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Posts Tagged ‘season 18’

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).

meglos

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 that 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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Life is a series of transitions, some of which we notice, some of which we don’t, some of which are repeated and cyclical, some of which are once-in-a-lifetime events, some of which are almost imperceptibly gradual, and some of which hit you like the proverbial ton of bricks. How much choice do we really have about any of these things? How much power do we really have to affect our own future? Should we really try to be more aware of these strange transitional spaces when we enter them?

So, a review of a Tom Baker Doctor Who story. All Doctor Who takes me to my happy place – some examples, admittedly, more completely than others – but none so quickly nor so surely than the best of the fourth Doctor’s stories. Giving myself only a month this year to concentrate on this era resulted in some really painful decisions – after gorging myself on most of season 14 (surely the zenith of this most zenithal Doctor) I found myself short of time and had to skip seasons 16 and 17 entirely, much as I love them and stuffed with great stories though they are.

Now, my absolute favourite fourth Doctor story is Pyramids of Mars, but the criteria for this current set of reviews is that they’re of stories that have had a special place in my heart ever since I first saw them – and, truth be told, it took me a while to completely fall for Pyramids, eerily brilliant though it is. My next choice was going to be The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but that’s a daunting choice for anyone to review, so many incisive and insightful words having already been written about that wonderful story.

So here I am, writing about Warriors’ Gate, instead – a strange choice, you may be thinking, but this is a strange story in many ways. If you asked a dozen people what they want from a really good episode of Doctor Who, you’d probably get a dozen or so different answers: a rattling good adventure yarn, a scary monster for the kids, clever plotting, heartbreaking emotional journeys (if you asked one of the new crowd, anyway), and so on. The thing is that Warriors’ Gate doesn’t really feature any of these things. (It doesn’t even really feature any warriors, though there is thankfully at least a gate in it.)

The story opens with the Doctor and his companions lost in another space-time continuum, from which they would quite like to escape (they have been stuck here for the previous two stories). When rational analysis of the problem doesn’t produce any answers, the Doctor proposes setting the controls at random and seeing what happens – which Adric then goes ahead and does. As a result the TARDIS enters a featureless white void, and is penetrated by Biroc, an enigmatic alien who seems to have an innate affinity with time even greater than that of a Time Lord.

But Biroc is on the run, hunted by the crew of a privateer starship which is also stranded in the void, and also desperate to escape: they are slavers, trading in Biroc’s people and exploiting their special temporal sensitivity by using them as navigators. Biroc, the slavers, and the TARDIS travellers find themselves drawn to a mysterious stone gateway, the only structure in the void: within is a very peculiar hall of mirrors, a host of decaying robots, and – possibly – the answers to all their questions…

gateway

Warriors’ Gate is a challenging piece of Doctor Who, and almost unparallelled in its ability to confuzzle the unwary (Ghost Light could probably give it a run for its money, though). It is utterly unthinkable that anything so oblique and obscure and densely cerebral would possibly be broadcast on BBC1 on a Saturday evening these days, and that’s something that makes me rather sad, because for all of its flaws – which are numerous – Warriors’ Gate is also brave and distinctive.

This story emanates from a period of Doctor Who when the show’s narrative was being overseen by Christopher H Bidmead, who has become something of a divisive and controversial figure in recent years (mainly because he’s not afraid to take pops at Rusty Davies and David Tennant). Where Bidmead’s immediate predecessors told stories which were driven by characterisation and an appreciation of literature, the season Bidmead oversaw was much more about places than people – most of the stories of season 18 revolve around the Doctor arriving in an environment which is, in some way or other, mysterious, and the plot essentially details how he figures out the rules and history which inform the operation of wherever it is that he is. So, for example, Full Circle is basically about the process of coming to understand the very eccentric ecology of the planet Alzarius, and the ramifications of this for its inhabitants. In the same way, Warriors’ Gate is about trying to understand the nature of the void and its occupants.

What makes Warriors’ Gate different is that this process-of-understanding is not especially well-supported by the narrative as presented on screen. There isn’t a big moment of explicit exposition where the Doctor shouts ‘Aha!’ and for the benefit of the audience explains what exactly has been going on for the previous four episodes. The clues are there, very openly if you know what to look for, but not necessarily highlighted as such – talk of randomness and probability, the tension between action and inaction. There are also things in this story appreciably stranger than anything normally seen in Doctor Who, by which I mean conceptually stranger: an environment where space and time are literally interchangeable, and a story where the usual process of cause-and-effect starts twisting back on itself.

This probably sounds like very tough going, and if you sit down and try to make sense of every last detail then you’ll probably just end up giving yourself a nasty headache – I’ve never been able to work out which of the two universes involved the Tharils originate from – most of the clues in the story strongly suggest they’re native to E-Space, as are the privateer crew, but this doesn’t really explain the distinctly Terran-sounding names and cultural references aboard their ship. I do kick myself about this; I once spent well over an hour interviewing Steve Gallagher, writer of this story, and completely neglected to ask him to explain the finer details of the plot to me.

Then again, I got the impression there was a degree of editorial and directorial jiggery-pokery involved with which Gallagher was distinctly displeased. I can’t entirely share his chagrin – while this is one of the most overtly directed Doctor Who stories, by the standards of its time it looks impressively different, with some terrific visual conceits along the way. One of the most striking things about the story is that while the void itself represents the coming together of two universes, the aesthetic of the tale sees the collision of post-Alien grimy hard SF with fairy-tale fantasy. Both of these things are well achieved – a particular word of praise for the under-utilised Gundan robots – and the contrast between the two is highly effective.

The story also benefits from having an interesting set of bad guys in the form of the privateer crew, who mostly seem more concerned with the contents of their packed lunches than with actually being malevolent. Doctor Who has rarely got the banality of real evil quite as right as it does here, and the ship’s captain, played by Clifford Rose, is a plausible psychotic. ‘I’m finally getting something done!’ he cries at the climax – another key line in a story which is on one level about the virtues of sometimes remaining completely passive.

I talk quite a lot about the distinction between plot-driven 20th century Who and its character-driven 21st century counterpart, but some parts of season 18 – particularly this story and Logopolis – come as close as any Doctor Who to being something else again, idea-driven narratives. These are not so much stories based on high-concepts but abstract ones, with the tales seeming to meander around without much of an awareness of traditional plotting. However, with ideas as unusual as these, and direction as strong as these stories enjoy (Warriors’ Gate was the work of Paul Joyce, with assistance from an uncredited Graeme Harper), the results are fascinating and peculiarly watchable.

And there is one further transitional state bound up with Warriors’ Gate, for me personally anyway. It feels strange to admit to this now, and I don’t really understand how it happened, but I didn’t watch most of season 18 on its original broadcast: the stories were just a little too full-on and hard-edged for me to take at the age of 6. I remember odd episodes of The Leisure Hive and Meglos, but (almost uniquely for any story after The Invisible Enemy) nothing of Full Circle or State of Decay from their original transmissions.

But I do remember seeing the first episode of Warriors’ Gate and thinking ‘this is out there’. And I remember making a point of watching the last episode, for a couple of reasons: firstly, K9 was leaving, who I’d always loved, and I wanted to say goodbye to him properly. And secondly, although I couldn’t understand how, I knew that somehow they would be changing the Doctor soon, and I wanted to see how they’d pull the trick. I didn’t know when it would be done, though, and for a brief moment thought it would be at the end of this story. It wasn’t, and so I resolved to watch the next story as well. And then, as it turned out, the one after that. And then see what happened after that. And after that, and after that, and after that, until…

I’m not saying that Warriors’ Gate made me into the pathological, beyond-help Doctor Who fan that I am today [Autres temps, autres moeurs – needless to say, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall between them managed to come up with at least a partial cure – A] – that process may well have already been underway, and the last couple of season 18 stories also played their role. But it marks the point at which I stopped casually missing episodes, if I could possibly avoid it, and Doctor Who became definitively my favourite TV programme, and ultimately one of the great passions of my life [>Sigh< – A]. And that will always make it special for me.

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