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Doctor Who - Meglos

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1980
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Terrence Dudley
Cast: 
Tom Baker
Lalla Ward
Jacqueline Hill
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
3
Video: 
Click to Play

It has turned into something of a truism among fans of “Doctor Who” that by 1980, Tom Baker had become weary with his role as the fourth Doctor after a full six years of playing the most recognisable role on British TV, and that this is what accounts for much of what failed to work during the controversial new look series 18 – the series that was, in fact, to be not only Baker’s swansong, but also the end of the road for all of the then regular cast. By the end of it, not only Baker but also current companion Romana (played by Lalla Ward), as well as the Doctor’s trusty tin pal K9, here voiced once again by John Leeson, would be gone – replaced by a whole new cast. 

“Meglos” is the difficult second child of the wayward eighteenth series, not really quite fitting the mould of producer John Nathan-Turner’s new, more serious science fiction approach to the show, which began to see it increasingly being aimed at the older end of the programme’s audience spectrum with a much harder SF edge being purposely evident in most of the stories, many of which ,script editor Christopher H. Bidmead was determined to have grounded in some real scientific and mathematical concepts. This required an approach that was clearly a world away from Baker’s increasingly comedic and eccentric interpretation of the central role. The last series under producer Graham Williams had seen a combination of Baker’s almost unassailable on-set power and the comic proclivities of previous script editor Douglas Adams, reduce the show to a near pantomime farce on many occasions, and John Nathan-Turner’s response was to restore some sanity by taking things completely in the other direction. 

Too far in the other direction for some: kiddie-friendly K9 was kicked into touch at the first available opportunity and Ward, who enjoyed the childlike side of the show represented by his mechanical high jinks most of all, soon waved by-by also, finding it as difficult to see eye to eye with producer Nathan-Turner as did Baker (with whom she was having an increasingly fraught relationship by this point). Baker’s improvised clowning was clearly superfluous to requirements and he knew it, the star electing to get out while he still held the favour of an adoring audience. In hindsight it was the right decision: Baker’s interpretation of the Doctor (‘Tom Baker in space’ is how the eccentric actor himself explains his approach to the role) had reached its logical conclusion by this point and the more stable, understated approach of Peter Davison eventually helped to settle the wavering axis of the show into a more settled pattern. 

But in the meantime, we had a curious story like “Meglos”, which seemed to uncomfortably straddle both camps. 

On the one hand, this four-part story seems to have all the ingredients for a serious and prescient examination of the conflict between faith and reason and the political and cultural antagonism of science and religion -- exactly the kind of high-end concept Bidmead and JNT were intending to re-introduce into the show. On the other hand it deals in all the lazy stand-by crutches of the Graham Williams era: dim-witted comedy baddies in false beards? Check. Silly pantomime monster-of-the-week? Check. Ridiculously over-the-top performance from Tom Baker? … er, no actually, it doesn’t have that! 

John Nathan-Turner has made it his mission in life to reign-in Baker’s previously accepted tendency to add his own lines and jokes to the scripts and to improvise on the set during shooting; consequently, the actor gives a rather downbeat performance for much of this series; minus most of the annoying aspects that had started to clog up the previous run of stories, but also minus much of the humour and quirkiness that had always been an essential part of the show from its earliest days. On top of that, Baker was apparently ill during the making of this particular story, and he certainly looks quite gaunt here -- an aspect only emphasised by his capacious and bulky new burgundy coloured costume, which was designed especially for this particular series. 

Here is what makes “Meglos” such a confused and confusing entry in a series then struggling to re-mould its identity. This story was broadcast only second in the series run, so despite the new starscape title sequence and Peter Howell’s ‘80s electronica version of the theme music (both introduced in the previous story “The Leisure Hive”), one could still watch it and not realise that anything has changed fundamentally in approach from a story like the previous series’ farcical “The Horns of Nimon”. In a way, it’s ironic that this is the one story in this particular series where the more absurd elements of the plot actually cry out for Baker’s heightened performance of old; but Baker is saved from his increasingly noticeable boredom with the show in this story by the fact that he gets to play both the Doctor and the titular villain of the piece, Meglos -- who takes on the Doctor’s appearance, making this one of a small group of Doctor Who doppelgänger stories. Baker’s rather more subtle efforts as he switches between the two performances is one of the more acceptable things about this otherwise rather middling effort. 

Ultimately, it seems likely that the inconsistency of tone and content is down to a combination of the desperate need on the part of script editor Bidmead and producer JNT to find suitable scripts in time, and the fact that first- (and last!) time writers for the show, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, had no fundamental interest in science fiction whatsoever, as both candidly admit on a featurette included on this DVD. Consequently, the intriguing central concept of the story, which builds nicely for a couple of episodes, is soon derailed by a lazy approach to plotting and a reliance on all the old clichés of the latter years of the Tom Baker era. Presumably, Flanagan and McCulloch didn’t know any better and Bidmead couldn’t re-write it enough in time to save it. That would certainly account for the fact that every episode seems to chronically under-run its allotted 25 minute time slot, requiring very long recap segments at the beginning of every episode. The last episode goes down in history as the shortest ever. Even with nearly four minutes of recap footage from the end of episode three, it still only runs for just over 19 minutes! 

To examine more closely what goes wrong over the course of this four part story, let’s look in some more detail at the plot. It begins rather promisingly with an intriguing idea set on a planet called Tigella where the inhabitants have been split off into two discreet and opposing factions, the Deons and the Savants. The two groups are defined by their attitude towards the planet’s mysterious energy source, a pulsing crystal structure called the Dodecahedron, which provides the power for their entire underground civilisation. All the Tigellans have been forced to retreat below ground because of the hostile sentient plant-life that has taken over on the planet’s jungle surface. 

But no one knows exactly what the Dodecahedron actually is, or where it came from. The Deons favour an explanation grounded in religious mythology, and which attempts to bind Tigellan society through the solemn ritualistic practice of religious worship that claims the power source as a mystical gift from the god Ti, and not something that should be questioned or rationalised. The Savants believe the device is an engineered artefact and desperately want to examine it and find out how it really works, a desire that has become all the more urgent as the power source has recently begun to fluctuate alarmingly. 

The Deons interpret any kind of scientific explanation of the Dodecahedron as blasphemous, and will not allow the Savants access to the structure, which is now part of a temple complex only they are allowed to enter. They believe all the problems with the city’s fluctuating power can only be rectified with prayer, much to the Savants’ contempt. A stand-off has developed between the two sides, mediated by the aged and pragmatic elder Zastor (Edward Underdown), who has the respect of the Deon leader Lexa (Jacqueline Hill) and the tolerance of the Savant spokesperson Deedrix (Crawford Logan). His solution is to call in an old and wise friend called the Doctor, since he has something of the mystic as well as the man of science about him. Lexa is eventually persuaded to allow this ‘Doctor’ to examine the Dodecahedron as long as he is willing to swear allegiance to Ti (something the sneering Savants could never allow themselves to do). 

But it turns out that Tigella is part of a binary system that also includes the now dead desert planet of Zolfa-Thura. The only surviving member of the once indigenous race of Zolfa-Thurans is a megalomaniacal, shape-shifting, talking Xerophyte cactus called Meglos (‘Yes, that’s right … I am a plant!’). The Zolfa-Thurans were once a technologically advanced race who invented the Dodecahedron as an energy device with the potential of providing far more power than is currently being utilised by the uncomprehending Tigellans (thus completely vindicating the Savants’ arguments!). But Meglos wants to steal it back and use it to destroy Tigella and control the entire Galaxy.

Well, it hardly needs me to point out the potential of the first half of the above synopsis, and the absolute toe-curling cliché redolent of the second half. This ‘monsters first, story second’ approach was one of the things that Christopher H. Bidmead wanted to eradicate from the series, but he clearly failed in that wish here. As soon as the action switches to Zolfa-Thura, writers Flanagan and McCulloch revert to what they doubtless believed were the kind of space opera genre elements that would have been a staple requirement in any and all Doctor Who stories, but which actually didn’t fit at all in the vision Bidmead and Nathan-Turner were attempting to craft. 

For reasons never explained in the script (there are a lot of unexplained random elements in the script, suggesting a fundamental lack of any real thought rather than a rushed botch job), Meglos requires a humanoid form in order to travel to Tigella and gain access to the Dodecahedron. He employs a group of marauding space pirates called Gaztaks to provide him with said form in the guise of an earthling whom they kidnap from the 1980s and transport to Zolfa-Thura in their space freighter. This all has the ring of Douglas Adams about it, suggesting Flanagan and McCulloch (it sounds like the name of a war-time music hall double act!) did their science fiction research by looking at old series 17 scripts. 

The earthman, played by Christopher Owen, is dressed – bizarrely -- as an accountant of some kind, leading to some nicely played surrealistic scenes featuring an utterly bewildered man in a three-piece suit being plonked incongruously on an alien-looking desert planet in the midst of the outlandishly dressed and bearded Gaztaks … and a talking cactus! Meglos then assumes the earthman’s form. We can assume, I suppose, that earthmen are easier to control than other less pliant species, and that once already inhabiting the shape of a humanoid, Meglos finds it much easier to assume the form of other such-shaped aliens. We have to assume it, because we’re given no other explanation for such a convoluted scheme. We’re not told what Meglos would have done had Zastor not actually sent for the Doctor in the first place, or how he knew the Tigellan elder was planning on such a course of action (he’d already employed the Gaztaks to kidnap an earthman before Zastor had even thought about sending his message to the Doctor). In any case, Meglos uses his advanced technology to trap the Doctor and Romana in a time loop (called a chronic hysteresis), forcing the Time Lord and his companion to repeat the same actions over and over again, like a stuck record. Meglos then takes on the Doctor’s appearance, arrives on Tigella along with the Gaztak looters, and tricks the Tigellans into letting him have exclusive access to the Dodecahedron alone. Using more advanced technology, he shrinks it to pocket size with a redimensioner device (Zolfa-Thuran technology appears almost limitless, yet it was not able to stop the planet dying )and carries it away, leaving the real Doctor to take the blame when he eventually escapes from the time loop and finally responds to Zastor’s original message. 

Notice it takes the Doctor until half way into episode two before he even arrives on the planet surface! “Meglos” is a curiously paced story, spending ages setting plot points up, containing long stretches of padding in the middle episodes, but then having to unceremoniously sprint to one of the most rushed and ill-thought-out conclusions in the series’ history. This story was conceived as a cost-cutting in-studio job, although it does feature the first use of a process called scene-synch (more on which later) that does at least help make some of the Colour Separation Overlay work look a little more convincing than it did in stories such as, for instance, “Underworld”. But otherwise, the sets are a bit too small and cramped to adequately suggest the notion of an entire race existing underground; we only see a few representatives of the Deons and the Savants, and no one else. Frankly, there barely seems room for anyone else! 

An unfortunate plot element that started to crop up with depressing regularity during the latter Tom Baker years was the almost habitual inclusion of bumbling, lower class criminals as secondary characters intended for so-called comedy relief, usually represented by heavily bearded types, invariably exotically dressed, in fur-lined costumes, as Mongolian Tartars from the Middle Ages or some kind of pirate, or a fancy dress cross between the two. The Gaztaks fulfil that function here, Flanagan and McCulloch inadvertently revealing the cynicism with which they went about constructing much of the story by naming the dimmer and more bumbling of the gang Brotadac – an anagram of bad actor! The make-up on Christopher Owen and, later, Tom Baker, when Meglos is struggling to retain his human form and reverting back to his cactus appearance, is actually rather good, leading to one of the more famous publicity photos from this period, of a green skinned Baker with arms raised and a prickly cacti effect dominating his transformed face. Once again, the spectre of the rubbishy rubber monster rears its head in the form of something called a bell plant which looks like a toy triffid and attacks Romana on the planet surface as a means of wasting some more time above all else, it seems. The most egregious thing about all this is the way in which the central premise of the entire story – the conflict between science and religion – is casually tossed aside in favour of the usual monster-intent-on-taking-over-the-Galaxy nonsense in the final episode, to the extent that the plot ends up making absolutely no sense. 

Jacqueline Hill, the legendary “Doctor Who” actress who fans will know played companion Barbara in the original sixties series opposite the first Doctor, William Hartnell, gives an excellent performance for the first three episodes, in a plot line that sees her leading the Deons in an Iranian Revolution-style revolt that results in crazed fanaticism taking over after the Dodecahedron disappears, leading to the Deons’ resumption of human sacrifice to placate their angry god. But in the rushed and under-developed final episode, all this is dropped and Lexa killed off in what feels like almost an afterthought. You’d think that the revelation of the true nature of the Dodecahedron would lead to religious denial, or at least some form of anguished soul searching on the part of Lexa and her Deon followers, but not a bit of it. Not only does she immediately accept the rushed explanation Romana offers in one quickly garbled piece of expository dialogue, but is thereafter even willing to sacrifice herself to save her life, when only moments before she was preparing with relish to have the Doctor sacrificed and the Savants condemned to death on the planet’s surface. It comes across as lazily conceived and completely absurd. Worse is to come though: half of the Gaztaks are killed during a shoot-out between the Tigellans and Meglos’s greedy helpers, but a continuity gaff means that they all suddenly turn up again, alive and well when their ship reaches Zolfa-Thura. The big finale which sees Baker acting opposite himself when Meglos and the Time Lord finally get to meet, ends with the Doctor managing to fiddle with the Dodecahedron controls and destroy it and the entire planet of Zolfa-Thura -- along with, of course, Meglos himself – before returning to meet a re-united Tigellan population. Except, wasn’t the whole point of the story that the Tigellans needed the Dodecahedron as a power source because they couldn’t survive on the planet’s surface? Since it is now destroyed, how are they any better off at the end? 

The gaping holes in the story and the silliness of much of what transpires don’t take away from some great performances from Baker, Hill and Ward (who had by now developed her own take on the character of Romana that allowed her equal status with the Doctor) and Baker’s portrayal of Meglos is one of the pleasures of the whole of series 18; nevertheless, the story is the odd man out of the series and quickly abandons any hope of becoming anything other than another superficial romp with over-the-top guest artist performances and crazy rubber monsters on the loose. 

Once again the BBC restoration team have done wonders, making this thirty year old story look as crisp and colourful as it would have if it had just been recorded to videotape. The mono audio is excellent as always and an option exists that allows you to listen to Peter Howell and Paddy Kingsland’s electronic score in isolation. The commentary track is as lively and engaging as ever, with Lalla Ward providing her usual mixture of nostalgic reminiscence and amusingly embarrassed recall of the era. Also taking part are composers Kingsland and Howell, who shared the music credit on this particular story because Peter Howell was ill for the first episode. Howell had taken over from long time series composer Dudley Simpson, and his synthesiser scores are one of the elements that provide series 18 with its new contemporary style. Howell was a big fan of the ‘80s synth sound provided by the Yamaha CS80, and he comes up with some of his most distinctive work on the soundtrack for this story, utilising ring modulators and a vocoder to create a haunting synthesised choral effect in a score that often sounds like futuristic plainsong. Howell talks in some detail about his work on the series here, revealing that he created a headache for many of the composers who came after him by recording the new version of the main theme in F#, which meant that any incidental music at the end of each episode had to be written in such a way that it could match this rather odd key! He also talks about the difficulties caused by Dick Mills’ science fictiony’ ‘room hum’ effects which could sometimes clash with the music. Also taking part are writer John Flanagan and actor Christopher Owen. The theme of the story is particularly relevant given the fact that Lalla Ward is now married to Richard Dawkins, but aside from pointing out the contemporary importance of the science vs. religion theme, she doesn’t offer any other view on the matter. 

As usual 2|Entertain include loads of fantastic extras. 

“Meglos Men” (18 mins 10 secs): writers John Flanagan and Andre McCulloch meet up again to revisit their old London haunts and recall the circumstances of the writing of Meglos. The former actors forged their writing partnership after appearing in a play together, and after visiting the London theatre in which they first met, they go on to revisit all the sites that were important to them while they were writing the story, eventually winding up at the home of script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, where they discuss the main elements of the story and the plans they had for another adventure which never in the event got made. 

“The Scene Sync Story” (12 mins 03 secs): “Meglos” made use of this pioneering process in the creation of many of its shots. It involved a robotic camera moving over a model set as it followed the movements of a studio camera which was photographing the actors on a blue-screen set, allowing the two to be composited into a single image. Visual effects designer Stephen Drewett and studio cameramen Peter Leverick and Roger Bunce explain the process which provided the basis for the sophistication of modern day visual effects in detail. The featurette includes many instances of the process used in 1980s BBC productions after the success of its use on this series of Doctor Who, where it was seen as a test and so not costed as part of the series’ budget. 

“Jacqueline Hill – A Life in Pictures” (13 mins 46 secs): a touching tribute to one of the original companions to star in “Doctor Who” and who appeared again in Meglos playing the religious leader Lexa. With contributions from husband Alvin Rakoff, Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert and fellow actors and friends William Russell and Ann Davies, this film tells the story of Hill’s life, with some fascinating insights into her attitude to her time spent on the original series, as well as summing up how difficult it was in the sixties and seventies for a woman to survive in the profession once she had taken time out to start a family. Hill succumbed to cancer soon after appearing in “Meglos”. 

“Entropy Explained” (4 mins 53 secs): Dr. Phillip Trowga of the University of Westminster explains how entropy defines the arrow of time and will eventually lead to the heat death of the Universe (a plot point in the story) – all in under five minutes. 

Radio Times listings are included in the form of PDF files; a photo gallery of production and publicity stills scored with Peter Howell’s incidental music appears on the disc; an extensive text commentary analysis is once more included; and a ‘coming soon’ trailer announces the advent of the 1972 Jon Pertwee story “The Mutants” on DVD. 

“Meglos” is not one of the finer moments of Tom Baker’s extensive tenure but it gets the usual excellent treatment from 2|Entertain and will doubtless find itself being snapped up by fans for the fantastic image quality and its worthwhile set of extras. 

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