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Meglos, Or, The One With The Cactus

August 8, 2015


The best thing about Meglos (1980) is Tom Baker playing a bad guy.  Tom Baker is very good at playing bad guys.  Prior to his Whoification, he was the only watchable element in an interminable historical drama about Czar Nicholas II.  Yes.  He was (and remains) Rasputin.  He also offered a fascinating and in some ways sympathetic study in villainy in the course of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the role that attracted the attention of Barry Letts when scouting out potential Fourth Doctors.

Now Patrick Troughton of course played dual roles in Enemy of the World (1968), playing the evil Salamander alongside the good Doctor.  Now that Enemy of the World has been recovered, I can now promote my theory that somehow, for some reason, by a process unknown to me, Al Pacino based his entire performance in Scarface on Pat Troughton’s interpretation of Salamander.

Now Tom Baker had earlier flirtations with extreme nastiness in the course of his Time Lord career.  In Face of Evil (1977), we see the frightening consequences of imprinting his personality on a super computer.  More chilling yet was his performance in the first few episodes of Invasion of Time (1978).

Meglos him/her/itself is in fact a cactus from the planet Zolfa-Thura, in fact the planet’s last surviving inhabitant, who is given the power to take on the Doctor’s form as a result of leeching off a hapless besuited Englishman who has been delivered to him by space pirates.

The story illustrates a society that has achieved an uneasy equipoise between science and religion.  However, although both the scientists (“savants”) and the clerics (“deons”) are depicted as somewhat fractious and arrogant, there can be no doubt as to which of these groups we’re meant to side with, and even Lalla Ward’s future husband – Richard Dawkins – would be satisfied with the balance of opprobrium directed at the priesthood at the expense of the women and men of science.

I can’t help but concur in the belief that Jacqueline Hill’s appearance as Lexa represented a huge wasted opportunity.  Her performance as Barbara from An Unearthly Child (1963) until The Chase (1965) had helped ensure the success of the infant series.  There is a great debt of gratitude owed her.  It’s not that I wanted The Doctor to say anything so pathetically obvious as “your face seems familiar”, but the occasion of Hill’s return to the show at least demanded some better dialogue and a bit more quality one on one time with Tom Baker, although it is entertaining to reflect on the fact that Barbara had been so desperate to wean the Aztecs off human sacrifice, only for Lexa to attempt to sacrifice The Doctor to appease a capricious deity called Ti.  She and the other deons get rather better costumes than the savants, who look like less sexy versions of Movellans.

Meglos is better than is predecessor The Leisure Hive because, for all its technical failings (killer plants below par), it possesses a real sense of evil.  And it has a sense of evil because Tom Baker can play evil.  There’s a reason why Meglos can “pass” as The Doctor during his respites of unspikiness.  The arrogance of Meglos is not a million miles away from a misapplication of the worst aspects of the Fourth Doctor’s peculiar arrogance.

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