THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
TV STORIES "THE
LEISURE HIVE" AND
JOHN FLANAGAN &
& THE last zolPHA
'MEGLOS' DVD (BBC
IN JANUARY 2011.
ON THE PLANET TIGELLA,
OPPOSING FACTIONS ARE
OVER ONE FUNDAMENTAL
ISSUE: THE DODECAHED-
RON, THE MYSTERIOUS
OBJECT THAT PROVIDES
THE PLANET'S ENERGY.
WITH THE TWO PARTIES
LOCKED IN A CRIPPLING
STALEMATE, AND THEIR
CIVILISATIONS ON THE
BRINK OF COLLAPSE, THE
TIGELLAN LEADER SEEKS
THE DOCTOR'S HELP. BUT
BOTH THE DOCTOR AND
ROMANA HAVE BEEN
TRAPPED IN A TIMELOOP
BY MEGLOS, THE LAST
ZOLPHA THURAN, WHO
WILL STOP AT NOTHING
TO STEAL THE AWESOME
POWER OF THE DODECA-
27th September 1980 - 18th October 1980
For many years now, actor-writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch’s only contribution to Doctor Who has ranked amongst my least favourites. Meglos is certainly not without its novelties, but at its heart it seems to be little more than a poor man’s pantomime about a comically cruel cactus; some swarthy desperados; and a society that personifies the old ‘science versus religion’ divide so preposterously precisely that it makes the eponymous cactus look sensible.
Above: ‘Scene Synch’ in action
With this DVD I was keen to see if my head could be turned. After all, the bonus material on many a less reputable release has been persuasive enough to at least give me pause – last year, Rob Shearman’s representations almost had me convinced that The Space Museum was a work of inspired genius... before I watched it again. This being the case, I wondered if the twenty-minute Meglos Men or the much briefer Scene Sync would have me recanting.
Meglos Men is an interesting feature as, rather than take a traditional ‘making of’ approach, it looks exclusively at the writing of Meglos as its two scribes quite literally take a walk down memory lane, telling of how they came to pen what was just their second script for television. Apparently they were head-hunted to write for Doctor Who by then-script editor Christopher Bidmead, who had seen a stage play that they’d written set in a funeral parlour and felt that they had what he and incoming broom John Nathan-Turner were looking for. The Last Zolfa-
Thuran (or The Last Zolpha Thuran – the DVD can’t make its mind up) was commissioned shortly thereafter, and written in the very same house that we’d later see Tegan come running out of in Logopolis, inspired by its resident cacti. The rest is history.
Above: Meglos Men John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch reminisce about writing the scripts for Meglos
The Scene Sync Story, on the other hand, looks at the technical side of things – specifically the introduction of the pioneering ‘Scene Sync’ technique which allowed the serial’s director, Terence Dudley, to use colour separation overlay in motion for the first time in Doctor Who’s history. I had never really noticed this before when watching the serial – in fact, I’d been most disparaging of the director’s extensive use of CSO here. On this front at least then, this DVD release has given me a little bit more respect for Meglos. A little bit.
The DVD also houses a fleeting feature on entropy, which forms not only the subject matter of Season 18’s final story, but underscores many that preceded it in the run. Here Dr Philip Trowga runs us through the laws of thermodynamics, linking them to Doctor Who whenever he can, and even drawing some interesting analogies between entropy and time itself. He’s no Professor Brian Cox, mind, but for a throwaway little titbit I was suitably impressed.
Above: Jacqueline Hill – A Life in Pictures
The finest feature on offer though is the glorious Jacqueline Hill –
A Life in Pictures. Don’t be fooled by the rather ambiguous title –
this isn’t a slide show, but a stirring celebration of the actress’s life
and contributions to Doctor Who. I’ve always admired the woman
who brought to life the Doctor’s first female human companion so
forcefully, but knew very little about her beyond her involvement in
the series. Featuring contributions from her husband, friends and
colleagues, this loving documentary offers a much broader view
of her life, right from her formative days working for Cadbury’s in
Bourneville, where she won an acting scholarship; to helping Sean Connery land his first leading role; becoming a mother; returning to television; and eventually succumbing to bone cancer in 1993.
With no Tom Baker on hand, the commentary is a little dry, and there’s little to be found in it that can’t be gleaned from the DVD’s bonus vignettes and/or production subtitles. Watching Meglos with it enabled does have one key advantage though – it drowns out Meglos itself. Whilst sharper and shinier than it ever was on television, Meglos is still a hard story to love. The Doctor and Romana spend almost half the story trapped inside the TARDIS in what is termed a ‘chronic hysteresis’ time bubble, which is admittedly a horrifying idea, but it’s even more horrifying being on the outside looking in for nearly fifty minutes. Matters aren’t helped by the recycled Death to the Daleks soundtrack and terrible Tattooine tribute.
Like most Doctor Who stories
though, Meglos isn’t irredee-
mable. Despite one of their
characters’ names being an
anagram of “bad actor”, Bill
Fraser and Frederick Treves’
Gaztak Pirates are amusing
throughout, and in her final appearance, Jacqueline Hill
puts in a memorable turn as
religious zealot Lexa, making
her the only companion so far
to return to the television series in a different role (as opposed to the flood of companions who did things the other way round, Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond amongst them). Best of all though is Tom Baker, who does a wonderful job of differentiating between the Doctor and
his Meglos doppelgänger. “Subtle” isn’t a word that one normally finds in a sentence along
with “Tom Baker”, but in Meglos’s first two episodes especially, the distinction between his characters is ever so delicate. Don’t fret though – he’s more than made up this by the final act, no doubt egged on by being done up like a cactus.
My favourite things about Meglos though are its fleeting flashes of pensiveness. Flanagan and McCulloch furnish the Tigellan leader with some superlative dialogue as he describes the Doctor, such as “…he sees the threads that hold the universe together, and when they break he mends them,” which is every bit as graceful and succinct as anything that you’re likely to hear in the current television series. Such moments are few and far between, sadly,
but when they do come they stand out even more than they would in a less comic piece.
On the whole though, my views about Meglos haven’t really changed. Back in its day it was
a ratings disaster, and the five million or so who did bother to watch it rated it exceptionally poorly. Perhaps this is why the writers’ subsequent story, Project: Zeta Sigma, was shelved in favour of Castrovalva.
Despite its reputation though, last year Meglos came within a gnat’s wing of being gifted an unlikely follow-up when Gareth Roberts decided to make Meglos the villain in The Lodger. It wouldn’t come off, of course, but still goes to show that even the most reviled of stories have their champions.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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