Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
14 Mar 2004Meglos, by Paul Clarke
21 Sep 2011Meglos, by Anthony Weight

After the thoroughly impressive ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Meglos’ is a considerable disappointment. In keeping with the glossy new look of Season Eighteen, it looks great, but it is let down by an unimaginative plot, some dubious acting, and poor characterisation.

‘MeglosÂ’ contains many of the ingredients of classic Doctor Who, including a megalomaniac villain, an ancient and powerful super weapon, a subterranean city, and an alien jungle. One of its several problems is that, having selected these rather unoriginal ingredients, it fails to combine them in an appealing way, resulting in a collection of tedious clichĂ©s. For one thing, we have Meglos himself, a stock megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe, but who is given no background or motivation whatsoever. We learn almost nothing of his past or of Zolfa-Thura, his planet of origin which is now dead, except that his fellow Zolfa-Thurans destroyed their entire civilization in an attempt to stop him using the DodecahedronÂ’s destructive might to achieve his dreams of conquest. This might be such a problem if it were not for the fact that Meglos is a cactus. Who lives in a plant pot. This rather raises the question of how his people built a civilization in the first place, or indeed how he managed to build the screens and his laboratory (let alone the Dodecahedron). The obvious answer lies in MeglosÂ’ ability to possess humanoids, and I would hypothesize that the Zolfa-Thurans at one time used to inhabit such humanoids who also lived on their planet, but this raises even more questions and I feel I shouldnÂ’t have to waste time coming up with such spurious explanations. Leaving all of this aside, we are still left with the fact that Meglos is very poorly characterised. The fact that he has waited for thousands of years in his (presumably well irrigated) tub of compost before bothering to go and retrieve the Dodecahedron is rather strange, and a possible reason for this is given only the briefest of nods as he explains to the Gaztacs that the newly developed fluctuations in the DodecahedronÂ’s power output are part of its programming. Even if viewers are happy to accept that heÂ’s been sitting around twiddling his spines for millennia, his lust for power is still crushingly clichĂ©d; whereas SkagraÂ’s motivation was explored in ‘ShadaÂ’ and whereas PangolÂ’s was understandable in ‘The Leisure HiveÂ’, Meglos just seems to fancy a bit of a lark. Indeed, he even tells the Doctor that his reasons for wanting to blow up planets are “beyond your comprehension”; presumably, they are also beyond the comprehension of writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch. Power-crazed megalomaniacs are relatively common in Doctor Who, but some justification for their behaviour is appreciated; even the Master has the fact that he wants to best the Doctor motivating him. Meglos doesnÂ’t even seem particularly insane, the usual resort of a writer who canÂ’t think of a more interesting reason for his villain being a nutter. 

As if MeglosÂ’ poor characterisation were not bad enough, Tigella, one of the storyÂ’s main settings, is just as poorly thought out. Apparently, the idea of a society divided along religious and scientific lines appealed to Flanagan and McCulloch. Strange then that they donÂ’t bother to do anything interesting with it. Potentially, Tigella could be very interesting, exploring the roles of science and religion in society to the small degree that might be possible in a four-part Doctor Who story broadcast at teatime on a Saturday, but instead it has the stereotypical assumption that science equals rationality and religion equals fanaticism thrust upon it and is left at that. Even these stereotypes, so basic as to be crass, might have been used in some interesting fashion, but they are just used to provide the supporting characters to bicker amongst themselves in a way that makes me wonder how the Deons and the Savants manage to co-exist at all. Like Meglos, the Tigellans themselves are poorly characterised, the only slight exception being Zastor who gets some nice dialogue but is acted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by Edward Underdown who was unwell during filming. The only other Tigellan of any real note is Lexa, and she is only remembered as much as she is because Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who for the first time since Barbara Wright left the original TARDIS crew at the end of ‘The ChaseÂ’, plays her. Hill makes a reasonable effort in the role, but canÂ’t rise above the fact that Lexa is just a clichĂ©d zealot. LexaÂ’s sacrifice in Episode Four to save Romana seems to be some feeble attempt on the part of the writers to give the character some depth by allowing her to gain redemption for nearly sacrificing the Doctor, but it is a trivial effort if this is indeed the case. 

The poor characterisation of the Tigellans highlights even more the pitiful lack of background detail in the story. Whereas in ‘The Leisure HiveÂ’, we were provided with a wealth of background information on both the Argolin and the Foamasi, here the lack of background about Meglos is compounded by the lack of background on Tigella. This only serves to highlight the fact that, as is often the case in Doctor Who, Tigella is supposedly an entire world but is clearly just a few rooms and some extras. As I have discussed in the past, some writers find ways around this problem, and others manage to get away with it through sheer style, but when the overall story is so bland, IÂ’m more easily annoyed by things like Grugger stating that the Tigellans use the Dodecahedron to power their entire planet in Episode One, followed by references to one city with (seemingly) a single entrance throughout the rest of the story. And in order to sustain my interest throughout, I also like to ponder such questions as how, if the foliage of Tigella is so lethal that the Tigellans cannot survive on the surface with their level of technology, did they ever manage to survive for long enough to develop such an advanced society? And therein lies the problem with ‘MeglosÂ’; it really doesnÂ’t seem to have very well thought out. Which is probably why the Doctor and RomanaÂ’s means of escaping from the chronic hysteresis is so utterly unconvincing. 

Having got all that off my chest, I must admit that ‘MeglosÂ’ does have its good points. It looks pretty good, save for some rubbery foliage on Tigella (primarily the Bell Plants), with nice model work and decent direction, which manages to squeeze some drama from the proceedings. A combination of Terrance DudleyÂ’s rapidly switching camera angles and a dramatic score from Paddy Kingsland (at least for Episode One) makes the cliffhanger to Episode One almost exciting, as Meglos turns around looking like the Doctor, which I wouldnÂ’t have been expecting if I didnÂ’t already know the story. The Gaztacs also provide a welcome diversion; theyÂ’re generally as poorly characterised as the other characters, and their costumes are almost as silly as those of the Savants (dodgy blond wigs are apparently mandatory for scientists on Tigella), but Grugger and BrotodacÂ’s dialogue provides some much needed comic relief. The two characters seem to be united by a genuine friendship, which is unusual amongst Doctor Who villains, and BrotodacÂ’s obsession with the DoctorÂ’s coat is rather entertaining. They are both buffoons, and whilst Bill Fraser doesnÂ’t make much of an effort as Grugger, Frederick Treves seems to be enjoying himself as Brotodac, leading me to wonder if ‘MeglosÂ’ would have fared better in Season Seventeen, script-edited by Douglas Adams and played for laughs. In all honesty, I canÂ’t claim that ‘The Horns of NimonÂ’ is written that much better than ‘MeglosÂ’ is, but ‘The Horns of NimonÂ’ is so much more fun that I canÂ’t help but love it. ‘MeglosÂ’, with little humour and wedged as it is between the sombre and much more clever stories ‘The Leisure HiveÂ’ and ‘Full CircleÂ’, just feels awkward. 

Of the regulars, K9 gets more to do than he did in ‘The Leisure HiveÂ’, but the production teamsÂ’ intention of phasing him out again means that he suffers, as his power pack runs out for no good reason. At least he gets to provide expository dialogue in a reasonably convincing way (something he is always useful for) and advise the Doctor and Romana, but I do find the various ways used to incapacitate him in Season Eighteen rather sad. Although I suppose I should be glad that when he does leave the series, he isnÂ’t actually put down. Lalla Ward is her usual reliable self here, especially in the first two episodes, when she acts panic-stricken very convincingly whilst the TARDIS is trapped in the chronic hysteresis. But it is Tom Baker who really excels here. However poorly characterised Meglos may actually be he is kept interesting by the performances of Tom Baker and Christopher Owen. Owen switches well between baffled Earthling and gloating villain in Episode One, but Baker really excels at playing the villain, proving for the second story in a row that he can act. There are points during ‘MeglosÂ’ during which, thanks to a combination of impressive cactus make-up and BakerÂ’s chilling performance, the character is thoroughly sinister, and Baker succeeds in keeping his performances as Meglos and the Doctor distinct, even when Meglos is actually impersonating the Doctor. It isnÂ’t really enough to rescue ‘MeglosÂ’ from its shortcomings, but it does at least make it worth watching at least once. 

Ultimately, ‘Meglos’ is disappointing, especially after ‘The Leisure Hive’. Fortunately, the following story succeeds in restoring Season Eighteen’s initial high quality…

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Poor old Meglos always seems to be the overlooked, under appreciated child of season eighteen. Sandwiched between the new-look relaunch story The Leisure Hive and the TARDIS crew-changing trilogy of the E-Space stories, its lack of any particular hook or event which makes it an important part of either the mythos of the show or the nature of its production means it tends to be rather forgotten about.

Which is a great shame, and I hope its turn to be released on DVD sees it getting a little more recognition than it hitherto has. Although it does have some of the po-faced faux-science that runs through all of season eighteen (why not just call it a “Time Loop”, rather than a “Chronic Hysteresis”?), it runs at a much faster pace and has a much more involving story than its immediate predecessor, with John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch doing a good job of creating an interesting story of science versus religion with characters who you actually want to know what happens to them.

Nowhere does their ability to create worthwhile characters come across more than the main villain, Meglos, who is possibly the most interesting villain to turn up anywhere in this season. His first appearance, as the random cactus with the disembodied voice, ought to seem utterly absurd and ridiculous, but somehow the vocal performance lends a genuine air of intellect and menace. As the story moves along, Tom BakerÂ’s performance as Meglos impersonating the Doctor also works well.

Admittedly it does have to be said that Meglos impersonating the Doctor creates one of the weak points of the story, when the Tigellan scientists are so ready to accept that the Doctor has been impersonated, and to believe his story. It’s a shame that in a script where they generally do so well that Flanagan and McCulloch do lapse into some lazy writing every now and again – another case in point being Romana leading the Gaztaks, who hitherto been interesting and funny characters, round and round in circles through the forest like a bunch of space morons. And on another note, why didn’t they recognise her from their watching of the Chronic Hysteresis on Meglos’s screen, anyway...?

Quibbles aside, the aforementioned forest is one of the better ones to have been attempted within the confines of a multi-camera studio on Doctor Who down the years. In fact, the whole of Meglos looks pretty damn good – Terence Dudley having perhaps his finest outing as a director on the programme. HeÂ’s able to get the infamous lighting levels down for some of the Gaztak spaceship and Deon worship scenes, and heÂ’s lucky enough to have great support from make-up (the Meglos cactus facial make-up on Christopher Owen and Tom Baker) and the more technical departments (the excellent Scene-Sync work).

There’s a very good guest cast been recruited, too – notably Bill Fraser, Frederick Treves and yes, even Jacqueline Hill coming back to a series that must have been so bamboozingly different from that little programme she left back in Lime Grove all those years ago. She’s let down by Lexa’s death scene, though – which is rushed, pointless and basically thrown away.

If youÂ’ve not seen Meglos before, or if you havenÂ’t given it a look for some time, IÂ’d recommend picking this up if you get the chance. You might be pleasantly surprised – itÂ’s a reminder that even in its uncelebrated instalments, Doctor Who can provide more entertainment than an average piece of television.

Extras

As always, weÂ’re spoiled on Doctor Who, with even a “run of the mill” story such as Meglos receiving a bonus feature package which puts most feature films to shame. The commentary, which features Lalla Ward, John Flanagan, Christopher Owen and Paddy Kingsland, probably doesnÂ’t contain anything startlingly insightful, but is amiable enough, and itÂ’s interesting to note how on occasion Ward seems to slip into a moderator-type role, leading the discussion and asking questions of the others.

My favourite of the bonus features was Meglos Men, an interesting way of looking at the writing of the story. Rather than simply being talking heads in a studio, Flanagan and McCulloch meet up and travel around some of their old London haunts in a very nicely-shot and interesting feature which even sees them pop round Christopher H. BidmeadÂ’s house. I donÂ’t think theyÂ’re writers who will be as familiar to most Who fans as some others who have worked on the series, so itÂ’s worth a look to find out a bit more about the background to the writing of the serial.

The Scene Sync Story is an interesting look at the technology behind the innovation which helped make the Zolfa-Thuran scenes of Meglos look so good, locking two cameras of a Chromakey shot together. I am very interested in this sort of behind the scenes, production history nitty-gritty, although I appreciate itÂ’s not everyoneÂ’s cup of tea.

The Jacqueline Hill documentary, A Life in Pictures, is very welcome, although I couldnÂ’t help but feel it would have been nice for it to have been longer, and to have included some more clips of her work outside of Doctor Who. I appreciate that this probably would have involved clearance costs, though, and doubtless the money was better spent elsewhere on the release.

I didnÂ’t like Entropy Explained very much – this sort of ‘educationalÂ’ type feature may be an interesting idea for a different type of extra, but I just donÂ’t think it works. ItÂ’sDoctor Who, after all, not real science, and exploring the real scientific concepts stories may sometimes play with probably only flags up how dodgy the science of the stories often is. Plus it doesnÂ’t seem to be able to decide if itÂ’s trying to be serious or funny, with the presentation style playing it straight, but the captions throwing inHitch-HikerÂ’s Guide jokes and shampoo advert reference

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