Tony Fyler tackles a thorny prospect.
Season 18 was a time for all things new. The first story of the season, The Leisure Hive had seen a new title sequence, new theme music, new outfit for the Fourth Doctor, and with the coming of Bidmead and Nathan-Turner a new culture of Taking Life Seriously was ordered after what were deemed the ‘silly’ excesses of Graham Williams and Douglas Adams.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to understand how Meglos ever got made. It clearly belongs in a pre-seriousness era, and the point is it’s no bad thing as a result. For those wide-eyed innocents never to have seen it, it tells the story of Meglos, the last of the Zolfa-Thurans, and his plan to steal an incredibly intense power source, the Dodecahedron, from nearby planet Tigella. If that doesn’t sound particularly silly, it probably helps to know that the Zolfa-Thurans are highly intelligent cacti.
Yes, the green, spiky succulents covered in spikes.
Add to that the idea that Meglos has either been in suspended animation, or just stuck against a wall, for about ten thousand years, unable to move, and that he’s been trapped in a room full of control banks and switches – yes, really, switches – that he has neither the legs to walk over to, nor the thumbs to flick, and it becomes just a little bit sillier.
Then add in the Gaztaks. Go on, I dare you. The Gaztaks are a bunch of clueless space pirate types who dress, apparently whatever planet they’re on, as though they’re going bear-hunting in Siberia, all fur hats and tin foil helmets and silver quilted jackets and such. The two leading Gaztaks, General Gruggar, played by Bill Fraser, and Lieutenant Brotodac, played by Frederick Treves, clearly think they’ve been written by Robert Holmes as this story’s hapless rogues, and if they had been, they’d have had slightly sharper dialogue but not much else would have changed.
Much of this half of the script is clearly, and rather deliciously, barking mad. Meglos puts the word out that he wants to hire the Gaztaks to do a job, and the main thing they have to do is bring him a human. The human, at the end of episode 1 ‘becomes’ the embodiment of Meglos – sickly green and with cactus thorns popping out of his hands and face. Believe it or not that’s an enormous relief, because until that point, when Meglos speaks, you hear the voice as a voice-over and there’s just a static shot of a cactus. Doesn’t make for riveting TV. What becomes clear immediately is that, through a process known as a systematic fuck-knows-what, having acquired a human body, Meglos can take the form, including clothes, of the Doctor.
Gosh, that’s lucky for him.
That’s lucky for him because the Doctor’s just been called in by the Tigellans, and more specifically their leader Zastor, who the Doctor knows from a previous visit some half-century ago, to have a look at the malfunctioning Dodecahedron. Meglos has put the Tardis, somehow, in a time loop (or a ‘chronic historesis’ if you absolutely insist), and intends to take his place, nip in, steal the Dodecahedron, whip it back to Zolfa-Thura, where there are, for no especially identifiable reason, a bunch of big screens in the desert that can magnify its power greatly and turn it into a long distance destructo-beam. There’s nothing quite like being zapped to death by a giant cactus to really ruin your day.
Seriously, there’s no way this story belongs in Season 18, with all its supposed focus on hard science and stuff you could look up in books. It’s beyond barking mad, it’s howl at the moon crazy.
Except that Tigella itself is extremely interesting. The Dodecahedron is a mystical power source, and there are two factions either openly squabbling about it or existing in a barely-contained acrimonious truce about it. The Savants (scientists, engineers etc) all have a particular hair cut (Basically, Thal blond bobs, male and female) and believe thre Dodecahedron’s an artefact, while the Deons (for which read Deists, or The Religious) have floaty purple robes and believe the Dodecahedron is a gift that fell from ‘the heavens’ at the behest of their gods, and in particular the big kahuna, Ti (Thanks be to Ti). The Savants are tasked with making sure the Dodecahedron puts out enough energy to power the city and keep everyone safe and warm in their underground world (the surface crawls with inhospitable vegetation), while they’re not actually allowed to go anywhere near it, let alone examine it, because it’s ‘sacred,’ the Deons declaring it off limits despite the potential it has to improve the lives of everyone.
In our own fairly demented age, this makes for a much more relevant debate than it did back in 1980, when sacredness was not big on the agenda – but now we live in an age where religion is being used to, for instance, keep healthcare from women on the grounds of the sacredness of fetuses, artistic expression is censored because it offends somebody’s notion of sacredness, where laws allowing people to get married are not being administered because they violate someone’s reading of a ‘sacred’ text. The Tigellan debate is here and now – which is more important, the welfare of people, or the welfare of gods?
In Meglos, it’s an argument that’s particularly well enacted by Deedrix, the Chief Savant, played by the superbly named Crawford Logan, and Lexa, the high priestess, played with consummate skill by ex-companion actress Jacqueline Hill in her last role in Doctor Who.
These two go at the argument hammer and tongs, their uneasy peace brokered periodically by Zastor, played by Edward Underdown. It’s surprising and vibrant to see the argument – by no means an unfamiliar one in Doctor Who – given some real teeth and claws, but writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch give it some hardcore bite, as though Deedrix were Dawkins and Lexa were Michelle Bachman, and again, it adds to the superb silliness of the whole story that while these two bite lumps out of each other trying to work out what the Dodecahedron is, Meglos, looking like the Doctor, but occasionally spikier, walks in, steals it, and walks out again.
Meglos is a gripping story, with a powerful narrative that’s not a little satirical and very very silly (bear in mind that Flanagan and McCulloch saw themselves mainly as comedy writers at the time they wrote it), but sadly it’s most famous for one thing – the unbearable naffness of its presentation. To be fair, most of this is down to the whole story acting as a test for a brand new piece of visual effects kit called Scene Sync. It was mooted as a replacement for the Chromakey technology that, for instance, completely robbed stories like Underworld of any believability. Indeed, once its kinks were worked out, Scene Sync (a technique of auto-synchronising two cameras so you could shoot actors on one camera, backgrounds on another, and then move the cameras together, to avoid the awful effect of actors being out of sync with their backgrounds) would work well on several BBC dramas.
It didn’t work well on Meglos.
In fact, to be fair, the word is ‘badly.’ It worked badly on Meglos, to the extent that the Gaztaks shimmer whenever they walk across the surface of Zolfa-Thura, and at one point, the Doctor’s legs almost entirely vanish as he walks about the planet’s surface in between the aforementioned screens.
If you’re looking for a story in Doctor Who history that’s solidly written but let down by the visuals and its rendering on screen, there are many, many candidates. Everything from The Keys of Marinus to The Invasion of the Dinosaurs, to the story that followed Meglos, Full Circle and on to stories like The Twin Dilemma and Paradise Towers could be said to fall into that category. Few though fall into it quite as hard as Meglos does. If you can do the trick of Shakespeare’s Prologue in Henry V, ‘work, work your thoughts’ and overcome the limitations of the sets, the scenery and the very early trials of Scene Sync, Meglos is actually a cracking way to spend two hours of your lifetime, and as we say, its argument could be said to be more relevant today than it was even in 1980 – while the rationalists and the religious squabble over the meaning of life, those who act purely for profit can nip in and steal the thing that ensures the quality of life from under their noses.
Dig Meglos out of the dusty back corner of your collection and give it another spin today. You might be surprised how entertained you are.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk