Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but there was a long period where I hadn’t revisited old episodes in any focused way. Lately, I’ve been going back through the show, often with one or both of my two nerdier daughters, but not necessarily systematically. Rather, I’ve enjoyed picking out stories from different eras of the program and watching them as the mood strikes.
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Companions: Lalla Ward as Romana and John Leeson as the voice of K9.
Written by John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch. Directed by Terence Dudley. Script edited by Christopher H. Bidmead. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: September-October 1980 (Episodes 5-8 of Season 18)
As much as I love Doctor Who, I have not seen every available episode. I have, I think, seen at least part of every fully surviving story. That included, before my recent viewing, Meglos (I think I had seen parts of episodes 2 & 4), but my memories of them were so fragmented that often I have considered Meglos one of the stories I really have never watched. Well, now I have. How has my life been impacted?
One of the immediate results of having watched Meglos is that the idea of the story can no longer hide in my mind as one of the great achievements of science fiction entertainment of its era. You know how it is–there is one story of your favorite show that you haven’t seen, so it’s hard not to imagine that maybe there is a great episode of the show out there waiting for you. That was sort of how I viewed Meglos in my imagination. But reality is far more bland. Meglos is, at best, okay, and at worst, kind of dull and flat.
The story takes place on a world that is powered by an ancient artifact called the “Dodecahedron”–so named because of its shape (I guess it could have just been called “the cube” or “the cylinder” if things had been different). The world’s people are divided between the not subtly-named Savants or Deons, depending on whether they view the Dodecahedron as scientific or religious. This sort of dichotomy is old-hat for Doctor Who, and along with the external jungle decor brings to mind The Face of Evil, another Fourth Doctor adventure which dealt with such themes, but which was much more entertaining.
A lot of the first episode is spent setting up this clash of ideologies but in the long run it doesn’t seem worth it. It plays out in a pretty half-hearted way, with the real threat being the presence of Meglos, a confusing villain who naturally looks like a cactus (although is one point seen moving like some sort of green sludge) but can take on the form of a very confused and unhappy earthman who has been kidnapped for this purpose, after he is subjected to a lengthy scientific process with a special machine. Even after this, the earthman’s personality can re-emerge and attempt to assert himself.
In spite of how complicated this is, Meglos seems to have no trouble at all taking on the form of the Doctor, without the need of hooking him up to any machine. On one hand, this means that Tom Baker gets to play the villain for much of this story, but he does so pretty much in the same way he plays the Doctor. This makes it pretty hard to relate to or even understand Meglos as a character. His plan is to steal the Dodecahedron so he can use it as a power source to take control of the universe, which is certainly bad news, but there is no sense of engaging with Meglos as a personality, which is a problem considering how much the story focuses on him. So beyond the fact that he’s evil and the unusual sight of Tom Baker covered with cactus prickles, there is not much to remember about the villain.
Basically, Meglos suffers from pacing issues all the way through. Things start very slowly with the Doctor and Romana being out of the action for the first episode and a half, and they remain slow to the end. A huge amount of the story is filled with people arriving places, waiting around places, wandering around places, performing religious rituals, performing scientific rituals, doing dull repair work, being caught in time-loops where they are forced to do the same dull repair work repeatedly. The first cliffhanger is startling but confusing as Meglos takes on the Doctor’s appearance for the first time. The second cliffhanger is forgettable with Romana being captured by some bady guys–it resolves by having her spend half the next episode leading the bad guys around the planet on another wander. Only the third cliffhanger has any punch, with the Doctor about to be executed for Meglos’ crimes, but even it is edited in such a slow way that one is grateful to finally here the closing sting of the theme song.
The guest cast for the show includes Doctor Who alum Jacqueline Hill (Barbara, from the show’s first sixteen serials back in the 1960s as Lexa, the leader of the Deons.
It’s nice to see her, but it feels like a waste–if you are going to get Jacqueline Hill back onto the set, why not just write a story where she can play Barbara again? Lexa is a perfectly serviceable character as the champion of the religious view of the Dodecahedron, and in this she does some emotion to play with, but the story doesn’t do anything to explore her or her views with any depth. She gets a heroic sacrifice that should have been the most emotional moment of the story but which seems random and pointless. Indeed, apparently the character did literally nothing at the end of the original script, and its only because Christopher H. Bidmead suggested giving her a more active way to go out that she takes a bullet for Romana. The fact that it is written as an afterthought is terribly obvious, but the scene is also directed with such a bland lack of emotion that it ends up as forgettable as all the other material around it.
When I think about it, there are a number of things that should have made Meglos stand out. Like, the villain of this story has taken over the body of a reluctantly and angry host who is heroically attempting to fight back. That could have been interesting. The Doctor and Romana are trapped in a time loop and have to use their wits to find a way out…that could have been interesting too. A mysterious ancient power source that a whole planet is completely dependent on but which people can’t agree whether it is divine or secular…that could have been interesting. Jacqueline Hill returning, that should have been interesting. Tom Baker dressed up as a cactus and playing the villain of a story should definitely have been interesting
But sadly, it’s all put together so haphazardly in the writing and with such a uninspired banality in the direction that none of it works. Tom Baker has his moments of charm and I think the cast is doing their best with the material, but generally Meglos feels like something made without a lot of care, and is one of the more disappointing serials of all the ones I’ve revisited.
3 thoughts on “Meglos [Classic Doctor Who]”
While I find a lot of Douglas Adams’ Who work way too comedic, he could have done more interesting things with a villain who’s an intelligent cactus.
Your assessment is pretty much spot on. I did see this but I had absolutely no memory of it until I watched it again recently.
The story could have benefited from strength in a number of directions. And as I was watching, I was thinking that the dynamic between the evil general and his underling could have used a polish from someone like Robert Holmes. But yeah, Adams’ take on a talking cactus could have been gold.
Whovians might have thought that when Doctor Who under John Nathan-Turner’s reign started off with the quite stylish and sophisticated sci-fi of The Leisure Hive, the following adventure would be equally or even more satisfying. But even with one of Tom Baker’s best chances to shine as his era’s end was near, Meglos agreeably wasn’t at all a significant mark in the classic series. Thankfully this would be promptly redeemed by the following E-Space trilogy which showed how serious JNT could make Doctor Who again. Thank you, Ben, for your review.