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.