‘Doctor Who: Ghost Light’ at 30

❉ Arguably Sylvester McCoy’s finest hour, first broadcast on this day in 1989.

Looking back on the Doctor Who of three decades ago can’t help but feel disconcerting for fans who experienced the period in real time. The only other point in the show’s past with so little certainty about the series having a future – at least on television – came several years later in the aftermath of the 1996 movie introducing Paul McGann as the Doctor, which also put a punctuation mark on Sylvester McCoy’s tenure in the role. As anyone who’s heard of Big Finish Productions or watched an anniversary episode not called Silver Nemesis knows, that punctuation mark ultimately turned into an audible ellipsis, but in 1989, none of this seemed plausible, let alone likely.

On October 4th of that year, the BBC began showing the final full-length story McCoy recorded as the incumbent Doctor. It somehow feels fitting that Ghost Light wasn’t shown last in the season but rather came second. The final story produced as part of what some people insist on calling Doctor Who’s “classic series” ended up not only out of place in its own season but beyond it as well. While generally well regarded and arguably McCoy’s finest hour as the Doctor, Ghost Light also sparks extreme reactions from a segment of fandom that finds it frustrating and incomprehensible

As received wisdom about the series goes, the negative views about Ghost Light recalls those surrounding the 1966 serial The Gunfighters, so famously derided in the 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration. Not only do both stories’ reputations suffer from a degree of myopia about what the series can and should be, those reputations remain resistant to reappraisal. The difference lies in how these opinions coalesced. The consensus view of The Gunfighters took hold in the early ‘80s based largely on fans who’d never seen the story embracing the view of those who saw it once nearly two decades earlier, none of whom had a meaningful opportunity to revisit it in the years before home-video. For partisans and detractors alike, though, Ghost Light gained its reputation during a time where home VCRs made the story itself readily accessible.

Even if repeat viewing hadn’t been an option, it’s hard to credit accusations of impenetrability directed at any story that can be aptly summarized by a single piece of dialogue. “Scratch the Victorian veneer and something nasty’ll come crawling out,” comments the Doctor’s companion, Ace, near the end of Part Two. One of many memorable lines from the first of Marc Platt’s memorable contributions to Doctor Who, within the narrative Ace’s invective is directed at the story’s notional antagonist, Josiah Smith. At the same time, the phrase “Victorian veneer” also points to an aspect of the production that makes charges of being too esoteric all the more dubious.

Macabre trappings notwithstanding, the Victorian era made a remarkably familiar and concrete setting for a BBC drama, one that brought out the best both narratively and from a production standpoint. Putting the story of an alien survey mission gone comically wrong in an environment more often associated with prestige drama proved to be one of Doctor Who’s best ever creative decisions. Looking back on his time with the series, script editor Andrew Cartmel observed that the same BBC departments that struggled to execute futuristic settings excelled at presenting historical ones. Instead of being hampered by a studio-only situation, the period setting allowed Ghost Light to stand as a rare example of late ‘80s Doctor Who where viewers don’t have to make major allowances for budget. As with the best period dramas, the quality of the production allows the quality of script to shine through in a way the similarly literate Dragonfire couldn’t.

When defining his goals for Doctor Who, producer John-Nathan Turner infamously proclaimed that his approach to humor would emphasize “wit rather than slapstick”. As a practical matter, the scripts produced during his tenure were a mixed bag in this regard, but the verbal dexterity of Ghost Light frequently hit that mark.

Professor, is this an asylum with the patients in charge?

Now, now, don’t shout. You’ll never evolve into a nice Victorian gentleman if you shout.

Of course, if she was a real lady, I wouldn’t be in her boudoir.

Who was it said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?

Literary roots are par for the course in BBC period pieces, and though not based on any specific work, Ghost Light is no exception. Whether the references are contemporary or take a more classical turn, Platt’s script weaves them into a sophisticated tapestry.

Rev Matthews: I see all the stories about you are true. You have no shred of decency. Even parading your shameless wantons in front of your guests.
Ace: Does he mean me, Professor?
Rev Matthews: I have it! This is some experiment related to your mumbo-jumbo theories. Perhaps she’ll evolve into a young lady!
Ace: Who are you calling young lady, bogbrain!
The Doctor: No such luck. Quiet Eliza, and be a good girl. I’m making some small talk.

The allusion to Pygmalion also brings to mind Ghost Light’s nearest Doctor Who ancestor, 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang, another Victorian-era story that isn’t shy about its literary influences. Where the two serials differ is in how their scripts approach these sources. The script for The Talons of Weng-Chiang tends to revel in its setting and inspirations while Ghost Light endeavors to examine the values those elements embody and evolve beyond them.

As polarizing as Ghost Light may be among fans, in many ways it’s the most traditional story of its era. While “traditional” is often used to mean echoing the premise and/or plot of a story from years earlier or treating elements from Doctor Who’s past as if they’re important in and of themselves, it can – and should – also refer to the thrill of experiencing a new spin on a familiar world. It might even expect viewers to work a bit to make the most of that experience. In a time when the BBC management didn’t see much value in Doctor Who, Andrew Cartmel and the writers he recruited went forward in all their beliefs about its potential. The intervening decades have proven that they were not mistaken.

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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