Tag Archives: Jacqueline Hill

Meglos

2 Aug

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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Meglos begins, and largely remains, on Tigella. It’s one of those dreary single-issue planets – think Karfel, Jaconda or Xeros – found on the unlovely outer rim of Doctor Who. Tigella’s history and culture is laid out in a clunky exchange at the top of Part One. “For thousands of years our lives have been dominated by a mystery,” says Deedrix, assistant under-secretary of exposition. He continues: “The Dodecahedron belongs to all of us, not just the Deons!” “But their religion deserves respect!” replies the elderly Zastor, not wishing us to go uninformed about the nature of these Deons for so much as a second. “Religion! Ha!” scoffs Deedrix, quick to clarify his attitude. And there’s Tigella, ladies and gentlemen. Your reviewer was once knocked down by a speeding Tesco delivery van that introduced itself with more subtlety and wit.

This mysterious Dodecahedron supplies power for the whole Tigellan race – who clearly favour eggs over baskets – but while its output has dwindled for years, its imminent failure is shock news to some. “I tell you that our city is on the edge of total extinction!” wails Deedrix. Zastor responds to this with a startled look of “Holy heck! I’d never considered that!” – which, given that this the only conversation ever held on Tigella, suggests he has a worryingly laissez-faire attitude toward key social issues.

Nothing about Tigella persuades us it could possibly be a real place. If the end is indeed nigh, you think they’d stop squandering their waning wattage on laundry and hair care. The scientist Savants dazzle in Persil biological white, while the cultist Deons shimmy about in acres of chiffon. I say “hair care”, but Tigella is a world of hats, helmets, hoods and headdresses, plus a set of uniquely grievous wigs. In the olden days, the believability of an alien planet in Doctor Who could be measured by the equation T = n ÷ h, where T is the time is minutes until viewer credulity snaps; n is the on-screen population of said planet; and h is the number of hats worn. The Inverse Hat Law means that if everyone is on a given planet has something distracting on their head, there’s no point in trying to tell a considered story about global extinction. (You can, however, have some fun with android princes and crazy weddings.) Modern Doctor Who knows to respect the Inverse Hat Law. Alien planets are a rare sight these days. Alien hats rarer still.

The actors tasked with breathing life into the Tigellans generally acquit themselves well as they fight a losing battle against the syrups and script. Sample dialogue: “Your concurrence, Lexa, can not revoke the laws of physics.” Lexa is the leader of the Deons, and played with quiet dignity by Jacqueline Hill – who in another time was the acme of Doctor Who companions, Barbara Wright. One wonders what the actress made of this trip to a space both strange and familiar. Did she offer Lalla Ward tips on how to act lost in 20ft of jungle? As a High Priestess plotting a human sacrifice, did Hill recall her finest hour as Barbara, battling to prevent one? Did she feel a frisson upon hearing Tigella’s neighbouring world described as “the dead planet”? Hill’s presence short-circuits the first 17 years of Doctor Who, and shows us how little changed over that time.

Here’s something that was as true in 1980 is it was in 1963 – and is in 2011: all good stories need a good villain. Meglos, alas, has Meglos. “I am a plant!” he burbles proudly to his henchmen, the Gaztaks. The conversation that follows, between Meglos and General Grugger of the Gaztaks, is one of the silliest in Doctor Who history. We repeatedly cut between Grugger (actor Bill Fraser arching a pitying eyebrow beneath the flashiest headgear in the whole show; a feral cat asleep under a jelly mould, with a foil star glinting atop the lot in case our attention should wander) and a static shot of a rubber cactus. The scene invites mockery, and deservedly so. It echoes back to us in Victoria Wood’s “I haven’t got the ming-mongs” sketch, David Tennant’s appearance on Extras and countless other send-ups. But it could have been worse. The cactus might have been made to wobble as it talked.

Thankfully, things pep up after Meglos disguises himself as the Doctor. When channeling the rebarbative wit of Tom Baker, he’s at least entertaining. Needing a lift from the Gaztaks, Baker gives Meglos the manner of an arrogant, middle-class homosexual forced to deal with a particularly malodorous and, well… common team of removal men. He can barely bring himself to look at them. On Tigella, when Meglos realizes he needs to pledge himself to a religion he holds in contempt, Baker’s switchback delivery of the line, “I, swear allegiance to Ti? I’ll… I’ll swear allegiance to Ti with great pleasure,” is enormous fun. It’s often said that there’s little difference between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Tom Baker the man, but while the Fourth Doctor is a loveable eccentric 99% of the time, tales from the set paint Baker as an altogether more difficult personality. I think we see some of that cold, cocksure, bullying Baker in his performance here. You can imagine him waving his script in the face of the director. “I, read out this whippet shit?” (Some suitable words of flattery are offered to the recalcitrant star.) “I’ll… I’ll read out this whippet shit with great pleasure.”

All that is interesting about Meglos comes from Tom Baker. Otherwise, he’s Doctor Who’s most lazily sketched villain ever. The Doctor asks him: “Why would a good-looking chap like you want to control the Universe?” Meglos’s reply: “It is beyond your comprehension!” is an epic cop-out that suggests the writers don’t have the foggiest idea either. More irritating still, his fundamental physical nature changes from episode to episode, to suit the whims of what we might indulgently call the plot. First, he’s a self-confessed plant. Later, he seems to be a parasitic intelligence that merely inhabited a cactus in the way then he does a human host. But this is thrown into doubt by a hilarious moment in Part Four when Meglos abandons his human form, and a kind of green carpet bag sidles apologetically from the room. The cast watch it in silent disbelief, studiously avoiding eye contact for fear they might never stop laughing. “He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light,” intuits the Doctor, flying in the face of all empirical evidence. “He must be a latex sack moving on a particular length of string,” would fit the available facts better.

So what’s good about Meglos? As mentioned, there’s a plucky cast doing their best, with Bill Fraser and Frederick Treves as the chief Gaztaks proving the most fun. The first cliffhanger, when Meglos appears as the Doctor, is splendid. The music, from Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, the 80s’ most melodic composers, is ahead of its time in Doctor Who terms, offering some catchy themes that would go down well at the Proms.

In the end, however, that counts for little. Fundamentally, Meglos is difficult to love because it’s impossible to care about anything that happens. Our sympathies certainly aren’t roused by the science/religion debate on Tigella – which occupies the lion’s share of this story – as the wig people and the hat people squabble their way to collective suicide. Even the writers appear to lose interest in the Tigellans. We know their underground city and civilisation depends entirely on the power of the Dodecahedron, but then the Doctor disposes of it without offering any substitute. In the final scene, old Zastor is up in the jungle, waving the Doctor farewell as if poised to while away the rest of his days doing a little light gardening. He’ll be fertiliser by sundown.

On the commentary track of this DVD, the story’s co-writer John Flanagan says: “Back then, you could make people believe you were on an alien planet just by having characters say they were, and having a few lights flashing.”

No you couldn’t. And that’s why Meglos went wrong. For a writer, creating a convincing backdrop for a Doctor Who story is the most important task of all. You can’t just decide a cactus wants to take over the universe and think your job is done. We have to be helped believe that characters have an existence beyond what is required by the plot, that they lived in the days before we met them, and will go on living after the Tardis departs.

This principle is what separates good Doctor Who from the bad.

It always has. And it always will.

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DVD EXTRAS

Meglos Men, the disc’s principal documentary, reunites writers Flanagan and Andy McCulloch for a tour of old London haunts. The conceit requires each to tell the other things that they already know. “We’re on our way to the house you’d lived in when we wrote Meglos,” John tells Andrew. “That’s right,” Andrew tells John. It’s all very Deedrix and Zastor.

In the dead of night, they creep up to the home of their Doctor Who script editor, Chronic Hysteresis Bidmead (Address: A Cold High Place Overlooking The Universe). We’re welcomed inside, and it’s nice to have a snoop at the soft furnishings. Sadly, the little Bidmead says is as muddle-headed as ever. “Before I took over Doctor Who, a lot of magic and sorcery stuff had got into it,” he huffs. It’s an ill-informed prejudice based, one imagines, not on the solidly scientific hyperspace storyline of Nightmare of Eden or the neutron star of Creature From the Pit – praised by New Scientist magazine at the time – but upon an unmade Pennant Roberts script left in his desk drawer back in 1980. It was unmade for a reason. It’s not like the season ended with a planet of wizards chanting spells that conjure objects out of thin air. That would be silly.

Finally, there’s mention of Flanagan and McCulloch’s abandoned story Project Zeta Sigma, which was planned to feature a character called ‘Ranwek’ – whose name, the writers tell us with a gleeful chuckle, was an anagram. Gosh. Sometimes this stuff reviews itself.

The undoubted highlight of this DVD is the tribute Jacqueline Hill: A Life In Pictures, which features interviews with the actresses’ husband, Alvin Rakoff, and her friend Ann Davies. It’s a mature piece that stirs emotions. Davies tells how, when her beloved friend was weakened by cancer, she would gently wash Hill’s hair for her. Something about this resonates with the iconography of Barbara Wright – that proud, outrageous hairdo – and the perfect tragedy of it twists at the gut.

Hill died in 1993. But only in one world. In a recent episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah told us that Barbara Wright is alive and well and – magically – has never aged a day.

How true that is.

The Rescue and The Romans

16 Jul

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. By this point, I was starting to massively exceed my allotted word count. And I’ve only got worse. This one is 1,800 words, and I knew I was pushing my luck. I recently submitted 3,400 words for the ‘Earth Story’ double pack. I’m very naughty – and Tom Spilsbury is a very kind editor!

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If you want to understand how Doctor Who became a smash success, then forget the Daleks, shelve your Beginning box set, and instead reach for The Rescue and The Romans. Here, in the oval of a Venn diagram labelled with the names of writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, is where the programme we love was born. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman may have asked for a show, he might even have named a show, but Whitaker and Spooner gave us The Show. With The Rescue, we see outgoing story editor Whitaker justify all the notes he gave to other, lesser writers, and prove that how he wanted it done was exactly how it should be done. Then Spooner, incoming story editor and genius writer of The Romans, gives the format one final tweak by allowing the Doctor to be cleverer, funnier, cooler – turning him into a hero we could cheer. Between them, Whitaker and Spooner created Doctor Who. They should have been thanked in the closing titles of each episode that followed. Their grandchildren should receive 10% of the sale of every Doctor Who DVD, dolly and duvet cover. It would still be the bargain of a lifetime, because we owe them everything.

The Rescue takes us to the planet Dido, where perky young Vicki and whingeing, pain-in-the-arse astronaut Bennett are the only survivors of a spaceship crash. As the pair await a lifeboat from Earth, they find themselves terrorised by a hideous alien beast called Koquillion. All spiky antennae, googly eyes and glittery accessories, Koquillion looks like the result of an unfortunate teleport accident involving a stag beetle and Danny La Rue. He claims to be Vicki and Bennett’s only protection against the other natives of Dido, who apparently murdered…

STOP! ‘Koquillion claims’? What shilly-shallying. ‘Who apparently murdered’? We simply can’t go on like this. You see, your reviewer had The Rescue spoiled for him by this very magazine when he was just eight years old – over a decade before he had a chance to see the episodes themselves – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let history repeat. Not so very long ago, it would have been taken for granted that every DWM reader knew what happens in The Rescue. But today, there will be eight-year-olds cruising towards the next paragraph in blissful ignorance. If that’s you, and you’ve never read even the briefest synopsis of the story, then turn the page. Do not come back until you’ve watched the DVD. After three stars, and with just three words, it will be spoiled forever.

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Bennett is Koquillion. Having committed murder aboard ship, he’s covered his tracks by killing the rest of the crew. His disguise is to help sell the lie of homicidal natives to Vicki, who will ultimately act as his alibi. However, the fact that Bennett’s ultimate unmasking by the Doctor reminds us of Scooby Doo leads to that single, dreary criticism of The Rescue – that it is a ‘whodunnit’ with only one suspect. What utter rubbish. It’s no kind of whodunnit at all. To confirm this, your reviewer watched these episodes with a friend who knew nothing of the story, and had also just watched the previous 51 episodes, in order, for the first time. This took some organising by the way. From the start, our newcomer believed that Koquillion was an alien monster – and a beautifully-realised one compared to the Voord and the Sensorites. Only when Bennett’s room is found to be empty did he guess, at the exact moment Whitaker intended him to, that man and monster were one and the same. His response was brief and accurate: “That’s brilliant!”. Only by watching The Rescue this way, in its original context, can the immense ingenuity and wit of its story be properly appreciated. It’s a little work of genius.

A wish to redress this disservice may unbalance this box set review, but that’s not to say The Romans isn’t wonderful. Ambition is the watchword here, not just in the way it remains Doctor Who’s funniest story, but also thanks to its endearing aspiration to be a movie epic. Yes, resources are painfully limited – a fact most ably demonstrated when Ian’s slave galley founders on the Cape of Stock Footage, or when he’s threatened by some unlikely-looking lions (Felis Telecinius in the latin) – but it never stops the production team from trying.

The regular cast are at their very best, notably Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell as the Doctor. Guest star Derek Francis may be the focus of the fruity farce in episode three, but when he propositions Barbara – “Close your eyes, and Nero will give you a big surprise” – it’s Hill’s expert double-take that turns it into a thoroughly dirty joke.

Hartnell’s brilliant performance in The Romans is only ever bettered by his big scene in The Rescue. (It’s rare to find our lead more at ease in a sci-fi tale, but his confrontation with Bennett is sublime, with the Doctor’s bright little eyes dancing in the darkness.) The Romans feels less rehearsed, and so Hartnell takes his familiar Eric Morecambe approach to the dialogue – saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right mountain goat. Although he’s far from alone in that. One of Doctor Who’s most tense moments comes when Michael Peake, playing slave master Tavius, slips up on a line and he and Hartnell look at each other in agonised silence for a long moment before our star saves him. You lift up in your seat as your buttocks clench in sympathetic discomfort.

Fumbles and stumbles included, these six stunning episodes form the template from which all future Doctor Who would be cut. You could compile a trailer for the entire series using clips from The Rescue alone. “We can travel anywhere in that old box,” says the Doctor proudly. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!”

Even Hartnell, Doctor Who’s great champion, didn’t know how right he was.

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DVD EXTRAS

All praise must go to the Restoration Team for another expert clean-up job, another labour of love. The results are stunning, sometimes even surprising. You can now clearly see Ian actor William Russell sidling out of shot in the background of Sandy the Sand Beast’s cave, long before he’s due to emerge. Well, one presumes it’s Russell from his sharp suit, but this being the BBC of the sixties, it could equally well be the floor manager or the tea boy.

Mounting the Rescue is an excellent little documentary, perfectly straightforward but never dull. The star of the show is designer Raymond Cusick. Always so still and inscrutable, he’s like watching an Easter Island statue attend a job interview. Only when raw materials are mentioned does Cusick betray what by his standards must be a heady rush of emotion. Watch for when his eyes flash – well, widen by a millimetre – at the mention of “reeded hardboard”. Cusick is another of Doctor Who’s bona fide geniuses, and while his anecdotes may be on the dry side, this reviewer could listen to his measured modesty all day.

There’s an interesting detail hidden away and unacknowledged in the Photo Gallery. Production legend, restated in the documentary here, recounts how Jacqueline Hill came close to serious injury when a flare gun detonated prematurely in the first take of Barbara’s assassination of Sandy. But here’s a photograph showing the very moment of the explosion. It’s during a rehearsal, as Barbara removes the gun from a store cupboard. Zoom in to the picture and you can see how close the flash is to Hill’s face, and imagine how terrifying this must have been for her. With all that hair lacquer, she could have gone up like Vesuvius. It also brings home the craziness of Doctor Who’s as-live production at the time, with actresses expected to stumble through long takes with primed explosives in their trembling hands.

The production documentary for The Romans is a bewildering affair. The Doctor Who material is smart and informative, but then we suddenly have Anthony Andrews discussing his own performance as Nero in the eighties TV potboiler A.D., and Christopher Biggins ruminating on I, Claudius. It leaves a nagging sense of a programme maker either bored of talking only about Doctor Who, or worse, ashamed of it. Input from the outside world is always welcome, but this sort of thing can only work if, at the very least, someone has the balls to show Andrews and Biggins a clip from The Romans and tease out an opinion, however derisory. The link must be directly made; otherwise the whole production appears schizophrenic. Oddly, you can find an example of how to do this properly within the same documentary, as Dr Mark Bradley, lecturer in Ancient Histories at Nottingham University, outlines the true history of Caesar Nero, as far as it is known, and then discusses what The Romans gets right and wrong. Perfect! It’s a shame Dr Mark’s particular field of expertise precludes future DVD appearances – at least until The Myth Makers turns up – as your reviewer would love to see him again. Dinner would be nice.

Girls! Girls! Girls!, a look at Doctor Who’s plucky lady helpers of the sixties, offers groovy graphics, entirely superficial content, and a narrator struggling to finish some epic sentences before they choke her. What should have been an interesting study of the development of the companion proves no more than a collection of hit-and-miss anecdotes from the actresses concerned, who are rather tactlessly presented in front of giant blow-ups of their younger, smoother selves. Reaching The War Games in 1969, we’re told, “This coincided with the close of the most memorable decade of the 20th century”. What thoughtless tosh. Tell that to anyone who lived through the Blitz.

From the same producer, but better in every way, is Dennis Spooner – Wanna Write a Television Series?, which discusses the writer’s Doctor Who work within the context of his long and brilliant TV career. Spooner was a king of pulp drama, but pulp with brains, heart and guts. His sometime writing partner Brian Clemens offers a moving personal tribute, while Who writer Rob Shearman provides a typically insightful commentary. However, his assertion that The Romans is the best story of the black-and-white era cannot go without challenge. Shearman’s nearly right, but it’s not even the best story in this box set – but only because it’s paired with some fine competition.

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