This is a strange story: almost like a pause for the audience to catch up with the new look and feel of the show before it plunges headlong into E-Space and the gradual phasing out of the fourth Doctor’s team (and then the Doctor himself). I’ve seen it suggested that this is a Season 17 throwback (it isn’t, the writers were brought on board by Bidmead), or it’s the deliberately funny one (again, I don’t think so: it isn’t very funny and apparently neither JNT nor Bidmead liked the scripts). It vaguely reminds me of The Space Pirates, not particularly because it features space pirates, more because it clumsily introduces a conflict that eats up a huge chunk of the running time without ever letting the Doctor and companions interact with any of the other characters. They don’t even leave the TARDIS in this: a worrying foreshadowing of many extended TARDIS sequences to come.
While the Doctor and Romana fiddle with K9 (and then get trapped in a time loop to delay their arrival even further), the main focus of the episode is on the planets Tigella and Zolfa-Thura. The Tigellans consist of two factions: Deedrix’s Savants, who dress like Movellans with Xeron wigs and worship science, and Lexa’s religious nut Dodecahedron-worshippers. It’s great to see Jacqueline Hill back – and hard to imagine JNT allowing an ex-regular to come back in another role at almost any later point in his tenure.
The two factions spend most of their time shouting at each other, while a truly underwhelming Zastor (played by Edward Underdown) tries to keep the peace with as much authority as a paperclip. His performance sucks all the energy out of his scenes. There’s a moment early on where he’s bantering with Deedrix, and Crawford Logan has to pause awkwardly to allow Underdown to murmur out what’s supposed to be an interjection. Underdown kills the episode’s best line dead with his wet fish delivery: ‘I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break.’ I’m not usually quite so critical of individual actors, but this is one of my all-time least favourite performances in Doctor Who.
The other planet is Zolfa-Thura which is, like Argolis, a civilisation fallen to sand and ashes. Entropy increases. At least the scenes here have a bit of pep, as the gloriously dyspeptic Bill Fraser growls out his lines as Grugger, leader of the Gaztak space pirates. They’ve kidnapped an Earthling and taken him to the famous screens of Zolfa-Thura on a commission from Meglos – which turns out to be a potted cactus. These scenes actually are quite funny, as Grugger and Brotadac plan to double-cross Meglos and steal its white goods: it’s all more entertaining than the comedy thieves in The Creature from the Pit.
Then Meglos merges with the kidnapped Earthling accompanied by absurdly melodramatic music and close ups, manages to spy inside the TARDIS, trap it in a time loop, and then transform itself into a facsimile of the Doctor (so why did it need to possess the human?). I’m not sure any of this makes sense, but it’s a lot more enjoyable than more scenes of the Tigellans shouting at each other.
Next episode: Meglos – Part Two