Mystique, momentum and Ghost Light (1989)

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I’ve been watching Ghost Light and pondering its meaning  for 26 years now. Watched it on transmission, watched the repeats, read the book, read the script book, listened to the soundtrack, watched the VHS, watched the DVD, watched the DVD special features. Read lots about it too, from others deciphering this atmospheric but Byzantine tale. Rich and moody, like a goblet of heady red wine, it’s a decadent treat of a story. By now, I think I just about understand everything in it. Still, I wouldn’t like to be put to the test.

This beautiful but bizarre tale, layered with symbolism and literary allusion, feels like late night viewing. 10:30pm on a Friday night on BBC27 or something. But of course, it wasn’t like that. It was broadcast on successive Wednesday evenings at 7:30pm, BBC1. Infamously, opposite Coronation Street. Brilliant it may be, but does Ghost Light really sit comfortably in that time slot? How many bewildered viewers switched channels, looking for something less demanding for a work night? And should Doctor Who be too complicated to understand on first viewing?

As much as I admire this story, there’s an argument that it’s absolutely not what the series needed in1989. It comes close to very end of the classic series, a time when the show needed to be winning viewers, not alienating them. Straight forward knockabout adventure, suitable for the whole family was what was called for. Ghost Light offers Victorian gothic with an incomprehensible sci fi slap.

Look, I’m going to be harsh about it. Yes, there’s a mystique in being oblique. Yes, the show should treat its audience with intelligence. Yes, by 1989 viewers could tape and rewatch the show and be rewarded by multiple viewings. But no, it’s not good enough to leave viewers befuddled. That’s poor storytelling.

And sure, Ghost Light lost a lot of material in the editing, but frankly I don’t think reinstating it would have helped. It’s designed to be decoded over time, so it would always have been mystifying on its initial viewing. It has technical problems too: the pictures are so dark and murky not even the transfer to DVD can help illuminate them, and the incidental music often obscures the dialogue. This is a story which expects a lot from its viewers, then makes it difficult for them to hear and see it. There’s even one shot of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) writhing pointlessly with thin air, which is missing the accompanying visual effect to show he’s struggling against Light’s (John Hallam)  power. Astonishing that after 26 years of making Doctor Who, some fundamental production errors were still being made.

So: fascinating, macabre, lyrical, but on a storytelling level, flawed. But you’re a smart fellow or lass, so you’ve spotted the problem with what I’m saying: if Ghost Light fails as storytelling, why have I stuck with it for 26 years?

Well, precisely because it’s fascinating, macabre and lyrical. To such an extent that I can look past its problems.

*****

Watching Ghost Light immediately after The Mind of Evil is like trading in your Datsun 120y in for a Ferrari. The increase in pace is palpable; more happens in the first 10 minutes of Ghost Light than in the first two episodes of The Mind of Evil.

Late 80s Who is like that though, and it’s not just because viewers’ tastes had changed. For most of its first 23 years, Doctor Who walked you through a story, detailing every event, every conversation between events, every journey from plot point to plot point.

Doctor Who as script edited by Andrew Cartmel tells us the important parts of a story and leaves us to figure out the rest. This, plus a tendency for his episodes to overrun and need to be unsentimentally edited, make for a distinctly choppy house style throughout McCoy’s tenure. Let’s call it the Cartmel Mode.

The Cartmel Mode’s distinguished like this. Scenes abruptly begin and end, as if two or three lines have been cut from either end. Characters shift locations instantly; we don’t get to see their journeys between (for instance Ace (Sophie Aldred) falls asleep in a chair; we don’t see her stumble upstairs to her bedroom, we just see her wake up about 11 hours later). Ghost Light demonstrates this stop-start momentum throughout. Characters behave slightly oddly because earlier parts of the story have been excised; in Part One, for example, Nimrod expresses no surprise in discovering the Doctor and Ace. That’s because in a cut scene, Josiah became aware there were visitors in the house and sent Nimrod to greet them.

But Ghost Light does something even more remarkable. It cuts out a whole day’s events.

Back to sleepy old Ace. When she falls asleep for the daylight hours, it’s like the audience does too. And the Doctor was busy in those hours. He repaired the lift, went down to the cellar and made a deal with Control (Sharon Duce) to awaken Light. But all this is kept from us. I can’t think of another story which deliberately obscures the action in this way, mid story.

The effect is that the Doctor is as much a figure of mystery as the other inhabitants of the house. We don’t get to see everything he does, and so he’s also an untrustworthy character. He measures out information to Ace as he sees fit, he deceitfully hides the house’s location from her. He’s tricksy.

But he’s also a powerful character, and Cartmel has often talked about the need for the Doctor to be an active presence in the story; a person who makes things happen, not has things happen to them. That’s never truer than in Ghost Light. The climax to Part Two’s a good example, where the Doctor gathers all the players in the hall so that he can precipitate a meeting with Light. He even moves the clock forward 15 minutes to make it happen when he wants. Everyone in this story dancing to his tune, working to his timetable. That’s power.

*****

This week, to my delight, I found that my local library held a copy of Ghost Light‘s latest iteration and the one I hadn’t yet experienced: AudioGo’s audiobook of Marc Platt’s novelisation. It’s read by actor Ian Hogg, whose smoky voice adds extra flavour to this familiar tale, even if he sounds mildly surprised by each sentence and his Ace sounds like an escapee from Porridge.

Hearing it helps little details float to the service; for instance, that it’s Control who animates the Husks and can see through their eyes, or that Josiah awakened Redfers (Michael Cochrane) from his collection so he could intercept the Doctor and Ace. 26 years I’ve been decoding Ghost Light. Looks like I’m not done yet.

LINK to The Mind of Evil: both feature characters being mentally controlled by others.

NEXT TIME: So, we meet again, Earthshock.

 

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