Wednesday, September 28, 2011

 

DVD Taster: Doctor Who – Meglos

Tom Baker was often rather spiky in rehearsals, but it was only at the end of his time as the Doctor that he actually broke out as a cactus. In Doctor Who – Meglos, first broadcast thirty-one years ago this week, the Doctor, Romana and an increasingly knackered K9 face religious fundamentalists, scruffy space pirates and a megalomaniac succulent. Its DVD release earlier this year completed one of Doctor Who’s finest seasons (for the lot, watch The Leisure Hive first, then The E-Space Trilogy and New Beginnings afterwards) with a mixture of good ideas, clichés, entertaining performances and feeble gunfights. What secret lies beneath the sands? A pressing appointment awaits you…

Doctor Who’s Eighteenth Season, broadcast across 1980 and 1981, was terrific. Tom Baker’s last, it’s still among the best, and one of the two most thematically coherent (the other, fittingly, Tom Baker’s first), seasons the series has ever produced. Some fans wrongly dismiss Season 18 as solemn science – rather, it’s something wonderful and strange. I may be the only person who loves both this and The Key To Time’s Season 16 to bits equally, and sees that amid their very different tones, both are making their own sci-fi fairy tales (and if one lacks a sense of playfulness, the other more than makes up for it). The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’, if ever there was a season that works best when you watch it all the way through, this is the one. Events cast shadows before them, and with Season 18 the long shadow of Tom’s departure, no wonder it’s so often hymned as “Change and Decay”. But it’s really the other way round – just as it’s wrong to see regeneration as a funeral, in a season of Decay and Change, every story features things set in their ways before collapsing, then ends in rebirth, whether people, societies or ultimately our heroes (this DVD’s extra Entropy Explained takes you through the end). Sombre yet still wittily quotable; beautiful but scary; with gorgeous music and every penny seeming well-spent on great design… Only one of these stories fails to meet such high standards. Obviously, it’s Meglos. Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and placed all but two of the Season 18 stories far too low. Meglos was one of those, and while its feeble 188th place is a bit harsh, even on a good day I’d put it barely twenty steps higher. But even though it’s best when watched as a weaker link in a very strong run than as a story dangling alone, some of it’s very entertaining.

It’s my usual policy in these not-exactly-underrunning ‘tasters’ not to be too spoilery, so you read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. But this time I couldn’t hold back an ‘…And another thing!’ at the end, so be careful to stop at the warning sign if you’ve not seen it.

That Golden Greeny-Yellow Moment
“I am Meglos! The last Zolfa-Thuran.”
There’s one compelling reason to watch Meglos, and it’s staring you in the face. Some might call this a spoiler, but when Tom’s staring back at you even from the DVD cover (quite a nice one, as usual a fussier version of the Target book painting, making the Screens look like wings) in his full spiky glory, it’s difficult not to come to the story knowing that, somehow, Tom Baker has chosen to interpret his role as a green cactus.

One of the more appealing elements of Meglos’ Golden Moment is that it’s all contradiction – it really shouldn’t work, but it does. Meglos himself is the season’s least well-characterised villain on paper, the clichéd megalomaniac his name suggests, yet another last-of-his-race without any noticeable related trauma but with an array of lazily improbable technical achievements for someone whose only other achievement is to sit and sulk for millennia, yet on screen he blossoms when playing Tom Baker. And while the logic of the once-standard four-part Doctor Who story is that the first episode is the most interesting, setting up the mystery, and the final the most exciting, with its thrilling climax, while the second and third of running around a bit tend to sag, Tom’s turn as Meglos impersonating the Doctor begins at the surprisingly brilliant first cliffhanger and flowers through those middle episodes but in Part Four detumesces like Meglos’ original cactus body before it. And the reason’s very simple: a clichéd megalomaniac ranting to his dim henchmen about ruling the Universe only goes so far, but a wily villain impersonating the Doctor in what’s until the end a far more controlled performance, ratcheting up the tension as to which of them will get caught, and by whom, is far more interesting to watch. And both the script and Tom are clearly far more interested in this criss-crossing than in the uninspiring big finish.

The Doctor is en route to the planet Tigella; evil Meglos delays him, and impersonates him in order to take advantage of their goodwill to steal their giant glowing MacGuffin. And after a surprisingly lacklustre first episode, this is absolutely where the fun starts. Tom always cuts a bold figure in this season’s deep red coat and scarf, but here he becomes sinister with it, climbing stairs like Dracula rising from a crypt, his usual grin dying into something sickly, and most of all a ghoulish, predatory figure turned green. He’s superb as Meglos turning the Doctor’s know-it-all charm into aloof condescension, correcting an old friend’s
“You haven’t changed, Doctor. A little older, a little wiser.”
“Oh, much wiser.”
then unexpectedly crawling to the local religious leader, then outmanoeuvring her by turning her own plotting against her, then consumed with lust for an object… All played with a dangerous control for the moment, all accompanied by eerily spiky music. But he really comes into his own when his theft is discovered before he has a chance to escape, and the stress brings some of Meglos’ cactus form through his skin – or even allows the person whose body he’s possessing for his perambulations to struggle half-free. It’s an impressive, ambiguous performance: does he look frightened, or tortured? Is he embracing the victim that tries to break out of his body, or trying to throttle him? And when he insists that “I am Meglos!” in between moments when his host (the John Major-a-like from House of Cards) struggles to take his own body back, it only underlines that he isn’t, less a self-aggrandising boast than a desperate attempt to cling to his identity, teetering under the strain of using someone else’s body to impersonate someone else again.

It’s no surprise that Meglos gains an opening when the real Doctor arrives and is, obviously, mistaken for himself, nor that the real Doctor gets both good moments trying to talk his way out of it by setting out three perfect possibilities as to what’s happened, and some bad puns (the old “Doctor – who?” gag has rarely had so many outings). What is a surprise is how stylishly the loquacious Tom we all know is intercut with a silent and alien Tom we don’t. And that, early in Part Three, is absolutely my favourite moment of Meglos, shot almost as a silent horror movie – albeit one powered by a striking soundtrack – when spiky-faced Tom looms and takes Caris by the hands. It’s an electric scene, helped by her being one of the few other characters with a character (the most down-to-earth, or up-to-surface, of the priggish Savants), played almost as a dance, but his pulling her back into the shadows is a disturbingly sexual threat.

It doesn’t last, of course. It’s ironic that the last moment of Tom’s Meglosian intensity is at the start of Part Four, as he breathes his reply to “Approaching full potential”: “Precisely… Precisely.” While plenty of opportunities are squandered in the middle episodes in the scenes where Tom isn’t double-handedly propping up the story, and they inexplicably ignored his doppelgänger to choose the least interesting aspect piece of the ‘action’ for the middle cliffhanger, any potential it has drains away in Part Four even when Tom inevitably meets himself and, with neither of him given anything to go on in the script, is reduced to staring at himself in disbelief at his own acting. When this anti-climactic moment is reached, viewers can appreciate Lalla Ward’s breathless reaction to two Toms, where one glance manages to say so much: ‘Well, that’ll be interesting for sex. But in the other twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes of the day, it’ll be unbearable. And think of the gin bills.’ And while for most of the story, Meglos-Tom’s stunning facial make-up makes up for the rather inadequate cactus gloves, the Tom-to-Tom face-off ends with one of the series’ most gob-smacking ‘special effects’. But, like the Nimon, I still remember spiky Tom looking amazing in Madame Tussauds, so I’ll always have a pointy place in my heart for him.

Something Else To Look Out For

Aside from Tom, and Tom, Meglos is rather thin; despite all the slow running about, all the extended ‘last time’ reprises, and even playing one scene half a dozen times within the narrative, the episodes both underrun and feel overstretched. So the most important “Something Else To Look Out For” is, obviously, the rest of Season 18: the striking new approach of The Leisure Hive before it, though looking very much ahead of it (the two stories have much in common beyond Season 18’s overarching themes, from a near-dead civilisation destroyed by war, reduced to sand and ashes but with something tourist trap-y about the sights, to a sole human who’s a secretly green impersonator, even to multiple Toms – and yet while I can believe Argolis is a world, Tigella is just a studio); the season continuing after Meglos with The E-Space Trilogy of Full Circle, State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate, and then climaxing in the New Beginnings box set’s The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, all soaring above Meglos. And with Meglos’ first broadcast starting back on September 27th, 1980, watching it yesterday it was difficult not to reach instead for a far more atmospheric space jungle that was first revealed on the same day in 1975 for Doctor Who – Planet of Evil. And yet there are a few other elements worth noticing Meglos for.

Lalla Ward’s Romana has far less to do than in The Horns of Nimon, but is still worth watching: could there possibly be any ulterior motive for the way she overemphasises the word “Lush!” as she aims it twice at temporary-husband-to-be Tom Baker? K9, doomed by this point, gets an infamous kick from guest star Bill Fraser that amounts to little more than a feeble tap, though much of his performance as a Gaztak space mercenary is more entertaining – with bits of the script designed as a satire on Doctor Who, even if mostly far less successfully than the whole of the previous year, a few gags work, and it always cracks me up when Fraser’s General Grugger hears a line of incomprehensible technobabble and grunts, “Oh, yes. Good,” like an uneasy viewer at home. The main problem with the Gaztaks is that, as villains, they’re not supposed to be the ones we identify with – and yet, greedy, grubby and dim as they are, a bunch of individual characters with different costumes and even some mixed-race casting seem more like people than the planet Tigella’s two castes of identical prim Savants and differently identical fundamentalist Deons (yes, I’ve just told you everything about their ‘characterisation’). Between those two factions is inexplicable ‘leader’ Zastor, played by an ill Edward Underdown, and it’s difficult to tell if his ineffectitude is more in the script or the actor. Wetter than a bell-plant salad, he was – many years and surely much lost charisma and beauty (of which I’d love to see any evidence) before – the inspiration for Mad About the Boy, but here he merely fails to interrupt other actors on time and throws away several of the script’s few good lines, most famously on the Doctor:
“He sees the threads that join the Universe together, and mends them when they break.”
I’d like to claim that the scary religious Deons are a clever prediction of, say, the Christian right ignoring global warming, but unfortunately the only drearier stereotypes are the pompously scientific Savants, with whom we’re meant to sympathise but who look ridiculous and send us to sleep. Even for a piece of badly constructed anti-religious propaganda, it fluffs it; the scientists are so naff no-one could side with them, and then the writers lose their bottle and at the end by suddenly deciding one character – of who more later – may be a murderous theocratic bigot, but meant well. Even such a crude analogy has its heart in the right place, if not its brain, and manages a few glimmers of, say, topical Republican Primary: the way someone threatened with death for blasphemy gets told off for mocking religious laws, but not the arch-bigot, so as not to give offence to her beliefs; or how ‘compromises’ with the fanatics involve giving way to every religious demand, but still end up with the appeaser condemned as a heretic for not going far enough. It’s not the script, but two other choices that almost save the Deons from drowning in cliché – Jacqueline Hill, first and greatest of the Doctor’s companions, returning to the series to guest not as sensible teacher Barbara but charismatic high priestess Lexa (fabulously declaiming “It descended from the Heavens!”), and the strange, gorgeous chant that accompanies them.

Don’t Shoot the Piano Player – Shoot the Director and Writers Instead

With most of the production values a good deal shakier than in the rest of the season, the music lifts it all – for once, a combination of both Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, probably ’80s Who’s most gifted composers. The Deon chant; Meglos’ own spiky theme; the dancing music as Meglos’ lair rises between the giant Screens (‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the Screens of Zolfa-Thura: just don’t go there’)… Each composer has done greater work elsewhere, but I’ve still listened to the isolated score over and over, and it’s splendid enough to transport you when, say, planets are hanging in the sky a little too literally, or a spaceship that looks like a cross-breed of a brick and a chicken flies as elegantly as neither. And while the jungle design is both cramped and unconvincing, there’s some impressive design work in the dark labyrinth of the underground city, split across different levels, well-lit, and with interesting spaces.

Almost the nadir of the story comes in a moment that’s entirely predictable by thinking about what Doctor Who could and couldn’t do at the time: given impressive acting and music, a tense internal struggle for possession of a body works; given listless extras, feeble special effects and feebler direction, a Star Wars-style gunfight utterly doesn’t. I was only eight when I first saw this, and still thought all Doctor Who was utterly brilliant, but even I could see something was very wrong with a lot of faffing about with naff ray-beams and a limply held giant pencil that apologetically stands in for a battering ram. Pennant Roberts must have been livid: he’d tried so hard and so often to win the title of ‘world’s crappiest gunfight’ (as you can see in, for example, The Sun Makers, another of this year’s releases), then Terence Dudley swans in and steals the title on his only crack at Who direction. Now I’m a bit older than eight, I can see that the script is almost as limp as the director, desperately looking for something to pass the time and make sure all the people who’ve been ambling about aimlessly for two episodes can now meet up at exactly the same time as each other by ‘coincidence’.

Much as I adore Christopher H Bidmead’s brilliantly auteurish year across Season 18 as Doctor Who script editor, almost the equivalent of today’s all-powerful lead writer (without the power, or the pay, but with much the same creative impact), I have to wonder what he saw in Meglos’ twin writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch – particularly when he then had to rewrite so much of their work anyway. It’s like a script by a Terry Nation tribute band who think it’s somehow funny and original, with a ludicrous villain, improbable superweapon, several different deadly plants, dying and dead civilisations and characters fashioned from the purest cardboard, but with added Steven Moffat, as they think Doctor Who requires them to make it all about Ti…me (with little tributes to the story appearing in Russell T Davies’ spiny Vinvocci, and nearly a sequel in last year’s The Lodger, which had its own sequel just last Saturday in which poor Gareth Roberts was still unable to get the rights to the classic Meglos and had to make do with Cybermen).

Unfortunately, long-held fan claims that the authors were really terribly witty and only threw in clichés in clever, knowing mockery of Doctor Who are now faced with the Meglos Men themselves, both on their own DVD extra here (weird as all buggery, or, as they’d say, boogery) and John Flanagan as part of one of the range’s more offputting, self-aggrandising and unintentionally revealing commentaries, in which they stand exposed as piss-takers with a profoundly delusional sense of self-worth. Gasp as Mr Flanagan claims the badly written hoary old cliché of religion versus science stuff as wildly original and ahead of its time; laugh as he praises himself for ‘clever’ ideas he takes deadly seriously but which are clearly intended as jokes (and must surely have been written as such by someone else); restrain the urge to kill as he blames the script editor and the “very fast pace” – oh, my sides – for his very skimpy script underrunning; simply explode as he claims to have personally invented the concept of time loops and inspired Groundhog Day; fall asleep as he relentlessly not explains but summarises the plot of the story we’re actually watching. He even manages to alienate his supporter Lalla Ward – always looking for an excuse to kick this period of the show, but raising the tone occasionally by comparing the jungle to a Douanier Rousseau painting – by solipsistically getting her character’s name wrong, such is his grasp of detail. Thankfully, the two musicians also appear on the commentary and know what they’re talking about, though sadly they don’t get the chance to discuss working off each other.

The highlight of the DVD’s extra features for me is the rather lovely Jacqueline Hill – A Life In Pictures, a tribute to the late Doctor Who star with her husband and friends, and as affecting as the commentary is sour and ill-informed. Add features on the story’s special effects breakthrough and a reasonably decent essay style of text notes, and of course the lovely isolated score, and it’s quite a good little DVD package. The menus are as cobbled together as ever, though, and Richard points out that they absurdly miss the opportunity to have the scene that endlessly repeats with “Oh, blast, here we go again” (as every household in the country echoed at the time) endlessly repeating on a menu loop. If you have the novelisation, it’s not bad at all, notable for fleshing out the “Earthling”, George Morris, and for Terrance Dicks showing his script editor background by performing a number of neat little salvage jobs on the plot – I love Jesus H Bidmead for his vision, but you can’t beat Uncle Terrance for making things work.

Warning! Spoilers – The End

I said the paltry attempt at a pitched battle for three and a half quid and early closing was “almost the nadir of the story”. Well, there’s one scene that makes me snarl and swear so much that I can’t help but lay into it here, even though I shouldn’t – have you seen the story? No? Then look away now.


It is, of course, fantastic to have the great Jacqueline Hill back, but though she looks striking it’s not the most consistent part ever written as it all falls to pieces in Part Four: sigh as she dismisses Zastor and Romana as heretics, then two seconds later goggle as she asks his advice and trusts his simple word to justify not only his own sudden freedom but that of the most appalling blasphemer of the lot as well. And that’s not even the worst of it. Having spent the whole story as an utterly inflexible religious bigot itching to bring back the days of bloody tyranny, not only does she drop her new theocratic state within minutes of mounting the coup she’s spent so long salivating for, but she then sacrifices her life for one of the upstart scientific heretics she hates. As if to say that murderous fanatics are all right, really. And it isn’t just the shockingly poor scripting of Jacqueline Hill’s last moments in Doctor Who that’s offensive, but that it’s directed as if deliberately trying to illustrate a textbook on how to get every basic element of TV storytelling wrong. The Gaztaks have complained of their heavy casualties, which turn out to be just three people, and one of them still alive; having not been seen for an episode, he raises himself up at a handy moment to shoot at Romana; the ensuing ‘special’ effect is a single weedy ray from a clearly multi-barrelled blaster; it appears to take several seconds to fly a couple of metres, as we see him fire, then cut to Lexa shouting “Romana” and then move in front of her – and we don’t even see the beam hit her. It’s one of the most completely inept scenes in the history of the show.

And finally, many have noted that the entire Tigellan civilisation depends on a power source which no longer exists, in order that they can cower underground from the people-eating bell-plants which do still exist. So the Doctor saying a jolly goodbye to the comatose Zastor and wishing him well with a spot of gardening seems like rather an offhand death sentence. However, I have the solution to what happens next. There are three problems: the power having gone; the plants on the prowl; and the Deons, who five minutes ago were rounding up all the non-believers for death, and are now without their inexplicably deathbed-nice leader to restrain them. And on top of all that, no-one’s mentioning that the next-door planet has just exploded. So what the Savants need to do is to turn their power-absorption screens to the outside to soak up the massive radiation explosion – which means that living underground would be even more sensible, and that it could fry the plants, too; and also persuade the Deons to pop upstairs and wait for something else to descend from the heavens. And ideally squash them.

Or they could export a TV cookery show in which Tigella leans towards the camera and pouts, ‘Today, I’m going to be preparing bell-plants. Which look almost as rude as I do.’

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