That could have been me.
If “The Leisure Hive” signals new producer John Nathan-Turner’s intention to change Doctor Who into a snappier and more modern show, “Meglos” (Series Production Code 5Q), by series newcomers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, takes the transformation to its logical extreme, nearly writing the Doctor out of his own series. By the time filming commenced on “Meglos,” out of broadcast order mid-way through the Season Eighteen production block, Tom Baker’s departure was all but confirmed, and though the shocking lack of focus on the Doctor in the story was likely coincidental, given the neophytes behind the script, it demonstrates Nathan-Turner comfortability sweeping away as much of his predecessors’ legacy as possible, star included.
Which is not to say that “Meglos” lacks focus on Tom Baker, who gets to play both the Fourth Doctor and a cactus.
Indeed, it is Baker’s double billing as the Doctor and as the title character, Meglos, the last survivor of the desert planet Zolfa-Thura (and, yes, a cactus), that enables him to claim as much of the screen as he does against a wide range of guest stars who hold court in their own right, most notably Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who some fifteen years after last appearance as Barbara in “The Chase.” She features as Lexa, high priestess of Ti, who oversees the Dodecahedron, a mysterious twelve-sided stone worshipped by the Tigellans living beneath the surface of their planet, located in the same solar system as Zolfa-Thura.
The Dodecahedron serves as the MacGuffin in the story, a boulder-sized polyhedron of unknown provenance providing all the energy needed to maintain the underground city. The Tigellan Savants harness its power but are not allowed to examine it, as the servants of Ti believe it to be a gift from their god. Its energy output has been fluctuating, though, so Zastor (Edward Underdown), the nominal leader of Tigella, invites the Doctor—conveniently an old friend who just happens to be in the right spatial and temporal neighborhood—to help solve the problem.
Simultaneously, Meglos has summoned a band of interstellar freebooters led by General Grugger (Bill Fraser) and Lieutenant Brotadac (Frederick Treves) to his lair beneath the Screens of Zolfa-Thura, a set of pentagonal metal barriers that are the sole surviving structures on the long-abandoned planet. They have been tasked with providing an “earthling” (Christopher Owen) for the cactus to transfer his essence into, legs apparently providing more mobility than a planter. Armed with appendages, Meglos sets about with his real goal of purloining the Dodecahedron, which turns out to be a power source created on Zolfa-Thura some ten thousand years prior and capable of producing enough energy to vaporize planets when properly harnessed. And to gain access to the Tigellan city, all Meglos needs to do is get the real Doctor out of the way and impersonate him, assuming no one notices the spines…
During moments of awareness, the earthling Meglos has occupied fights back, causing the spines to appear briefly. His ability to switch into the Doctor’s form at will once he has occupied the earthling suggests quite advanced mental and technological abilities. Indeed, for a story that spends three of its four episodes on exposition, albeit entertaining and relatively fast-paced exposition, “Meglos” doesn’t delve much, or deeply, or at all, into Meglos, his ambitions, or the history of the Zolfa-Thurans, who have developed devices capable of both looking inside a TARDIS and also locking it into a “chronic hysteresis,” a form of time loop that is theoretically unbreakable. Granted, the inviolability of the TARDIS is one of those constants honored mostly in the breach throughout the series, but whenever a story allows some outside force to affect the TARDIS, the foes tend to be on the level of the godly, on a par with the Black Guardian. They’re not usually cacti.
The practical upshot of the Doctor and Romana being trapped in an eternally-repeating cycle lasting a minute at a time is that the Doctor doesn’t actually feature in the story proper until end of the second episode, when he and Romana finally reach Tigella. (They manage to unravel the time loop by acting out the beginning moments of it before it restarts, “phase cancelling” it, which is a relief, since Lalla Ward was probably as tired of waggling K-9’s tail over and over as the audience was of watching the loop.) And even then, all the Doctor does is get captured and trussed up as a sacrifice to Ti, because Meglos-Doctor has already waltzed in, conned his way into the sacred Dodecahedron room, miniaturized the giant stone, and made good his escape back to Zolfa-Thura. Not even companions get treated that poorly—at least most of the time.
Story cohesion, indeed, takes a back seat to style in Season Eighteen, and yet surprisingly, the experience as a whole remains compelling. The guest cast, most notably Fraser and Treves as Grugger and Brotadac, whose brocaded aesthetic and deadpan humor calls to mind the cultural mish-mash of “The Ribos Operation,” more than fill the time even as the story sort of sits there. Hill’s Lexa, likewise, gives her a range seldom allowed her as Barbara, and to see a former companion order the Doctor crushed by a giant stone as a sacrifice feels both earned and stunning at the same time. Goodness knows Barbara was a cliffhanger away from doom beneath a styrofoam rock more than once.
Tom Baker has featured prominently throughout even as the Doctor has not, with either the real Doctor or Meglos-Doctor on screen almost constantly throughout the second and third episodes. His portrayal of the prickly (sorry) Meglos comes across brilliantly. As with Hartnell and Troughton’s turns as their doppelgängers, in “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” and “The Enemy of the World,” respectively, Baker makes the most of his opportunity to play against type, in the process reminding viewers that his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor is exactly that, a portrayal.
Especially after Season Seventeen, where Baker attempted to shape the Fourth Doctor’s personality after his own image, the tendency is to equate the actor playing the Doctor with, essentially, the Doctor himself, but such an effortless transference can no longer take place after seeing Baker’s venom and utter coldness as Meglos-Doctor. He is, obviously, an actor, and on the evidence a better one that perhaps given credit for previously. Even in terms of his resting countenance, it is evident which Doctor is which at a glance, no mean feat. Even more so than his against-type playing of the Doctor in “The Invasion of Time,” Baker’s role as Meglos-Doctor is more shocking than even the revelation of Meglos’ true form, a green blob.
All the action in the story takes place in the last dozen minutes of the final episode. Romana and Savant Caris (Colette Gleeson) witness Meglos-Doctor escape Tigella after a laser-battle between Tigellan guards and the freebooters that mimics, almost frame-for-frame, the opening scenes on the Rebel Corvette in Star Wars; they manage to reach the Doctor just before he is smushed by the ritual Tigellan smashing rock, and moments later the Doctor, Romana, Caris, and another Savant (Crawford Logan) rush off in the TARDIS to Zolfa-Thura, but not before Lexa is quite pointlessly killed by a dying freebooter.
It’s a poor exit for Jacqueline Hill, but sadly in keeping with the lack of any depth in the tale. An entire four-episode story could have been drawn from the conflict between the Savants and the servants of Ti, all of them reliant on a piece of technology that none of them understand, but instead it’s window dressing for a simple plot about megalo(s)mania and the difficulty in finding good help when you’re trying to take over the galaxy.
The Doctor decides to impersonate his impersonator, and strolls into Meglos’ lair at the heart of the Screens of Zolfa-Thura, where the Dodecahedron, now properly-sized again, has been placed, neatly aligned with the pentagonal walls. (The connection between the dodecahedron, with its pentagonal faces, and the Screens of Zolfa-Thura had been in plain sight from the beginning of the story, but the script never directly states it, giving those viewers who figure it out a chance to feel a bit clever!) The freebooters, though, have gotten greedy, and once Meglos describes how to focus the Dodecahedron’s energy using the Screens, they turn on him, but not before the real Doctor has managed to invert the targeting inputs so that the energy blast will destroy Zolfa-Thura instead of the intended target, Tigella. Two separate groups of freebooters capture and imprison both the Doctor and Meglos-Doctor, throwing them in a room together without realizing it.
Instead of any interrogation of Meglos’ ambition to rule the universe, the tête-à-tête between the multiple Tom Bakers—which happened in the very last episode as well with the tachyonic clones of the Fourth Doctor on Argolis—is cut short by K-9 blasting down the door. There’s no momentary confusion as to which Doctor is which on the part of Romana, since Meglos-Doctor just snarls and then turns into its true blob form to escape before Tweedledee and Tweedledum blow up the planet, leaving behind a confused “earthling” and leading to a quick departure for the Doctor and friends. They make it; the cactus and space pirates do not.
In the end, the Dodecahedron (and, in theory, Zolfa-Thura itself) are no more, with the Doctor once again leaving a planet and its inhabitants to start their entire civilization over from scratch on a surface filled with aggressive vegetation. After how well that turned out on Skaro, one would think he might take more care. The Tigellans seem up to the task, the loss of their holiest relic and the essential heart of their culture notwithstanding. Ominously, Romana receives a summons back to Gallifrey, which the Doctor promises to attend to right after they drop the “earthling” back home.
As noted, Tom Baker is revitalized by his dual role in this story, and thus far, Nathan-Turner seems to have realized that the best way to tame his wayward star is to play to his demand to be center stage, even if it means the Doctor himself is not the focal point of the story. It’s good to see Baker stretching his range; oddly enough, the incessant drive towards comedy the last few seasons lessened his options for more serious deliveries, and “Meglos” gives him quite possibly his best acting opportunity since “The Invasion of Time” over two seasons prior. Touches of humor remain, though, notably when the Doctor tries to blow out the torches that are burning the ropes holding up the giant sacrificial stone.
Lalla Ward, herself on the way out as signposted by the Doctor and Romana’s recall to Gallifrey (but more directly from Nathan-Turner’s desire for all-change), doesn’t benefit greatly from Flanagan and McCulloch’s script; quite frequently, writers new to the series are more interested in their own characters than the ones already extant, and Romana more or less picks up the secondary story beats, though she has a good run outwitting the admittedly dense freebooters on Tigella. At least the Doctor is the one who needs rescuing by Romana in this story, a service she provides twice, and she remains his technological equal in terms of fixing K-9.
Alas, there’s not much hope for the tin mutt (John Lesson, voice). Nathan-Turner deigns to have K-9 feature in this story, but with the caveat that the repairs the Doctor and Romana conduct after the last story’s saltwater bath leave him perilously low on charge capacity. At one point, K-9 attempts to find Romana in the Tigellan jungle but runs out of power and gives up, having to be carried throughout an entire episode before he can be recharged sufficiently to knock out a guard when a plot point needs a quick resolution.
Effectively, “Meglos” tells a simple story with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of fancy, exactly the kind of story envisaged for Season Eighteen. The characters deliver, through and through, from the self-assured Savants in their stylized blonde wigs to the menacing servants of Ti in their black and red robes. Everyone and everything is exactly as described on the tin, and the ingredients are pleasing, especially the cold ambition of Meglos and the sniveling slipperiness of Grugger and Brotadac, who deserve a story based on their adventures alone.
There’s absolutely no nuance, however, no room for character development—even the opportunity to have Lexa realize she might have been a bit hasty in condemning the Doctor to a smashin’ goes by the wayside in favor of a random death scene that adds nothing to the story but run-time. The audience is having fun, though—”Meglos” is undeniably an enjoyable romp, with fresh visual effects and a thoroughly updated sound profile—and given the slowly dwindling contemporary viewership for Doctor Who, one cannot blame John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher H. Bidmead for trying, even if they are throwing the Doctor out with the bath water.
(Previous Story: The Leisure Hive)
(Next Story: Full Circle)
Post 114 of the Doctor Who Project