Monday, January 23, 2012

Like A Computer, But There's Something Wrong With Its Pitch (Meglos)

By this point Baker's relationship with Ward had grown a
bit prickly.
It's September 27, 1980. The Police are at number one with "Don't Stand So Close To Me. It stays in number one for all four weeks of this story. Stevie Wonder, Queen, Diana Ross, Thin Lizzy, and Barbara Streisand also chart. Those who notice a tendency for the music charts to suddenly go a bit dull right when Doctor Who is having a rough time of it get further ammunition today.

While in real news, it's announced that The Evening News will be closing and merging with The Evening Standard, James Callaghan announces that he will resign as leader of the Labour Party, the Metro is released by British Leyland, and Margaret Thatcher gives her "The lady's not for turning" speech in which she basically declares that she doesn't much care if her economic policies are disastrous, she's not going to change them. They are, and she doesn't.

And if none of that sounds terribly exciting, you should see what's on television, namely Meglos. To paraphrase an old joke, it's terribly boring, plus the episodes are too short. But all of this masks something approximating a sensible decision. Meglos is the second story of the John Nathan-Turner era to make it to screen, but it's actually the third story of the era to be made, coming after State of Decay in production. Notably, State of Decay features Adric, the new companion, meaning that Meglos marks an active decision to go back and create a fill-in story before Adric's introduction instead of transitioning straight into the E-Space stories.

On the one hand this means that the Nathan-Turner era began with the three stories least like how it meant to carry on. Two were by and large Graham Williams stories with the serial numbers filed off, and the third is basically a Philip Hinchcliffe story. But even given this there is a sense that a deliberate effort to make a steady transition away from the Williams era and towards a new model. The second, subtler John Nathan-Turner revolution is rumbling along here. It's just that this is an excruciatingly rocky step along the way. The Leisure Hive was rocky, but this is an out and out disaster.

First, then, why? Frankly, the answer here is writers again. It's almost entirely that simple. Certainly, and this doesn't get admitted enough, for all that the script is two steps backwards from the Williams era the production is at least one step forward. It's clear that the show is trying to do more than point cameras at Tom Baker and some other people and hope entertainment happens. That isn't anywhere near enough, but it's something. But my God, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch turn out an insipid script almost entirely lacking in characterization or depth. Bidmead focuses more on getting the science right than on improving it. The result is horribly flat and insipid.

Christopher H. Bidmead is an interesting figure. There are some writers who come across much better and saner in interviews than they do in their scripts. Bidmead, on the other hand, falls into the opposite and usually much more interesting category. His three scripts for the program are all phenomenally good, but reading him actually talk about what he was trying to do with Doctor Who makes him come off as a bewildering hack of a writer who believed that the problems with Doctor Who were an excess of comedy and that it was too "magical." You can generally count on zero hands how often removing comedy and magic from Doctor Who is going to be a recipe for success.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Bidmead's tenure is that he does such a wretched job of removing magic from the series. Even in this story the dodecahedron gives the sense of being powerful because it's a Platonic solid as opposed to because it works on anything resembling an actual scientific principle. And in future stories, most obviously his own scripts, the sense that there might be some magical thinking underlying them becomes even more unavoidable.

By any standards the underlying ideas here are bonkers. And not just the dodecahedron's reliance on Plato Power either. Meglos's shapechanging abilities do not seem to come from any logic or concept. He apparently needs to be merged with an Earthling to change shape, but why this is and why an Earthling instead of, for instance, a much nearer by species is wholly unclear. And then there's the chronic hysteresis.

In practice, the chronic hysteresis is simply a time loop. But as time loops go it's one of the strangest we've seen. The way that the Doctor and Romana are able to get out of it is by mimicing their own actions out of sync with the loop and thus throw the loop out of phase apparently by "tricking" it. As Miles and Wood point out at great length, this is completely insane from any rational perspective. It's one of the most non-sensical time loops ever in the series. And perhaps most interestingly, it's overtly magical. It makes sense only if the time loop - and thus the universe itself - is not only aware but understands itself through the manipulation of symbols and language. Saying the right words tricks it. It is the exact inverse of everything that Bidmead ostensibly believes about the program.

Except that it actually does make sense. Bidmead, apparently, was responsible for renaming the loop a "chronic hysteresis." And those words are significant. "Chronic" is sensible enough - ongoing, continual, that's all sensible language for "caught in something for all eternity." But "hysteresis" is an odder word. What it specifically means is that there is a bit of lag between cause and effect in a system. It's not, in and of itself, the right word for a time loop. It has nothing to do with recursion or reiteration. But it just about makes sense as a description of this particular type of loop. After the initial set of repeated actions the Doctor and Romana get a few seconds of awareness of what's happening before they have to go repeat it. There is, in other words, a point of lag in it. And a hysteresis would at least in some sense be meaningfully interacted with by throwing it "out of phase," which is the term the Doctor uses - i.e. altering the nature of the gap.

What we're faced with, in other words, is on the one hand something that overtly works like magic in the "manipulation of the universe through the manipulation of symbols" sense of the concept but that also clearly adheres to a set of fixed and consistent rules. Which is fair enough. Certainly "magic" isn't the most unreasonable shorthand ever for "when there are no rules governing what happens." And it appears that this is the sense that Bidmead means his "less magic" prescription for Doctor Who. That aspects of the story have to work according to fixed rules as opposed to arbitrarily. Thus if the time loop is going to be broken in that way the time loop has to be consistently conceptualized as something that can be broken in that way.

What's interesting about this is that it marks an explicit transition in the sorts of things that appear in Doctor Who stories. For much of Tom Baker's tenure he's solved problems by inventing spurious branches of science and applying them to things. So, for instance, in The Pirate Planet he creates "a hyperspatial forceshield around the shrunken planets" before "invert[ing] the gravity field" of it. This is not even remotely meaningful. It's just arbitrary technobabble. It makes sense because it fills a gap in the plot usefully and sounds like a vaguely credible way for how the Doctor might have solved the problem he was facing at that particular moment in time.

But the chronic hysteresis is different. Instead of being a solution that fills in a gap in the narrative it's an object with a defined set of rules that the Doctor interacts with. In this regard it's much more like a hard "SF" sort of concept - a scientific idea that must be solved like a puzzle. Except that instead of working like science it works symbolically, like language. It's important to stress that this isn't just a switch in the sorts of stories that are told. It's a distinct switch towards the unification of concept and event that we've been talking about for a while now. Instead of having dialogue that simply explains what happened Doctor Who, under Bidmead, is trying to have its ideas dictate the way in which they are interacted with. This makes it much easier to engage in more visual storytelling because the actions that the Doctor takes are ones that extend not from his cleverness but from the nature of the world he's in.

There are also some strong bits of the production. After a rather crass and overbearing score by Peter Howell in The Leisure Hive we get a score that is at times genuinely effective. Dudley Simpson's scores get more of a bad reputation than they perhaps deserve, amounting usually to "bland and occasionally irritating wallpaper" as opposed to "sins against man and God," but the music in Meglos at times actually starts to make it clear why replacing him wasn't just a case of shaking things up but a positive change. There are, in fact, moments where the music manages to make the Tigellan city actually seem mystical and wondrous. Which is impressive, because there's nothing else that contributes even remotely to that impression.

The other thing that's at least decent about Meglos is the acting, or at least, some of it. Much has been made by several people about Tom Baker's supposed lack of enthusiasm in this season. While it is true that over the course of the first few stories filmed he was apparently quite ill, and this does put a visible damper on his performance, as Tat Wood puts it in one of the best sentences in all of About Time, he "is having fun finding ways of suggesting he's a mad cactus." It's known that Baker did not get along entirely well with Nathan-Turner and his attempts to rein in Baker's more self-indulgent tendencies. But as with the cases where Pertwee was not entirely happy with things, Baker is in many ways improved by the curtailing. Far from being off his game he is, in this season, much closer to the character as he was at the height of the Hinchcliffe era.

Credit also has to go to the "cactus Baker" makeup, photos of which are one of the more popular and common images from this era. The reasons are straightforward enough - it's a fantastic and unnerving image that turns the popularity of the actor and his character on its ear. It's what Baker and Martin were trying to get with having the Doctor be possessed in The Invisible Enemy, but done this time with a simpler and yet more dramatic physical transformation that lands much more squarely in the realm of "creepy."

And finally some mention must go to Jacqueline Hill, returning to the program after far too many years as Lexa, the religious zealot/secondary antagonist of the story. Given next to nothing to work with as far as her character goes Hill, surprising absolutely no one who has ever seen her in anything, nails it and is one of the strongest parts of the episode by far. She's as wasted in it as she was in several parts of the Hartnell era, but carries off the same steady dignity that is so familiar from that era. She remains a direly under-appreciated actress who deserved a longer and more extravagantly prestigious career than she ever got. But it's marvelous to see her again.

Past that, however, there's not a lot to say about the story that's terribly interesting. It introduces another new piece of filming technology - a technique called Scene Sync that's basically CSO that allows camera movement. Its fourth episode may actually have fewer minutes of new footage than most of The Mind Robber. And it's over so we can move on to more interesting things. So there you go.

35 comments:

  1. Nice essay.

    But my god, that was the worst picture-pun yet.

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  2. The thing(s) that strike me about Meglos and Leisure Hive is that the prosthetic make-up at the BBC has radically improved since I, Claudius which was just 4 years earlier - both stories seem to feature it for no better reason that "it looks good" much like the set of Ghost Light does in a similar manner years later. In fact if you think of both of the stories as cheap adverts for new BBC tech, I can almost see a justification for them (although my inner fan quite likes the Leisure Hive for some inexplicable reason.)

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  3. The sad thing about this story is that episode 1 is really well written, or at least full of cheap pleasures. Meglos has great dialogue, with a cracker of a cliffhanger line, and this is the episode with the sadly botched "threads of the universe" line too. After that it falls prey to Baker and Martin syndrome - too many things it wants to have happen (as you noted, "ideas" isn't quite the right word for this) and not enough discipline. It's notable that Bidmead thought that Flanagan and McCullough might become his Baker and Martin - reliable enough go-to writers - and even considered having them write the regeneration story. Maybe they were just easy to work with.

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  4. I read the novelisation of this first, and enjoyed the fact that much of it was seen through the eyes of the earth man... so was greatfly disappointed when he was hardly in the serial. I remember almost nothing about it now except a tracking effects shot.

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  5. "Instead of being a solution that fills in a gap in the narrative it's an object with a defined set of rules that the Doctor interacts with. In this regard it's much more like a hard "SF" sort of concept - a scientific idea that must be solved like a puzzle. Except that instead of working like science it works symbolically, like language"

    Actually, far more than hard SF, what this sounds like is the puzzles in text adventure games of the time (as Graham Nelson put it, "an adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative"). And we all know how much of a computer person Bidmead was - and to what extent the show is at this point deliberately aiming itself at the same people who'd be playing Scott Adams games on their BBC Micros.

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  6. Bidmead inserts a scene in the novelisation of 'Logopolis' in which the Doctor hands Adric a copy of Paradise Lost, and Adric draws a comparison between Satan and the Master.

    "The book was all printed in short lines that wasted a lot of
    the paper on the right-hand side of the page, and they gave
    the narrative a cumulating rhythm that Adric found
    unpleasant at first. But as he got into the story – it was
    about flying people called Angels who were at war against
    the Evil creatures that lived in a Burning Lake – the
    rhythm seemed to help the way the story built up.
    The Leader of the Burning-Lake Dwellers reminded
    Adric of the Master. Just as the Master had once been a
    Gallifreyan and was still a Time Lord, the evil character in
    the story was refugee Angel. So although the landscape of
    the story, with its Thunder and Lightning and Black Fire,
    was so obviously a fiction, this central correspondence with
    the truth riveted Adric’s interest.
    He was ascending a huge staircase that lead to a gate
    built of gold and studded with diamonds when he was
    jolted back from the book to the normality of the TARDIS." - Logopolis (novelisation)

    I think Bidmead really, instinctively 'got' Who. Not least in respect of making entropy into a prominent theme (which shows up in Meglos in terms of the rusting screens in the silicon wasteland of a dead planet... the encroaching "lush, aggressive vegetation"... the decaying energy emissions from the Dodecahedron). Doctor Who is only barely sci-fi, but it does share an obsession with the strand of 'soft' sci-fi best embodied by people like Ursula le Guin and Philip K. Dick: namely, entropy. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a doctoral thesis about Dick and entropy, quite rightly. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is an epic of decay. Doctor Who has combined its nature as a hodgepodge of children's fiction / quest narrative / boy's annual / Orwellian satire with a deep and persistent interest in entropy. What's the very first story about? The loss of heat! Bidmead appears to have picked up on this. And by making the entropy explicit he also makes it mystical, a force in itself... a bit like the "kipple" that PKD has Buster Friendly preach about. Bidmead also, being very computery, concieves of reality as being like a great big hard drive. Entropy becomes corrupted information... which is why his baddies always work like computer viruses, corrupting systems from within. Of course, when Bidmead writes entropy like corrupted information, he's connecting entropy as a concept in physics/cosmology with entropy in information theory... the crux of the connection is the radio telescope in Logopolis. In information theory, transmission is a crucial concept. Bidmead has the univers needing to be saved by physical entropy via the transmission of information! Mindblowing.

    But the really weird thing is how neatly this dovetails with religious conceptions of how reality is made of words (something implicit in Genesis, the Kabbalah, etc... indeed, in 'magic', which alters reality with incantations). That's why the Logopolitan mathematicians are also like monks or wizards.

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  7. Bidmead's approach is much misunderstood, possibly even by Bidmead (hence the discrepancy Phil notices between the interesting scripts and the dull interviews). Like many scientifically-minded people, he is essentially a mystic.

    The word "gnostic" would be quite apt. The underlying concepts of 'Logopolis' and 'Castrovalva' chime quite startlingly well with several Gnostic currents. The Kabbalah is partly derived from gnosticism and conceives of reality as made of language. That's where the connection between the physical entropy and the information entropy comes from, I think.

    This sort of thing crops up with lots of materialist mystics. It can be a form of philosophical idealism, as in Dawkins and his memes.

    I think that may be why Bidmead liked/commissioned Meglos. The Dodecahedron is, as Phil says, highly suggestive of platonic forms, but it also makes me think of Kepler, and his obsession with the perfect shapes that he thought contained the secrets of the universe... which was a conflict within him between science and mysticism which he sought unsuccessfully to reconcile... the problem is that the nearest thing to such a character in the story is Zastor, who's hardly there at all.

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  8. The mention of the dodecahedron reminds me of something else relating to my own comment, actually. One of the very first text adventures of the type I was talking about was a very simple game called Hunt The Wumpus, of which its creator said:

    "I started to think along the lines of: “There has to be a hide and seek computer game without that (exp. deleted) grid!!” In fact, why not a topological computer game — imagine a set of points connected in some way and the player moves about the set via the interconnections."

    So he chose his 'favourite Platonic solid', the dodecahedron.

    The entropy connection, of course, also ties in to the Key To Time, a battle between Order and Chaos (entropy). Entropy is what gives us freedom (Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, mathematically equivalent to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, shows that totalitarianism can never work on its own terms because entropy will always increase) but it's also what will eventually lead us to die.

    The Doctor, acting against both repression and death, thus has an uneasy relationship with entropy, and this is why he's so often an agent of renewal and rebirth, and why he's reborn himself so often... but that's a few stories' time...

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  9. It always seems to me that Bidmead is doing fairy-tale science. Not in the sense of something like Star Wars, using bits of scientific terminology to dress up an old-fashioned story, but in a deeper sense: creating new fairy tales appropriate for a culture steeped in science and technology. Classic fairy tales are all about dark woods and wolves and disreputable strangers. Bidmead's fairy tales are about computers, mathematics, cosmology and evolution. It's a compelling agenda for Doctor Who, and more ambitious than anything we've seen for a long time. Most recently, of course, Steven Moffat has developed his own fairy-tale approach to Doctor Who, and that's been very successful in its own terms, but I think Bidmead still wins in terms of intellectual scope.

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  10. bidmead, i thought, always subscribed to the idea that "any science sufficiently advanced can be seen as magic", and did excellent work along those lines. That was his strength, not the sardonic or black wit or everyman approach of Robert Holmes, which certainly gave us more intersting characters to discuss. Bidmead was the opposite of Baker and Martin: lots of ideas and he was actually willing to take them somewhere.Unfortunately, the scripts were a little too heavy science fantasy and a little less memorable characters. it certainly was a different approach to an entire season of Soldeed.

    The Bidmeads are far more intersting in to talk about, just a little less fun to watch.

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  11. @ink: I'm not sure that's fair. The four High Bidmead scripts -- Warriors' Gate through to Castrovalva, the best run of four since Deadly Assassin to Talons -- have great characters in them: all of Warriors' Gate, the Consuls in Keeper, Shardovan in Castrovalva. Logopolis maybe less so. I agree that the Bidmeads aren't so much fun to watch, but I think it's partly because there isn't in general a Big Bad and partly because they simply didn't want to make it that kind of fun.

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  12. There are maybe two other interesting things to say, one of which is about the story.

    About Meglos: It's got a conflict between science and religion where religion doesn't lose. Or, at least, the science side are clearly the ones we sympathise with, but the religious side isn't humiliated. Bidmead clearly understands the draw of robes and ritual and he isn't ready to write it off. Yes, it's the science guys who accompany the Doctor to Zolfa-Thura, but the last act of the religious side in the story is for Jacqueline Hill to sacrifice herself for Romana.

    Another thing about Meglos is the evil double aspect: it plays very enjoyably with the idea of "what if you *shouldn't* trust the Doctor?", in a way that isn't really matched until the definitive version in Midnight. This is all part of undermining the Doctor, of course, and to an extent it's a conscious agenda on Bidmead's part, but to another extent it's just stakes-raising by a new producer -- Williams did the same throughout season 15 too, before he worked out how to tell stories with the Tom Baker he'd got.

    (Another nother thing -- I'm watching episode 4 as I watch this and it has lots of great lines, good comedy bandits, two great performances from Tom Baker, reasonable FX... really, if you could edit out all the Tigella bits this would be a great Graham Williams story).

    Final, broader point: I notice that in comments on the last two entries we've had mention of the novelizations of both of these and of Logopolis. That's a marker of the other turning point that season 18 represented: the Target range moved to encouraging the screenwriters to write their own novelizations, while at the same time technology was catching up so the stories were being preserved for rewatch as video rather than as books. Season 18 has great novels, and it's only partly because Bidmead's vision was so literary. After this the novels matter less to the fans, though obviously the season 25 and 26 novels laid a lot of groundwork for the Virgin books.

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    1. Religion doesn't lose? That's not the impression I got.

      For a start, their role in the story (and in the implied back story) is entirely antagonistic - they say "no" a lot to the savants who want to study the dodecahedron and understand it. There's never even the slightest hint in the story that the "gods of Tie" are real, and we certainly know that they didn't actually create the dodecahedron, so the entire foundation of the religion is shown in the story to be false, its adherents dangerous fanatics.

      There is that self sacrifice, yes. But only a few minutes earlier that same sacrificial victim was about to kill the Doctor in a pointless ritual with a malicious grin on her face. Her sacrifice to save Romana is, at best, a redemptive one - and you can't have a redemptive sacrifice unless you've done something bad to require redemption in the first place.

      I'd say religion definitely loses and loses hard in this story; I can see no way of reading it that is remotely sympathetic to the religious side of the conflict.

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  13. He apparently needs to be merged with an Earthling to change shape, but why this is and why an Earthling instead of, for instance, a much nearer by species is wholly unclear.

    Perhaps for the same reason that the Eye of Harmony can only be activated by human retinal patterns.

    Whsatever the hell reason that is.

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    1. The Eye of Harmony only being activated by human retinal patterns does get explained in The Apocalypse Element - it made me laugh when I realised what they were doing.

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    2. Yeah, but then there's the question of why the Doctor has the appropriate retinas.

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  14. Another Dodecahedron connection - Bidmead's era of Doctor Who always reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth... that slightly eerie inner world where maths, language and logic can become personified or solidified.

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  15. @ william - i quite agree with you. I don't think that i wrote that post very well. that run of 4 stories is the best that we get, together, til Rose in my opinion. I REALLY enjoy the E-space trilogy, its heavy tone sat quite well with me. Particularly still enjoy Warriors Gate and think that it would work well today... except for the fact that it laid the groundwork for the Saward version of Doctor Who: it showed a show that the Doctor wasn't an active protagonist in. The show simply moved around him with out him having to actually do anything.

    certainly the novels started to flesh out the scripts with backstory that was lost on the cutting room floor... or simply was never going to make it into the script. but they did fill in the holes nicely, didn't they?

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  16. I tend to be far kinder to this story than most. In fact I'd rather watch this than KEEPER OF TRAKEN, despite having the dialogue from the time loop segment forever engrained in my memory ("Well, now his probe circuit's jammed." "Oh, that's easy; just waggle his tail". "All right. We've tried everything else"). Granted, the science vs religion aspect is not executed in a particularly compelling manner and most of the Tigellans have the personalities of cardboard, but I still think the story has a great first episode (the cliffhanger, the surreal opening where Grugger and Brotadac realize that they're talking to a cactus, the cactus makeup on the human) and an entertaining conclusion with the Doctor impersonating Meglos.

    Unfortunately, the episode hints at a lot of intriguing possibilities, but does not follow through on them. For instance, Meglos knows of the Timelords and can bend time, but this is never examined. Heck, we aren't even really told what Meglos is, just that he can modulate himself on wavelengths of light, or some such thing. Come to that, how did the Dodecahedron get from Zulfa-Thura to Tigella in the first place? All chances for some interesting world building - just ignored.

    The only thing that really bothers me however (aside from the lame killer plants) is how easily the religious side is let off the hook at the end. The Deons decide that it is OK to just condemn someone to death, take over the complex, and expel the Savants to the hostile surface when it suits them, and then at the end everyone acts as though everything is hunky dory. The Deons don't even have the luxury of being correct about what the Dodecahedron really is, or who was to blame for stealing it.

    I do like Meglos's indignant reaction to being forced to swear allegiance to Ti, though.

    Odd thing I just found, apparently Gareth Roberts had originally planned to use Meglos in THE LODGER. That might have been . . . interesting.

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    1. Apparently not only did he plan to use Meglos, he planned to have the great joke that the Doctor didn't really remember who Meglos was. Which, as they say, works on so many levels.

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  17. @Keith: That was my thought, but then and now. I was utterly fascinated at the idea of a race that achieved technological breakthroughs that potentially made them a threat to the Timelords despite the seemingly insurmountable problem of being ... sessile?!? And then, naturally, we never hear from them again.

    @William Whyte: I'd have paid good money to have seen that version of The Lodger.

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  18. Another omission from The Lodger I'd have wanted to see was the scene from the comic where The Doctor plays a (GTA-like) computer game, but finishes it without ever using his gun.

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  19. By the way... do we think the Zolfa-Thurans were all cacti? That's certainly what Terrance Dicks thought when he novelised the story... but personally I've always rather thought that Meglos (blessed as he was with the ability to shape-shift and cursed with having to live alone on a desert planet) simply chose to live as a cactus in order to conserve water. The cactus form served him for millenia before he suddenly, for some reason, decided to act... but by then he'd kind-of got stuck in that shape and needed a template before he could change. The length of time he spent in cactus form might also be why he kept half-reverting... a bit like someone trying and failing to speak their native language perfectly again after years of speaking only a second language.

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    1. You know what they say, Alan.

      Cactus makes perfect.

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  20. Jack -- I like that theory. It doesn't explain why he needed an earthling rather than any other humanoid, but maybe the Gaztaks just happened to get an earthling.

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  21. Meglos is underrated, I think, but it bungles the classic Holmesian double-act with Grugger and Brotadac (Frederic Treves ridiculously overacts the latter part) -- Tom Baker, on the other hand, getting better from his illness, looks like he's having fun being an off-version of the Doctor; just look at the wide eyes and grin on his face as Meglos states his introduction to the Tigellans in order of what he thinks is important: "I'm a Time Lord. I'm the Doctor."

    That kind of stuck with me as being a great little detail, as well... unfortunately, it's never explained why exactly Grugger's crew would take such a great leap of faith from one message from a near-deserted planet.

    As for how the Dodecahedron got from Zolfa-Thura to Tigella, I think it's kind of obvious: They're the same planet, but with different names. The Zolfa-Thuran civilization that built the Dodecahedron died out, all except Meglos, who went into hibernation. Much later, a new civilization arose calling the planet Tigella, split into two factions, and here we are.

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    1. It seems fairly explicit that Tigella and Zolfa-Thura are different planets in the same system. Our first view of Zolfa-Thura shows another planet in the sky which is presumably Tigella.

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  22. Meglos is responsible for one of the best bits in the Virgin books: The Gallifreyan drinking song in "Cold Fusion". "We're caught in a chronic hysteresis, we're caught in a chronic hysteresis..."

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  23. @Matthew Blanchette: 'Meglos is underrated' LOL. I want that on a WHO tee.

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    1. Well, I want it on a T-shirt just because of the absurdity of commenting on the relative merits of an obscure, 30-year-old episode of DW that involves a homicidal cactus says more about the state of contemporary nerditry than it does about the show or the episode itself.

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    2. I just thought it was funny; a bold statement, and yet an ambiguous one. Meglos makes an excellent antagonist for sure, but the serial is, well, not the best one of season eighteen (IMHOOC). It sort of deserves some little promotion. Plus, I like the idea of trying to get my photo taken with Tom Baker while wearing a t-shirt, perhaps with a cartoon of Lophophora williamsii on it, that says 'Meglos is underrated'. ;)

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  24. I'm a bit put off by just how much this story was dismissed when it was first broadcast, and for the most part continues to be after all this time. Having just watched this back-to-back with "THE LEISURE HIVE" (last night and tonight), I found "MEGLOS" far superior on every single level. No, I'm not joking!

    The first thing I noticed, of course, was the "Scene-Synch". Yes, it's CSO, but about 100 times better than what was used in "UNDERWORLD". And as someone who's worked with 3D modeling programs, it continues to delight me when I can see such a cheap show do something that looks so damn good as this! The idea, for those who've forgotten or never knew, is that you can actually link up 2 cameras, the one for live-action and the one for the computer models, and they both move together. It's quite stunning that they were able to do something like this. One should never become jaded just because something's several decades old already.

    But far more impressive is the regular directing, acting, camera-work, editing... the STORY-TELLING, for God's sake!! I checked the IMDB, and it's unbelievable that this was Terrence Dudley's only DOCTOR WHO story as director. I mean, this man was SO good! He totally blows away every single thing that was done in "THE LEISURE HIVE" by comparison, and he does it by simply doing things the plain and simple, no-frills way, but doing it extremely well. Make no mistake. The best work is often invisible.

    I do kinda wish the characters had more development. Edward Underdown was so sympathetic, and Jacqueline Hill WASN'T, but neither really got to stretch much. Far more fun was Bill Fraser (who returned less than a year later for "K-9 AND COMPANY"). He's not very bright, but next to his his men, his is truly a towering intellect! (Somebody said that once...)

    Yes, I would have liked more background about Meglos, the Zolpha-Thurans, the Dodecahedron, the Screens... but somehow, none of that seemed to matter while I was totally caught up watching this (movie-version, the short episode lengths and recaps don't apply).

    Tom Baker is MAGNIFICENT in this! His Doctor is thoughtful, and funny, but without over-doing it. His Meglos is a THRILL to watch! Oh, man, it made me dearly wish that after leaving the show that Baker had returned to playing movie villains like he did in "GOLDEN VOYAGE" and "VAULT OF HORROR". He's just intensely good in this.

    And Lalla Ward-- WOW. She's smart, cool, and she has the funniest bits in the story. I love when she brings up The Doctor's mention of "anti-clockwise rotation" and uses it to fun rings around the halfwit bandits.

    The last episode just had me full of excitement from beginning to end. Simply put, THIS is what Season 17 SHOULD have been like!!! Had JNT & Douglas Adams ever been able to join forces, maybe it could have. I know, not on JNT's watch.

    The one thing that lets it down for me is the end. Completely uncalled-for "cliffhanger" about Gallifrey. I HATE when they do crap like that!!! And in retrospect, it makes a total farce out of the fact that, due to behind-the-scenes troubles, they NEVER DID get to Gallifrey, and we never found out why they wanted them back! (There's a story I'd have liked to have seen.)

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  25. The music in this story truly is fantastic, and melds with the visuals and story perfectly. And the music elevates the story, for without it the proceedings wouldn't work as effectively*.

    Of all the season 18 stories, "Meglos" is easily the most overran with magical thinking - so much happens, with absolutely no reason or logic behind it. Meglos does almost anything on his computers. It's as if the story needs a prequel to explain his society's powers, abilities, and global war (probably because of fighting over the powers and abilities.) But the story scribbles off those details as a side-note.

    Of the cast, the regulars are on fine form and the only guest cast to make an impression is Jacqueline Hill, who steals the show as Lexa. I'd normally side with scientists, but Ms. Hill puts in so much emotional weight into Lexa that she's the only person I care for, despite Caris' accurate assessment of what would happen if their energy source fails.

    What's also interesting is that both sides are wrong. Lexa thinks killing people will make the dodecahedron work again. Caris, Deedrix, et al, think it's dying. Meglos, the only one who knows, states the energy source is going through a rephase mode and will become more powerful. Okay, Meglos could be wrong as well, but the designer of the thing or someone with schematics would be more knowledgeable than somebody who has never seen it (yet seems to know its shape when Meglos shows it to her in a later scene!) Then again, did the Tigellans call it "dodecahedron" for the cool mysticism the name alludes to, or because of the number of sides it had... "Meglos" is full of shoving science words at the viewer, but so haphazardly they lose meaning. "Prion planetary system", indeed... and the bad news is, Earth turns in an anti-clockwise rotation, too... :)

    The societal spats are interesting - two factions both yelling at each other, with a leader who can't do anything to get both sides to calm down and work together, while someone from the outside schemes to get rid of them both, over an energy source whose long-term viability is in doubt. It's a little too simplistic (science vs religion), and had Jacqueline Hill not be involved this story would fare far worse.

    Tom Baker also excels - Tom, as Meglos, is oozing coolness and one would beg to see more villainy. Meglos is to Doc4 what the Valeyard is to Doc6 - a polar opposite. Not unlike the Master/Doctor comparison between Delgado and Pertwee.

    Terrance Dudley's direction is sublime. He should have done more. As a writer for WHO, only "Four to Doomsday" appeals (his other scripts being stuck as 2-parters don't go anywhere as a result because he has to rush all the exposition through.)



    * (Some television can do better with limited music, e.g. the Blake's 7 episode "Pressure Point" where music is very sparingly used, and incidentally it's the music at the end over a key moment that does more to wreck the scene, which is sad as the story was by and large free of music, letting the dialogue and plot carry the weight and the emotion.)

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  26. I agree with Timelord7202 -- the music here is excellent! I really enjoyed this story when, as a teen-ager, I first saw it in 1991 on Maryland Public Television. The visuals are fascinating; the chronic hysteresis is great and its undoing made an intuitive kind of sense to my teen-aged self; Tom Baker's performance as Meglos sends chills up my spine (particularly the reading of "I'm a Time Lord. I'm the Doctor" as noted by another commenter), and the "Cactus Baker" makeup, as you noted, is fantastic. Actually, I'd say "totally astonishing."

    The story is completely bonkers, of course, like something out of a really weird Saturday-morning cartoon, but the images and the music made this one unforgettable for me.

    As another commenter suggested, Meglos presumably got stuck as a cactus after hiding in that form for some untold decades or centuries. That was my assumption too. But there are plenty of other things that needed explanation and the characterization is not very interesting.

    And I would've also paid good money to see that version of "The Lodger."

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