references to some of the “old Turkey” magnates that have managed to weather the rise of the “new Turkey” (read AK-Party). Two of the prime candidates here would be Turkey’s enormously powerful Sabanci and Koç families and, in a reflexive turn that already has internet chat rooms buzzing and puzzling, multiple scenes involving Yıldıray are actually filmed at Istanbul’s well-known Koç Museum of Transport, Industry, and Communication.
A third candidate for these roles is Aydın Doğan, head of Turkey’s largest media empire, and this is where things get strange. In Valley, the aforementioned Tataroğlu was clearly meant to evoke Doğan, and depictions of him shifted depending on what channel happened to be airing the show at the time. In Milat it’s too early to tell yet what direction these characters will take, but by making such clear mimetic overtures, the producers have set up and uncanny echo-chamber for those familiar with Valley. Courting an audience already conditioned for games of reference, they seem to be trying to add yet another dimension to the field.
Whether this will prove to be too much for viewers remains to be seen. My own uneasy moments while watching came not from puzzling over who represented whom but, rather, trying to stomach the overt propaganda of the show. One example should suffice. Early on we’re introduced to a family in a shantytown who have had their natural gas cut off by Ender Energy. The daughter of this family writes a letter explaining the situation to the Minister of Energy and he promptly responds with a personal phone call to her house and an audit of the company. He takes these steps despite the fact that he’s also in the midst of intense negotiations for the country’s energy future which include, among other things, a trip abroad on which his associate, the head of MIT, is assassinated.
A bit much, perhaps. In a country where the government routinely expropriates residents from such shantytowns so that AK-Party affiliated construction and investment firms can make a killing on real estate. Where the real Minister of Energy, Taner Yıldız, has presided over the worst mining disaster in the country’s history and retains his position despite a troubling record of failures to enforce workplace safety. Where unexplained blackouts come at very strange times and where electricity rates have jumped not least due to a series of privatization and speculation measures put into effect by the AK-Party. Where anyone who has ever tried to hook up, alter, or discontinue a utility is well aware of the countless lines, repeat visits, myriad copies of multiple forms, in short the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that is unavoidable in such situations.
The question is whether audiences will gloss that over. Milat is delivered with the same dose of nationalist verve that Valley viewers have come to expect and, coupled with the high production values and, thus far, admirable acting, it is certainly a step up from many of TRT’s efforts of the past. But such blatant propaganda rarely goes unremarked, and this is all the more true when it flies in the face of personal experience.
Milat premiered at 5th in the ratings on the night of Friday, April 3rd. That’s not bad for a new program, much less one appearing on TRT. The norm in the Turkish sector is four to five weeks for a series to prove its mettle but, since TRT is not accountable to commercial interests, its shows often get a longer run regardless of ratings. In the case of Milat, I’m guessing we’ll see it through the first week of June, at least. Just long enough for a trial run in the alternate ratings system of parliamentary elections.
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This post published simultaneously on Media Screen Turkey.