A most unusual show appears this month as the subject of the Obscure Sci-Fi Primer in the form of Cleopatra 2525, from the same production company that brought us M.A.N.T.I.S. This 2000 series pretty much hits all the boxes on our obscure sci-fi bingo card: it was originally syndicated; it had a format change, moving from a half hour to hour-long in its second season; a campy, zany premise; low production values; abundant fanservice; and it debuted right at the tail end of the sci-fi boom that hit during the 90’s. It’s sort of got a “Charlie’s Angels after the robot apocalypse” vibe to it. We all know that shows with any one of those problems aren’t necessarily bad, but is there anything to be said for Cleopatra 2525 if it has all of them? Let’s find out.
Cleopatra 2525 follows the adventures of a former stripper who was cryogenically frozen after a mishap with her breast enhancement surgery, only to awake in an underground society where humans oppose the robotic Baileys that have taken over the surface (don’t look at me; I told you it was zany). Still using her stripper name, Cleopatra (Jennifer Sky) joins up with the preexisting duo of Hel (Gina Torres, pre-Firefly) and Sarge (Victoria Pratt, better known for the moderately more successful Mutant X) to do missions for the mysterious Voice (only slightly better a pseudonym than Eyes Only), which communicates with them exclusively via audio as part of an effort to retake the Earth’s surface. Aside from the robots, they’re opposed mostly by destructive scientist/Juggalo reject Creegan (as it’s spelled in the credits; sometimes Kreegan elsewhere), and Raina, a former Voice operative who developed psychic powers and went rogue. It’s kind of a bizarre world they live in, with weird animal/human hybrids and mutants running around alongside them, and surprisingly few men to be seen.
- Cleo is more the heart of the team, and doesn’t even get a weapon until the end of the first season; it’s a logical spot for her to fill and surprisingly realistic in that she doesn’t jump from stripper to commando instantly.
- Based on what I’ve seen on IMDB and other places, it seems like a lot of people dislike Cleo, saying she’s useless or holds the others back, but I disagree; Cleo’s a breath of fresh air in the grungy, gritty world below the earth. She keeps the show grounded and she’s pretty funny with her 20th century references. Like a Farscape‘s Crichton-lite. This accusation of being useless gets levied at a lot of “Heart of the team”-style characters, but I think there are few settings that need such a character more than a post-apocalyptic one. The show tackles this head-on in one of the final episodes.
- Surprisingly interesting and morally grey plot; Voice isn’t all good, and we see that not all of the robots are awful killing machines, either.
- While it’s more episodic than arc-based, the show does exhibit some great continuity. For example, a “Psi gun” is used to put Cleo out of phase with the rest of reality, which sets the show up for a standard, run of the mill sci-fi plot akin to Star Trek TNG‘s “The Next Phase.” Episode’s over, problem solved, never to be heard of again, right? No, the Psi gun actually comes up a few more times and is fairly important to the developing plot. That’s far from the only example; character relationships and development also continue to build. The style of continuity is sort of like Stargate SG-1‘s early seasons, in that regard.
- Cleopatra 2525 really “grows its beard,” so to speak, when it is allowed to expand to the full-hour timeslot. The kinds of stories the show tells don’t change much, but that extra 20 minutes to develop the scenario and allow for character development makes all the difference. This is the point where it really shifts from plain action/adventure to a more nuanced and dramatic story. Too bad that’s about 6 episodes from the end…
- I can put up with a lot when it comes to production value. Even as someone with a degree in Film, I generally don’t let myself get taken out of the show simply because I can see how it was made. But Cleopatra 2525… it’s kind of like watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers sometimes. Very few shows have I seen where I look at a set and go, “well, that couldn’t possibly be anything but a set.” It applies to the CGI/greenscreen and costumes also, but the CGI is to be expected and the costumes are part of the campiness. It’s really just the sets that kill it. If you want to see how much reuse and recycling was going on, just keep an eye out for that slow spinning six-bladed fan.
- Oh, which brings me to the shafts. This has to be the least efficient means of getting around I’ve ever seen. They just fall down and use Spider-Man type webbing and rocket boots to stop. Has anyone heard of an elevator? Worse, what that really leaves us is a bunch of boring scenes where they “fall” in front of an obvious greenscreen while chatting about the mission. Ever seen people make fun of Naruto for spending five minutes watching people fly through the trees? It’s exactly like that.
- The show has a lot of 90’s “GURL POWER” themes embedded in it (and nowhere more so than the theme song). That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just sits so at odds with the frequent sexy fanservice. To be fair, there are plenty of “beefcake” men on display, including the team’s reprogrammed Betrayer robot Mauser, but still… it’s clearly built on this male audience, fanservice premise. Very strange.
- How does it end? CLIFFHANGER. Doesn’t it always? It’s a pretty rough one, too.
Cleopatra 2525 is what is–a campy show about female heroes fighting robots and gangsters underground. It ran on a shoestring budget and looks like it. But none of those things are inherently bad; in a world of dark and gritty shows, a bit of camp can be just what we all need to get a break from the doom and gloom. Do you like watching cute girls kick butt? Wanna see Firefly‘s Zoe be a secret agent? Do shows where the major villain runs around in a clown suit satisfy a lifelong hatred of clowns? Or maybe you just feel like laughing at the 20th century stripper who quotes the Terminator and Star Trek as she runs from robots? Approach Cleopatra 2525 without preconceptions, and you just might enjoy it.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. As usual, Cleopatra 2525 is too obscure and thus not available on the major streaming services (Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Netflix), but it is on DVD.
Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here, or join the mailing list to have it delivered to your inbox each month!