Posts Tagged ‘Ghost Light’

As everyone seems to be noting at present, time has been very kind to the McCoy-Cartmel Doctor Who stories. There’s a sense in which their critical rehabilitation shouldn’t come as a surprise -for a long time they were the very final stories in the history of Doctor Who as an ongoing proposition, so it was natural for people to look at them as being somehow deficient and representative of whatever-it-was that caused the series’ decline and fall. But now, with Doctor Who restored to its position as one of the cornerstones of BBC entertainment, things have inevitably changed, and the seventh Doctor stories are viewed more in terms of the way they consolidated the series’ late 80s successes and indeed anticipated the elements which would be responsible for its extraordinary resurrection a decade and a half later.

Ghost Light, written by Marc Platt and directed by Alan Wareing, is not one of those McCoy stories which instantly puts you in mind of the modern series, but in many ways it does look better now than it did on broadcast, and indeed for some years after. For a long time the standard¬†fan response to viewing this story was a sort of surly frustration, mainly because an assured and polished production is coupled to a script which is densely written to the point, almost, of impenetrability: no-one could quite work out what was going on. In this post-Father’s Day, post-Angels Take Manhattan, post-Name of the Doctor world, it seems strange to consider that the coherence of narrative was once held to be so important when assessing a story’s merit, but there you go.

ghost light

Certainly summarising the plot of Ghost Light, as presented on screen, is up there with those of Warriors’ Gate and Revelation of the Daleks when it comes to tough assignments. In 1883, strange deeds are afoot in the sprawling mansion of Gabriel Chase. The house is under the control of the reclusive advocate of Darwinism, Josiah Smith, who… You know, it really doesn’t do the story justice to even attempt a capsule synopsis. One of the pleasures of the piece is to enjoy the complexities and layers of the plot as it whirls past you, never actually coming out and saying much of anything directly, but using a variety of oblique strategies to be, and be about, all sorts of things. Lurking within is a Neanderthal, a lizard, and a giant insect, all in dinner suits; a police inspector and a creationist clergyman, both heading for very sticky ends; a deranged explorer; a villain who is in many ways the ultimate social climber; and an alien who looks like an angel. This is the ‘light’ of the title. But where, you may be wondering, is the ghost? Well, in the story on screen, there is no reference to any ghost – but one haunts the script nevertheless, and his name is Robert Holmes.

This is hardly surprising given that script-editor Andrew Cartmel has confessed that discovering Holmes’ work was one of his key breakthroughs in coming to terms with the potential of Doctor Who, and that Marc Platt had been submitting story ideas to the production office since the middle 1970s, when Holmes himself was in residence there. Few post-1978 Doctor Who stories revisit the Gothic horror territory cultivated so successfully by Holmes as clearly as Ghost Light does – the period setting is immaculately achieved, the limitations of the production assimilated seemingly effortlessly – but the resemblance runs deeper than simple aesthetics and atmosphere. The things you can always rely on in the best Holmes scripts are killer set-pieces and striking visuals, and Ghost Light has them both – the script isn’t afraid to write in supporting characters simply to facilitate some memorable death scenes, for example. (Mind you, you could also argue the story looks back even further – the central dynamic of the plot isn’t a million miles from those in The Daemons¬†and The Time Monster.)

That said, Holmes usually kept his scripts under better control than Platt does here, and it is true that, while the general thrust of the plot of the story is fairly easy to grasp (Gist Light, if you will), you would need to be some kind of savant to understand every nuance even after multiple viewings. Even then, I suspect, it doesn’t all quite hang together – how does the Control creature escape in the first episode? What exactly is the relationship between Control, Josiah, and the Husks, particularly in terms of who’s in charge at any given moment? How exactly does Josiah induce Reverend Matthews’ atavism? How exactly is he planning to usurp control of the British Empire beyond simply shooting the current monarch? It all works on a thematic level, but not as a narrative, not quite.

Of course, Ghost Light isn’t just a transitional form between 70s-style horror-inflected Who and the more impressionistic narratives of the current show: it does things of its own, too. Specifically, it plays with ideas on an intellectual level in a way that Doctor Who has very rarely done, tinkering with notions concerning the British class system and the theory of evolution.

It has to be said that Ghost Light‘s grasp of evolution as a concept is not especially well-grounded in science, but then again scientifically-accurate evolution is not really very dramatically satisfying (even Full Circle, the other Doctor Who story with an explicitly evolutionary theme, plays very fast and loose with the concept). Real-life evolution occurs in populations, not individuals, and it is not guided in any but the most general of senses. Ghost Light is full of characters evolving (or devolving), usually with a particular end in mind. Similarly there to serve the plot is Light’s peculiar lack of familiarity with the concept – he must be a particularly alien alien, if he comes from a place where life is exclusively static and inflexible.

And yet despite all these issues, these days Ghost Light is an extremely satisfying and rewarding story to watch, partly due to the quality of the production, partly due to some of the best dialogue from this era of the series. As a result the performances are also very strong – this may be Sylvester McCoy’s most satisfying performance as the Doctor. Certainly getting rid of the hat and umbrella early on means he looks a rather less cartoonish figure (the garish pullover persists, alas). It is quite startling to think that twenty-five years ago the BBC put something as oblique and strange and complex as this on in what, these days, is The One Show‘s slot. In the past I have suggested that Ghost Light may in fact be that much-discussed and little-seen beast, the triumph of style over substance, but that seems to me now to be a little harsh – there is plenty of both style and substance here, but they never quite mesh into a complete whole. It’s only the fact that there’s just too much going on in Ghost Light that keeps it from being one of the series’ indisputable classics. Even as simply a very good second-rank story, though, it’s something unique.

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