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.…