"Well observed, General Grugger! I'm a plant!"
Slogging our way through one disappointing Fifth Doctor story after another, we were beginning to wonder why we ever thought we were Doctor Who fans. So when Meglos came up on the release schedule, there was general glee. One more story from our beloved Fourth Doctor! Huzzah!
Wait a minute, though. Just how good was a story so far down the release schedule going to be? Bizarrely, not one of us could recall the story from the first time around, but we had to admit that they put out their share of turkeys even in Tom's reign. The signs didn't look promising. So we gathered around the video, dewy-eyed Meglos virgins to a girl, with a mixture of hope and dread fluttering within.
For the first few minutes, that is. After that, we were having far too good a time to bother with the fluttering. And as the final credits rolled we decided that, as with The Creature From The Pit, we'd found an undiscovered gem.
That's not say it's perfect, of course. (You knew we were going to say that, didn't you?) The selection of a cactus for a villain is, we concede, ill-advised. (It's not the virulent skin condition we object to as much as those hysterical scenes in the first episode where they convey Meglos's ineffable menace via thrilling and dramatic close-ups of a, er, plant.) There's far too much handwaving - Meglos might squish the dodecahedron down to the size of a gobstopper for handy portability, but that doesnít make it any lighter in any universe we know of, for example. There's a moderately interestingly handled science vs. religion thread that unfortunately goes totally off the rails and lies forgotten in the dust. The plot comes up way short, resulting in recaps at the top of the episode that rewind practically the last half of the previous one, together with far too many repetitions of the chronic hysteresis scene and a ton of filler, with Romana going round in circles in more ways than one. Some of the acting is truly terrible (it's a shame they gave the anagram of "bad actor" to Brotadac's character, since Zastor's a far more worthy recipient). The CSO's a bit nasty, and the jungle sets are rubbish (although frankly, we don't think they're any worse than the inexplicably acclaimed sets in Planet Of Evil).
But so what? What is good is very good indeed.
Meglos has got many pluses, but numero uno has got to be Tom Baker. He's an absolute knockout in this, and even better, we get two for the price of one. To manage as much contrast as possible between the two roles, Tom as the Doctor throttles right back: it's a restrained performance that's no less powerful for it. In fact, we suspect that the understatement only increases the Doctor's impact.
Tom as Meglos, on the other hand, gives a hugely entertaining performance. He gets to do some magnificent scenery-munching as he rattles through all the standard cliches ("No one can stop me now!"), but he also invests what on the page is a pretty stock villain with a genuinely menacing edge. We take our hats off to him - rising so triumphantly above this material is acting with a capital A. In both roles, he effortlessly dominates every scene he's in, which is exactly as it should be and something a few other Doctors could have learned from (no names, no celery).
Romana, too, is at her best in Meglos. She miraculously avoids the smugness that makes us want to slowly extract her fingernails in other stories, and we like the way she manages to extricate herself from the death-dealing rubber plants. And her relationship with the Doctor is absolutely perfect. In particular, the early scenes in the TARDIS have an understated intimacy that as far as we're concerned proves beyond a doubt that she and the Doctor are at it like crazed weasels.
We love the enjoyably acted Grugger and Brotadac, who are kissing cousins of the wonderful Garron and Unstoffe in Ribos Operation. And an unexpected bonus is the reappearance of Jacqueline Hill as Lexa. As a role, it's a bit of a poisoned chalice, since it's yet another yawnsome one-eyed religious bigot. But like Tom as Meglos, she manages to invest her lines with a lot more gravitas than they actually deserve: she convinces us that she really is thinking this stuff, rather than spouting a load of old claptrap that somebody's written down in the script.
Not that the script's all bad. Far from it, in fact. Yes, it's got its share of cliches, not to mention some very clunky exposition of the as-you-know-Zastor kind. And some of the jokes make us groan out loud ("Let's hope that many hands will make the lights work". "For a moment I thought you'd forgotten your lines"). But there's also sheer magic. Some of it's just plain impressive ("Faith dwells in the deed, Zastor, not in the word." "Some fifty years ago, I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together, and mends them when they break.") and some of it's deceptively simple, making a surprising impact (' "Not in the ordinary way." "Not in the ordinary way?" "No." ').
Even more important, much of it's megafun. We love Brotadac's hilariously executed coat obsession, and many of the lines ("Ouch! Don't keep doing that!" "Will somebody please say yes?") deftly cut the feet out from under any lurking pomposity. The wit doesn't wreck the drama, either: the "That could have been me!" scene is knockabout comedy, but it doesn't take anything away from the seriousness of the situation. All in all, despite the repetition and filler, it zings along: we didn't even notice time passing. After the apparently three-day Fifth Doctor episodes we've seen lately, this was a minor miracle.
What you think of Meglos is pretty much going to depend on what you like in Doctor Who. If you insist on a plot that hangs together and makes some vague sort of scientific sense, you're going to hate it. But if you're more interested in character, a great portrayal of the Doctor and a script that's entertaining, we think you'll find Meglos has a lot going for it. We reckon it's a winner.
MORAL: GE crops. Donít go there.
The Doctor says he wasn't allowed to see the dodecahedron on his last visit because of religious objections. However, later on he starts yapping about it as if he's seen it, and Zastor behaves as if the Doctor visited it last time too.
In the first episode scene where Meglos traps Grugger and Brotadac, in one of the close-ups shots of Meglos in the booth, you can see the reflection of somebody moving around. It may be Grugger or Brotadac, but it doesn't look much like either of them to us.
ITíS A PHILOSOPHICAL PARADOX
How come only part of the time loop repeats?
Nobody's managed to get out of a chronic hysteresis. Ever. Then along come the Doctor and Romana, who instantly solve the problem with a bit of bad acting. Um...
IT'S CURTAINS FOR YOU
God, that's a horrible outfit Romana's got on. It looks like it's been cut out of a pair of drapes, including the lacy nets underneath.
OO WEE OO
At one point while Spike Boy is sneaking around, the incidental music uses a phrase from the theme tune. Is this unique?
LEAF ME ALONE
Romana has quite a struggle to get away from the triffids, but the Gaztaks just take it in their stride, languidly laying about them a bit before strolling away.
What, exactly, does Meglos want the hostage for? And what about that distinctly dodgily-shaped, er, weapon?
GET TO THE POINT
We love the hilariously phallic giant pencil the Gaztaks use to break the doors down - but when did they get the time to so painstakingly whittle it down?
PARENTAL GUIDANCE REQUIRED
Dropping a slab of stone on somebody strikes us as a particularly nasty killing method.
Grugger says he's lost 50 percent of his crew, but more than that appear on the spacecraft.
IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR
We first see two Gaztak crew members on board the spacecraft, but later another one has mysteriously appeared.
OR MAYBE THAT'S JUST THEIR ACTING
The two Tigellans don't seem particularly surprised by the TARDIS, do they?
ITíS NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Meglos in his squelchy form sounds just like a Wirrn.
As we all know, the Doctor never uses guns. No, no. That's because he's far too busy offing people with weapons of mass destruction.