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Doctor Who: Meglos

January 28, 2011

The unloved runt of 1980’s Season Eighteen, ‘Meglos’ feels like a very different story from those around it. In many of these we can see new script-editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s interest in ‘real science’ having an influence: in the improbable mathematics of ‘Logopolis’, the unlikely evolutionary processes of ‘Full Circle’, and the barking insanity of ‘Warriors’ Gate’. Amidst armies of clones avenging a nuclear holocaust, monstrous creatures threatening their own unknowing descendants, or a vast society of mathematicians chanting the equations which control the structure of the entire universe, we find ‘Meglos’.

Somewhere in the equations controlling the universe there is one especial one which states that the moment a non-fan enters the room while a fan is quietly watching Doctor Who, that Doctor Who immediately becomes monumentally, horribly rubbish. Whether wobbly scenery, an underfunded attempt at alien monsters, or the ‘actor’ Rick James, the non-fan will be guaranteed to see Who at its worst. Fans are well-advised, then, to watch ‘Meglos’ in a soundproofed, locked vault, since all four episodes are cringe-inducing. Poor Lalla Ward gets to shake some foam-rubber vegetation in a sad effort to convince us it’s attacking her; ever-resourceful K9 fails to come to anyone’s aid, his batteries running out at a critical moment (this has no bearing on the plot whatsoever); a race of bewigged science-lovers argue meaninglessly with a race of hat-wearing religious types over a fantastic crystalline power source, the Dodecahedron, which powers their whole planet and without which they will all die (but it’s taken away and seemingly destroyed at the end of the story without anyone, least of all the Doctor, seeming to mind). And then there’s Meglos.

Meglos is a cactus.

Not only that: Meglos is a cactus who can shapeshift! And who wants to take over the universe! And why? ‘It is beyond your comprehension,’ he tells the Doctor at the point where lesser villains might at least hint at their plans. Oh, right.

What Meglos is, from unsubtle name onwards, is an example of a Who monster created by two people – writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch – who hadn’t the faintest interest, it seems, in doing anything but a send-up. Now, that’s okay, but almost every monster in the previous season is a send-up, designed and realised by writers and production teams in on the joke, enjoying a witty and thoughtful parody of what Doctor Who does. Erato, in ‘The Creature from the Pit’, is a conscious effort to outdo, without rendering remotely believable, the ‘biggest Who monster ever’ that 1978’s ‘The Power of Kroll’ had set out to achieve quite seriously. ‘City of Death’s Count Scarlioni is a squirming green one-eyed humanoid disguised in a fancy suit and a rubber mask too small for his own head, and (it’s broadly hinted) other disguises which allow him to carry on a relationship with his human wife. Even perennial monsters the Daleks finally have their limitations noted, when the Doctor taunts them for being unable to follow him up a ventilation shaft. Season Seventeen pokes fun at its monsters, but Meglos is played seriously, which is a serious problem.

In the first episode, he assumes the shape of a human (Christopher Owen) – addressed and referred to simply as ‘Earthling’ throughout, which gives you a measure of the script’s calibre. This he does for no apparent reason, other than to provide a method for his downfall as the Earthling resists his control. So perhaps the squidgy blanket form of Meglos that we see in episode four needs to adopt a human shape – any human shape – before he steals the Doctor’s image? But he seems to infest the Earthling physically, whereas he only needs to see Doctor Who on a screen (tuning on, like any non-fan, on one of this era’s interminable trying-to-fix-K9 scenes) to be able to copy his image. The Earthling is abducted, gets tied up, and has a giant cactus forcibly inserted into him, purely so that the plot has a way to defuse Meglos’s threat at a later point. Extraordinarily lazy. On the plus-side, vivid make-up effects splodge both the Earthling and the Doctor with believably horrid cactus-spines – and Tom Baker, playing the Meglos-Doctor, lurks in shadow and barks out orders with more relish than he brings to the real Doctor much of the time this season; the additional twist on the ‘doppelganger Doctor’, having the apparent Doctor turn into a monster himself, is inspired – like fellow-fan Kevin, I saw this image when I was quite young, probably on the Target book cover first of all, and it scared me considerably.

So there are bits of ‘Meglos’ which aren’t beyond salvaging, but they all come with caveats. Jacqueline Hill – returning to Doctor Who fifteen years after she played original companion Barbara – is an impressive Lexa, leader of the religious cultist Deons (we’re deep into ‘sci-fi names’ territory here: the rival scientist faction are called Savants); but her performance is set against Edward Underdown’s Zastor, who manages to deliver a lovely description of the Doctor – ‘he sees the threads that tie the universe together, and mends them when they break’ – without passion or indeed inflection, with even the hint of a sigh (maybe he says it about everyone who visits the planet and is a bit bored of repeating himself?). Romana gets to outwit Meglos’s generic and rather dim space-pirate assistants, a setup so familiar it seems to occur in every story she’s in.

Good points: the music, especially in episode three’s synthesised chanting, is especially good. The special effects are also above-par, convincing us that the cast are wandering around the base of the fifty-foot-high screens which magnify and focus the Dodecahedron’s power in episode four. It’s the script that needs focus, however; by this stage it’s given up all pretence at telling the viewer what’s going on, as well as forgetting/ignoring the rules it set up in the first place, hence the Doctor’s bewildering failure to replace the power-source, as well as the fudging of the Dodecahedron’s actual powers, Meglos’s motivation for stealing it, and in fact Meglos’s entire backstory (he’s the sole survivor of his race, and we presume the Dodecahedron is responsible for their destruction; but why, how, when? It’s fine not to spell these things out in expository dialogue, but here there aren’t even any dots to join!). There’s also a pointless, muddled scene in which Lexa is shot dead by one of the pirates and nobody seems to really pay attention.

At the end of the story Meglos is trapped underground, the Earthling gets an unfunny sub-Arthur Dent line about needing to be home in time for tea, and Doctor Who sets off in the TARDIS leaving an entire civilisation of his friends to die. Bizarrely, even the closing titles are set to an off-key version of the theme music, as if that too has started to give up in disgust. ‘Meglos’ isn’t Doctor Who’s worst story, but it’s one where those involved, principally the writers, thought they could just make it up as they went along – and it shows badly.

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