The eighteenth season of Doctor Who is still, some thirty years after its initial transmission, something of a controversial one. It was a season that saw the ascension of John Nathan Turner to the producer’s chair, the rather dry and (some would say) pretentious Christopher H. Bidmead becoming the show’s script editor as well as a whole slew of other stylistic and presentational alterations.
More pertinently, this was also the season that saw Tom Baker’s seven-year tenure as the now legendary Fourth Doctor come to an end. A sombre and joyless run of stories, season 18 is an odd and atypical season for that most identifiable of Doctors to bow out on, as Bidmead’s influence seemed to accentuate philosophical and scientific finger wagging over telling compelling, engaging and entertaining stories.
The second story of the season, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch’s Meglos followed on from the appalling opening adventure, The Leisure Hive, and managed to maintain the low standards that the previous story had set. A bizarre concoction of odd ideas and half formed concepts, nothing really comes together in this tale of the titular villain (a shape shifting sentient cactus, no less!), his plot to impersonate the Doctor, and his plan to steal the, frankly, rather unimpressive Dodecahedron from the planet of Tigella.
Throw in a ham-fisted ‘critique’ of organised religion that is so blunt and po-faced it’d make an earnest 15-year-old schoolgirl blush and you have a story that caused a fair number of the previously loyal Saturday night audience of the time to choose Gil Gerard and Erin Grey strutting their twenty-fifth century stuff on LWT instead.
However, the ropey script aside (which would appear to have been heavily re-written by script editor Bidmead to remove any and all sense of whimsy, wonder and fun) is only one part of the problem, as it’s in the execution of the story, by veteran BBC director Terence Dudley, that most of the show’s real problems lie.
It’s usually the case with most classic Doctor Who adventures that the first episode of a serial, no matter how dull it wound up being, would be the most enthralling and/or exciting, as it was concerned with establishing atmosphere, mood and setting up the premise of the next four-to-six weeks. However, Meglos manages to be the exception to that rule, as its first episode is possibly the most un-dramatic and devoid of atmosphere piece of television I’ve ever seen.
How Dudley manages to drain a story that features marauding space pirates, a kidnapped Earth businessman, a societal schism based around religion versus science, a talking/shape-shifting cactus and the Doctor and his companions stuck inside a time loop of any sort of life and make it this boring is certainly some sort of achievement.
Clearly not comfortable with either the special effects being employed (this was the maiden use of the then-revolutionary Scene Sync camera technique) or the tone of the script he’d been given, Dudley directs the first episode with a distance and detachment that borders on the soporific, but in actual fact, just comes cross as lazy and ill thought through.
Most bizarrely of all, the first episode ends with an interminable repeat of an abominably staged scene that finds the Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) trapped inside something called a ‘chronic hysteresis’. Although this dilemma sounds like it could be a cross between a female sterilisation procedure and a urine infection, it is simply a Bidmead-ism for a time loop. Which, on reflection, is probably something of a relief.
Not every aspect of the production is a disaster (although the less said about the killer plants in the jungle of Tigella, the better) and the major high point of the episode comes in the form of the make-up for the humanoid versions of Meglos. This ‘green cactus faced human’ look is an image I remember vividly from childhood and proves that, even when failing in every other department, Who can always be relied on to dredge up imagery that burns itself into impressionable young minds for years to come.
Make-up aside, the episode also benefits from a relatively decent Tom Baker performance, as he seems to relish playing both the disguised Meglos and the Doctor, especially in their scenes together. Another notable plus is a relatively enjoyable sequence of fun moments between Lalla Ward’s breathy Romana and the always reliable, K-9.
However, the oddest piece of casting in the story has to be that of Jacqueline Hill as Lexa, leader of the fanatical Deon faction. Doctor Who royalty, thanks to her role as Barbara Wright back in the William Hartnell years, Hill’s performance is decent enough, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for the actress, as she has to deliver lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in the far-future sections of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.
An odd role for such a high profile and well-respected performer to take, one can’t help but feel that this decision bears the fingerprints of publicity-loving producer, John Nathan Turner. Never one to shy away from throwing a self-referential bone to the fans, it’s nonetheless a rather sad and inappropriate footnote to Jacqueline Hill’s association with the show.
Despite the poverty of the main attraction, the extras for Meglos are actually not too bad.
The audio commentary track, featuring co-writer John Flanagan and Romana herself, Lalla Ward, is fairly standard, but the short documentaries on offer are all worth watching.
Entropy Explained is a short piece explaining the scientific concept of entropy and manages to be both light and informative, while The Scene Sync Story is an interesting look behind the scenes of the Scene Sync camera system that was used to blend blue screen elements with the model shots in a number of sequences.
Jacqueline Hill: A Life in Pictures is a series of snippets and interviews covering the life, career and untimely death of the first female Doctor Who companion and contains moving testimonies from her Who co-star, William Russell, her husband, Alvin Rakoff, and maiden Who Producer, Verity Lambert.
Meglos Men is a longer, but lighter affair that brings writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch together again for a jaunt down memory lane to discuss the writing of the story. The two writers are engaging, funny and likeable co-anchors for this piece, but the stand out ‘performance’ of this documentary comes not from them, but instead from former script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, whose wearing of a baseball cap throughout his section shows that, despite all evidence to the contrary, maybe he really does have a sense of humour after all.
Episode:Disc: Doctor Who: Meglos will be released on January 10 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.
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