As monsters go, Meglos is a really odd one, a mad and bad shapeshifter who also happens to be a cactus. As threats go, this is delightfully strange. He also works well as a way to tell a story about how brave and strong an ordinary person can be. For reasons that are not really explained very well there is a human being in this story and he is there because Meglos needs one for some reason in order to do the whole possessing shapeshifty thing. The choice of human is brilliant, because he is obviously somebody Meglos thinks is going to be no problem to dominate: a gentle, bookish sort of soul. Let’s face it, this is the writers holding up a mirror to the audience and saying, look, here’s one of you nerds. Which might seem like a bad thing until it turns out that Meglos completely underestimated how magnificent this most ordinary human can be, fighting against his possession and regaining control. This is one of those moments that really puts the “indomitable” speech in The Ark in Space into perspective.
Elsewhere the reinvention of Doctor Who continues to be much the same as it was before the reinvention, with a whole bunch of old ideas cobbled together: killer plants (not just Meglos), a deserted dead planet, planets with only one type of environment, two established cultures representing science and religion, possession of humans.
Like The Leisure Hive before it, the new approach is limited to Christopher H Bidmead’s new script editing methods, which involves throwing in a smattering of technobabble to make this sound convincingly scientific (luckily he does comparatively little of this here). You will recognise those bits quite easily because they are all the boring ones. So instead of a “time loop” we have a “chronic hysteresis”.
Hysteresis is derived from ὑστέρησις meaning “lagging behind” – so it fits with how the Doctor and Romana use the lag in the time loop to break it. You can see what Bidmead is doing and its the same thing he did with The Leisure Hive: making sense of things by finding a good scientific word that describes it in some way. But crucially the thing he is trying to describe with his big science word is completely non-scientific. The way the Doctor and Romana escape is to trick the time loop with an acting performance, as if the universe has some kind of intelligence that allows for it to be tricked, so the term “chronic hysteresis” is a sticking plaster for a bit of the typical Clarke’s Third Law stuff Doctor Who always does.
So we have a sense here that Doctor Who now has a script editor who thinks the best way to improve a script is to invent scientific words for the things that don’t make sense in an attempt to rationalise them, when any other script editor would have actually rewritten the nonsensical bits (or more often just recognised them for the bit of magic they are).
To be clear, I am not criticising the Third Law approach. It is a way to tell amazing stories and the last thing I ever want Doctor Who to be is rigidly logical within the bounds of what is scientifically possible. But the hypocrisy of making it as magical and Third Law-ish as ever while pretending you’re not is frustrating, especially as it just throws in a load of obfuscation that was only ever going to make Doctor Who that little bit less accessible to anyone other than the narrow demographic that thinks Doctor Who should be scientific and humourless.
So the script is actively working against the intentions of the script editor, who is doing his best to put sticking plasters over it. With a concept as wacky as a super villain body-swapping cactus, there was only going to be one winner in this internal battle between magical weirdness and the boring bits of science. RP
The view from across the pond:
Ah, Meglos! One of those episodes that gave credence to all the abuse I took as a kid for liking Doctor Who! At least it taught me what a dodecahedron was and I still love saying that word. The best thing about Meglos, without a doubt! Had the E-Space trilogy not turned up when it did, the final season of Tom Baker’s run might have been the weakest. As luck had it, that trilogy made it much better.
But before going there, audiences found themselves on Tigella with Jacqueline Hill (formerly Barbara Wright) as Lexa. Lexa worships a power source the way modern humans worship the television: she thinks this technology is a god. Accepting this as potential commentary not unlike (but decades before) Black Mirror, this could be an unusual triumph for Doctor Who as it brings into focus the debate between faith and science. Alas, it’s too “80’s” to go father with it. It did a reasonably good job giving Tom Baker the ability to play both good guy and bad, but that was about the extent of the pros for this story.
But absurdity abounds in this story as a human is brought to Zolfa-Thura where he will merge with Meglos. General Grugger sums it up well when he asks “why would you summon, from across the galaxy, a thing like that?” But the question is apt. Why go through the bother of that whole sequence? Partly it establishes that Meglos can take on other forms, but that could have been illustrated later, like when Meglos takes on the Doctor’s form not 5 minutes after becoming Random Suit-Guy, basically rendering Random Suit-Guy utterly superfluous to the story. (“Hey, we need to take up a good 10 minutes of this 25 minute episode… what do you suggest? How about some random guy in a suit for no reason?”) It’s revealed in part three that there is a reason for it; so the human spirit can fight through and prove to be stronger than Meglos. But this is Doctor Who! I argue: why couldn’t the same effect be achieved using Tigellans? Then we wouldn’t have a random dude in a business suit appear on our screens thus tarnishing an image of an otherwise alien world. Maybe because the viewing audience couldn’t grasp that other races have strong personal identities? I don’t buy it! Maybe it was for the humor value at the end but it’s an awfully weak payoff.
And what sort of thing is Meglos? Let’s review what we know:
- He can tune into the TARDIS.
- He has technology that allows him to put the Doctor into a time loop! (More on that in a second)
- He can take over other organic life but when not doing so, sits on a plinth as a cactus.
- He can also shapeshift. Ish. Maybe…
So about shapeshifting… When he takes over the Random Suit-Guy’s body, he does just that: takes over the body. He doesn’t actually shape-shift. The cactus is there, shriveled up on the ground and the human/cactus is next to him. When, moments later (in front of the clearly-blind Gaztaks) he becomes the Doctor, he somehow manages to be wearing the Doctor’s clothing, so the Random Suit… also transformed. Now the Doctor was not wearing his coat when Meglos tuned into the TARDIS and the static picture we see of the Doctor is only of his face. He could have been wearing a bathing suit for all Meglos could see. Then later on, Meglos removes his coat. Isn’t that the same coat that miraculously appeared on him when he was standing in front of the Gaztaks? It’s painful! I don’t know who to blame, the writer, director, script editor… it just crumbles to a sand-blasted wasteland!
Also, it was neat seeing the Doctor stuck in a Time Loop. I learned the best way to get out of a time loop by watching this episode, but I still think saying “dodecahedron” is more fun and a more practical thing to know. But the name they give the time loop was deplorable: “chronic hysteresis”. I’m pretty sure it comes from “history-resets” with a technobabble spin. Fair dues though; the acting is impressive because even I wanted to laugh when both Baker and Ward say it like we should all know how bad it is, but they say it perfectly straight-faced. Impressive. “Oh, no! It couldn’t be a fibbleshot dooberdink, could it?” Yes, I too can put sounds together. But then to get out of it, the Doctor and Romana have to act it out faster than it occurs. Fine. (Weird, but fine.) But after repeating the same actions about 20 times, the Doctor still needs help remembering his lines (good job Time Lord – the sequence required you saying all of about 2 things!) which actually breaks the sequence they are trying to duplicate. Thus, they don’t actually repeat the sequence! They do something different and still escape which makes no sense because why did they have to do anything at all? John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch must have been down to the pub when working on writing this story!
Typically I aim for more positive comments in Doctor Who but this story was not just forgettable, but embarrassing to watch with my son. I’m afraid that just gets me a bit prickly. (Yeah, I went there!)
I’m stopping there to go glare meaningfully at a cactus just in spite. In the meantime, beware fibbleshot dooberdinks! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Full Circle