Doctor Who: Meglos Review
For most Doctor Who enthusiasts, Meglos isn’t particularly well remembered. By that I don’t mean that it is remembered as being especially bad, just that it is pretty much forgotten. Its inability to stick in the memory is impressive when you consider that it came in the game-changing Season 18, which contained so many firsts – John Nathan-Turner’s first season as its longest serving producer, the change to all electronic scores provided by the Radiophonic Workshop, the complete overhaul of the main titles and perhaps the most stark change of all, the scrapping of the original and unsurpassed Delia Derbyshire realisation of Ron Grainer’s iconic theme music. And it wasn’t just firsts. Season 18 was also seismic in its ramifications for the programme in that it saw the end of the seven year run for Tom Baker, who at that point to all intents and purposes was the definitive Doctor, as well as ending the show’s near twenty year connection with Saturday nights. So for a serial to be so anonymous in a season of such import is an achievement in itself, dubious though it is.
If Meglos is remembered at all, it is for the image of the Doctor covered in cactus spines, which is a beautifully unnerving ‘Whoish’ image somewhat marred by the nonsensical way it is introduced to the plot. And it’s here that we hit on the reason why this is such a C-list story in the pantheon of Doctor Who serials. It is essentially a badly structured story with little internal logic.
Now this isn’t the first story to be hampered in such a way. Indeed, it must be said that many of Doctor Who’s best adventures suffer from logical inconsistency, but invariably one is so caught up in the rollicking adventure peopled by larger than life characters that you don’t even notice the inherent problems. Meglos, on the other hand, commits the cardinal sin of being dull, and so all its myriad faults are magnified because what little story there is, is so dreary and the characters so clichéd and disposable, that it is impossible to ignore them. It also doesn’t help that in terms of actual content, the story could easily have fit into 2 episodes resulting in this story’s other dubious achievement of being the shortest four-part serial in its entire original 27 year run, despite new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead desperate attempts at filling it out.
The story, such that it is, concerns the titular villain Meglos, the last Zolfa Thuran – basically a talking cactus - who has waited a thousand years to steal back a source of limitless power called the Dodecahedron, which is currently used on the neighbouring planet Tigella as both their power source and their God. The Tigellans – who are in the midst of a power struggle involving the religious Deons and the scientist Savants - discover problems with the Dodecahedron and call on the Doctor for help. Meglos sees his chance and, using an Earthling provided by the pirate-like Gaztaks, he bonds with the human allowing him to then change into a perfect copy of the Doctor. Then, after trapping the Doctor in a time loop, Meglos-posing as-the-Doctor arrives on Tigella to steal the ultimate power source.
Reading that précis of the plot, Meglos seems like a perfectly serviceable Who plot. Unfortunately, it’s the structure and execution of that premise that lets the production down. First off, there are the loose ends. At no point does the Earthling get a name, and no reason is given why Meglos needs a human to transform himself. Then we have to swallow the fact that having absorbed the Earthling, this somehow allows Meglos to become the Doctor, right down to the costume.
Perhaps the worst crime committed by this production is that despite Meglos being this near omnipotent being with the power to place the Doctor and Tardis into a time loop, transform itself into a copy of him, and – later on – steal this most powerful of all power sources by shrinking it, we find out nearly nothing about the creature. Instead we get the intimate machinations of the Tigellan people, a culture so dull that the most interesting thing about them is that they model their hairstyles on the video for “I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper”. Also, it’s a complete mystery as to why the power of these Zolfa Thurans isn’t more well-known in the Doctor’s galactic circles, yet he is completely familiar with the dull Tigellans. Admittedly, he is cognisant of the Screens of Zolfa Thura , but this seems inserted only so that the Doctor can make the end seem partway exciting by explaining that these huge pentangle screens harness the power of the Dodecahedron making it able to destroy planets.
So is there anything to commend Meglos? Well for a start, it doesn’t include the most egregious addition to Season 18, the new companion Adric who doesn’t beam down to us from Planet Wooden until the next story. In fact the best thing about this story is a leftover from the previous season, the classic Doctor and companion pairing of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward as Romana, who, despite having their characters toned down in John Nathan-Turner’s attempt to put his more serious stamp on the show, still shine through as beacons of colour in an ocean of grey. Their performances are doubly impressive considering the off-screen animus between the two which confoundingly blossomed into romance and a short lived marriage (Speaking of which, it is worth noting here that Lalla would go on to be the current Mrs Richard Dawkins, a delicious irony considering the religion versus science element of the Tigellans situation in the story).
Another welcome feature is the return of Jacqueline Hill, famous for being school teacher Barbara Wright, one of a trio of companions that started the series in 1963, seen here in a completely different role as high priestess Lexa- the first and only time a previous companion ever returned to the show in a different role.
In the end, though, despite the efforts of those mentioned, as well as some other notable turns, such as Bill Fraser as Grugger and Frederick Treves as Brotadac and some innovative SFX, Meglos is just too shoddily put together to work. And while this may be understandable considering the inexperience of writing team John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch, I for one am happy this was their only contribution to the series.
This 2Entertain release is one dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2.
On inserting the disc, before the Main Menu, an Audio Navigation Menu is offered. The story and all extras apart from the commentary are subtitled. The Video quality for the story is up to the usual Restoration Team standards, but one must allow for the softness of the picture, considering the source’s 30 year-old origin. The Audio is similarly impressive, the caveat this time being that the source is mono and no attempt has been made to update it for modern sound-systems which, for historical accuracy, is fine by me.
On to the extras –
The Commentary track features Lalla Ward (Romana), John Flanagan (co-writer), Paddy Kingsland (Incidental Music Part One), Peter Howell (Incidental Music Parts Two to Four) and Christopher Owen (Earthling) This is one of the duller commentaries with little in the way of either interesting trivia or enjoyable banter. Lalla Ward is the main reason to listen as she obviously relishes the opportunity to stick it to John Nathan-Turner, for ruining the programme, and to Tom Baker for ruining her life. There is also an option to listen to the Isolated Score which is really only for fans of bad Tangerine Dream style ambient music.
Meglos Men (18.13) is the main feature in place of a proper Making-Of doc. It follows writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch as they discuss the genesis of Meglos against a backdrop of their old writing locations of McCulloch’s house and the nearby park they used to brainstorm. They also call to see Christopher H. Bidmead who amusingly struggles not to look appalled as they remind him of their idea for the aborted Peter Davison introductory story, Project Zeta Sigma. Bidmead obviously showed good sense in not pursuing it. Interesting though this feature is, I question the Producer’s decision to fashion his piece after a little seen BBC 4 dramatization of the Clive Sinclair/Chris Curry story called Micro Men. Apart from the time period when Meglos was written I frankly fail to see the connection. But it’s a smart, professional job of work all the same.
The Scene Sync Story (11.05) explains the fascinating process by which some of the effects in Meglos were achieved. Scene Sync was a cutting edge and expensive piece of kit that allowed pans and zooms to be achieved within the CSO process, which up until then, by its nature, only allowed for static shots that married the shot of one camera with that of another (for instance, a model space ship with full sized actors). As with many technical innovations before, Doctor Who was used as a test bed and therefore was allowed to use it for free. This meant that despite its success, the price of using Scene Sync prohibited its use in future.
Jacqueline Hill: A Life in Pictures (12.57) gives us a short insight into the life of the Barbara Wright actress who died in 1993 from cancer, featuring husband and renowned director Alvin Rakoff, Who co-star William Russell and Verity Lambert, the first producer of Doctor Who, who is also sadly no-longer with us. As the feature delves into Hill’s acting career pre and post Who, it is enlightening even to knowledgeable fans, especially the hand Hill had in giving Sean Connery’s career a boost.
Putting the science feature Entropy Explained (4.54) on the disc is a bit of an anomaly. Yes, Season 18 has Entropy as a theme throughout, but Logopolis would have been the disc most suitable for this piece. Despite this, presenter Dr. Phillip Trowoga from the University of Westminster, makes a good fist of explaining the laws of thermodynamics to those of us that were passing notes and sniggering at the back of the class the first time it was explained to us.
The obligatory Coming Soon trailer features The Mutants, and the other recurring features such as the Photo Gallery, Production Subtitles (provided this time by the dry humoured Stephen James Walker) and an easy to find Easter Egg are all present and correct.
A forgettable release made up for in part by the quality of the extras which, though few, are of a high standard.