Meglos ***

Tom Baker plays cactus-villain Meglos, while Jacqueline Hill (1960s companion Barbara) returns in a new role

Comments
Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
Meglos ***

Season 18 – Story 110

"I think what we've got here is a good, old-fashioned doppelganger" - the Doctor

Storyline
Romana and K•9 accompany the Doctor to Tigella, where Zastor rules a divided population. The planet's main power source, the Dodecahedron, is malfunctioning but the religious Deons prevent the scientific Savants from investigating the fault. A cactus-like xerophyte called Meglos from neighbouring Zolfa-Thura plots to use the Dodecahedron to take over the universe. He assumes the form of the Doctor to steal it, and deploys Gaztak mercenaries to obstruct the Time Lord…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 27 September 1980
Part 2 - Saturday 4 October 1980
Part 3 - Saturday 11 October 1980
Part 4 - Saturday 18 October 1980

Production
Studio recording: June 1980 in TC8, July 1980 in TC3

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana - Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 - John Leeson
General Grugger - Bill Fraser
Lieutenant Brotadac - Frederick Treves
Zastor - Edward Underdown
Lexa - Jacqueline Hill
Caris - Colette Gleeson
Deedrix - Crawford Logan
Earthling - Christopher Owen
Tigellan guard - Simon Shaw

Crew
Writers - John Flanagan, Andrew McCulloch
Designer - Philip Lindley
Incidental music - Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell
Script editor - Christopher H Bidmead
Executive producer - Barry Letts
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Terence Dudley

RT Review by Mark Braxton
Following the imposing curtain-raiser for the new-style, tarted-up Doctor Who, Meglos features another opportunity for Tom Baker to excel under marvellous make-up. With an intriguing science-versus-religion plot, a comedy double act and a cherished former companion popping up as a guest alien, the story cannot disappoint, can it?

Let's answer that the long way first. Baker is, indeed, on commanding form. We totally buy the idea of another life form inhabiting his body, not just because of the spiky-mask creation of Cecile Hay-Arthur, but also in Baker's suggestions of menace. The performance is all the more creditable considering how ill he was at the time, and he looks it, his huge, unruly hair dwarfing his gaunt face.

The spine of the story is a firm one, but the fact-v-faith debate is never really entered into with any enthusiasm. The drippy Deons and wacky-wigged Savants are instantly forgettable, as are their ineffectual figureheads Zastor and Lexa.

When pious, prodigiously pony-tailed Lexa is lasered in the final episode, it should be a really big deal. It certainly makes Romana cry. But no work has gone into making Lexa a real character, and that's a terrible shame for someone of the stature - and importance to Doctor Who - of Jacqueline Hill.

Hill's Barbara Wright will always be one of the great companions. Her magnificently haughty turn in the guise of priestess Yetaxa in The Aztecs (1964) is perhaps what John Nathan-Turner and Terence Dudley were thinking of when they cast her as Lexa. But not even King Midas could spin gold from lines like "Resume the Concurrence" and "The oath-taking ceremony is prepared".

Quite apart from the inherently silly concept of the prickly villain (if you could change shape, would a potted succulent be your default position?), Meglos is a story that's hard to care about - a problem that will bedevil 80s Who.

Perhaps if the plot had opened on Christopher Owen's Earthling - the only human point of reference for the audience - Meglos might have stood a chance. As it is, there's too much jargon, too much glossary.

There's passable light relief from a kind of cosmic Bootsie and Snudge, but if there were a leader board of Doctor Who double acts, with Jago and Lightfoot at the top and almost any pairing invented by Robert Holmes just below them, Grugger and Brotadac would be somewhere on the skirting board beneath. Coat-coveting and Les Dawson-esque gurning are no substitute for a judicious turn of phrase or a mot juste.

Meglos is, however, a robustly realised outing. Apart from Tigella's shiny plastic jungle, the props and sets are all sturdy and the effects surprisingly good.

An advancement in CSO called scene-sync allows actors to "interact" more believably with hardware that isn't there, and for tracking shots to be done within dioramas. The results - characters wandering between the giant screens of Zolfa-Thura and the Gaztak ship manoeuvring - are a definite leap forward for the show.

The hi-tech approach doesn't work everywhere. After years of Dudley Simpson's mostly subtle underscoring with real instruments, the wall-to-wall synth-identals of the Kingsland/Howell era take some getting used to - I must confess I never really did. Some of the overzealous punctuations to the action feel like the equivalent of a variety-hall drum roll after a joke.

So, let's answer our opening question the short way. Can a story with those enticing ingredients disappoint? Yes. It can and it does. Fortunately, Meglos is a small blot on the landscape of season 18; the ensuing E-Space trilogy revives the elegance and ambition of John Nathan-Turner's brave new worlds.

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[Available on BBC DVD]

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