Written by:
John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch
Directed by: Terence Dudley
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1980
Video Availability: Try

Meglos isn't a fantastic Doctor Who story by any means, but I don't understand why people slate it so much. Okay, it's arguably the weakest story of the season (with two possible exceptions, as I'll later suggest) but a turkey of the season? Surely not!

There are problems, I'll agree. The direction is a little stagy and closed-in (though maybe this was to disguise the cheapness of the sets) and there's plenty of unsubtle exposition, at least in this instalment. Not only that, but while an ill-looking Tom and a distracted-looking Lalla are on decent form, the guest cast - save for the wonderful Jacqueline Hill - are pretty rank. Apparently Edward Underwood left the set late one night, looking furtively around him and hiding in shadows. All of a sudden he heard a voice - "Mr. Underwood?" - and turned round nervously. "Yes?" he said, hands shaking. "Equity Police - hand it over!"

The surface of Zolpha Thora probably looked great at the time, and was a ground-breaking special effect. Nowadays it looks utter crap of course, but then Who isn't something you watch for the SFX, is it? And while the feel of the story is quite light (it's not, as if often trumpeted, a "throwback to season 17", it's just not very good, that's all) the moody electronic score (again presaging the Logopolis music) does tie it in to the season 18 mentality.

Meglos's lair is made of that cross-slat wall covering that appeared in 50,000 Who episodes, and other fairground lights make up his den. Though while the idea of a talking cactus is more The Adventure Game than Who, I really think it's quite fun. The mob of crooks are entertaining, too, a step up from the tedious arcane culture that occupies the main storyline. Seeing identikit scientists made up like the children of the damned and a collection of clone cult believers debating the sort of thing that's been debated in many Who stories before and since is quite tedious, if not to say embarrassing.

Does anyone out there know more about the production of this story? Because with the confused-looking actors struggling to recite their technobabble (including the likeable Bill Fraser, who seems to stumble over the science bits) then often it seems like a collection of first takes. Oh, and look out for Lalla's cheesy acting when she learns of the Chronic Historesis. Is she being ironic, or just poo?
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Don't you think that Bill Fraser looks a bit like the woman who used to play the Queen's maid in Black Adder II? Oh, it's just me then. Anyway, episode two takes us into possibly my least-favourite Who location: the fake jungle. What bothers me is not just how fake it looks (despite all the praise heaped on Hinchcliffe and early JN-T, Graham Williams was the only one who did it well in The Creature From The Pit) but the music. Weird that no matter where in the universe he travels, a jungle in Doctor Who always sounds like a BBC stock record. Don't you just love the "aarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" creature noise in the background? Brings back memories of Planet of the Daleks, which is clearly not a good thing.

With the disruption of the colonic hysterectomy, it's another example of the stylish use of electronic visuals that the JN-T administration (Execed by Barry Letts) introduced. Isn't it weird to think that at this stage, and, to a lesser extent, the following year, the fans were praising JN-T from the rooftops? Even if he'd left as planned after the less popular season 20 he'd have still been remembered as one of the best producers the show ever had. Another JN-T trademark here is the too-loud incidental music, which often takes over the diagetic sound at times. And while I like the cactus sound in the tune, it's all too overfamiliar thanks to Doctor Who: The Music, and the embrace of the Who theme when the Doctor appears is tacktastic.

"There's no time for botany" booms a slightly bored Tom, which could be a foresighted attack on The Blimp's era and Peri's one-note characterisation. Meanwhile, the fake plants that grab Romana look awful. At least they cut from it fairly quickly, and the direction is cleverer this time around. There's probably more humour than in any other season 18 story here, though Tom's slightly moody/bored underplaying works against it. You feel that as soon as the cameras stopped rolling he was sniding at Lalla and reaching for the Johnny Walker - as a result, his performance as Meglos is much finer.

This is an astoundingly short episode, which, with the story not being reprised until over two minutes in, makes you feel that they only had enough story for a three-parter. Curious also to note one of Bill Fraser's crew is a non-speaking black role. Who and its racial minorities, eh? Did you know that next week it's Australian Music for Refugees Week? Well, it's not now, but that's the sort of thing you learn when you got a copy off ABC…
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I don't want to keep banging on about it, but I do find myself getting increasingly distracted by the quantity and volume of incidental music in this one. One praise though must go to the lighting, which is nice and dark, despite the silly all-white jump suits of the scientists. Much padding occurs here with yet another lengthy reprise, and Romana's jungle trek. It's over four and a half minutes before the newly sidelined fourth Doctor appears, a lesser figure in his final season. It's a clever move by JN-T to undermine his lead actor like this, focussing instead on the stories and other characters, as well as suggesting the character's vulnerability. No longer is this the man who gave Boycie a bitch-slap, but instead he ends up getting slapped down by Clifford Rose in Warriors' Gate and the campery of Antony Ainley. It's like watching a subdued, aged Ali taking his licks from Holmes and Berbick. Only Davison never became the Tyson to finish off Ainley's Berbick, but… oh hang on, I'm talking tripe.

Tom does give a nice performance here, though you can see some proprietorial gazes from Jacqueline Hill. (Isn't it weird having an ex companion playing another role?) What I really love is Tom's OTT madness as Meglos, even if when he says "the ultimate impossibility" it's in almost the same voice that he said "Zanussi - the appliance of science" with, and suddenly you can see the world of voice-overs opening up to claim him.

All of which rambling drivel goes to prove that not a lot really happens in this episode when you think about it. Sure, there's a lot of moving around and talking, though it's all just window dressing for a plot virtually on a standstill…
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This sort of stuff was only designed to be watched once (well, maybe not… it was only a couple of years before they released Revenge of the Cybermen on video, wasn't it?) so the narrative flaws of this story weren't really terribly important. Certainly, the first couple of times I saw this one it was a fun, enjoyable adventure that captured me with its twists and turns of plot. Seeing it again for this episode-by-episode review I can see what a notoriously padded piece of work it is. We're nearly three minutes in before the action resumes on this one.

This is where Meglos pretty much falls apart, because, while Tom is amusing, there's really no depth, subtext, or, indeed, point to Meglos. Tom's mocking of Meglos's desire to control the universe is amusing, though at odds with Logopolis. That's the problem with making Who 100% serious - it cracks at the seams when it tries to take the mick out of itself.

It's a pretty lame ending, with the Tigellans content to let the Doctor fly off and sort it all out (consequently becoming like the villagers in the middle of Battlefield, who have to exit the story once their writer can't think how to use them), and even Jacqueline Hill sadly isn't at her best. The black man is allowed to smile - and get outwitted by a tin dog - while Lalla gives a slightly amateurish performance. The people on screen are trying to let you know they're having a good time, but somehow you sense they're not.
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No classic by any means, Meglos is still a passable entertainment and certainly better than its reputation. The guest cast are weak, Tom's in a funny mood and the music is too loud. Plus, there's really very little in the way of subtext or meaning. But it's good for a laugh, innit???
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