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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. elvwood
    March 14, 2012 @ 2:10 am

    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!


  2. Adeodatus
    March 14, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    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.


  3. William Whyte
    March 14, 2012 @ 3:57 am

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


  4. Jesse
    March 14, 2012 @ 4:48 am

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


  5. Alan
    March 14, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    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.


  6. William Whyte
    March 14, 2012 @ 7:50 am

    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.


  7. Alex Wilcock
    March 14, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    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.


  8. Dougie
    March 14, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    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!


  9. Anton B
    March 14, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  10. Anton B
    March 14, 2012 @ 10:10 am

    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.


  11. WGPJosh
    March 14, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    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?


  12. Matthew Blanchette
    March 14, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    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.


  13. WGPJosh
    March 14, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    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.


  14. Adam Riggio
    March 14, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    "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.


  15. Alan
    March 14, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

    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.


  16. elvwood
    March 15, 2012 @ 4:12 am

    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.


  17. Matthew Blanchette
    March 15, 2012 @ 5:29 am

    …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: 🙂


  18. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 15, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    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.


  19. Alan
    March 15, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    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.


  20. Adam Riggio
    March 15, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    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.


  21. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 15, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

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


  22. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 15, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

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


  23. Matthew Blanchette
    March 16, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    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)


  24. Matthew Blanchette
    March 16, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    "…that… is why you fail."


  25. Wm Keith
    March 17, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    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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