Posts Tagged ‘Sylvester McCoy’

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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You are trifling with us. You are on the brink of destruction, Doctor. We want something bigger. Something better.

If the great leap forward in Doctor Who‘s storytelling in the 1970s was the addition of a vital new moral sophistication, then the corresponding advance in the following decade was the shift away from an exclusively plot-driven format for the series. The great tragedy of this, of course, was that the innovation came only at the end of the decade, by which point a succession of essentially aimless and inward-looking seasons had seriously damaged the series’ potential as a piece of mainstream entertainment.

It is said that impending execution has a great focussing effect on the mind, and this may be true. It is certainly a fact that many of the most striking and thought-provoking stories of 1980s Doctor Who came when the series was, essentially, staring cancellation in the face. It’s common to praise the current version of the series for being modishly knowing and post-modern, but should ratings fall through the floor it’s hard to imagine the current regime making stories which acknowledge the fact that the series is a failure in terms of the popular audience, with a doubtful future – and yet Doctor Who in the 1980s did just this a couple of times – laboriously and obviously in The Trial of a Time Lord, but much more interestingly in Stephen Wyatt’s 1988 story, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Originally broadcast less than a year before the 20th century series effectively ended, this is a story you can actually read as being about the process of making Doctor Who in the late 1980s.


The TARDIS’ spam filters go on the blink and it receives a visitation from a junk mail robot, challenging the Doctor and Ace to visit the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. Inevitably, they agree, but they find dark forces are at work in the circus – its original ideals have become hopelessly corrupted and now it serves only as a magnet for a wide variety of peculiar lost souls, of whom are determined to take their chances appearing in the ring – even in the full knowledge that life expectancy there can be measured in minutes…

It goes without saying that nothing remotely like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy would be made for TV transmission nowadays. It is a product of a very particular time and culture, when achingly high-concept ideas could be realised on a painfully low budget, when the barest pretence of naturalism was an optional extra – basically, when the production team could attempt anything, because the powers that be at the BBC didn’t really care what they were doing. Doctor Who normally lurks somewhere on the border between science fiction and fantasy, but this is one of those stories which heads deep into the latter realm. It makes no pretence at being a ‘serious’ piece of SF, but instead adopts a style very reminiscent of the more successful 80s comic books – striking, surreal images proliferate, and the characters are more symbols than attempts at depictions of real people. There is that strange mixture of vivid superficial colour and inner darkness also to be found in many 80s comics – behind the gloss of robot clowns, nerds on BMX bikes and garishly homicidal bus conductors is a story filled with loss, pain, and isolation: quite apart from all the usual Doctor Who mayhem there is the genuinely creepy suicide of a sympathetic character, for example.

The eye-opening scene for me when I first saw the story came in the second episode, with Whizzkid’s admission concerning the circus that ‘…I know it’s not as good as it used to be, but I’m still terribly interested.’ This line could have been taken from any mid-80s DWM letter column. Forget the LINDA characters in Love and Monsters, this is a series figuratively giving its own hard-core fanbase both barrels on screen.

However, it wasn’t for many years that I realised that the Whizzkid character isn’t just a standalone swipe but just one expression of the story’s central concern, which is the reality of producing mass-market entertainment in a competitive environment. With hindsight, Andrew Cartmel’s antipathy to the market-driven ideology of the Thatcher government runs through many of the stories of this era – the implicit criticism of the ‘only the strongest deserve to survive’ ethos later elaborated in Survival is also present here.

Of course, this element of the story is more obvious now due to the almost eerie way the Psychic Circus itself seems to prefigure the various theatres of cruelty overseen by Simon Cowell and his imitators: the parallels are, to say the least, striking, as various different people are lured to perform before the merciless gaze of the audience – survival only lasts as long as they succeed in being entertaining.

As it is for singers or acrobats, so it is for TV shows, of course. The danger with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is to read too deeply into the allegory – who do the Gods of Ragnarok ultimately represent – the mainstream audience? The BBC itself? Is the death of Whizzkid the show acknowledging that being constantly in thrall to its own fanbase is not the way forward? Is Nord, therefore, intended to represent the vacuous action-adventure narrative that was so much an early-80s staple?

This way madness lies. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is endlessly fascinating on a metaphorical level, but as an actual face-value narrative it is rather flawed – is the latter a consequence of the former? I think it may be so. Regardless of this, the story teems with unanswered questions and unelaborated pieces of back-story. Coherent narrative is secondary to big concepts and strong imagery – this is pretty much the Cartmel era’s approach in a nutshell, but this story shows this tendency more clearly than most. Characters move from location to location without any real explanation being given. Remarkable coincidences abound. And why hide the medallion in the bus? Why hide it at all?

Nevertheless this is a story that looks better and better as time goes by, and it looked pretty good in the first place. Accepted wisdom is that Doctor Who was valiantly struggling on in the late 80s, and any positive verdict given to a story must be accompanied by the qualification ‘given the circumstances’. I’m not sure about this. Some of the McCoy-Cartmel stories are good by any standard, but this one, for all its flaws, still seems to me to have a touch of greatness about. Quite appropriately, in the circumstances.

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It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.

‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘It says here that they’re making a film of The Hobbit.’

‘Oh,’ said my father, who was driving. ‘Where are they going to film it?’

‘Well,’ I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. ‘It’s not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted… some people say they’ve heard they’re going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you’d want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn’t you? It’d only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That’ll be interesting.’

‘That’ll be interesting,’ my father agreed.

Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is…

Hang on a minute; it is interesting. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson’s monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children’s book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.


The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he’s also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.

Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves’ quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels…

I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can’t really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.

Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you’d justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can’t see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children’s story.

Except, of course, this isn’t what Jackson’s doing. Where Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out for the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it looks like Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien’s peripheral material, as they don’t appear able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it’s completely new.

Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he’s not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performances as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he’s made the actor perform all his scenes covered in birdshit). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.

But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it’s baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he’s either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there’s so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.

It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it’s just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.

I suppose when you’ve won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you’re entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your  existing fanbase (I can’t think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?

Certainly, telling Tolkien’s original story doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn’t seen The Lord of the Rings. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and ‘Morgul blades’, and so on.

I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special, but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.

There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words ‘prequel trilogy’ still lingers, somewhat.

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