Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Serial 110: Meglos

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Romana II, K-9

Writtten by: John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch

Directed by: Terence Dudley

Background & Significance:
"Meglos" is one of those infamous little Doctor Who stories. It's unique because it's apparently "one of the few weak Tom Baker stories" (I say that tongue-in-cheekly) and because it's the... odd one out that doesn't quite fit into this, Tom Baker's final season on the show. It's not the kickoff story. Nor is it about E-Space of the return of The Master. So what is it?

I think it's safe to say that it's... a pretty rote and standard Doctor Who affair for being the second Johnathan Nathan-Turner story. Which is exactly what he was worried about, so....

It's strange. I think if anything, this is still one of those stories that's trying to shake off the old reign of the show, that really pushed Nathan-Turner into the paranoid, self-obsessed dude he more-and-more increasingly ended up being as the years went on. He wasn't super hot on "Meglos" in theory (he thought it "a bit too typical even for Who" and "uninspired." I doubt he was hot on the writing team (they never made another story although there were attempts) and he must have at least liked Terence Dudley because he did invite him back (although never in a directing capacity, which either means Dudley is a phenomenal writer (which he's.... ehhhhhhhhhhhh...... alright, I suppose) or Nathan-Turner didn't really care for him as a director.

Or Dudley really enjoys writing.

(Also, interesting to point out: JNT's reservations about this were probably right in the end meaning he could be justified in any future stranglehold he would make over the show or whatever. I mean. With this lack of quality? I would...)

But yes. "Meglos".

There's a lot of interesting mythology around Meglos, although none so uniquely interesting as the story itself. Although other things come close, the most interesting thing (to me, admittedly) is that Gareth Roberts's original pitch for "The Lodger" was designed to have the bad guy turn out to be Meglos in an attempt to wrap up the lasting mystery of this story (of course, the ever elusive "Just who the hell is Meglos and what is his deal?"). Apparently when they were to meet, The Doctor wasn't going to remember Meglos (and honestly, aside for "That cactus thing" what is it that's memorable about him? Come on. That's a fair question).

All this cheeking aside, it does do something interesting for Tom Baker, and that's allow him to be double-cast as the villain of the story, which was done for Troughton in "Enemy of the World" and Hartnell in "The Massacre". My question? Does it work? How does Tom Baker take the opportunity? Well... it's an interesting driving question, I suppose.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

For being an “entirely standard” first episode, I think this gets a lot of things wrong.

Right off the bat: Romana and The Doctor. Okay. I have an issue with this. I hate it when Saward does this. I hate it always. But willfully removing Romana and The Doctor from the major action of the story for the entire first episode is completely insane. And… no. I’m sorry. But I’m not exactly down with this. I mean, our main characters are The Doctor and his companion. And they’re not even involved in the story we’re telling [yet]? Then what’s the point of even having them there if we’re not going to use them or get them involved? That seems a bit… lame, if you ask me.

That said, they do have the best oh sh*t moment of the episode.

That moment, of course, is the moment you realize that The Doctor and Romana are caught in a Chronic Hysteresis, or Time Loop (because we can’t just call it a time loop). At first, I thought something was wrong with the video. And then suddenly The Doctor and Romana look at each other, and it’s hinted that something’s wrong (that doesn’t quite explain it away) although not outrightly stated until someone explains what we’re seeing. Which is… well done, I’d say. And the repeat of the same exact sequence with the same camera move and specificity of characters and blocking is a strong choice from Dudley, I think. It really captures the hopeless repetition of the loop.

But that, I think is where my praise for Dudley comes to an end.

See, I want to like Dudley as a director (I want to like all directors, lest I hate life in a story forever)… but… man. I dunno what it is. For one thing, he pulls Doctor Who legend  Jacqueline Hill into the story as “Lexa”, which is inspired. And that’s awesome, I think. But the rest of his cast is… it’s not exactly inspired, is it? Or if it’s inspired I don’t quite see it. The acting is pretty atrocious (especially the Tigella sequences) and the blocking is bland. There’s no energy pulsing through this, and you can tell. The actors are waiting for each other to interrupt, or making minor attempts at physicality before getting shut down by someone else.

Also, because the story is not told well, all this Tigella stuff is…. Not good either. What is it that Tigella has to do with the story? Why should I care? It’s in here, but it’s slight and won’t come into play until later.

Which brings us to Meglos.

Okay. So. Meglos is……… a cactus?  Okay… I guess that’s interesting. But why exactly? And for what? I mean. I suppose he’s interested in this Dodecahedron. Which is… what, exactly? Oh right the Tigellans have it. And Meglos is the last survivor of this planet? Well that’s cool too. But he…. Can turn into people? Or he absorbs them? And wait he can create a time loop? This guy seems mad powerful. So… why is he acting like this?

I mean. He can make a time loop…

But even beyond that, I… I just don’t know. I think Dudley didn’t do a good or clear job directing the cliffhanger because it left me scratching my head. Even the second time.

Also, I don’t know what there is about the traveling Russian space pirates. Cuz they’re just… they’re kinda here too. Which is sad because they seem cool. But they lack character or charm or whatever. I’m just following them because the story tells me to. Not because I’m invested in them. I mean….they’re needless jerks or whatever. So… yeah. And I don’t really care about them moving forward. So… what, exactly? Honestly? I don’t know. I just don’t.

It’s not that it’s bad, it just doesn’t do anything special. Except a time loop. But even that isn’t really dealt with until the next episode. It’s only cool because of Dudley’s slick direction. Otherwise his direction is… well… standard, I suppose.

Part 2:

Two episodes in and I'm convinced the only thing that makes this story (or even this episode) unique is Meglos himself.

For one thing, it’s damn silly why this sorta thing hasn’t happened before. I mean I know it’s a super obvious and easy idea, but what’s wrong with seeing an evil doppelganger version of The Doctor go out and cause mayhem? And why is this the first time I’m seeing this in the Classic era? Maybe it’s because of The Doctor’s role as iconic hero whatever and to see him as less than that in any other way is perhaps too terrifying for kids… But whatever. I feel I don’t see that enough, if ever. That’s the point I’m making.

And conceptually, this is all fine. It doesn’t really matter what the Dodecahedron is or really does. All that’s important is that it powers the city.

So what do I think is the weakest part of this? Tom Baker.

No, not The Doctor. Melgos Tom Baker.

See, when I think of wanting to see Tom Baker in a villain role, I imagine he’d just… go crazy on it, but…. he doesn’t. Not when he’s here, which I find strange. This is exactly the sort of shot in the arm an actor would love to take? I mean, don’t people get excited in science fiction when they can play an alternate-universe version of a character or even a time travel one? I would. And yet, Tom Baker doesn’t.

Because of this, "Meglos" suffers, not just as a story but as a character. Suddenly, the badass who was the cactus in the room (and if you can ever be the cactus in the room you should, trust me) is unsure of himself and comes across as weak. He’s goofing his way into this society, not exactly having a plan and not exactly being the guy who is trying to hide that. When he reverts to Doctor-Cactus form, why does that even happen? When he’s sneaking around why is it suddenly all awkward and camp? Why does he take so long to swear the Deon Oath? It won’t affect Meglos one iota, because Deon isn’t real and also because Meglos is taking up someone else’s body; he’s not going to be held accountable for taking this oath later on. These are probably choices that Tom Baker chose to make. But they don’t inspire confidence in Meglos as a character or even him as a viable nemesis for The Doctor.

As a result, while his portrayal of Meglos does not inspire confidence in that character, Tom Baker makes his Doctor look even better by comparison. Maybe that’s because Tom Baker is clearly more comfortable as The Doctor (this is year seven), but regardless. The point stands.

Honestly, that’s the sort of thing that makes me appreciate JNT’s criticism of The Doctor/Romana II/K-9 as a team, because they honestly feel so invincible. Nothing seems to scare Tom Baker at all anymore. And Romana can get panicked all she wants about the Chronic Hysteresis (it’s still awesome), but it still doesn’t feel like a real threat for whatever reason. The Doctor’s going to get out of this. And easily. Which they do. How? No clue. But The Doctor and Romana just playing through the system as before doesn’t really make sense at all, especially because they choose the jokey “this is totally what we did, right?” instead of playing it more straight and trying to get out of there.

GRANTED! I understand the choice. And it is good because it makes me laugh and is silly, but still. I’m not quite sure how that works.

The rest of this is standard runaround. The theft of the Dodecahedron is good (feels Bidmeadean to me, but that’s okay; the good Bidmead) as is the design of Tigella itself. Maybe this is just a personal weakness or whatever, but I love a good, lush, sci-fi planet. Especially one with crazy flora like this (so crazy it’s driven the Tigellans off the surface), standing in such contrast to the desolate wasteland of Zolfa-Thura, home of Meglos. That’s a great choice by Terence Dudley and whoever designed this one.

Also, Dudley’s blocking is still REALLY not good here. There’s a scene where Barbara—I mean Lexa (have I talked about that yet? …. Nope. Damn. Okay, I will)--sees The Doctor across a bridge, crosses the bridge, and then says “Seize him!” It’s just awkwardly staged and doesn’t make much sense if you ask me, which is…. Sigh.

Ah well. What can you do?

Part 3:

I don’t…. I don’t think the ropes holding up that giant rock are following the rules of physics…

But that is a quibble.

So this episode opens with a big ol’ fatty recap of the last ep, and it’s… it’s probably close to a minute or so long. And this episode is barely clocking in at twenty one minutes (counting pre and post episode titles. Which is… a problem (but worse in the next episode) because they’re basically admitting that they don’t have enough interesting, fascinating content to produce a full-fledged Doctor Who story. Granted, what’s here is good and it does clip along, but that lowered time stamp is never really a good sign.

The story continues moving along as it has. Romana spends the entire episode jonking around with the crew of the pirates or whatever. And this is fun. It leads to more antics since the pirates are not too bright or whatever, but it’s far from amazing or inspiring and it does go on a bit long.

What this all points to, though, is this… notion that this isn’t a JNT story. Not really, anyways. It has a ton of callbacks and trappings that we know better as being, say, from the Graham Williams era. And you can tell that the writers were especially inspired by it. I mean, there are jokes all over, especially from Tom Baker. Tom Baker gets to tweak into a more malevolent side (but how much?) and the feeling is totally one based on that “magical world and wonder” that Williams was so keen on.

No wonder Nathan-Turner didn’t like this story. Bidmead probably didn’t like it either. That Dodecahedron doesn’t even come close to being scientific anything.

But what’s here is actually not bad. There’s the mandatory writing out of K-9 (because how much can he do?), Tom Baker gets to play the bumbling “wait a minute” guy of the story while also being Meglos. Although… again… What is Tom Baker doing here? His Meglos isn’t even really an attempt at a character. It’s more a villain who’s taken on Doctor-like qualities. And maybe that’s just because Tom Baker put a lot of himself into the role, but it’s also probably because… well… It’s hard to switch gears after six years, I’d imagine.

Otherwise this is good. There’s a really awesome laser fight showdown at the entrance to the underground city (seriously, I loved this fight) and Meglos gets away with the Dodecahedron on the way to Zolfa-Thura. So… that happens.

And we’re left on The Doctor about to get crushed by a rock. And while I’m okay with this in theory (I so am) I don’t think they break the ropes well. Wouldn’t releasing two ropes cause the rock to snap out into a line between the others? Or even the removal of one would move the rock into a plane made by the three points of attachment. Sorry, I think I have geometry on the brain. BUT THE POINT STILL STANDS.

I just yawned. We must be getting to the end.

Part 4:

In which "Meglos" got intense. For literally two seconds.

The final part of the story sees the action travel back to Zolfa-Thura for the final showdown as The Screens of Zolfa-Thura are booted up to harness the power of the Dodecahedron and turn the planet into the Death Star. And that’s all cool. I’m fine with that being the basic idea of this story. Utilizing the generic plot device to basically plot to blow up Alderaan and hold the universe ransom is as good an idea for a story as any. Does it feel earned? No. But I can’t say I’m really complaining.

I think part of the reason "Meglos" gets slammed so hard, though, is because of Meglos it/himself.

For one thing, the part is not exactly clearly written. By the end of this we still don’t really know who Meglos was, why he’s doing this, what his powers are, or what’s his deal. (Why does he look like Tom Baker again? And how long can he do that for?) It’s a problem in terms of your narrative. If people’re left with questions at the end of it, you haven’t done your job very well. And maybe that was the point? To bring back Meglos in some eventual sequel or what have you. But that’s… it’s not exactly clearly laid out, is it? Nor is it something anyone’s REALLY that interested to see (except to see some of those cactus hands. That shit’s hot).

And the worst of this? It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.

I mean, much as I’m trying not to bash Tom Baker, because I think he REALLY does some fine work here as The Doctor (not his best but by no means his worst), I can’t say that he’s really that good at being Meglos. The ONLY part for me where I’m honestly a little scared of Meglos are the pacing glances of him/it on Zolfa-Thura from far away as he walks around and with purpose, silent and deadly. This, of course, is enhanced by a creepy music cue and Tom Baker putting up stern “don’t frak with me” face, but any port of storm, as far as I’m concerned.

The rest of the time? I don’t fear him at all.

In the rest of this episode, Meglos is just doing things and acting all scary but not actually delivering on that promise, if you ask me. I mean, putting The Doctor and Meglos in the same room and played by the same actor should be just some phenomenal stuff. But because of the way Meglos is written (guarded and meek; posturing more than owning) and the way he’s performed (reserved and smug-without-the-playful) our villain turns into someone who just… just doesn’t matter. There’s nothing special about him, no defining characteristics. Hell, we don’t even know the rules of his form. Does he inhabit someone’s body? And why can he look like The Doctor? Once The Doctor leaves the time loop doesn’t Meglos not get to do that anymore?


Also, this episode features the pointless death of Lexa. Who dies because…. She does.

Honestly, this whole story just feels like beats without purpose. Lexa’s death and Meglos himself both feel like people who know the directions on how to bake the batch of magic cookies, but don’t understand why those directions work or how the magic is actually done. Why bother with the choices? They happen because it’s a cool thing that happens, but there’s no narrative logic to it. Normally the death of a character means something, either thematically or structurally, but there’s none of that here.

Neither is there reason for Meglos to be… well… Meglos. The ideas and conceptualization of malevolence is cool, but making a character malevolent-seeming doesn’t necessarily make the character malevolent. He’s not satisfactorily written or executed properly and thus comes off as lazy and far from memorable in any sense of the word.

And all of this? It's a shame because even with a two minute precap, thirty seconds of opening credits and over a minute of end credits this thing STILL doesn't clock in at at least twenty minutes. That is a waste to me, because they could have used more of that time to make this story fleshed out and more clever. But what we're left with is something that clips on by but doesn't have the umph it needs later on.

Kind of a shame.

Final Thoughts?: I'm sorry to say that "Meglos" is one of those stories that lives up to the hype.

Now, I don't think it's a bad story. I've certainly seen worse from Nathan-Turner and Tom Baker and even Bidmead, but I've certainly also seen better from all three of them.

No, what we're left with in "Meglos" is the epitome of completely substandard mediocrity when it comes to Doctor Who. The story is not exactly terribly engaging or well explained. Meglos is only memorable because he's a cactus and also The Doctor's doppelganger, but beyond that he isn't well performed or realized in terms of a good strong villain. Neither also is the rest of this story fantastically executed. And I think I'd blame Dudley for this. Dudley's direction is at times visually stimulating, but his work with the actors and the characters is less than standard. There's a distinct lack of energy on top of poorly done blocking and acting on the parts of the day players.

It's all quite sad, really.

The worst is I think I really like this story on paper. I mean, there's some good ideas and Jacqueline Hill is in it (and really quite good). And while I haven't exactly been the biggest cheerleader for Romana or this incarnation of The Doctor or K-9 and how completely and totally invincible and unstoppable they seem to be (two Time Lords (one of whom is The Doctor) and a wonder-Robot-Dog who can shoot laser beams and [plot device]) I find I do love the chemistry of it all. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward have phenomenal on-screen chemistry that is both flirtatious and entirely platonic to make for something that is subtextually rather gorgeous and all-beneath-the-surface and (honestly) rather complicated. I really enjoy watching the two of them most of the time and I think this is my favourite story for the two of them, to be perfectly honest.

Now if only that cactus was actually a good thing.

Next Time!: 6th Doctor! Cybermen! Bloody hands! A sequel to "Tomb of the Cybermen"? Sewers! Continuity! A Chameleon Circuit! Ice Wenches! And me hating my life and railing against Season 22! "Attack of the Cybermen"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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