Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ghost Light

Chapter The 43rd, which finally delivers a decent Slyv McCoy 3-parter. Let's cancel the series.

The Doctor takes Ace to visit the scene of her most traumatic childhood memory, like good friends do. The destination is Gabriel Chase, a large house in Perivale that Ace broke into as a teenager in 1983. The Doctor has brought her to the same house 100 years earlier, when it is inhabited by a rum assembly of coves. Some of these are locals, one's a Neanderthal butler, and some are members of a galactic survey team whose ship is in the cellar.

These latter creatures (or constructs - it's never specified) have some interesting powers including being able to develop their own forms to mimic the evolutionary processes of Earth, put animal organisms into a form of suspended animation, regress the forms of humans back through their evolutionary predecessors, and... erm... turn people to stone. Anyway, one of this team - calling himself Josiah Samuel Smith - is planning to assassinate Queen Victoria so he can become king. Now, even though that's a very silly plan that's probably unlikely to work, the Doctor releases the much more dangerous big boss Light from hibernation in the spaceship, to help stop Josiah. Luckily, Light can be talked to death, and everyone else lives happily ever after. Except the ones that get turned into stone. Or soup.

The whole family watched this over a few evenings on DVD, but they took some persuading. For some reason, the Better Half and all the kids (boys aged 10 and 7, girl of 4) moaned and groaned at the very idea of watching Ghost Light, even though most of them didn't even know what it was. Perhaps this is because we've watched a couple of other Slyv McCoy three-parters previously for the blog, and they've been pants. This one is of a different stamp, though, and - perhaps not coincidentally - is the first Slyv McCoy three-parter not directed by Chris Clough, who never managed to make them work.

Once it was underway, everyone stuck with it to the end; it has to be said, though, that it didn't keep the children rapt; there was much talking and fidgeting. This was doubly a shame, as Ghost Light is already difficult to hear, suffering as it does with an iffy sound mix. It is most unfortunate that this particular Doctor Who dialogue, where every line is vital to the story, is buried deep beneath the admittedly rather marvellous score.

First-time round:
I saw this upon its original broadcast on BBC1 in Autumn 1989. Can't remember the details particularly, but I do know I'd have been on my own. At this point, infamously, Doctor Who was put out opposite Coronation Street on ITV, the highest-rated programme of the time. The rest of the family would all have been watching that, and I'd have been in another room watching Doctor Who on my lonesome. As one did with the Slyvester McCoy stories. I also know that I taped it, as I watched it quite a few times in the days and weeks after its broadcast. As one did with Ghost Light.

There are three schools of thought on Ghost Light. School 1: it's complicated, and that's a bad thing - no wonder this was the last regular episode made in the original run, it offers no obvious explanations, you have to watch it twice at least to follow it, and Doctor Who had clearly become pretentious over-baked gobbledygook. School 2: it's complicated, and that's a good thing - it's such a shame this was the last regular episode made in the original run, as - because it offers no obvious explanations, and you have to watch it twice at least to follow it - Doctor Who was finally emerging into the video age, and fashioning itself accordingly, gaining important depth to the stories it told.

The third school comprises those that think it isn't complicated at all, and you just have to pay attention and all the explanations are there. Mostly, this seems to be a pose to start online arguments in Who forums. There's a kernel of truth in it, and if you understood everything about Ghost Light first time, then well done - clever old you. But demonstrably, it is complicated. It is a very dense script, with lots of allusions, shorthand and compression, and it moves breakneck fast to convey information. The ideas within aren't obvious ones either. To pick a random example from another Doctor Who story: the Judoon are space policemen that look like rhinos. That's easy and straightforward to grasp, everyone gets that in an instant. Control and Josiah, on the other hand, are a pair of linked entities that develop in a see-sawing inverse proportion to one another, one replicating the process of  evolution sped up in microcosm to eventually mirror the dominant life-form on a planet it visits, the other staying as it is for comparison. High concept, it ain't. Even if all that was actually spelt out by a character in the drama (and it isn't) it would still cause some noodle scratching.

Let me make it clear, though, that I am firmly in school 2; Ghost Light is a great story, even if it's sometimes baffling. Mind you, I like baffling things; I'm prepared to accept that I might be in a minority in that opinion; had this proved to be a new direction for Doctor Who rather than a one-off experiment, it might not have been a huge ratings winner. As it was, the programme was soon afterwards cancelled, in a decision that seemed to have nothing to do with the quality of the stories being produced, or even the ratings particularly. So, we can probably stop having online arguments about it, and try to take Ghost Light on its own merits.

Whatever one's thoughts are on the script, the production is indisputably class; it's effectively cast, performed, directed, scored, and - most surprisingly of all - it's lit well too. The 1980s most often saw Doctor Who flood-lit like a shiny floored light entertainment show, but Ghost Light couldn't be more different. The sets and costumes are superb, the effects work is above average. There's nothing letting the side down. Regarding that cast, there is almost too much quality to comment on: I could start to wax lyrical about Hogg, Cochrane, and Duce, and Syms, then realise I haven't said anything about Frank Windsor's lovely work. Or John Nettleton's, or Carl Forgoine's. John Hallam's choices as Light (his speech mostly in a very high choir-boy register, with occasional lapses into a snarl) seemed very brave and innovative at the time, but I've only just noticed that it's pretty much the same approach as Ian Reddington's Chief Clown, the big baddie in a Doctor Who story from the previous year also directed by Alan Wareing.

The two lead actors never performed better than they do here. Unfairly or not, Slyv and Sophie would be some people's first place to look to find any weak link; the former has a brief gurn when repelling Light's invisible forces in episode 3, and Sophie has the odd lapse into that 80s stage-school delinquent 'You ain't my probation officer, I ain't never 'ad no mum and dad not never ever' thing she sometimes did. But they are a team, and a fun team, with whom one might want to spend some time; arguably, the TARDIS hadn't had a crew with such a feel-good factor for nearly a decade. The shift of focus onto the companion was a welcome change too, and worked without diminishing the character of the Doctor as it really plays to McCoy's strengths for him to be slightly off to the side in the shadows, manipulating proceedings.

But if anyone tells you they understood it all after only one watch, ask them what's emanating from the snuffbox in episode 1, if Light is still hibernating in the cellar. Eh? Yeah? Eh? Yeah.

Both this story and Planet of Fire are John Nathan-Turner productions broadcast in the 1980s; again, there's a man of the cloth in the dramatis personae, and again the story contains discussions of science versus religion. Both stories don't really have a monster either; the husks were shoe-horned in, I believe at JNT's insistence, but they don't really do anything, so I don't think they count. 

Deeper Thoughts: 
Then Pat said: "Don't do more than three years, though". So, Peter Capaldi has handed in his notice; and it feels too soon, doesn't it? Of course, watching Ghost Light reminds me it's improved since the late 1980s, when the actors playing the Doctor didn't get any choice of when they were to leave. While working on Ghost Light, Slyvester McCoy fully intended to come back and do another full year. This would have been his fourth, and had it happened would have broken a near decade long rule that the lead actor shouldn't - or couldn't in the case of Colin Baker - do more than three years. Reportedly, Colin was told during his sacking that he'd done his three years and that was the normal span, even though no stories were made or broadcast during one of those three.

Peter Davison elected to leave after three years, based on advice given to him by Patrick Troughton who had done the same (although Pat made a lot more episodes in that time). Recently too, the rule of three has endured: it's become the standard to do only three full seasons, but with gaps to extend the overall elapsed time, and with the odd special-length episode slotted in here and there. That was the pattern for Tennant and Smith, and will be the pattern for Capaldi too. Except that only one additional special was squeezed in during his time; most of his 2016 gap year was silence. Perhaps it's this, but I think there's another reason why it feels like he's only just started.

There were always to my mind some superficial similarities between Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi: they'd both had guest starring roles in the show before being cast as the Doctor, they both shared a name (although in Capaldi's case it was a first name) with a previous actor to play the Doctor, they were both best known for one long-running role prior to playing the Doctor (both playing characters you 'love to hate'), and they were both fans of Doctor Who before they got to be in it. There was also a more significant similarity: both actors played the Doctor as a fairly unlikeable so-and-so to begin with. Despite this being a key contributing factor to the show's being paused for a rethink in Colin's time, in Capaldi's second series they back-pedal even more that JNT and Co. did on that first-year approach. From the start of the 2015 season, the Doctor is a different person, hugging, playing guitar and wearing shades -  an embarrassing dad, rather that the ferocious pre-watershed Malcolm Tucker he'd been the year before. Someone somewhere had got cold feet, perhaps the actor himself.

The nicer Dad Rock Who has only been around for a year, and it was such a departure it was like starting over. This is the main reason why I feel that Peter Capaldi is only just bedding in to the role. There's a season of his episodes yet to air, and he may find another completely different way to play it again. Certainly, there will be a different dynamic with a new female companion. Whatever happens, I think he's going to leave us wanting more.

In Summary:
Ghost Light is unsummarise-able.

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