Tuesday, 9 March 2010

In praise of 'Ghost Light'

It's hardly an understatement to say that the 1980s were a troubled time for Doctor Who. The viewing figures were vastly down from the its heyday in the 1970s and by the show's termination in 1989 the seasons were roughly half the length they had been then. In this period we also had a forced 18-month hiatus and the only actor ever to have been sacked from the role of the Doctor. John Nathan-Turner's tenure as the show's producer during the time has been widely criticised for these problems, with a lot of his innovations (stunt casting, silly costumes, Adric) being seen as turning the show into a campy 80s monstrosity which no longer captured the imagination of the British public.

Whilst not the most unpopular Doctor it seems, as least to me, that Sylvester McCoy's time in the role has been somewhat overlooked in the discussion of the show's history. While, by all accounts, his first series did slip into the kind of tacky nonsense discussed above his second series was much improved. New companion Ace (who really was) brought a massive breath of fresh air, and the season started with the absolute corker of a return-to-form 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

'Ghost Light' comes from the show's 26th, and final season, and McCoy's third in the role. It has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the last story of the original series ever filmed (although 'Survivial' was shown last, it was filmed earlier). It forms part a loose trilogy in the last series where Ace's backstory is explored - quite the rarity in the old series! Oh yes, and it's really, really good.

One of the first things anyone says about Ghost Light is that the plot makes no sense and it's certainly true that the plot is complicated and not all aspects of it are fully explained - including the exact roles that two major characters play. It doesn't help that a lot of the explanatory scenes were cut, first in rehearsals and then from the filmed scenes. It's rare that a serial from the original series feels too short, as opposed to the many that feel overlong, but Ghost Light is definitely an adventure that would have benefited from being a four-parter.

However the mysterious nature of the plot is actually one of the things I regard as a strength of Ghost Light. Doctor Who, as a rule, tends to like having every element of the plot explained, often in great detail and I found it rather refreshing to have a story where, even after the end credits roll, one is left not quite fully understanding exactly what has gone on. I think the production team rarely appreciate that a bit of mystery is a good thing, or at least it's not an idea that they explore very often.

And by God does Ghost Light ever throw a lot of mysteries at you - a character evolving into a Victorian gentleman, a crazed hunter, a neanderthal butler (no, really, he's an actual neanderthal) and a policeman preserved in a drawer being among the weird and wonderful characters the script throws at you. Theis brings me on to what I believe is the biggest success of Ghost Light - it's incredible atmosphere. The story is filmed in the studio and uses the BBC's skill at making period dramas to conduct an incredibly dark and mysterious gothic horror tale. You may not quite understand everything that happens but the mood of the story is something that very few other Doctor Who stories can match in terms of its creepiness and beauty.

Ace is also at her very best here. The gradual reveal of her backstory, and the significance the mysterious house has for her in 1983 is wonderfully handled, and, as the production team point out, she's unusually on the ball for a companion - making observations and guesses about the strange situation that she and the Doctor find themselves in, rather than asking questions and screaming. This was a deliberate move to bring in a companion who was more proactive but script editor Andrew Cartmel does admit that this doesn't help with the complicated nature of the plot, as the Doctor never has to explain it to Ace!

All in all this is a story I'd definitely recommend owning, especially as an introduction to the beauty of the later McCoy stories, and for a glimpse at the direction the show might have gone had it not been cancelled shortly afterwards. Owning it on DVD means that the main problems with the story can be overcome, as the extra features go a long way towards explaining the strange plot. Another problem, the fact that the sound mix is a bit dodgy, meaning that the music often drowns out the dialogue; can be solved by turning on subtitles (in fact I'd recommend it for first viewing). Overall Ghost Light is a hauntingly beautiful tale, from a much underappreciared era of Doctor Who.


Chris JC said...

It is good, innit? I remember it from the time - mostly the shot of Ace ducking when the sirens and lights crash into her consciousness.

In fact they might have used that on a trail, now I come to think of it.

Dull comments ahoy!

Horatio Outside said...

I, err, quite enjoyed Sophie Aldred in a tux. But the story has many, many other merits. And the more I see of Marc Platt's stuff, the more I think he's pretty amazing.

I wonder if he's been asked to write for the new series? If I were the showrunner...