Loose Threads, Faint Shadows by Mike Morris 4/9/02
Ghost Light is one of those stories that one might call an exemplar; it seems to be the archetypal Cartmel-era story. In the same way that The Brain of Morbius is a perfect example of early-Hinchcliffe Hammer pastiches, and Revelation of the Daleks sums up everything about the intention behind Season 22, the fractured narrative of Ghost Light with its condensed Victorian influences, dark tones and manipulative Doctor says a hell of a lot about where Andrew Cartmel wanted the series to go. This is part of the reason that some three-part story in a haunted house is so heavily-discussed; Ghost Light expresses Cartmel's vision so flawlessly that any comments made about it pertain to the ethos of the Cartmel era as a whole.
It's also quite complicated, you know. I'm not sure if anyone's mentioned that before.
And yet it isn't complicated at all. As Terrance Keenan perceptively points out above, the main plot is actually very simple indeed. In fact, it's easily squashed into a few sentences at the start of Part Three, with the whole "while it slept the survey got out of Control" scene. Having said that, there's an awful lot of stuff going on at any given time. I remember watching Ghost Light for the first time; I always felt a step behind the narrative, and although by the end I understood the main plot perfectly well, I still felt that I'd missed a lot.
All that said, recently I watched it with my sister (11), my brother (9), and my mum, whose interest in sci-fi is, well, not that pronounced. Only twice was I asked for clarification on anything - the husks and the insects coming alive. If the story can play to that audience, well, it's not so complicated at all. I'd argue that it's only that complex to a certain section of viewers - the kind who watch a lot of science fiction on telly.
Part of the reason that the story is seen as so complex is that it is structured in a fundamentally different way to more or less every other Doctor Who story (and more or less every televised sci-fi story). It doesn't follow the straight-line, plot-based narrative that almost all Doctor Who stories are based on. There's a whole host of separate threads going on - the husks, Gwendoline and Lady Pritchard, Josiah's evolution, Control and Redvers, Ace's history, Light. By looking at it quite dispassionately, a lot of these characters are superfluous to the "plot" - Redvers Fenn-Cooper doesn't contribute anything much to the Light's-in-the-spaceship-in-the-cellar scenario, for example. One might call these "subplots", but this is only partially true, because all these threads are given exactly the same weight.
In fact, in the Doctor Who sense of the world, Ghost Light doesn't really have a plot at all, or at least not in the in the way that The Brain of Morbius is fundamentally about Solon making a body for his master. It's not even completely true to say that Ghost Light is different because it's about evolution, because Full Circle is about evolution but still builds up a plot around the idea. Ghost Light, however, is more a series of vignettes grouped around a central concept. The concept itself is quite loose, one might assume it started out as being about evolution, but broadened into a study of change as opposed to Victorian ideas. As well the change/static idea, other ideas recur, such as the notion of appearance and recurring ideas about racism.
In fact, what we have is something almost unique in Doctor Who; a fundamentally post-modern narrative structure.
No, no, don't stop reading. The problem with saying something's post-modern is that "post-modern" is bandied about so much it's a rather blurry idea, and in fact it always was. It was conceived as an alternative to Modernism, and as such it's more a reaction to Modernist thinking than a defined doctrine in its own right.
So while Modernism was about carefully pushing a single premise as far as it could go, Post-Modernism gleefully addressed several ideas quite loosely. Modernism tended to use a single reference, and use that reference to create something entirely new, but Post-Modernism used multiple references and acknowledged those references quite openly. And while Modernism tended to be about simplicity and rationality, Post-Modernism was complex and delighted in introducing details out of whimsy.
Films like Scream or anything by the Coen Brothers are good examples of post-modern works, whereas the recent rash of teenage adaptations of classic texts (Cruel Intentions or 10 Things I Hate About You) are actually more Modernist than anything else - faithful reworkings of a single reference.
Now that's what I call a digression. To get back to Doctor Who, The Brain of Morbius, for example, is a very Modernist story - a careful adaptation of Frankenstein to suit Doctor Who's formula. It uses the same settings, the same moral debates, the same tone. In fact, most Doctor Who stories are loosely Modernist; generally they are about "linear" plots, about simple storylines, and the stories have a no-frills quickness to them; those that don't are dismissed as "padded".
Ghost Light, meanwhile, condenses and references numerous sources, but not in any particularly careful way. For the average Doctor Who viewer, it's frustratingly difficult to find any real influences to cling on to, and what references there are can only be called loose. The story tips its hat to Kafka's Metamorphosis, for example, but there are few enough actual parallels; it evokes the spirit of that story rather than anything specific (Josiah's transformation is completely different to that of Kafka's narrator). Ditto the Pygmalion angle - Control wants to become a "lady-like", but beyond that there are no similarities at all.
It's easy to imagine a Robert Holmes adaptation of Metamorphosis. We'd have a giant insect, a tortured transformation... well, maybe he already did it with The Ark In Space, in a sense. We'd have a very easy-to-read narrative. With Ghost Light, there's no unifying plot, just unifying ideas that bring disparate elements together. Josiah's skin-shedding is related to Ace's "scratch the Victorian veneer" comment, which can then be grouped with Redver's terrified references to "the Interior", and also to his gazing at a faded image of himself. All these scenes are, broadly, about appearance, and the horrors that may lie beneath it, albeit in a loose way rather than anything specific. It's one of the story's many motifs, like the constant racial allusions ("turn all the atlases pink", Ace's story about Manisha, Inspector MacKenzie's casual racism) and of course about the idea of change - which is then contrasted with Victorian conservatism, summed up by the revelation that Josiah Smith doesn't kill his specimens, but holds them in stasis (and that's why the insects come back to life, because they were never actually dead, just preserved like Inspector MacKenzie. That's my reading of it anyway).
Is this loose, multi-faceted, non-linear structure better or worse than the traditional Doctor Who way of telling a story? Um, I would only say that it's different, and is probably better adapted to the fourteen-episode season as more can be said (or hinted at) in a shorter space of time. Set against that, it's much easier to get this type of story wrong, as if the writing's not top-notch then it can degenerate into an utter mess. Really, though, it's a question of personal preference. I tend to be suckered in by individual sequences rather than clear storylines, but I can see why people might object to it.
Me, I really enjoy it.
I enjoy Ian Hogg's magnificent performance as alien, I enjoy the off-kilter, almost drunken way he delivers his dialogue. I enjoy Aldred's wonderfully-acted scenes. I enjoy the understated way that the script portrays a Neanderthal butler, I love the way Light is voiced, I love the "monkey-house" song, I adore Gwendoline's stylised facial expressions and the way they contrast with Ace's naturalism (more references to appearance there), and I revel in McCoy giving his best performance, except for one extraordinary aberration - the "forget the survey and go" scene, which lovers of Ghost Light tactfully ignore. The stunning moments come thick and fast. This kind of storytelling has been called "self-indulgent" by some, but that thinking ignores the thematic consistency underlying the story. It has also been called pretentious, but I'd prefer to think of it as ambitious; and as an accusation, "pretentious" is bloody annoying, as it suggests that Doctor Who has no right to take itself seriously. This certainly isn't true since even a story like The Androids of Tara takes itself seriously in its own way.
It's aided no end by being one of Doctor Who's most stylish productions, with the Gabriel Chase flawlessly created and more or less everything being utterly convincing; the husks would hold their own on television today, so by the standard of the time they're remarkable. The direction is hugely atmospheric, with a whole host of close-ups, but to counterbalance some scenes are shot with a gutsy lack of showiness. Josiah's "I'm a man of property" is particularly brave, showing us Josiah's back and relying on Hogg's body language and voice to convey Josiah's emotions, and therefore displaying the various emotions of everyone else at the table when confronted with this breakdown. In addition the music is outstanding. As Andrew Wixon says above, this story might have been written off as just another quirky McCoy tale if this end of things wasn't so impressive. However, we sometimes forget that at this stage of Who's history, with the short season and relatively high budget, it's not ridiculous to expect that side of things to be of a reasonable standard.
The dialogue is wonderful, with more one-liners than any other story. In fact the only place the script falls down is in the creation of Inspector MacKenzie and Mrs Gross, both of whom are the kind of stereotypes that the Cartmel era was guilty of producing rather too often. Still, that's a minor quibble.
Another thing said, in The Pocket Essentials Guide To Doctor Who, is that "you can hear the nails being hammered in Doctor Who's coffin as you watch it." Hmm; I think this is crap, frankly, which assumes Doctor Who means nice, light, 26-episodes-a-season Doctor Who. This is a different sort of Doctor Who, set up for shorter seasons, with weightier stories that say a lot more. It's therefore inevitable they'll be less straightforward. Ghost Light is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else; there are all sorts of questions hanging unresolved at the conclusion, and still more with answers that are implied rather than stated. But the story works differently to other stories, and we're supposed to enjoy it in a different way...
...and prepare for the dodgiest metaphor you'll ever hear...
...for, if most Doctor Who stories are solid things, to be measured and quantified, then Ghost Light is liquid. It shifts and alters, it's indefinite, and the tighter you grasp it the more it will escape you. So enjoy the feel, and grab what you can. That's the level at which it's supposed to work; and at that level it's a magnificent piece of television.