Doctor Who: Meglos (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros review this from Tom Baker's "couldn't give a toss" season
Season 18 was an odd time for Doctor Who; it’s star, Tom Baker had been the longest serving actor to play The Doctor in the show’s history and though his over-the-top performances from the previous season had toned down, a sense of boredom had replaced it; technological advancements meant that the Beeb were becoming increasingly able to realise the visions that were born in the grand imaginations of the writers; the theme music had been changed; the most important development for Doctor Who with season 18 was the appointment of John Nathan-Turner as producer, a development which would remain with the show - for better or worse - until the show’s eventual cancellation...
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) are trying to repair K9 following an unfortunate incident on Brighton beach; whilst they are doing this, The Doctor receives an invitation to the planet of Tigella, where he had visited several decades previously, to help mediate in a dispute between the scientific Savants and the religious Deons.
Their journey to Tigella is interrupted by Meglos, last survivor of the planet Zolfa-Thura, who imprisons the TARDIS and it's occupants in a time-loop, whilst Meglos - who has forged an alliance with the villainous General Grugger (Bill Fraser) and his motley band of associates - assumes The Doctor's form and infiltrates the inner sanctum of Tygella in order to steal the Dodecahedron - the power source for the planet and an iconic religious artefact, with which the megalomaniacal Meglos intends to destroy Tigella.
Meglos is a curious story - Baker and Ward are reduced to spending the first episode of the story within the confines of the TARDIS, where they are attempting to fix their robotic canine-like companion; this is just a way of setting up the cliffhanger for the end of the episode, but it is also a useful way of keeping the main characters out of the way to set up the main thrust of the story and deliver large amounts of expository dialogue.
The basic premise of having an adversary who looks like The Doctor is nothing new in Doctor Who - this idea was first seen in The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, when a shifty Abbott bore a remarkable resemblance to William Hartnell (who probably couldn’t remember his lines, either...) and in The Enemy of the World, the evil would-be global dictator Salamander just happened to look uncannily like Patrick Troughton (albeit with a suntan and nifty parting) - the difference here is that Melgos actually transforms himself into The Doctor in order to gain access to the all-powerful Dodecahedron, held securely within a heavily-guarded building on Tigella.
The Doctor and Romana are held within an engineered time loop and are forced to repeat the same events over and over again for all eternity unless they find a way out. Though this premise seems to have the dabs of script editor Christopher H Bidmead all over it, it’s a nifty premise which could have been tedious in the extreme is rescued from such a fate by warm and witty performances by Baker and Ward.
Speaking of Bidmead, the concept of the Dodecahedron being worshipped as a deity is something that has the feeling of being worked in by that particular script editor, as most of the stories in this season seem to be science-heavy in concept and led by those concepts, rather than focusing upon drama or tension. Doubtless there will be numerous Who fans reading this (we’re lifelong fans ourselves, remember!) who will disagree with us, but it’s our opinion that where season 18 seemed to fall down (other than a generally bored-looking Tom Baker) was that concepts in the season were too tech-heavy, bogging down the stories.
The clash between science and religion is featured in a fairly big way, but paradoxically on something of a superficial manner; the passionate-yet-aloof Savants (who have wigs that look like they've been pinched from Gerry Anderson's UFO) grumble at the repressive religious caste and the passionate-yet-pious Deons frown upon the scientists, who seem to be demystifying far too many things for their liking. The intervention of Meglos and the Gaztak pirates allow the warring castes to put aside their differences and when the Dodechedron is pinched, allowing each side to see the value and power of the Dodecahedron from the perspective of the other.
What IS it with otherworldly civilisations that worship inanimate or non-human things that always feel the urge to sacrifice some poor sod the very moment when they feel that their culture is going down the toilet? The poor sod in this case is The Doctor himself, who is blamed for the theft of the Dodecahedron and is strapped to a very large flat rock with another very large flat rock suspended above him, with only three thick pieces of rope suspending it - and those are being ritualistically burned away one by one as our Timelord prepares to possibly turn into a Wet Vet sooner than anticipated.
The sets for Meglos are pretty good, if a little on the small side; it’s a fairly safe bet that the designer approached John Nathan-Turner with some pretty grand designs for Tigella and JN-T probably loved the plans, but asked him to do it on a smaller scale - the resulting set looks great, but it’s pretty cramped with so many important people trying to debate fierce matters in such a confined area; it’s pretty reminiscent of the war-room scenes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, where scientists and military personnel are debating the red menace whilst sitting around a large table in a ridiculously cramped room.
The visual effects were very inventive for the day, with some nice model-work incorporated with Colour Separation Overlay (which works better than in previous stories) to make for a reasonably convincing alien landscape - there are some surprise camera pans on the CSO stuff (courtesy of pioneering computer-assisted equipment), where people walk across the screen and the camera appears to follow them. They aren’t flawless - there are similar problems that plagued the infamous Underworld story, the most frustrating has to be the “winking-out” of body parts when characters are seen in long-shot against a CSO background - quite often characters appear to be bi-lateral amputees who have discovered the ability to propel themselves by floating.
Episode three is where things start to drag. The episode feels like an early attempt (by John Nathan-Turner) to bring in a three-parter, was thwarted by the Beeb. A three-episode story was fleshed-out between the second and third acts by the inclusion of numerous scenes. It is really just a variation on the old music-hall/vaudeville routine, the Hesitation Waltz, which was employed not only to wring a few more laughs from a stage routine, but also to pad things out a bit.
Performance-wise, Tom Baker seems more engaged in this story than usual - this is possibly because he is allowed to stretch a little by essentially playing two characters, but is more down to the fact that some of the guest actors for this story were old pros (Jacqueline Hill and Bill Fraser). Lalla Ward is great - Ward was a bit shaky when she entered Doctor Who, but you can see the actress growing more self-assured with each story and by the time that season 18 began, she was putting in measured, solid performances. Those performances occasionally surprised and delighted - in this story, Baker and Ward were still speaking to each other and things hadn’t yet reached a state of decay...
Baker has fun during the final episode, where he gets the opportunity to confront himself when Meglos and The Doctor are finally flung together. If this story had taken place in the previous season, then Baker would have been absolutely insufferable during this scene, going so far over the top that he would have been orbiting the planet of Zolfa-Thura in next-to-no time. However, Baker’s vague sense of weariness that had set in by this point helps to ground him, and although he still plays it humorously, there is still an underlying sense of dramatic tension to the scene. It also helps that all of the classic tricks employed for having an actor playing to parts in the same scene are used here to great effect. Even something as simple as having a photo-double in one of Baker’s seconds, and having him stand in the front of the shot with his head out of shot, then carefully matching the movements when cutting to Baker in a close-up.
Bill Fraser is his usual gruff, irascible self - the main effectively made a career of playing characters who were gruff and irascible, but nobody could do explosive bluster like Fraser. The man could effortlessly work himself up into such a state that you think he is going to have either a heart attack or a stroke on-camera. Some might argue that such an elderly character would be better off living out his twilight years sitting down in front of the television, in a comfy pair of slippers and a nice cup of tea watching Countdown or Diagnosis: Murder, but Fraser's commanding presence helps to paper over this matter. Oh, and it apparently was true that he only agreed to appear in this story if he could kick K9 on-screen - makes you wonder what he demanded when he came back for K9 & Company...?
What really makes this story a treat to watch is the return of Jacqueline Hill, whom we regard as Doctor Who royalty; Hill’s performance as Lexa could not have been more different to the one she gave the best part of two decades earlier as Barbara Wright; Hill brings a dignified regal presence to the role of Lexa and is light years away from the noble and adventurous schoolteacher she portrayed alongside William Hartnell.
If there is one aspect to Meglos that really pisses us off, it’s the almost criminally-botched manner in which the great Jacqueline Hill departs the story shortly into episode four. OK, from a writing sense it may have been a good thing to do (sacrifice during the final act, whether intentional or unintentional, usually elevated the stakes and the drama making the victory feel as though it was earned), but the execution of the sequence was bungled from a technical standpoint. That is, not enough coverage was given to fully convey the geography of the scene and the location of all of the characters within it. The whole thing just feels like the production was under the gun and eager to finish Hill’s scenes for the day. Such a accomplished and dignified actress as Hill should not have had to endure the ineptly-handled manner in which she left the series - for good - her departure in The Chase was infinitely superior.
Meglos looks surprisingly good on DVD - very good in fact. The Doctor Who Restoration Team once again earn all their usual plaudits. There is something fresh about the way this story looks on DVD that most titles from this era don’t seem to replicate. Colours are very strong and there is a surprising amount of sharpness to the image.
Nothing bad to report here. Things sound as fresh and as audible as possible - given the limitations of the original material. Dialogue is perfectly clear and there is a pleasing amount of fidelity to it. The only way that this title could have benefited from tweaking was to add a .1 low frequency track to augment the rumblings from Bill Fraser's dialogue...
For the benefit of those of you who only read reviews in order to see what the extras are like, we present a more in-depth look at what goodies have been presented on this release...
Audio Commentary: Piling into the recording booth this time around we have none other than (the very briefly Mrs. Tom Baker) Lalla Ward, actor Christopher Owen, co-writer John Flanagan, along with music masters Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell. There are plenty of choice moments, such as when our two Timelords trying to break out of the chronic hysteresis, Flanagan notes: “I think [Baker] forgets his lines at some point…” to which Ward retorts: “Not for the first time…” Meow. Owen buggers off for the second part (“Gone to see a skin specialist”), before Flanagan sods off for the third part - it‘s all go, isn‘t it? There is no doubt that Ward is very cultured, and runs off many references to high-art, but is heartening to see that she always has fond memories of working on the show and the people involved. We learn that John Nathan-Turner was childishly easy to play tricks on, including the insertion of a traditional tango piece on the soundtrack, with the penny not really dropping with him. Commentary tracks on the DVD releases of Doctor Who are usually a lot of fun, and this is doesn’t buck the trend in any way. Oh, and if by some chance Mr Flanagan is reading, we know exactly what you mean by writing “separately apart”, as we do the same thing when working.
Meglos Men: Bringing together the writing team of John Flanagan and Andy McCulloch to reminisce about the writing of the their sole Doctor Who story, this is fun from the outset. Framed around the music and sounds of the early 80s, McCulloch comes in on the Eurostar to meet Flanagan as they go back to the key places which shaped both their careers and the obscure elements which wormed their way into the writing of Meglos. They go back to back to the King’s Head theatre, where Christopher Bidmead was in the audience of their satirical play about Thatcherism, and consequently picked them to write an episode of the televisual favourite. Stoked at the prospect of writing for TV and the opportunities it would open up for them, they realised the slight snag was that they knew virtually nothing about science fiction.
With two savage political satirists charged to write a story, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be a conventional outing, but in absence of Daleks and Cybermen, what form would their villain take? When whisked back to their communal London home, they detail the rather sickly-looking cactus sitting on the kitchen table, the image of which wormed its way into their brains to become Meglos. This backed up their reasoning by a firm belief that such a baddie hadn’t been used on the show before. It wasn’t to be the last of this particular abode’s contributions to the programme, as fate was to come calling once again.
Tying into the concept of Einstein’s theory that all events in time will eventually come around again, it is mind-boggling that when scouting for a location for Tegan’s house in Logopolis the following year, the writers of Meglos were very surprised to hear a knock at their front door. Sure enough, of all the doors in London, some Timelord-guided force brought the scout to the very place they wrote their solo effort. Some might cynically say that the producers of Doctor Who hired Flanagan and McCulloch as a way of buttering them up for the use of their door in the latter story.
Aside from some pretty funny revelations from our guys with the biros, what is the overriding thing we learn from all this? Well the sad truth seems to be that if you love a particular genre, then the chances of making a career in it are miniscule. The powers-that-be would rather pick freelance writers without such enthusiasm, their thinking being that it will offer a fresh, grounded perspective which won’t alienate a general audience. It worked on Star Trek - the remake from non-fan JJ Abrams, Sci-Fi hater Nicholas Meyer delivered The Wrath of Khan and, of course, we had Star Trek: Nemesis from Gladiator scribe, John Logan. OK, so it only worked twice...
It’s quite common knowledge among the fans, but it’s a gas to hear the minutia about the character name of “Brotodac” being an anagram of “bad actor”. All was well and good until Frederick Treves was clued in on the gag, blabbing it to the production staff through sheer elation. Doubtless, this probably cost them further work on Doctor Who, with their bid to write Peter Davison’s initial outing ( “Project Zeta-Sigma”) being torpedoed from those higher up.
After a stop-off at Battersea Park, events culminate with a reunion at the home of Christopher Bidmead, and an alcohol-fuelled discussion of their time on the series. Yet more names derived from anagrams surface, with no traces of bitterness and a fun time is had by all. With so many featurettes produced for numerous Doctor Who DVDs, this is one of the warmest. It’s a skilful juggling of information, reminiscence, wit and the human penchant for looking to the past with renewed affection - even when things didn’t seem to rosy at the time. Framed with electronic 80s music, it’s nostalgia without the mawkishness so often welded to such ventures. A great way to spend twenty minutes.
The Scene-Synch Story: To us, there is considerably more charm in mechanically produced effects than those achieved digitally, in the same way the brush strokes of an artist will always have a broader appeal than the slavishly accurate images captured in a photograph. With the success of Star Wars, the locked-down nature of Chroma Key/CSO was starting to look somewhat dated, and even casual viewers were becoming aware of the limitations of the format. Along came the breakthrough of Scene-Synch, where cameras could pan around the backgrounds being dropped in behind the actors, being essentially the variation of the motion-control systems pioneered in George Lucas‘ blockbuster. Meglos was the first Doctor Who story to benefit from the process, and we get this informative piece to mark the occasion. Containing interviews with Visual Effects designer Stephen Drewett and cameramen Roger Bruce and Peter Leverick, detailing the creative blessing and technical curses of trying to get it to work properly. We are treated to a clip of Gulliver in Lilliput, where the system really came into its own, and mention is made (but photos instead of footage from) of The Borgias, the infamous BBC costume drama dud, where the use of Scene-Synch was employed to create grandiose sets without the need for building full-scale or going to location. Memories of the system are fond, and with behind-the-scenes CSO footage from Louise Jameson’s era, it all adds up to an informative trip down memory lane, even though mention is made of the abominable Jane at War. These days, the mindset of “yesterdays’ pig is tomorrow’s bacon” is the norm when it comes to technology, but this excellent documentary allows you to see the piggy in question lovingly raised by hand, giving appreciation to the meat presented for your delectation, rather than just seeing pork in pretty plastic packaging in a supermarket.
Jacqueline Hill - A Life in Pictures: The late, lamented actress is rightly celebrated in this short piece, comprised of portrait photographs and contributions from those who knew her intimately. All speak fondly of her, taking time to praise the very human actress and the trying times she encountered during her too-short life. As many actresses can confirm, having a family is possibly the worst thing you can do in the business, and Hill discovered it the hard way, where the words: “How quickly they forget…” seem all too appropriate. After her triumphant return as Lady Capulet in the late 70s, and a few other notable pieces, her career wound down, before succumbing to cancer in 1993. Family and friends are visibly moved when detailing the final years of her life, and it’s hard not to feel the same way, and for an actor’s life off-screen to inspire such warmth and empathy is the mark of an exceptional person. Jacqueline Hill helped Sean Connery get his big break. She inspired a generation of audiences to open their minds through Doctor Who. She was a beloved wife, mother and friend, and worthy of such loving tribute.
Entropy Explained: Hosted by Doctor Phillip Trowga, the laws of thermodynamics are explored in a bid to clarify a major plot-point in Meglos. Use of at least one Douglas Adams-ism is appreciated to leaven the proceedings, it has the air of an Open University programme about it, but this also means that the information is presented in a way which is universally understandable. Essentially, the galaxy is doomed, as thermal equilibrium will eventually occur, where the temperature of everything will level off, meaning no more energy will be available to do anything useful with, and the obvious things like powering cars or the concept of heating are almost minor concerns in this instance. We’re buggered when that happens. It’s been said that the true test of universal comprehension of scientific theory is if it can be successfully deployed as part of a pick-up line, and the this particular concept is a challenge, but not impossible - “Say, my testicles are in a state of entropy. How about coming back to my place and expending energy through the process of cooling them down?” It might work…
Info Text: It seems repetitious to keep rolling out glowing praise for the trivia tracks on these things, but we’re going to have to deal in the debased currency of superlatives once again. Informative and a lot of fun, and packed with enough interesting material to warrant it being watched on its own, rather than accompanying the story itself. We have a real soft-spot for Bill Fraser, but who wouldn’t love him for having the opportunity to kick K9 hinging on his agreement in taking the role? Still, we learn that Meglos is the shortest ever four-parter, how Baker was so ill at the time that his naturally curly hair had to be put in rollers and as Meglos was considered a test-bed for use of Scene-Sync in The Borgias, the expense was not charged to the Doctor Who production office. Stirling stuff.
Photo Gallery: Once again we have a cool selection of photos from the shoot of Doctor Who, and is another case where the photos hint at how it might have looked if shot on film rather than tape. Set to a choice cut from the score, our favourites were Baker mugging for the camera in his Meglos make-up, as shows the edges of the gloves more plainly than in the show, some lovely pics of Jacqueline Hill and shots of Bill Fraser without his hat on. With Meglos being so famous for pioneering the Scene-Sync technology, the colour blue figures prominently in many images...
Isolated Score: The work of both Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell are available for your delectation, and gives you the opportunity to see how things change when composers are switched during production. The most obvious instance is the way that carefully thought out motifs are jettisoned along the way, when they would have originally intermeshed and had their own arcs. Still, just pipe it though your amp, sit back, and let the 80s flood over you once again.
PDF materials: Always a treat, and there are some choice bits to be found here. Remember when looking through the Radio Times actually gave you a giddy thrill when you flipped onto the Saturday listings and saw the new episode of Doctor Who? You can again...
Coming Soon: When the next disc arrives in the same package as this one, it kind of blows the surprise, but for those in the dark, it’s The Mutants. Yes. We’ll hold off on our judgement of this much maligned Pertwee story, so keep a lookout for the review in a while.
It had been a long time since we had seen Meglos - we certainly watched it when it was originally transmitted, and we might have seen it again about six or seven years ago (when we did a mopping up operation on stories during the Pertwee/Baker eras we hadn't seen on UKGold, but we had always had a very low opinion of this particular story). It was a pleasant surprise to watch it again and find it a very pleasant experience, with Baker and Ward on good form (particularly Baker, as it was during his "couldn't give a toss" season), and the main reason for us to watch was because of the return of Jacqueline Hill to Doctor Who.
As ever, the Doctor Who Restoration Team and 2Entertain have put together a package that not only looks and sounds great, but is bolstered by a fine set of extras that make for a entertaining way to finish off the DVD releases of Tom Baker's final season. Great stuff!
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 10th January 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Extras: Audio Commentary, Meglos Men, The Scene-Synch Story, Jacqueline Hill - A life in Pictures, Entrophy Explained, Isolated Score, Photo Gallery, Info-Text, PDF Materials, Coming Soon.
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terence Dudley
Cast: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Jacqueline Hill, Bill Fraser
Length: 87 minutes
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