A Doctor Who debate about science vs. religion may not seem like fertile ground for action, but when you throw in an evil talking cactus, well ...
Doctor WhoDirector: Terence Dudley
Cast: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, John Leeson, Jacqueline Hill
Distributor: BBC Warner
Release Date: 2011-01-11
Meglos! Just the mere sight of the name is enough to strike fear in the hearts of the bravest of men, because, after all, Meglos is one pretty darned evil cactus.
OK, so he's actually not terrifying at all, but when a prickly villain has intentions this pleasantly straightforward and his evil plan serves as the set up for a good science vs. religion debate, it's hard to go wrong with Meglos, a fine example of "prime era" Doctor Who.
The plot is relatively simple: on the planet Tigella, the Dodecahedron is considered one of the most important things to ever exist. This giant dodecahedron-shaped object has mysterious energy supplies that the planet's scientists have harnessed in a way that helps run all of Tigella. However, there's a whole different group of people that don't view it as a natural resource miracle: a group called the Deons worship the Dodecahedron as a gift from the gods, and constantly rebuke efforts from said scientists to use it for anything other than worship. As such, Tigella's leader, Zastor (Edward Underdown), must constantly play peacekeeper between the two factions, eventually seeking the help of The Doctor when things get too heated. During all of this, however, a vile psychic cactus named Meglos (along with a comically misplaced batch of space pirates) seek to harness the power of the Dodecahedron for far more devious uses ...
As with most Tom Baker-era Doctor Who serials, the most compelling aspects of this story lies not in its good vs. evil machinations, but instead in its philosophical undercurrent. Although the religion/science debate presented here definitely rests a bit on the broad side (unsurprisingly favoring science), it still proves fertile ground for some interesting exploration of the subject, ranging from religious conversion (Meglos, disguised as the Doctor, must take an oath in order to see the Dodecahedron, which would normally go completely against the real Doctor's beliefs, cueing Zastor that something is amiss) to the willingness for a science to believe just a little (Deon leader Lexa humiliates a scientist in view of all when she asks him to explain some of the more simple miracles of their planet). Although the whole thing devolves down into mistaken-identity sci-fi sabotage near the end (as most Doctor Who's are wont to do), it still manages to pose some interesting topics of debate.
What is not up to debate, however, are some of the things that ultimately weigh this production down. Although it's fantastic to see former Hartnell-era assistant Jacqueline Hill return to the series in a non-sidekick role (here playing Lexa), Edward Underdown's performance as Zastor is forced & wooden, nearly sucking the energy out of every scene he's in (can we coin the phrase "di-Zastor-ous" now?). Meglos' merry band of space pirates, too, feels out-of-place in this sci-fi story, like expository add-ons that are used merely to give background to Meglos.
So give credit where credit is due: Tom Baker, undoubtedly thrilled to be given yet another chance to show off, gives a fantastic performance as both the Doctor and his Meglos-inhabited doppelganger, his clear differentiation between the two allows the audience to always clearly see which one is which, even during the scenes when the Meglos Doctor is not covered in cactus spikes.
Yet even with Baker's performance being something of note, it's the special features on this particular DVD release that steal the show, arguably proving to be more entertaining than Meglos itself. It seems that in the past year or so, the BBC have decided that placing a few "talking heads" segments on these DVDs isn't enough, so have upped the production budget considerably, which pays off very well. A feature about Meglos' writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch (simply titled Meglos Men) features artsy location shots, an extremely professional-looking title sequence, and editing that is more fitting for a theatrical documentary than a mere DVD extra. These small technical improvements give this profile of such a quaint writing duo a bit more of a feeling of nostalgia and gravitas instead of being mere "behind-the-scenes filler" -- the fact that they're so willing to self-deprecate only adds to the charm.
This is then followed by a documentary about Scene Sync (a revolutionary blue screen synchronization technique that had its first major use on this particular Doctor Who serial) and a rather moving look at the life of Jacqueline Hill, come full circle from her first Doctor Who appearance to her last, and her career in-between. Although Doctor Who DVD extras have always been notable for their quality, this particular batch raises the bar ever so slightly for the ones to follow.
So while Meglos serve as a bit a holding pattern for the Fourth Doctor, it is still a notably enjoyable serial, its low-budget charms and overarching sense of danger all summed up by one terrifying (and prickly) little word: Meglos!