...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, December 31, 2012

Day 4383: DOCTOR WHO: Ghost Light

New Year's Eve:

To describe "Ghost Light" as Marc Platt's finest hour (all right, ninety minutes) seems very unfair.

He's a brilliant writer who has gone on to provide us with such highlights as, in novels, the bookends of the mythic arc of the New Adventures – "Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible" and "Lungbarrow" (from which "Ghost Light" was first derived) – and, on audio, the poignant definitive origin of the Cybermen story in "Spare Parts" and the extraordinary alternative first Doctor of Geoffrey Bayldon in "Auld Mortality" and "A Storm of Angels", and, as they say, many more.

And yet it is.

Serendipity lends a hand, of course.

It would have been a great disservice to "Lungbarrow" to attempt it when it was unfilmable on 1989's Doctor Who budget. Maybe even on 2012's budget, unless you want to see the House of Lung as Cardiff's Temple of Peace. Instead we benefit from the sort of Victorian costume drama that the BBC had always done well, right at the end of the era of the studio-based three-camera drama, with John Birt closing in – and closing down – all the bits of the BBC that let them do this sort of thing at the drop of a hat.

The translation to Ace's past rather than the Doctor's serves it better as a part of the Season Twenty-Six arc. Filmed as the last Doctor Who television serial produced in the Twentieth Century, juggling of broadcast order meant that dealing with a haunted house in Ace's past in "Ghost Light" became a prelude to dealing with the evil god that haunts her present in "The Curse of Fenric" rather than a follow-up, thus immensely strengthening her story and darkening the Doctor's motivation.

And you get a cast to die for: Ian Hogg relishing it to his whiskers as Josiah Samuel Smith; Sylvia Simms as hard-as-nails Mrs Pritchard, endlessly watchable and seemingly everyone's enemy; John Hallam as Light in an era of fey angels – see also Peter Capaldi's Angel Islington in "Neverwhere" – shading his otherworldly camp from harmless confusion to apocalyptic sneer; Michael Cochrane deliciously demented as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the finest explorer in the Empire, lost in his own mind; John Nettleton taking the character of Reverend Matthews, who could so easily have been a cypher, a caricature creationist, and making him seem first the villain and then the victim of the piece; Carl Forgione as Nimrod, the one character allowed much dignity; Sharon Duce who is both funny and touching as Control struggles up the social and evolutionary ladders on her quest to be a "ladylike".

Even a minor character, such as Mrs Grose (Brenda Kempner, to whom I always do the disservice of expecting her to be Pam Ferris) is vividly alive: the way she inhabits exactly the role we expect of her could easily be a cliché, except... the clichéd bits – all the "my dear"s and the "no one in their right minds would stay in this house after dark"s – are surrounded by genuine warmth towards Ace and the day maids and perplexity when Matthews unexpectedly arrives before the "dark" house has awoken. And who's to say that – in this madhouse of mesmerism – she hasn't been programmed by Josiah with the stock Victorian clichés to keep her from thinking too much about her employer's goings on. It would certainly explain why she hangs around keeping a house that appears empty during her working hours. And it's not like he hasn't hypnotised everyone else!

So "Ghost Light" is exactly the kind of thing that the BBC was in the right place to make, at the right time and with all the right people.

But even watched "cold" today, out of context and twenty years later, it is still brilliant television. The severe editing of the Cartmel Era left several stories with key scenes on the cutting room floor – see the extended editions of "Silver Nemesis", "Battlefield" and "...Fenric" if you want to know what's going on – but alchemically turns "Ghost Light" into a puzzle-box of delights.

Possibly the most text-dense production ever – snatching the title from "Dragonfire" at the last minute – you can just spend the whole running time spotting which line comes from CS Lewis, which reference is to Conan Doyle, which character belongs to Henry James, and arguably it spawned a whole sub-genre of Doctor Who fiction: the "can you spot all the references" novel (pick up a copy of "Iceberg", "War of the Daleks" or "Christmas on a Rational Planet" if you want to play along. But only "Christmas on a Rational Planet" if you want to read a novel).

But this is far more than just a game for Time Lords. Those references – even, perhaps especially, the Douglas Adams nod (he's the answer to "Who was it who said Earthmen never invite their ancestors around to dinner?" of course) – are all calculated to place you at the heart of the great Victorian debate that began with Darwin.

Ace may describe Light as "It's an angel, stupid," but there's really no question of to whom "Let there be Light" refers.

Evolution and God have always been at the heart of Doctor Who.

Evolution from before Regeneration, ever since "An Unearthly Child" which showed us the step change from "cave people" to "modern" humans and asks us to compare the same step change from Ian and Barbara to Susan (and it's surely no accident that "Ghost Light" uses the same metaphor in the person of Nimrod). The series has survived because it changes, leaving behind once-contemporary stable-mates and finding something new. From Sir Lancelot and Flash Gordon-style Saturday serial, to ITC spy-fi adventures, to Hammer Horror, to the quintessential Monty Python of science-fiction, to 'Eighties video-nasty, to graphic novel on the telly – and then into books and then into audio and then back to the television – into Russell Davies writing classic Northern soap mothers into a story about survivor guilt dressed up with some running around with colourful aliens, and then to Moffat using sit-com stylings to offer up puzzle-box plots about pride and paradox. And sometime soon, maybe 2014 after the eighth series, Moffat will move on and it will evolve again.

And God too has been in it from the very beginning, in the person of the Tribe of Gum's "Orb". Long before Moffat and Davies deified the Doctor – the lonely god – or before Cartmel asked if the Doctor could be God (and was told "no") but had him take down gods anyway, before Tom defeated Sutekh, before Pertwee took on the Devil, the series has over and again addressed questions of divinity, power and truth in religion ever since Barbara became a god in "The Aztecs".

(See also: "Who Died and Made the Dalek Emperor God?")

But don't think that it is as simple as saying "science is right / religion is wrong". I mean, it's fairly obvious which side Marc would be on in a fight, but this is far more thoughtful and subtle. What does for Light in the end is slithy toves and bandersnatches, Crowned Saxe-Coburgs and little Jackie Piper. Creativity – the power of creation – defeats Light. Light's catalogue is cold and dead, as lacking as his imagination. This is about the senselessness of making up a script and sticking to it in the face of all evidence and good sense.

Josiah's powers appear as so many tricks and misdirection: his night maids (Alex quite likes calling them ‘The Night Maid’, like ‘The Night Watch’ or indeed ‘The Nightmare’) emerge from hidden panels, he flourishes a pistol like a stage prop (see also "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"), and his hypnotism is of course a classic act. It's all a magic-show – another hint is Ace and Gwendolyn's transformation into David Devant eveningwear – but don't let that distract you from the fact that there are real powers at work here.

Sylv's style of acting is often (and unfairly) criticised – it's a very physical, a very theatrical style – but here his grizzling and physicality are transformative. There is a scene where he confronts Light and holds out a hand forming a fist in a warding gesture while hunching his shoulders and screwing up his face and voice. It conveys a sense that Light's very presence is – in the Lovecraftian way – slightly too much for our reality to bear, and that the Doctor is doing… something… to stop reality from being ripped away just by Light being here.

Even the ending, Light's firestorm redeployed to carry the stone spaceship on a new mission of discovery, is symptomatic of this ambiguity. Light's power in and of itself is neither good nor evil; it is the choice about how it is used in the hands of mortal, fallible creatures.

There is no one "truth" in this story. People who think that way – Light, Josiah – tend to end up broken when the blistering chaos of reality rolls uncaring over them. In contrast, Control, by the end of the story, is already surpassing Josiah and his "Victorian Values" in recognising that she has a responsibility to care for him, a hint of Dickensian social conscience there (and the answer to Dr Simeon's question "What's wrong with Victorian values" in "The Snowmen"). Nimrod – almost a hint of Asimov's Zeroth Law of Robotics here (see also “Robot”, before Asimov) – has recognised that loyalty to the planet supersedes his loyalty to "the burning one". And Redvers, who is insane by pretty much any measure, has constructed a view of the world that is not just consistent, but powerful and, in his own way, true.

And I'll say again that this is presented as a challenge for Ace, a quest, even, a quest in the Arthurian sense, where the physical deeds are secondary to the moral lesson. This is about her finding her truth, not about the Doctor just handing over the answers, imposing a "truth" on her.

All of which, of course, means I can no more tell you the "truth" of "Ghost Light" than explain why a butterfly is beautiful. You have to experience it.

(And be aware that when we tried this story to show a guest as an example of how much more than just a TV show Doctor Who could be… it unfortunately blew his mind!)

Roll up roll up for the End of the Series Show. Every viewing is different. Which is as it should be.


Next Time… going backwardsDoctor Who's most Thatcher-baiting, most Basset's Sweets-displeasing, and frankly gayest serial. I'm glad you're happy and I'm happy you're glad that it's "The Happiness Patrol".

And a very Happy MILLENNIUM BIRTHDAY New Year to everybody!

PS: this has been my 1400th diary!

1 comment:

Lawrence Burton said...

Yes, always liked this one, my only problem with it being that awful shitty music threatening to drown out the dialogue in places, but it even survives that, and Marc Platt wrote it up as a pretty decent novel as I recall.

God - remember when that show at least *tried* to be about something beyond wearisome fez jokes and 'keeping it brilliant'...