Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ghost Light written by Marc Platt and directed by Alan Wareing




This story in a nutshell: In the words of Andrew Cartmel ‘There’s an alien spaceship and it has a crew of three people. The entity in charge is called Light and he is on a galactic expedition to survey and catalogue life like an intergalactic Charles Darwin. He’s got two crewmembers and one of them is Josiah who is the survey agent. When Light lands on a planet he sends the survey agent out both to gather details and to become an exemplar of the dominant lifeform on the planet. He literally evolves into a specimen of life on that planet. There’s another crewmember who stays on board and controls the experiment, that’s Control. Her role is to sit on the spaceship and do nothing which drives her loopy. She turns the tables by escaping in Ghost Light and she too starts to evolve. Light and his crew had already visited the Earth a lot earlier and picked up a specimen of Neanderthal man, Nimrod. When they returned to Earth there had been a mutiny on board the ship and Light had lost control of his crewmembers. The came back to Earth because Josiah, the survey agent liked Earth and wanted to return to it. They take control of the household, bump off the head of the household and take control of Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard. The Husks are remnants of Josiah that he has left behind since returning to Earth in his attempts to become a Victorian gentleman. When Josiah evolves he casts off his husks the same way that some form of reptiles do.’ Doesn’t that make perfect sense? What do you mean they didn’t explain any of that in the transmitted story?

The Real McCoy: Sylvester McCoy’s greatest turn as the Doctor bar none. He walks out of the TARDIS with an air of mystery, playfully trying to make Ace figure out where they are knowing that she will be horrified when she finds out. He cuts a playful figure on the rocking horse, eyeing her furtively. He even asks if she has told him about Gabriel Chase, knowing that he has brought her here on purpose. He has definitely become a Doctor of mind games. When he says it is time to emerge I’m not sure if he is talking about his role within the unfolding events or to reveal his deception to Ace. Either way he is very aware that he has a part to play. The scenes between McCoy and Aldred after she realises where she is are the best acted moments either of them ever gave to Doctor Who. Ace can barely contained her rage but manages to speak with a restrained fury and the Doctor is purring with sympathy as he shows new dimensions to his character. Together they discuss something that is worth discussing, facing your fears and the horrors of racism. Its totally unlike anything that has come before and refreshingly takes both characters to new depths. The way he purrs ‘the nature of the horror that you sense here…’ is so menacing you might think that the Doctor is the villain for a second. I love the way he compliments Ace on her dress. He’s like the puppet master orchestrating his own live theatre in the way he gets everybody in position in time for the second cliffhanger and the reveal of Light. McCoy almost threatens to undo all of his good work in this story when he attempts to snarl at Light and even Sophie Aldred is astonished at how his performance suddenly plummets – look at her in the background fearing that he might spontaneously combust with anger. The Doctor growls that even he can’t play this many games at once, for the first time admitting that he finds all this horror a game. He has great fun sending Light into a spiral of confusion by mentioning a menagerie of fictional creatures he has failed to catalogue. As Light says he is unceasingly mischievous and loving every second of it. As I have made abundantly clear in the past, I generally prefer the quirky mad professor seventh Doctor from season twenty-four than his latter, darker alternative but Ghost Light proves that given the right material and the right actors to play with (this cast is so strong it automatically forces McCoy to up his game) he could make the master manipulator a compelling character and not just come across as a performer trying to act.


Oh Wicked: Perhaps she’ll evolve into a young lady…’ Ace and I have been on such a journey together I feel as if we were once great mates but somewhere along the line the friendship has drifted and come to its natural end as friendships have a habit of doing. One of my first memories of Doctor Who was the end of episode two of Battlefield where Ace is drowning in the airlock of the ship as the credit strike. At the age of nine I was distraught and burst into tears and wanted to know if ‘the girl’ would live much to my sisters derision. Moving on a few years and Doctor Who was over but I was finding out much about the classic series but none of the companions could measure up to cocky, baseball bat wielding Ace. I remember trying to draw her face from the Target novel of Dragonfire for a school project. I’m not sure I could pinpoint where it all started to go wrong but the further we moved on from the eighties the more dated her character seemed to become with her cod ‘wicked’ dialogue and massive ghetto blaster. She seemed an embarrassing reminder of the past in a way that the other companions like Liz and Sarah never did. Then Big Finish came along and Sophie Aldred started taking part in the audios and I couldn’t believe that they were trying to pull off a seventeen year old girl being played by a forty plus year old woman. It didn’t help that Aldred was stiff and unconvincing on audio compared to her youthful, charismatic performances on the telly. I met Simon eleven years ago and over time he has caught snippets and episodes of most companions and declared that Ace was his least favourite – it was everything about her from her lack of a cockney accent, her hideous dialogue, the angst and melodrama and the fact that she was saddled with McCoy. Over 20 years Ace went from being the best female character to grace the television in my eyes to a embarrassing outdated youth stereotype and one that that refused to go away. My point for this little exercise is that whilst the majority of my opinion of her character veers towards the latter (especially in stories like Dragonfire, The Happiness Patrol and Battlefield) Ghost Light was the final recorded story and throughout the three episode the writers, script editor and Aldred herself have all started to come together and the character was starting to really work. It’s a shame that they were cut off in their prime but in this story especially there is a glimpse of an Ace that I really like – feisty, thoughtful, frightened and brave. And Aldred underplays most of the story to her credit. For one story she feels like a real person and that is some trick to pull considering everything that is going against her.

Poor Ace wanders from the TARDIS with childish enthusiasm, excited that the Doctor has trusted her to figure out where they have landed and completely unaware that he has tricked her into facing her past. There is a lovely moment where the Doctor calls Ace ‘Eliza’ but I think Professor Higgins would have given up on this one. She talks about getting a job at Sellafields (a nuclear waste decommissioning plant) because she thinks it might be safer. Despite visuals that tell you so I was only convinced that the events had taken place overnight when Ace fell asleep in the chair. Platt enjoys taking the mickey out of her retro dialogue and the ‘Cholesterol City!’ ‘Oh no dear, Perivale village’ made me chuckle. Alan Wareing captures the horror of Ace burning down the house with the simple touch of a flashing fire engine light as she is attacked by the house that she destroyed. It's genuinely nightmarish. There is nothing like a good bitch fight and Ace and Gwendoline go hell for leather, rolling around on the floor and tearing at each others dresses. If I was otherwise persuaded it might get me hot under the collar! Unlike Battlefield, this time it helps when Ace is highlighted against another female character and her relationship with Control (Sharon Duce emerges in a triumphant performance in part three) is all the funnier for her taking on the Professor Higgins role and teaching her how to speak proper like. It's lovely that Ace has one secret that the Doctor doesn’t know about and the revelation that she burnt down Gabriel Chase in 1983 is the big revelation that third episode needed.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let me guess; my theories appal you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don’t like my tie!’
‘I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls. And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty. We all have a universe of our own terrors to face’ – this is the 1989 version of the ‘evils must be fought’ Troughton speech in The Moonbase with much more poetry.
‘I perceive you are a sick man, sir. Divine retribution for your blasphemy perhaps?’
‘Scratch the Victorian veneer and something nasty will come crawling out!’
‘The Cream of Scotland Yard’ – along with Reverend ‘Monkey Boy’ Matthew this is one of the sickest, most ingenious gags in the shows history. Turning the good Inspector into primordial soup from which humanity evolved out of. Black humour doesn’t cover it.
‘File under: Imagination, lack of.’
‘Take off? They’ve gone, like a passing thought. As long as their minds don’t wander.’

The Good:
· Many people have reflected on the design of this story and I have to join the crowd because it is a magical recreation of a Victorian house with some ghoulish gothic touches. The hallway in particular looks majestic with the wood panelled staircase dominating the set. The clock chimes and there is a freaky sequence as the house seems to come to life, maids sliding balletically from the wall panels and Gwendoline, hypnotised by the fire, rising to greet her guests. The designs really are stunning with each set bursting with things of interest to look at – a cabinet full of treasures, deer/boar/zebra mounted on the wall, swords, lizard skeletons, organs in jars, birds stuffed on perches, an imposing portrait of Queen Victoria, butterflies in cases, beetles and bluebottles in the draw (a policeman in the draw, that’s bloody funny!). The stress on dead things allows the director a chance to give the impression that the house is coming to life as the bugs start crawling from the furniture. I can remember being very excited about the crypt like spaceship sets too with the giant pulsing light in the middle as thought it were alive. Design on Doctor Who hits it's peak just as the show is put to rest.
· When Ace asks if this is an asylum with the patients in charge she may well have a point but there are gloriously oddball characters such as Redvers Fenn-Cooper wandering the house; his mind broken, trying to find himself. Scenes of him bound in a straight jacket as lightning screams through the window and a snuff box comes to life are as inexplicable as they are chilling.
· Sylvia Simms really makes the most of a part that could have been completely forgettable, making Mrs Pritchard one of the most violent and disturbing characters in the show. She almost breaks Fenn-Coopers arm, drags Ace away by her pony tail, chloroforms Matthews as though she is swatting a fly and abusing her daughter. Even when she runs off with the grief of realising what she has happened to her family she still has an air of menace as she tells Gwendoline they are both lost.
· You couldn’t with all good conscience call Mark Ayres music for Ghost Light incidental but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the finest scores the show was graced with (and with the soundtracks to the McCoy stories now available this is one of my most listened to of the era). One of my favourite tracks is the exotic excitement drummed up as the Doctor faces Redvers and his gun. It just needed a better dub so the music doesn't obscure the music quite as much as it does. It almost feels like a dry run for Murray Gold's music.
· I love all the illusions to Darwin. Doctor Who has often explored some very intellectual ideas, be they scientific or historical, in a very fun way and this is a really quirky way of exploring the theories of evolution. Touches such as Josiah suggesting that Gwendoline has undergone a metamorphosis because she and Ace are wearing gents clothes are very creative. Intelligent, creepy conversation around a Victorian dining table is not what I have come to expect from an action adventure show like Doctor Who but that just makes it all the more welcome. Matthews dismissing the theory that we evolved from apes and then being transformed into a hideous parody of one is the sickest joke ever played on a Doctor Who character, very dark and very funny. Then you have Light having something of a nervous breakdown because he is trying to catalogue a planet that is continually changing and evolving.
· I can think of very few Doctor Who villains that creep me out more than Ian Hogg as Josiah Smith. The very image of him is disturbing with his dark glasses, grotesquely peeling face and dirty suit but Hogg chooses to play the role in a drunken, unbalanced way which left me uneasy when he was on screen. Watch as he caresses Gwendoline and draws his scabby face close to hers, seducing her into killing Ernest Matthews and gurgling with laughter as she does so (Alan Wareing having the cloth approach the camera to block out his face is a gorgeous moment of direction). He’s just horrible. The rungs in his evolutionary ladder are snapped when his husks heads explode – if there was ever a visual metaphor for the mind breaking I haven’t seen it.
· Reading the John Nathan-Turner Memoirs it would appear that the monsters were included because by all accounts this would be the last Doctor Who story ever made and he always associated monsters with the programme. It might have been brave to have left our screens with some of the most loathsome human monsters we have ever seen (the Matthews chimp, Josiah and his flaky face) but there is no doubting that these two hastily cobbled together monsters look very striking.
· Nice shades of Phantom of the Opera with Control trapped underground with her visage hidden.
· I might be the only person to think this but I find Light quite creepy because of his overt campness and delicacy. There is something discomforting about an angel that removes a woman’s arm because he wanted to see how she worked, turn a man into soup because he wanted to know where he came from and wants to destroy the world simply to keep his catalogue up to date.
· Again I might be the only person to appreciate it but I love how this story builds to the biggest anti-climax in Doctor Who history. The way the Doctor so causally says ‘explode or fly’ makes me howl with laughter. We expect a climactic ending so Ghost Light pretends it is leading somewhere terribly exciting but it is all smoke and mirrors to cover the fact that all that is happening is the equivalent of a car leaving a garage. One last joke that works a treat.

The Bad: I’m clutching at straws to find something bad to say about Ghost Light but I wasn’t convince by the POV shot of Control where she bashes Nimrod over the head in part one. Ace’s ‘white kids firebombed it!’ comes dangerously close to her previous annoying dialogue – talking about racism is a very worthy thing for Doctor Who but this coming dangerously close to being racist but on the other side. When in doubt, be subtle. I found Inspector Mackenzie’s racist comments to be far more believable because they were rooted in solid, period dialogue (‘Gypsy blood I can see it in him!’).

I had a stage in my life when I tried to get my friends to watch Doctor Who with me. The sad truth of the matter is that I was never going to get them to fall in love with it the way I do and so the exercise was fairly redundant. In the end we wound up watching the stories that are considered disasters in fan lore (The Chase, Time and the Rani) and having a wonderful time sending them up. The closest I got to convincing somebody that this show really was brilliant was my friend Luke who watched the first two episodes of Ghost Light with some enthusiasm. However it all fell to pieces in part three when Light was revealed and he stepped from the lift as camp as Christmas. Luke fell about laughing and never recovered from his mirth. To this day he still opens every text conversation, email and Facebook message with ‘look at these microbes…’ Now the only person who has to put up with my Who obsession is Simon but he was stupid enough to marry me.

The Shallow Bit: It doesn’t matter whether Sophie Aldred is wearing a strapless top, squeezed into a gentleman’s suit or walking Gabriel Chase in a white silk dress – she looks gorgeous at every stage.

Result: The first episode of Ghost Light is one of the best of the classic series and has plenty of atmosphere, evocative design, intelligent discussion, strong performances and a great monster reveal. Not bad for the final classic story ever made. Doctor Who has often boasted a stunning cast of well known actors but Ghost Light is the crème de la crème and they have great fun bringing to life a household of sinister grotesques and enjoy the delicious dialogue. I find it astonishing that Battlefield and Ghost Light could be transmitted back to back because the gulf in quality between them is about as cavernous as you can get. In taking an oddball approach to telling a story and running with it Ghost Light really isn’t that different to Paradise Towers but what puts this into a whole different league is a director who is absolutely in tune with the script and the designers who are clearly turned on by the possibilities the location offers them. It perhaps needed one more episode to make the explanations sharper but this is one instance where I wont underscore through lack of clarity because the finished result is too polished and enjoyable with great directional touches by Alan Wareing. This should have been transmitted last because it would have been an electrifying finale for the season and a brilliant two finger salute to all those fans that had slagged of JNT so mercilessly: 10/10

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's got an incredibly intelligent script, both in the concepts it's dealing with and how it's addressing the. Unfortunately, it's at *least* one episode too short. As it is, it's incredibly hard to follow and understand even if you watch it multiple times. From what I remember, the novel does a good job of explaining it, though, but you really shouldn't need to resort to cliff notes to watch a Doctor Who story.

Apart from that, the dialogue, characterization, music, etc are all close to perfection, even though I'm not wild about a Doctor being a master manipulator.

Andy said...

I really love Ghost Light, but as I've mentioned before, every great Dr Who story has its moment of crapness. For me it is that last, 'Wicked!'

Andy said...

When Ghost Light was shown, I was in my first year at university. The TV in the common room was turned to Coronation Street so I was relying on my family taping Dr Who. Because our reception was quite poor I bought a signal booster to make sure the recordings were watchable. I'd read, in the Guardian, that Ghost Light was 'quintessential Dr Who' and I went to a Dr Who convention at the Adelphi in Liverpool, at which everybody was talking about how great Ghost Light was (I think this was after episode 2). So i was really looking forward to it. And when I went home I found that the recordings were terrible because my brother had stolen the signal booster for his television! It was all still watchable but I was such a nerd that it really made me very angry!

Stephen said...

Hi Joe,

This is off-topic, but do you think you might go back through the series this year and review some of the episodes lacking your wonderful write-ups? "Inferno", "Talons of Weng Chiang", "Horror of Fang Rock", "The Ribos Operation", "The Androids of Tara", "City of Death" are all classic series episodes I'd love to have your take on; ditto for "The Christmas Invasion", "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit", "The Eleventh Hour", "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang" and "A Christmas Carol" from the new series. Thanks again for all your hard work. I've gone back and rewatched Troughton and Colin Baker particularly under the impetus of your reviews.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for the kind words, Stephen. I'm really pleased that some of the reviews have encouraged you to go back and watch some of the old favourites and possibly see them in a new light. I'm the same when I read an opinion that is different to my own...although I don't usually need an excuse to go back and watch classic Who! Yes, I fully intend to fill in all the gaps that are missing - I am about to have some time on my hands shortly so I feel that I might get cracking sooner than I thought. The trouble is where to start...

Anonymous said...

You could always do what I did and start at the start and work your way forward.

Oh, and don't forget to do the last Season of Blake's 7, while you're at it. And any chance of Survivors and Tripods and...

Well, just keep up the good work! :)