Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 27 (The Cleopatras)

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Defense of Time-Flight aside, and complete lack of defense of The Arc of Infinity aside as well, watching Doctor Who in the John Nathan-Turner era often involves a fair amount of staring incredulously at the screen and bewilderedly asking “what the fuck were you people thinking.” This is somewhat odd. Time-Flight is not, in point of fact, worse-made than The Power of Kroll, to pick one of five or six examples from the Graham Williams era that people are far more willing to defend. Nothing The Arc of Infinity does to Gallifrey is prima facie stupider than The Invasion of Time. The Black Guardian is no more of a ham sandwich in Mawdryn Undead than would be expected given his servant in The Armageddon Factor. And yet what is defensible, if not necessary forgivable, under Graham Williams is a source of incredulity under Nathan-Turner.

There are reasons for this. We’ve just wrapped 1982 in the series. Defending it because it compares reasonably well to Doctor Who five years before increasingly doesn’t wash. On top of that there is a question of overall aesthetic. The Graham Williams era was cheap and silly, yes, but it was cheap and silly within an aesthetic that could at least tolerate cheap and silly. John Nathan-Turner eviscerated the Williams era, denounced cheap silliness, and touted his ability to bring a serious-mindedness and increased production values. You can’t do that and Time-Flight. Even if Time-Flight does work - and I think it largely does - there’s surely no way to argue that it works according to the principles and aesthetics that John Nathan-Turner espoused, is there?

And then one watches The Cleopatras. Airing on the same nights as the Tuesday episodes of Snakedance, Mawdryn Undead, Terminus, and Enlightenment, The Cleopatras manages the previously almost unimaginable task of making the John Nathan-Turner era look, if not immediately sensible, at least wholly consistent with the overall approach television was taking. But to get at The Cleopatras one has to start with The Borgias. The Borgias was a 1981 attempt at historical costume drama in the vein of I Claudius. It was also an unmitigated disaster that essentially killed the genre. Fast forward two years and you have The Cleopatras, the BBC’s effort to revamp the genre as... well, it’s not entirely clear they got that far.

It’s key to remember, when watching The Cleopatras, that it is not a joke. Indeed, all the elements of seriousness are here. The writer, Philip Mackie, was an acclaimed writer with a history of successful costume dramas, most obviously ITV’s 1968 The Caesars. The cast is impeccable - though somewhat oddly most of the highlights seem to come either from Doctor Who or Harry Potter. On the Doctor Who side of the ledger you’ve got John Bennett (Chang in Talons), Christopher Neame (Skagra in Shada), Graham Crowden (Soldeed in The Horns of Nimon), and Ian McNiece (Winston Churchill) in fairly substantial rolls, plus Patrick Troughton in a maddeningly small cameo. Whereas on the Harry Potter side you’ve got Richard Griffiths and Robert Hardy, or Vernon Dursley and Cornelius Fudge if you prefer. Everything about the people making this, their track records, and their stated objectives points towards this being a completely serious effort at legitimate drama. The trouble is that when you watch it you basically get River Song’s impersonation of Cleopatra in The Pandorica Opens extended over eight fifty-minute episodes.

Like Doctor Who in the same period its reception was decidedly... mixed. But the basic existence of the show means that we have to approach the John Nathan-Turner era differently than we might have expected to. After all, so much of The Cleopatras is familiar to someone who follows the John Nathan-Turner era. Both attempt drama via a focus on artifice and spectacle, both have a sort of tawdry love of the lurid, and both have something of a fondness for taking really good actors and putting them in mildly questionable roles. Even if both are also, in hindsight, not entirely successful, the fact that both happened means that we cannot treat the frailties of the Nathan-Turner era as merely being indicative of the flaws of Nathan-Turner himself. So what the heck is this apparent aesthetic?

That’s not an entirely easy question. An initial clue can be gleaned from looking at the musical charts during these eight weeks. Obviously we’ll do that over the course of the four entries coinciding with The Cleopatras, but the short form is that we’re at the pinnacle of the Second British Invasion in music. Bands like Kajagoogoo are hitting number one around here. This is a moment in music history that requires far more than a passing mention, but one important thing to observe is that the music of the time marks the complete mainstreaming of the synthesizer as a major instrument in pop music. Synthesizers were absolutely everywhere in early 1983.

The implications of this are fairly straightforward. The synthesizer was, by this point, no longer tangibly strange - they’d been around for years. But that doesn’t mean they’d lost their overt artificiality. That is, in fact, the point here - the popular music of early 1983 demonstrated the degree to which the overtly artificial had become completely normal. This ties in with the rise of the music video in the US prompted by the launching of MTV.  Music was now packaged in artificiality and visual spectacle. What had previously been the province of specific subcultures - glam, punk, etc - had become a general phenomenon. Everybody and everything looked willfully strange in the world of pop, and not willfully strange in a more or less defined look. The world had rediscovered performativity in a big way.

The shift involved here did not apply exclusively to music. The personal computer was increasingly recognized as the next big thing even before anyone really had a very firm idea what the heck it did. Nor did this shift restrain itself to the self-consciously new. A year earlier Chariots of Fire had won Best Picture by combining a 1920s period piece with a cloying synthesizer soundtrack - a more significant antecedent of The Cleopatras than is normally appreciated. And the release of Quantel Paintbox in 1981 suddenly meant that manipulating video images in a variety of ways was wildly easy, meaning that everything could look like Tron if it wanted to.

Tron, actually, is a good touchstone here, because it illustrates one other key thing to realize about all of this. Or, more accurately, it’s just about the only counter-example to something that’s key to realize about all of this. In 1980 John Nathan-Turner reinvented Doctor Who in part by becoming more overtly cinematic. But by 1983 television and cinema were on a period of divergence instead of convergence. The culprit here is largely Quantel Paintbox, actually. As video effects became increasingly easy to do in television they began, unsurprisingly, increasingly common. What this meant was that television was starting to acquire a distinct visual look unto itself.

This look was not “cinematic realism,” though to be fair, the “realism” part of the cinematic was always a bit of a misnomer. The idea that the video effect looks “cheaper” than cinema is really just a variation on the already strained film/video distinction. Video effects are associated with looking cheap and superficial because they were television effects, not film effects - not because of any actual inherent visual difference.

But that doesn’t mean that the “cheap” tag didn’t stick. This moment of divergence was, in the end, fighting against the inevitable gravity of television and film collapsing into a single medium. This flair-up of bizarre video effects in the early 80s is, in many ways, the last gasp of television having an identity other than “little film.” (Though arguably we’re currently at a point where film is struggling desperately to manage an identity other than “big television.”) The visual characteristics and logic of The Cleopatras and Doctor Who in this era make complete sense, though, when you take them as an active attempt to think about what television could do in the artificial and visibly superficial aesthetics of the 1980s. It didn’t take, though. It couldn’t possibly, as I said. The idea of television as something that aspired to be film was too firmly embedded.

But this is, for several reasons, a real pity. First of all, television trying to be film is what produces Earthshock. But second of all, television trying to be television in 1983 produces The Cleopatras. Which is, in fact, terribly good. Philip Mackie has talked about the “horror-comic” tone he went for, and it’s a good description of what’s going on here. The Cleopatras is as chock-full of poisonings and murders as I Claudius, but what’s interesting about The Cleopatras is that when people are casually hacked to pieces it usually happens in a delightfully tiny little sequence. The norm is that a visual effect creates a screen-within-a-screen, we see a brief and hazy clip of the murder, and then we go back to people talking to each other.

This sort of aggressive underselling of the drama is typical of the series. A strong contender for my favorite moment of the series comes when Fluter, one of the later kings, casually orders the execution of his daughter and, when someone expresses shock, he dryly notes that he has other daughters, apparently seeing the number of backups available as the only significant impediment. Though frankly almost anything involving Richard Griffith’s Potbelly, aka Ptolemy VIII, is a strong contender. Griffith plays the character with delightful over the top sadism, loving every minute of casually having large swaths of the population executed. (A second contender for favorite - and the one that convinced me that I was going to have to watch all eight episodes instead of my usual practice of taking a sampler for one of these entries - is the one in which Potbelly orders the execution of all of the Jews. Notably, he instructs a pair of Jews to carry it out, and when they hesitate notes that they can just have themselves killed once they get it all set up.)

The lurid superficiality of it all serves to highlight the way in which the viewer actually enjoys these historical dramas. The entire selling point is the fact that powerful people are going to do terrible, terrible things to other people and alternately get away with it or get spectacular comeuppances. Or, more accurately, it’s the juxtaposition of lurid events with serious acting and BBC production values. So the usual means of showing someone’s murder - having serious character actors doing a scene, then have a little sub-screen pop up in which something lurid happens - is absolutely delightful. It’s a case of giving the audience exactly what they want so blatantly as to expose the absurdity of it in the first place.

The question is whether there’s more to be done in this aesthetic. I mean, although overt superficiality and aggressive performativity can and does work, it’s not entirely clear that it has a long shelf-life. Or, actually, let’s be be more accurate. It has an enormously long shelf-life that continues to this day, but only when merged more with the structures of traditional Aristotelean drama. To be fair, The Cleopatras largely accomplishes this, merging its willful luridness with a set of serious actors who manage to ground it in what is recognizable as serious drama.

And this is where Nathan-Turner’s approach does let him down. Beryl Reid, whose turn in Earthshock I didn’t talk much about, is indicative. She’s a good actress. But he shoves her into a role that she’s just a bizarre choice for. The result is deeply entertaining, but one gets the sense that the program is not having the same fun its viewers are. Elsewhere, in his defense, he manages it. Casting Richard Todd in Kinda was a stroke of genius, for instance. But by and large his larger problem is that he fails to figure out how to wed the willfully superficial production style he favors to actual storytelling, not that the overall style he’s pursuing in 1983 is wrong at the time. Yes, he’s going to hold to the style for far, far too long. And yes, his deficiencies in drama are always going to be a problem for him. But the fact remains - the overall whole of what Doctor Who is trying to be in 1983 is not, on the face of it, wrong.

Comments

elvwood 5 years ago

Fascinating. I actually know very little about British TV in this period - I was at university and didn't have a telly, so the only things I watched were ones I could agree with other people (and I wasn't that bothered, to be honest). About all I can remember seeing are The Young Ones, Star Fleet and Terrahawks. OTOH, I saw a lot more movies than I had over the previous five years.

I was well aware of The Borgias, even going so far as to take part in a comedy play - Rome Over the Top - which was based on it. This was part of a 6th form coarse acting festival, and I won the "worst death" award (stabbed to death with my own knitting needles). In contrast, this is the first time I've heard of The Cleopatras!

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Adeodatus 5 years ago

You put your finger on it with "lurid superficiality". It's like I always say - "It was the 1980s" is an explanation, not an excuse.

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William Whyte 5 years ago

This is the one with the boobs, right? I wasn't allowed to watch it.

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Jesse 5 years ago

I enjoy those early-'80s video effects in much the same way I enjoy Melies-era primitive films.

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Alan 5 years ago

Just watched the first five minutes on Youtube and couldn't go any further. If your point is that Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity aren't any worse than The Cleopatras, I suppose it is a valid one. But then, we still have a ways to go before we reach the nadir of 80's Doctor Who.

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William Whyte 5 years ago

I think Time-Flight is worse made than the Power of Kroll. The dreadful outside scenes in Time-Flight suffer compared to the location scenes in Kroll that are actually on location.

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Alex Wilcock 5 years ago

Like William above, and probably for the same reason, I wasn’t allowed to watch this as a boy – though I dimly remember kids talking about it, and Richard Griffiths’ Pot-belly (probably from the Radio Times launch feature).

I’ve just watched the first episode online, and, Blimus. Desperate to be I, Claudius, but more just desperate. I was stunned by the video effects – I don’t remember a single other drama that looked like that unless it was ostentatiously futuristic (despite, oddly, trying to do an ‘Ancient Egyptian’ score, when so many were using synthesisers at the time). With that and the enormous CSO pillars in the throne room, two things struck me about it.

First, and most obviously, that the visual style was so incredibly jarring with the subject matter and how people would expect it to be depicted – it makes any Doctor Who to hand seem a model of TV naturalism. But second, I suddenly realise after all these years exactly what the “Christmas Future” segment of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol was spoofing. And poor Cleopatras; Blackadder looks much more ‘believable’, simply because it’s not daft enough to look like an Ancient Egyptian Top of the Pops.

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Dougie 5 years ago

To borrow from the Eleventh Doctor: " I was not expecting that!"
I had forgotten about The Cleopatras. Unlike other posters,however, I was able to watch it at the time because I was a first year Arts and Social Studies university student.I recall it received pretty damning reviews but I watched it with a desultory eye for cheap thrills.
Congratulations on such a diverting and unexpected entry in this series!

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Anton B 5 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Anton B 5 years ago

I was going to write that the word you're looking for is 'camp'. But then I realised that's exactly what you're avoiding saying. However I think, thanks in no small measure to JNT and a small but very vocal set of Who fans, this is where the kitch aesthetic really set in. That awfully knowing 'nudge nudge wink wink we all know this is crap but...such fun!' attitude which people who think they understand camp regularly get away with. The mass of viewers half suspecting that something terribly clever is being done and not wanting to appear to not be 'getting' it just put up with it. Apart from a handful of auteur videos - Bowie, Adam Ant, The Cure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (who surely took the whole Borgias /Cleopatras decadance trope to its Pop zenith with the Relax video) The 80's was full of it. Apallingly Doctor Who became the main offender and lost at least one, faithful from the beginning, viewer (me) in the process. Now I love a bit of camp me but what we have here is the worst sort. Camp is not lack of taste but an appreciation of taste so refined that it's possible to appreciate even that which appears to possess none. Sontag identified Camp as coming from a Queer/Outsider aesthetic but there's nothing worse than a Gay man with no taste. Exhibit A - JNT and his whole over-lit, badly dressed, (Hawaiian shirt? in the eighties?) Quantel paintbox of tricks which starts right here and eventually buries the programme under a pile of tastelessness.

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WGPJosh 5 years ago

I really love these entries that track the evolution of film and TV and their respective visual styles. I've always felt the 80s were the point where the sort of distinction you outline came to be.

I trust we'll be picking this up when we get to television's attempts to recreate cinema on its own budget and timeframe with Miami Vice and Star Trek: The Next Generation?

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years ago

You could arguably say the same thing about the RTD era, albeit with a few words flipped around:

"Both attempt drama via a focus on artifice and spectacle, both have a sort of lurid love of the tawdry, and both have something of a fondness for taking really good actors and putting them in mildly questionable roles."

Voila; perfect descriptor of Doctor Who from March 26, 2005 to January 1, 2010.

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WGPJosh 5 years ago

Well, Peter Davison *is* Steven Moffat and David Tennant's favourite Doctor...

I think Davies was more influenced by the Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts era myself.

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Adam Riggio 5 years ago

"Both attempt drama via a focus on artifice and spectacle, both have a sort of lurid love of the tawdry, and both have something of a fondness for taking really good actors and putting them in mildly questionable roles."

Matthew, this is just Davies at his most over the top, like in his season finales. The new show would never have caught on if this was all that was going on. At his best, he focussed on nuanced character development playing itself out in the context of adventures in time and space. Big events like the battles with Daleks, Cybermen, and the Master were the stages on which the characters moved. He, with his other writers, composed season-long arcs for the main cast that supplied the actual storylines of the show.

Rose in season one: A naive shopgirl becomes a daring adventurer.
Rose & Ten in season two: With his new lease on life, two adventurers drift closer together until tragic circumstances wrench them apart.
Martha in season three: A smitten woman deals with her unrequited feelings for her friend even as she's forced to make continual sacrifices for him.
Donna in season four: A formerly insular woman opens herself to the wonders of the universe, guided by her growing sense of natural empathy.

It's only in the ludicrously over the top season finales that spectacle truly takes over the show. And even then, the character arcs take over as the force of their sentiment overwhelms the spectacle. Granted, it's playing zany spectacle against overt sentimentality, which veers into melodrama that's sometimes too thick for its own good (ex. Bad Wolf Bay, Doctor/Donna technobabble saves the day, the farewell tour). But I have to stand up for a show whose success has been forgotten about all too quickly in the fan community.

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Alan 5 years ago

Frankly, I agree. The plot of Power of Kroll is at least internally logical and does not depend on the main antagonist doing insane things for no discernible reason. And for all its flaws, Kroll is a special effects masterpiece compared to the plasmotons.

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elvwood 5 years ago

One thing Time-Flight has going for it on DVD is the commentary. I love the bit where Janet Fielding sees the plasmatons and goes "holy crapola!" - in fact, I think I've seen Time-Flight more often with the commentary than without.

But I'm with those who think that The Power of Kroll has a better script and better production values, as well as coming from an era that could better cope with the cheapness.

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years ago

...mainly because said success was rather annoying -- Rose being a complete Mary Sue whom the fans tired of, Martha just become pathetic, and Donna (whom I adored, mind) being too obviously a non-romantic contrast (Moffat did a wonderful job of showing how to do this right with Amy Pond -- right after showing how wrong RTD's romantic Doctor pair-offs really were).

The crap episodes mid-season and even worse finales were only ever alleviated by Moffat's eps/two-parters; can you blame them, then, for being excited by Moffat taking over the show? Moffat's great, but he looked even better when surrounded by RTD era dreck.

You could say it's the same predicament of the Letts-Hinchcliffe divide: Making a large amount of episodes per series, or bringing up the quality baseline per series.

If nothing else, Moffat allowing each episode to be set in stone early on allows a better allocation of the budget to each ep, as opposed to RTD's constant tinkering and re-writing up until the last minute -- which, in Moffat's favor, makes the show look incredible, but also, unfortunately, gives us dreck like the Silurian and Flesh two-parters (it's quite telling that the best scenes from those stories are the continuity bits clearly written by Moffat, and Curse of the Black Spot doesn't count as "set-in-stone-dreck", as it was rushed through production and revised while filming after being bumped up to the beginning of the series).

The focus on locking the story and budget in early, though problematic at times (just look at how little we see of Egypt in The Wedding of River Song), has resulted in some sheer miracles; for example, due to being bumped into the next series from budgeting problems (and replaced by the relatively cost-effective The Lodger -- shot back-to-back with the similarly cost-effective Amy's Choice) allowed Neil Gaiman more time to revise his story (including adding Rory, who wasn't present originally -- he'd be written out of the Universe, at that point) and get rid of some Tennant era-isms (which certain stories of Series 5 seem to be afflicted with; look no further than the Silurian two-parter for evidence)... and, well, the evidence of his time and hard work is plain for all to see: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/06/fairly-humongous-doctor-who-q-mostly.html :-)

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Amusingly, the Plasmotons are one of the parts of Time-Flight that stood up well in my childhood memory. I submit this fact without further comment.

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Alan 5 years ago

Wow, the memory does cheat! I saw it at age 15 and for years my biggest memory of the story was of the giant purple turds who wandered around and ... did stuff.

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Adam Riggio 5 years ago

You've hit the basic problems with the Davies era, Matthew, but I still think you're mistaken to dismiss it entirely because of those problems. That approach overlooks all that Davies actually achieved: creating a character-based science-fiction drama with widespread appeal across all demographics, using contemporary styles of television, and attracting the best writers and actors Britain had to offer.

I remember how shocked I was when I heard about Eccleston's casting in 2004 and looked up his filmography. I had seen his series of Cracker and couldn't imagine what DCI Bilborough would do as the Doctor. Davies pushed the boundaries of what I thought Doctor Who could do, and made a show that, while it had some problems, should be remembered as a creative high point.

Such concentration on the negative certainly isn't very true to the spirit of the Eruditorum, finding the most redemptive readings of each story. One thing the blog has shown me is that every era of the show has its problems. Terry Nation is kind of a hack; the base under siege is a damn repetitive plot; Letts' on-screen politics are too superficial for his real-life ambitions; Holmes was too nihilistic; Williams didn't really know how best to use Douglas Adams. When Phil gets to Davies, I'm sure the sentimentality will come under fire. Same with the overuse of narrative collapse. Doctor Who is never perfect. And by your interpretation, if there are recurring problems, then it's all dreck (a word I personally hate almost as much as 'rubbish'). That would dismiss the whole show.

By the end of the Davies era, Rose, as an example, was an overused and tired character with nowhere to go. But at its start, she was just the kind of character suited to the weird juxtapositions Doctor Who does: a well-rounded working class young woman in the social realist mode thrown into a magical sci-fi world. She had all the best features of Ace, but without the overdone anger issues. Rose was a lot like those high school teachers who fell out of the normal world in 1963.

As it is, Davies loved the character so much, he kept her in the narrative needlessly. It took the Doctor a whole season to get over her, then her return (as more of a real Mary Sue) in 2008 was foreshadowed all season long. Had she left the show for good in Doomsday, had the Doctor handled her loss in Runaway Bride, then only mentioned her briefly with Jack's return in Utopia, it would have been a great arc.

Don't let the mistakes of Journey's End blind you to the quality of Rose (the episode). Trust me: it's there if you can look with fresh eyes.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

I should note, it was the bubbly liquid effect that grabbed me, not, as you put it, the giant purple turds.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

See, this is where we differ. The phrase "an Ancient Egyptian Top of the Pops" just sounds fantastic to me.

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years ago

Three words contradict you, I'm afraid: Burping rubbish bins.

That alone should've been a warning of things to come, but alas...

(Let's not forget, of course, that Rose was part of the first filming block of that series; the other part was Aliens of London/World War III... so, not so much a warning, then, as a very close foreshadowing. :-P)

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years ago

"...that... is why you fail."

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Wm Keith 5 years ago

A foreshadowing of what? Of one of the cleverest Doctor Who episodes? Of how to capture the imaginations of schoolchildren? "Silent but deadly" has to be one of the funniest yet scariest cliffhangers ever. And others have written about the poignancy of the pig. "Aliens of London" is RTD on top form.

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