What do the two Doctor Who stories on DVD today have in common? On the surface, nothing. But they're both stories about sheltered alien societies coming into contact with other alien races... with disastrous results. Spoilers ahead.
Very few TV shows would be able to get away with showing an alien race meeting another alien race, with nary an Earthling in the mix. But classic Doctor Who did it pretty often, and the new series has done it a few times as well. The two stories on DVD today, "The Dominators" and "Meglos," hail from 1968 and 1980 respectively, but they both feature a non-human (but human-looking) society living in isolation... until the other aliens turn up.
And both stories spend a good deal of time sketching out the society of the "friendly" aliens, who don't see the scourge of the other alien race coming. In the case of "The Dominators," we meet the Dulcians, who are peace-loving to the point of indolence, taking pacifism to crazy heights that are apparently intended as a satire on the hippie movement. Except that we get random hints that a few Dulcians crave excitement and adventure, instead of the serene perfection of Dulcian society. In "Meglos," we meet the Tigellans, who are sheltered more literally — they've been living underground for thousands of years, depending on the mysteroius Dodecahedron to power their civilization. And a split has emerged in Tigellan civilization between the Deons, who worship the Dodecahedron as a god, and the Savants, who are scientists and want to study the Dodecahedron.
Honestly, they're both examples of the sort of hyper-stylized alien societies you get on television, when a show is doing a capital-A Allegory about pacifism or science-vs-religion or whatnot. You can't really believe that either of these societies would exist in real life.
Into both isolated societies comes an alien force — in the case of "The Dominators," it's the titular Dominators, accompanied by their naff little robots, the Quarks. The Dominators rock some huge shoulderpads — it's a sin that we left them out of our roundup of epic shoulderpads from science fiction — and generally swagger about giving orders. In "Meglos," it's Meglos, a sort of sentient cactus who disguises himself as the Doctor so he can steal the Dodecahedron and use it to become all powerful by putting it into "reset mode."
Neither story is going to wind up on anybody's list of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time — most of the real greats from the show's run are already on DVD, with just a few notable gems left. (For my money, those include "Face of Evil," "Day of the Daleks," and "Planet of the Spiders.") And watching them both again, they both definitely have their own charms. If the BBC ever gets around to putting out season boxsets of the classic series (especially if they're reasonably priced, which would be nice) then these stories will be pleasant little diversions in between the more interesting tales. But on their own, they're still pretty entertaining.
"The Dominators" is mostly notable for its attempt to turn the Dominators' robot servants, the Quarks, into a replacement for the Daleks. The Quarks are cute little robots, with spiky heads and boxy little arms and legs, that can barely move and talk in gratingly squeaky voices. There are actually little boys inside of the Quarks, although the voice comes from a grown woman, who spoke very slowly and then had her voice sped up and transformed. The Quarks are not even remotely in the same league as the Daleks, and when you hear/see all the DVD extras talking about the attempt to turn the Quarks into a huge sensation via comics and toys, you can't help feeling a bit sad. (The dispute over who owned the merchandising rights to the Quarks was so intense, the writers of "the Dominators" never wrote for Doctor Who again.)
But the real reason to watch "The Dominators" is for the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Precious few of his stories exist on DVD, and most of the ones which do exist showcase him at the end of his run, when the exhausting pace of filming was clearly starting to get him down. He's at his absolute best in "The Dominators," literally running rings around those massive-shouldered bullies. In episode two, the Dominators administer an intelligence test to the Doctor, who feigns idiocy hilariously, and in later episodes, he figures out the Dominators' plan from an assortment of clues, then manages to turn it back on them. Troughton is clearly having fun with the role, and brings a lot of twinkle and playfulness to every scene he's in.
Also, for most people, this will be the first time you've ever seen "The Dominators" uncut. As with many other stories of that era, "The Dominators" was censored for Australian television, with all the violent bits cut out. The version which was shown on U.S. TV in the 1980s and 1990s was the edited-for-Australians version, with every last bit of violence sanitized out. The censored parts were recovered in the 1990s and edited back in, so this is the complete version at last.
As for "Meglos," it's probably the weakest of the stories from Tom Baker's last season — apart from a few cute moments where the cactus impersonates the Doctor and Baker gets to pull out all of the stops of megalomaniac acting, it's mostly a pretty sturdy but unremarkable story. One thing that becomes apparent if you watch the story with the informational text captions: "Meglos" was running way too short, so the director and script editor padded it out with lots of sequences that add absolutely nothing except for running time. (Lots of being chased, lots of random pantomime business, and lots and lots of the Doctor and Romana being trapped in a "time loop" that repeats the same scene over and over again.) But there are plenty of cute moments here and there, including a nice performance from one of the show's first companions, Jacqueline Hill, as the religious leader Lexa.
The DVD extras for "The Dominators" are pretty bare bones — there's the obligatory documentary about the making of the story, in which we learn that it was originally supposed to be six episodes instead of five, but the production staff thought it was too boring and the allegory was falling flat. (And you learn that the Quarks were a nightmare on location, since they could barely walk on level floors, let alone hillsides.) There's a commentary track featuring a bunch of actors plus the makeup designer. And then there's a wee featurette about how the British newspapers responded to Patrick Troughton's era of Doctor Who.
And the DVD extras for "Meglos" are also pretty sparse, especially by the standards of some of the other Who DVDs — instead of the usual making-of documentary, there's a weird thing where the two writers of "Meglos" meet up in a train station and talk, somewhat ramblingly, about their story. They also go to a park at one point, and then swing by the house of then-script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, who confesses he thought their story was silly:
And there's a documentary about the life and work of Jacqueline Hill, who made her final Doctor Who appearance in this story:
And a random five-minute explanation of entropy, which seems more connected to "Logopolis" than to "Meglos." Plus the commentary track, which doesn't feature Tom Baker and is therefore rather sedate.
All in all, neither story is exactly essential on DVD, but they each have their own joys — they're great examples of the classic series doing alien worlds and using them to create weird thought experiments. And both story shows just how much alien world-building the show's production staff was able to do on a shoestring budget. These are stories that could probably only have been done on Doctor Who, and they're fun examples of the classic series at very different points in its history.