By this point Baker’s relationship with Ward had grown a
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.