Posts Tagged ‘John Flanagan’

I have a confession to make (probably). Should I even tell you this? I don’t know. It’s a bit of a quandary that I find myself in, and no mistake. You know what, I trust you: you seem like someone of taste and discretion – I mean, you’re reading this, after all? Okay, I’m going to tell you: last week, I… oh, the shame is almost too great. To hell with it – last week, I watched Meglos on DVD.

Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe that in a modern enlightened society Meglos is available on DVD, but there you go. Just think about it: at any moment, young people all around you could quite possibly be watching Meglos on DVD. This is surely libertarianism gone utterly insane. I’m sure that if, back in 1980, there had been any conception that DVD would some day be ubiquitous as a home entertainment medium, the production of Meglos would have been instantly cancelled.

I suppose it is just possible you are unfamiliar with just what Meglos is. Lucky you. It is a Doctor Who story from the 1980-81 season, from close to the back end of Tom Baker’s tenure in the title role. Although it isn’t actually Baker’s swansong, it always feels like his last gasp to me, probably because I only really saw the first episode on its initial transmission (it hails from those strange and distant days, which admittedly seem to be showing every sign of making a comeback, when missing an episode or a whole story didn’t feel like that big a deal) and it was the final Baker story to be novelised, at least in the sense that we normally understand it. It was also the last Baker story I finally got around to seeing, which happened with the VHS release in 2003. Is this a case of last but not least? In a word, no.

Well, there may be worse Baker stories, I suppose, but off the top of my head even the stories that usually get hailed as duds in our house – The Invasion of Time, Underworld, The Armageddon Factor – all have more to distinguish them than this thing.

One of the weird phenomena of the DVD age is that moment when, either in an accompanying documentary or on the audio commentary for an almost entirely bungled production, an otherwise sensible and respected creative individual says something along the lines of ‘I watched it again quite recently and I thought it stood up rather well’. Sure enough, this happens with Christopher Bidmead on the Meglos DVD. One wonders what his baseline for ‘quite good’ Doctor Who is. It almost makes one want to do that experiment where you mix up a handful of undisputedly great Doctor Who stories (Pyramids of Mars, Caves of Androzani, Inferno) with an equal number of utter stinkers (Meglos, Timelash, and so on), force someone from outside fandom to watch them, and see if they can tell which are which. Are the differences between good and bad Who so subtle? Have our palates become that rarefied?

Well, anyway: here’s the story of Meglos, for the uninitiated. The action is split between two planets. The first of them is Zolfa-Thura, once the home to a race of malevolent intelligent cacti, and left barren after a war between them. How, you may be wondering, would a race of cacti, intelligent and malevolent or not, prosecute a war? This is a very good question. Unfortunately, it is not one which the writers of Meglos show any signs of having given thought to. The last surviving evil intelligent cactus, Meglos himself, lurks in a survival chamber beneath the sands of Zolfa-Thura, plotting to recover the power source for the evil intelligent cactus super-weapon (which sort of resembles the one in that Disney Star Wars movie now I think about it).


However, said power source (the Dodecahedron, so named because, um, it’s dodecahedral in shape) has ended up on nearby Tigella, accurately described by (if memory serves) a DWM reviewer as ‘one of those tedious single-issue planets’. Everyone on Tigella lives underground, because carnivorous vegetation makes the surface completely uninhabitable, at least until the story’s conclusion when they decide that they can probably manage it provided they do some really fierce gardening first. The Tigellans are split into two groups, the Deons, who are dangerous and sinister religious fanatics, and the Savants, who are wise and enlightened scientific types who wear stupid wigs.

As the story opens, the Dodecahedron has gone a bit wibbly-wobbly, causing the Tigellans no end of heartache. The attentive viewer – and I would say being that attentive is frankly going somewhat beyond the call of duty with a story like this one – must assume that Meglos has somehow brought this about, otherwise the story makes no sense. As it is, trying to unravel the ins and outs and who-does-whats of this story is enough to give you a headache.

Basically, Meglos wants to steal the Dodecahedron from the Tigellans, and he impersonates the Doctor to do so, although this requires him to possess the body of an Earthling. (Why an Earthling and not a member of one of the numerous other outwardly-identical species infesting the galaxy in Who-world? You may have guessed the story’s explanation of this: that’s right, it’s non-existent.) To stop the real Doctor from turning up and complicating matters during his visit, Meglos traps him in a rather silly time loop. How, you may be wondering, does a cactus, intelligent and malevolent or not… well, let me just cut you off there and reveal that, once again, an explanation is not forthcoming.

You have probably grasped the reasons why Meglos is such a very unrewarding story to watch. It’s been said that one of the hallmarks of a great piece of SF or fantasy is the sense that a fully-developed, living, completely believable alien world is going on beyond the edges of the screen. Well, in Meglos, there’s no sense of a fully-developed believable alien world going on actually in front of the camera – the writers just seems to have made a load of stuff up and sort of shuffled it together to make a kind of story thing. Not, it must be said, with a great deal of imagination: note that as well as the dodecahedral Dodecahedron, we have the deistic Deons and the savvy Savants, and a megalomaniac called Meglos. (There’s also a character called Brotadac, so named because the writers anticipated he would be played by a bad actor. Hrrm.)

The story itself is almost totally lacking in resonance or context, and the plot is almost totally procedural in nature: literally the only good moment in the whole thing is when one character gets a nice speech how the Doctor seems to see and repair the threads that hold the universe together. The rest of it is just people trudging from point A to point B for no very good reason other than that the plot demands that they do – there are hardly any reaction beats and very few character moments of any kind.

I suppose there is some interest in observing Meglos‘ place as a piece of mainstream SF of the year 1980, which may explain the strange mixture of styles on display. Boring old Tigella with its cliched science-vs-religion dichotomy could come out of any piece of pulp SF from the 30s onwards, while the look (if nothing else) of Meglos’ Gaztak henchmen – if one believes the writers – was inspired by the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic just coming into vogue at the time. Then there’s the hapless Earthling, who it’s very difficult not to see as some sort of spiritual cousin to Arthur Dent, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being very au courant at the time. You could even say that the whole story resembles a fairly clumsy Douglas Adams pastiche, but with all the jokes and wit and intelligence ripped out of it.

(I suppose one is also obliged to express sadness that, of all the stories┬áthat bona fide Who legend Jacqueline Hill could have chosen to return in, it had to be this one. Another sign of the changing times is the fact that there’s no in-story acknowledgement of her special status within the series’ history – not a single nod, nor a single wink. Unimaginable these days, of course.)

The slightly maddening thing is that in a couple of respects Meglos does show signs that not everyone involved in making it was asleep at the wheel: some of the set designs and visual effects work is well up to standard, but the inept writing and direction means you don’t really notice them much. I seem to recall a quote from the producer around the time the story came out that it was intended as (I may be paraphrasing) ‘a traditional story about a maniac who wants to take over the universe’ – in other words, just a standard story, nothing special. Could this be where the root of the problems with Meglos began? Set out to make a great story, something unusual, and even if you don’t manage it, you’ll probably end up with something decent. Aspire to mediocrity, and if you fail, the result is something very unedifying indeed. As it is, Meglos‘ main distinguishing feature is that it is so very, very undistinguished.


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