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Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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.

‘Meglos’ 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 clichés. 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 Dodecahedron’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 Meglos’ 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 shouldn’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 Dodecahedron’s power output are part of its programming. Even if viewers are happy to accept that he’s been sitting around twiddling his spines for millennia, his lust for power is still crushingly clichéd; whereas Skagra’s motivation was explored in ‘Shada’ and whereas Pangol’s was understandable in ‘The Leisure Hive’, 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 doesn’t even seem particularly insane, the usual resort of a writer who can’t think of a more interesting reason for his villain being a nutter. 

As if Meglos’ poor characterisation were not bad enough, Tigella, one of the story’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 don’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 Chase’, plays her. Hill makes a reasonable effort in the role, but can’t rise above the fact that Lexa is just a clichéd zealot. Lexa’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 Hive’, 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, I’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 ‘Meglos’; it really doesn’t seem to have very well thought out. Which is probably why the Doctor and Romana’s means of escaping from the chronic hysteresis is so utterly unconvincing. 

Having got all that off my chest, I must admit that ‘Meglos’ 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 Dudley’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 wouldn’t have been expecting if I didn’t already know the story. The Gaztacs also provide a welcome diversion; they’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 Brotodac’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 Brotodac’s obsession with the Doctor’s coat is rather entertaining. They are both buffoons, and whilst Bill Fraser doesn’t make much of an effort as Grugger, Frederick Treves seems to be enjoying himself as Brotodac, leading me to wonder if ‘Meglos’ would have fared better in Season Seventeen, script-edited by Douglas Adams and played for laughs. In all honesty, I can’t claim that ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is written that much better than ‘Meglos’ is, but ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is so much more fun that I can’t help but love it. ‘Meglos’, with little humour and wedged as it is between the sombre and much more clever stories ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Full Circle’, just feels awkward. 

Of the regulars, K9 gets more to do than he did in ‘The Leisure Hive’, but the production teams’ 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 isn’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 ‘Meglos’ during which, thanks to a combination of impressive cactus make-up and Baker’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 isn’t really enough to rescue ‘Meglos’ 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…