Saturday, December 24, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 04 – Ten Reasons to Watch Ghost Light (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – Ghost Light…
The Doctor takes Ace to her worst nightmare: a Victorian ghost story for Christmas. Lush BBC costume drama is only the start of one of the most bizarre, macabre and intelligently designed pieces of television you’ll ever see. At a stage in Doctor Who’s life-cycle when the series looked to be facing extinction, it evolves by taking risks and challenging the audience rather than ever playing it safe – though it’s got the vicar from Downton Abbey, here he’s at a much more satisfying posh dinner party, where everyone’s shockingly talking science and religion.
As part of not just a seasonal but I hope a year-long celebration, I’m still catching up. That is, I’m catching up even with my catching up from last year, but this is one of the last I’d previously published. Only a couple to go now, and I may perhaps be writing something else first that’s not a ‘Special Edition’ at all – wish me luck. But I’m at least slightly gladdened to have reached Ghost Light for Christmas Eve. It feels of the season (though if you watch carefully, it isn’t at all – the clocks suggest both Midsummer and October, which may not entirely help). And I’ve just watched the whole season it’s a part of, an ending that brought me to tears when of course it’s not an ending at all.
It’s hard to think of another Doctor Who story so exuberantly packed with brilliant ideas and witty lines, so I was tempted to suggest as one of my ten reasons to watch (like using your last wish to wish for more wishes) that you should explore it to discover how many more reasons than ten there really are.
Ten Reasons To Watch Ghost Light (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Doctor and Ace.
By Ghost Light, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his friend Ace (Sophie Aldred) have been together for quite a while. Under lead writer Andrew Cartmel they’ve both become more complex than in the previous season, him less judgmental, her less the troubled teenager, but both still seem to delight in blowing things up – here the Doctor even worries that he’s lit the blue touch paper and left nowhere to retire to, but it’s really Ace’s fuse that he’s playing with.
I love Sylvester’s Doctor in this story, as much an initiative test for the viewer as it is for Ace. He’s powerful, inquisitive, caring, cruel, funny, melancholy and more, but he always leaves me with more questions than answers here: how much does he know what’s going on, and why does he come to Gabriel Chase in the first place? His thinking aloud that even he can’t play this many games at once and the not-a-reassurance that he always leaves things to the last minute suggest he may have seen all sorts of fascinating threads along the way and couldn’t help tugging at them, but that this is really all about his getting Ace to confront her demons before the house’s angels, and that saving Earth is just a by-product.
Is the Doctor Professor Higgins, forcing Ace / Eliza to evolve into his own idea of a Lady (Pygmalion)? Is he Merlin, pushing Ace / Wart through one form after another to learn from the inside out (The Sword In the Stone)? Or is he just prodding her to find out what she’ll turn into for herself? At least, whatever he’s doing to his companion without asking permission, he’s out to expand her mind rather than wiping it. Whether he learns a lesson in the end from seeing other people being treated as he treats Ace and just how badly that works out is open to question, but on the other hand it’s not just Ace who adapts herself to what’s happening in the house; the Doctor has always been able to rise to whatever situation he finds himself in. When Victorian vicar Reverend Matthews takes him for their host, the Doctor fits himself into the niche and responds to the immediate stimuli of “condescend” by how he acts up to him. Or he may just be having enormous fun. It takes Ace rather longer to enjoy it.
The climax of Part One – though Part Two has the more thrilling cliffhanger – comes in possibly their best scene together, when Ace realises that the Doctor’s taken her to her worst nightmare and demands he face her. Sophie Aldred is terrific confronting her mentor / tormentor, looking suddenly grown up in a dinner suit, grasping the trophy room table like a lectern to rain brimstone on the Doctor as he comes in behind her, dark, quiet, stealthy, prodding.
“Don’t you have things you hate?”And her terms aren’t to do with what the Doctor prompts her to realise about what terrified her five years earlier for her, a century in the house’s future, much closer to home. When she starts to open up about the greatest horror in her past, the haunted house just a symptom, Doctor’s quietly supportive, it puts the hairs up on my neck. And you realise that this isn’t about strange upper-class manners in 1883 London at all, and that Doctor Who is now confronting other demons, real and terrible ones that are sickeningly on the rise again as 2016 comes to a close.
“I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.”
“I told you I never wanted to come back here again.”
“Then there’s unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty.”
“We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.”
“I face mine on my own terms!”
2 – That’s the Way to the Zoo.
Mark Ayres’ score is lush, sinister, sometimes intimate and probably his best for the show. He does wonders to produce an orchestral feel without an orchestra. I often listen to the soundtrack (itself released in three different versions). The captivating chords building as Ace confronts the Doctor and her past, the swirling frenzy as they break apart and the African pipes as Redvers stalks them through his own private world make an enormous contribution to Part One. But even here, he’s upstaged by the genuine and disturbingly appropriate Victorian parlour song he found for Katharine Schlesinger’s Gwendoline to sing.
For the climax of the first episode, the music has been rising and getting more claustrophobic as things come to a head; there’s a magnificent flurry as Ace runs up the stairs; it spellbindingly underscores Ace’s harrowing revelations; it spirals dizzyingly as she flees into the red darkness deep below. But hurled through the middle of Mark Ayres’ own magnificent compositions is a novelty song about zoos, monkeys and nuts that the daughter of the house sings with deranged fervour, counterpointing the terrible memories upstairs and the terrible deeds in the drawing room while foreshadowing worse to come, the camera swooping round the piano and Gwendoline’s unnaturally bright eyes with unforgettable passion. Sorry, Mark. She’s the bit that everyone remembers.
The story only gives one verse, but I’ve just discovered a more complete version by fan podcasters The Splendid Chaps, who tracked down the original music for their hellish cabaret. Click here: That’s the Way To the Zoo.
3 – Bringing the Haunted House story to life.
The whole story takes place within Gabriel Chase, a spooky old Victorian house. Except… It’s not haunted yet. It’s much weirder than that. It’s not an old house in 1883. And it’s teeming with life, more and more vividly as the story forges on. But terrible things have been happening, as a study of life corrupts into death after death, and the Doctor’s brought Ace here to find out what haunts her from a hundred years later – and it’s not just the house. While all the people caught inside try to work out how to cope with their environment – more an experience than a plot, and for some people life is more difficult to handle than what’s written in stone – the story’s major haunting is by the future, as Ace’s past comes to life around her as if the house knows what she’s going to do. And once the life of the house goes out, it remembers and broods for a hundred years…
4 – Sylvia Syms’ Mrs Pritchard.
Ghost Light has a terrific cast all round. Michael Cochrane steals a dozen scenes in an endearingly bewildered role far from the vicar at Downton Abbey; I remembered John Hallam as a hard soldier in Dragonslayer, and of course he drove his car over a cliff into a quarry (twice in one night? That is suspicious), but here his dangerously fey force of nature foreshadows Peter Capaldi’s Angel Islington in both performance and heralding that angels down below are rarely a good sign; John Nettleton is marvellous and seemed the biggest name to me because he’d been at the top of the tree in Yes Minister; Frank Windsor was far enough from Z Cars now that he could play another policeman; and Sharon Duce was a big deal too.
But out of all the bestiary, one actor always grabs your attention – because you don’t dare to look away from her. One of Britain’s major movie stars from the ’50s, playing demure but determined women in films such as Ice Cold In Alex and Victim, here Sylvia Syms plays terrifying housekeeper Mrs Pritchard in spidery black lace that goes beyond Queen Victoria and into half-Skeksis and with a face as hard as her tongue. Her scenes with awkward house guest Reverend Matthews are scarier than any of the aliens: she feels like a stalking cobra as she glides across the floor towards him, and she clearly struck author Marc Platt with the same force, if you read that passage in his novelisation. Who’s been shedding their skin? And her harsh reprimands to young Gwendoline are savage, horribly telling and hilarious all in one (I can never help joining in the whiplash of “Sitting there dressed like a music hall trollop!”). She seems to be a perfect fit for the household. But there’s other significance to dressing in Victoria’s widow’s weeds and another clue right there at hand from the story’s first few seconds, so Utopia’s not the only time a real self is hidden within a locket (the novel fills another character’s head with the sound of drums), and her final moment will freeze your heart…
5 – How Not to Bribe the Doctor.
Marc Platt’s fantastic script is packed to the brim with brilliant lines, many of them his own. You can’t count all the puns on light and change that reinforce the themes – from “Thank you, Nimrod. We would be delighted” to the butler right through to weaponised puns at the climax – and it completely changes your reaction to the word “Java” from something to wake you up. There’s a lot of it I join in on, appropriately for a gorgeously designed affair that at times looks just like Rocky Horror. But today, my favourite exchange is when self-made man – and if he isn’t, who made him? – Josiah Samuel Smith appraises the Doctor’s abilities if not his origins or morals and tries to employ him for a murder. “I’m afflicted with an enemy,” he claims, in a lovely turn of phrase evoking the man of property’s fear of the underclass despite them being the same underneath (depraved or deprived?), still satirically topical in 1989, and proffers a handful of such massive banknotes that the Doctor whistles.
“I’m not interested in money. How much?”The novelisation adds an extra punchline from the Doctor:
“Five thousand pounds to rid me of the evil brute.”
“Now that’s what I call Victorian value. But I’m still not interested in money.”
“Five thousand pounds! he thought. A gentleman only ever pays in guineas!”
6 – The Victorian Age.
Ghost Light is the most deeply Victorian Doctor Who story of all. It doesn’t just glory in the literature and the stereotypes, but embodies the society, family, science, religion and philosophy too, and everything that comes crawling out when you scratch the veneer, everything the ’80s veneration of “Victorian Values” pretended to ignore. And the heart of what makes Ghost Light so much fun and so disturbing is that it revels in doing to the Victorians what they did to everyone else.
“You have no shred of decency.”To the otherworldly survey agent, the house is unexplored and primitive territory, so naturally it’s his to claim and he sticks a flag in it as his property, whatever that does to the natives. And he doesn’t quite understand the customs, applying his perfectly sensible theory in entirely the wrong context… So if you think Josiah’s plan doesn’t make sense, this proto-Thatcherite assuming Darwinism and Social Darwinism are just the same as each other might just be the point. The religious and scientific establishment’s sermons are satirised over dinner, in the horrible comeuppance of Homo Victorianus Ineptus, and eventually on a grand scale when we find out just how appalling it would be if God were a proper Victorian deity. Josiah, the coming man, has become both the Victorian Age’s biggest fan and its harshest critic (so often the way). Just as Thatcherites in 1989 complained that there’s no discipline these days and call for a return to the standards of a century earlier, he condemns the Empire as a mess with no discipline or direction. Every layer of the character is more complex: even as Josiah appears to have evolved into the ruthless, self-centred Victorian capitalist, the same survey observations that identified Victorian Man as the pinnacle of nature makes him a naturalist with a realisation that there’s no such thing, in an unconventional challenge to every established hierarchy. Where Josiah seems to wind up appalled fundamentalist Reverend Matthews even more than in his theories on evolution is in the application he gives them, criticising industrial pollution and arguing that Man is merely another part of nature and just as in danger of becoming extinct.
The opposite inversion to Josiah is Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the finest explorer in the Empire but who’s lost himself. The explorer brings the madness back with him in some of the most heart-poundingly weird scenes for the Doctor, Ace and the viewer (making it a much cleverer take on Kinda, and with far greater semiotic thickness to it to boot). Seemingly the biggest threat at first, he should be the most objectionable character in the whole thing – but his ‘heroic’ Victorian stereotype turns inside-out instead. Rather than espousing the Inspector’s casual racism he sees London and its inhabitants as no different to the jungle, from the strange totems of Gabriel Chase – brilliantly captured in the novelisation as he escapes among them by some unimaginable feat of cunning – to his determination to hunt the crowned Saxe-Coburg. For me, Redvers is the most endearing character in the whole story, marvellously played by Michael Cochrane and adorable even if he raves, screams and introduces himself by wresting a Zulu assegai from where it hung on a tree beside a barometer…
“Burning bright in the heart of the Interior. It burnt through my eyes, into my mind. It had blazing – radiant – wings!”
7 – The Video Age.
Talking about “video” now seems almost quaintly Victorian too, but since the moment it was broadcast, people have talked about this as a story for the videotape era – meaning just that you have to record it and watch it several times to pick up how all the details work and understand it. And enjoying it and unlocking its puzzles in all those ways is a good part of what makes Ghost Light marvellous. But you can take videotape as metaphor, too. The story’s Recording Angel is a video archivist, who thinks the point is to log all the master tapes and never watch them. Or, like the BBC, burn them to prevent anyone watching them – play the tapes, and things happen, time moves forward… Evolution. Like a videotape, you can play it backwards, but just as that used to knacker your tapes, keeping evolution on pause or winding it back are bad news in this story. Ace regresses to her thirteen-year-old traumas, Matthews to an ape, Josiah back under control, and others in their own terrible ways. Going forwards, change, is life, and the only way to see your story unfold.
8 – The Scientific Method.
“My theories appal you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don’t like my tie.”And of course this story is all about evolution, not just the science but the catastrophic shock it posed to an entire worldview. The story boasts a menagerie of scientists, naturalists and explorers, and only the open-minded can cope. And for all that it challenges fixed religious orthodoxy, there is a creator here, and he’s not happy. It’s not your ordinary Frankenstein pastiche, either. Here the ‘mad scientist’ and creature are one, as well as two, and he’s actually published his papers for scrutiny, with his workings-out left on show in the cellar and a proper control (and if she’s not proper to start with, she evolves). Not that the peer review is favourable, but for the viewer just as for Ace, finding your own truth here is more rewarding than being told all the answers.
Science and religion are threaded through each other in Ghost Light – it’s not as simple as saying that one should defeat the other. For several of the characters, the two are the same, and an absolute, fixed canon of either or of anything is going to end up breaking under the strain. The story is on the side of irrepressible, unpredictable life and – very Doctor Who – against domination, control and telling people where they fit. Do you label the two most intertwined characters the Control and the Survey in an experiment started by the ultimate naturalist, telling the scientific method by metaphor? Or as Innocence and Experience, presided over by a Blakean angel? So when Light finally emerges, it doesn’t matter what you call him. Except to him, which is the essence of the problem. Obsessive cataloguer or oppressive deity, if it’s not written in the book, it’s got no right to be real! But that’s life. And even travelling at the speed of thought isn’t much use if you lack an imagination.
9 – Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!
“You got stuffed and it wasn’t even Christmas.”In a house so teeming with life, there’s a lot of catering. The day staff and the Night Maid are kept busy – there’s a dinner party on both evenings, Ace eats a hearty breakfast (perhaps brupper) but still wants a curry, even the Doctor talks about hamburgers, and Control has a crunchy nibble, though it’s Inspector Mackenzie who provides the most work for the kitchens. Well, he did sleep through a meal or two. The dinner in Part One is satisfying, serving up witty lines and gathering tension, but it pales beside the feast the following night which forms the climax to Part Three and the story. Although it’s probably not Christmas, the banquet begins with appropriately seasonal elements: estranged siblings seething at each other; mother running out in distress; squabbling over whether to cut off the Queen’s speech. And it all ends up with a couple of big fights breaking out, the Doctor’s idiosyncratic version of grace and a bomb surprise for afters.
I think this is the only time the Doctor defeats both major and minor villains over dinner. Polishing off Josiah is the hors d’oeuvre for him, but the richest confection for the viewer, with everyone bringing something to the table. Josiah objects to Redvers’ dinner guest so it’s hardly surprisingly when she makes his plans go up in smoke, but it’s not all jollity round the fire – Ace has a last revelation about the police. And after the mounting sense that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, the Doctor’s after-dinner speech is an utter triumph. In between, the guest of honour finally turns up to tell everyone the party’s over. Light has already shown himself a dab hand at carving, but is at his finger-licking worst leering over the soup tureen. Ace realises why the Doctor told her not to touch it; the Doctor confirms it; Josiah revels in it. And that wasn’t the last revelation about the police after all.
“There’s only one solution to Earth. I was going to reduce it to this…”Terrance Dicks’ characters often experienced “a thrill of horror” in the Target books. This was the first time I was consciously aware of one. The horribly macabre joke still does it for me.
[Light raises a ladle full of soup, the medallion of a Victorian police inspector dangling from it.]
“So you started with Inspector Mackenzie.”
“The cream of Scotland Yard.”
10 – The Stone Spaceshippers.
The story ends – no, the story continues – with power used not for domination or destruction but to evolve into Doctor Who, showing how the series can still rush off into the sheer joy of new adventures. The pioneer-not-user gang that goes off to explore strange new worlds and be new life have been inspired by the Doctor and Ace, and I’m always surprised that with all the books and CDs since no-one’s ever brought them back to see their continuing travels, or even a spin-off. Someone should remind Steven Moffat of an idea he might like to pick up. Here’s the gang: in control, the Victorian ladylike who’s actually been around for millions of years. Her other half. Plus the dim but enthusiastic militarist and the one who looks a bit strange but gets away with it in his butler’s outfit. And a bit of sex. If you were to make them all a regular team, of course, you’d probably cut costs by amalgamating the last two into one comic relief character, then bring them back to Earth to explore the curious world of Victorian London through their outsiders’ eyes. Sounds like they could be popular!
What Else Should I Tell You About Ghost Light?
If you watch Ghost Light on DVD, it’s especially rewarding to look at the extended and deleted scenes for this one. There are a lot of them, and several of those add quite a bit (I particularly like the escape from Newgate). The off-cuts are unfortunately imprinted with time-codes and so couldn’t be assembled into a Special Edition, but Marc Platt’s rather marvellous novelisation is able to reintegrate them seamlessly. It also has possibly Alister Pearson’s most striking cover.
Ghost Light is at the heart of one of Doctor Who’s most mesmerising years, 1989’s Season Twenty-Six, and you can see in it many of the season’s running themes, from confronting gods and strange magic to survival of the fittest not meaning what the ’80s took it to mean. In a year that centres on Ace, many of the themes are hers in particular: fire; nuclear holocaust (they’re against it); female empowerment; lesbian subtexts; living your life in the wrong order; and the moral that you should always remember to send a Mother’s Day card, because you have no idea how much your life might get out of hand if you lose track of your Mum. This was the final story actually made for the original series. The last one shown was Survival, Ghost Light’s mirror-twin, which is also set around Ace’s old home of Perivale to show her facing her past, present and future, and this all-studio story even shares a location shoot with it (but it’s not Perivale). But more on those stories later.
I loved Ghost Light from its first night. My husband Richard loves it too, and the first thing I saw in his flat on my first visit, twenty-two years and two months and two days to go-ago, was a print of Alister Pearson painting for the book cover hanging opposite the door. It’s still hanging in our flat today. As it’s Christmas Eve, Richard also asks me to point out that the whole story grows out of a tale told around – or at least starting with – a cheery festive blazing fire. Although many other fans agree that this is one of the very best Doctor Who stories – and one of the few at the time to get enthusiastic press reviews – many others don’t. Some seem to have their masculinity threatened by Light being played by a usually very butch actor here wearing a pre-Raphaelite frock and a fey voice (though rarely seem to complain about the women wrestling in tuxedos). Others complain that the multi-layered script is incomprehensible to them. I don’t find myself threatened by a lack of macho, by making my brain work, or by daring to be different. But if you can’t quite see the scientific method in the madness together here, the Doctor and Ace sum up how it’s supposed to work a couple of minutes into Part Three.
Richard got our current car four years ago. With the number plate beginning “RV”, we inevitably named it for the stylish, slightly old-fashioned but inspiring explorer from one of our favourite stories. I met Michael Cochrane a few months later and, while he signed our Ghost Light DVD, I confided that we’d named our car after his character. “Oh, really? …What sort of car is it?” he asked, evidently fearing an old banger. “It’s a Jaguar.” “That’ll do!” he exclaimed delightedly.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Ghost Light, Why Not Try…
Well, goodness. This isn’t just probably the Doctor Who story with the most ideas packed into it, but the greatest density of references too. So what isn’t there to try? Obviously it goes down the rabbit hole into so much Victorian literature that it makes Dickensian look like a lightweight, so I’ll pick just out a favourite Victorian short story which supplies a detail turned inside-out and into both a gag and a plot thread and recommend you read The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. Ghost Light also references the two earlier outstandingly brilliant Doctor Who stories set in the Victorian era, The Talons of Weng-Chiang (explicitly) and The Evil of the Daleks (esoterically). The Night Maid always make me think of an evil Bagpuss, the end makes me want to listen to Talking Heads, and I rarely need an excuse to revisit The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another cautionary tale of religion and evolution (with a moment in the TV version of the Earth made anew which never fails to make me tear up). And as today is the thirty-second anniversary of the finale of The Box of Delights, which really is gloriously seasonal, you might find more joy in an innocuous little box opening and blazing out light than poor Mr Fenn-Cooper does.
But back to Doctor Who. Today is also the anniversary of not the broadcast of but most of the events of three more Victorian Doctor Who stories, The Unquiet Dead, The Next Doctor, and The Snowmen. Marc Platt has written many other (Merry Otherstide!) fabulous stories through novels and audio dramas, and as Ghost Light helped inspire so much of the New Adventures, from Ace to owls, today I might recommend you pick up some of the best of those with a yuletide flavour – Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade, Lawrence Miles’ Christmas on a Rational Planet – or of course Marc’s own Lungbarrow, the Seventh Doctor’s finale and itself a multiple reflection of Ghost Light (complete with its own Victorian evolution debate in-joke, with Omphalos metamorphosed into a mystery about the Doctor’s creation or, for his family, a rude nick-name). To continue the festive theme, Big Finish published several Christmas collections in their Short Trips anthologies. I’d particularly recommend The History of Christmas (edited by Simon Guerrier, of whom more later) and A Christmas Treasury (edited by Paul Cornell, similarly), which brims with stocking-filler games and recipes, where Terrance Dicks offers us a grumpy Doctor and shows you can’t trust a beard, even at Christmas, and Marc himself gives us a Christmas Special with Eric and Ernie and a scary ’80s monster. Or, on DVD…
Ghost Light is the first Doctor Who from a brilliant new author working with one of the show’s most brilliant script editors, shown in one of its most brilliant seasons, and excoriates ossified religion while doing remarkable things with evolution. The same is true for both of these.
The Face of Evil. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange if not entirely convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want her on board at first, but she becomes a great favourite with the viewers.
[Watch it and revel in the festive knowledge that it was nearly called “The Day God Went Mad”, but the producer decided Mary Whitehouse was up to quota on pronouncing fatwas already.]
Full Circle. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange and vividly convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want him on board at first, but he becomes… Well, some people liked him.
The next tale I have planned is a heart-warming nativity story… And there’s still no such thing as a final evolutionary form, but who’s going to tell them that?
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”Or I might decide that the next few may have to involve some travelling back and forth in time, because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without actual Christmas. But which?