Doctor Who #702: Ghost Light Part 2

"Man has been the same, sir, since he stood in the garden of Eden, and he was never ever a chattering gibbering ape."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.11 1989.

IN THIS ONE... Reverend Matthews is turned into a monkey. The Doctor awakens the policeman in the cupboard. Control escapes the cellar. Josiah sheds his husk.

REVIEW: Here's how Ghost Light is opposing evolution and creationism. The personified Light is undoubtedly God/creationism, and is often off-handedly equated to Divinity. The light at the end of the tunnel. Redvers seeing its face and going mad. Nimrod's god, the Burning One. A literal reading of Genesis would make Earth an unchanging ecosystem, where all the plants and animals were made whole and have not since changed. The Reverend Matthews is its unknowing advocate, but even he is transformed by other forces in the house, regressed to an ape-like state as Josiah's joke. Josiah and Control, the two main denizens of the house, represent the forces of evolution, though they serve Light each in their own way. That isn't a contradiction. Light has been made prisoner, after all, and both Josiah and Control fear Light, perhaps out of guilt for their evolutionary sins. Though now that Josiah has taken on a new body, one that doesn't fear daylight and doesn't need dark glasses, that he as evolved into a Victorian gentleman, one who might better embrace Darwinism and reject dogma, it'll be worth seeing if Light has less influence over him.

Whether Light/God/Orthodoxy wants to admit it or not, they're living in a changing world. In the house, this manifests as dead bugs coming to life in drawers (and a "bluebottle" policeman too, his prodigious eating as much a symbol of all-consuming humanity pushing us "forward" as a joke about his having slept for two years). But the outside world, too, is changing. The Doctor's eco-message throw-away joke about the Amazon desert is just such a reminder. But it's not just a physical change, it's a social one as well. There's a very good reason to cast the male Josiah against a female Control. The role of women is changing. Ace and Gwendoline in boys' attire was the first shot across the bow, but female Control climbing out of the cellar demanding her "freeness" is outright war against the house's status quo, and so, against society. Ghost Light then becomes a condemnation of the innate fascism of any system that would seek to restrain social evolution in favor of a status quo, one which in this case, has favored one gender over another (and more, the inspector's various racist remarks speak to another flaw of the Empire). While Josiah's plan hasn't been made known yet, we do see him using a picture of Queen Victoria as target practice, the anomalous woman-on-top in this Man's World. And of course, at the center of things, Ace, a thoroughly modern woman who doesn't believe in gender roles.

All of which is theory and doesn't get at the story as a literal Doctor Who story. If I neglect that aspect of it, it's that Ghost Light is so thought-provoking, I can't help but turn the review into a bit of a literary essay. As a story, I like what it's doing too. I feel for Gwendoline's loss of identity, crying over her absent parents in her mother's presence it turns out (so don't tell me this isn't about gender politics, the women here aren't allowed to follow their true selves). McCoy is stellar as the Doctor, restrained, funny, and active. I love the small touches like Ace sleeping away the day, bringing her back to the spooky evening. Mad Redvers keeping himself prisoner though his bonds have already been loosed by the Doctor. And being sent to Java is an amazingly colorful metaphor for getting boxed. Great images.

VERSIONS: Deleted and extended scenes featured on the DVD include a distraught Gwendoline visiting Redvers, and the Doctor leaving that dress for Ace, making his comment about it play differently.

REWATCHABILITY: High
- A weird, moody and frequently funny episode that is redolent with meaning. Fascinating.

19 comments:

Madeley said...

It's such a rich story, with so much going on above and below the surface. I particularly love the digs it makes about British Imperialism. As a show, until this point Doctor Who was never very good at turning its own gaze back on itself.

The whole premise has been an English gentlemen going around the universe, knowing better than all the natives he meets and fixing everything because he alone knows what is right. It's an incredibly arrogant, imperial streak to the show. Cartmel's 2000AD-esque satirical perspective had already taken some pot-shots at Thatcher-era politics, but Ghost Light takes it a step further by attacking some of the more conservative values that lie at the core of the show itself. Interesting too that this occurs with the first Doctor not explicitly played as an upper-class Englishman.

The story does have a reputation for being hard to understand, and the reputation is at least a little deserved. I don't think it's incomprehensible, but it does require a bit of concentration and more than one viewing. I don't think this is a bad thing, myself.

I rewatched it last weekend, and apart from a couple of points I think I do understand the story now. The only thing I'm unclear on, really, is when and why Light went into hibernation, why did Josiah emerge at this particular point in time, and where was he and what was he doing when he was in his insectile forms?

Siskoid said...

I'll look at Part 3 with an eye towards answering some of those questions.

Doctor Who has tried to critique Imperial values before, notably in The Mutants, but you're right, I hadn't considered how this becomes an attack on Doctor Who's own Imperialism (though I did see it as an attack on how companions were mostly portrayed in the past) even after I'd responded to another comment of yours by saying the Doctor worked well in Victorian settings because he's essentially a Victorian gentleman adventure (like Redvers). At the antipodes of that Empire (both in time and space), I guess Imperialism is a little less on our minds than if we were living on the British Isles, despite my people having suffered a type of genocide in the 18th century at the hands of the Empire.

CiB said...

Madeley, the "Cosmic Hobo" may have sounded upper class, but a character that dresses and acts like that certainly isn't.

The Fourth Doctor was more "bohemian wanderer" than "upper class Englishman". For another example.

Thing is, going right back to the First Doctor, the character has been anti-establishment. (except perhaps for his third incarnation) Maybe a product of it (as confirmed in the Deadly Assassin- the Prydonian chapter is basically "Eton for Timelords"), but never part of it. I also disagree with the idea that the seventh doctor is the first time he's not been played as an upper class gentlemen- for classic Who the costume was always "eccentric" rather "fashionable for upper classes now", and the accents were a product of the BBC's habit of not letting people who didn't speak Recieved Pronunciation (AKA "BBC English") on tv. Hence Dodo Chaplets ever shifting accent.

Certainly critique of imperialism is not something I picked up on this story, and this is with me being from the British Isles.

As for understanding the story- Light didn't go into hibernation, and Josiah didn't "emerge" at this particular point in time. But I probably shouldn't say anything more on this until part 3 has been covered, as to say more would be to either "half explain" it, or to spoil exactly whats going on (at least as far as Cartmel and Platt are concerned)

Siskoid said...

You make a good point as well, CiB. Whether the Doctor is an Imperialist or not, his modus operandi certainly is. Or at least, he's working within an Imperialistic narrative structure (hey, so was Kirk's Enterprise). So are you going to visit other countries/planets/times and sort their problems and leave them to the consequences? Or are you going to respect their culture and leave well enough alone. The Doctor's done a bit of both (see The Aztecs for an example of the first), and there's something to be said for PREVENTING other outside "Empires" from interfering/invading cultures. But the Doctor's definitely done that kind of paternalistic, condescending thing.

Whether or not Ghost Light comments on Doctor Who itself, there IS an attack on Imperialism here, in so far as there's an attack on the forces maintaining the status quo (Empire, the Church, etc.).

snell said...

I've finally put my finger on why I've never been able to connect with Ghost Light--it's another panto.

Everyone at Gabriel Chase is so busy being an archetype (along with their mostly arch acting), they never become real characters. There's precious little actual real interaction between the Doctor & Ace and the other characters--it's as if they've been dropped into a play that just continues on around them, barley acknowledging them.

This also makes it hard to connect, because there's no one to root for besides our heroes, no sympathetic guest characters. Structurally, that's the only real reason to introduce the Inspector--so the Doctor has someone besides Ace to talk to.

For my tastes, then, it's a case of the dense themes being sabotaged by the weaknesses on the literal level. To paraphrase Ebert, it's not what Ghost Light is about it's how it's about it. And for me, the unsubtle panto wasn't the right way to go.

Madeley said...

I hope Siskoid doesn't mind me turning this corner of his comments section into yet another insufferable conversation about The British Class System.

To my mind, the cosmic hobo and Bohemian archetypes ARE upper class characters. In my experience, you're only allowed to be a jobless wandering, interfering Great British Eccentric if you're Old Money. Everyone else is just an unemployed layabout and a target to be monstered by the tabloids. Only the upper classes are rich enough to dress that slovenly.

In a similar vein, I absolutely agree that to an extent the Doctor has always been anti-establishment, but coded in the mould of radicals like Tony Benn and Michael Foot; again, an eccentric from a privileged background. The upper classes are allowed to be a bit bolshie, it's all very charming. But if you dare to be a working class radical, then you're a troublemaking thug.

This is one of the things that makes the Ninth Doctor super-interesting to me. Accent, clothing, the actor who plays him, all solidly- stereotypically- Northern working class. And his creator from Swansea, a city that isn't, not to put too fine a point on it, the most affluent place in the world. Even the Ninth's console room was bashed up, broken down, barely stable. The TARDIS as owned by Doctors 1 through 8 may have been beaten up on the outside, but on the inside was either bright white and modern or wood-panelled and refined. There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to why Matt Smith's Doctor is again an English Eccentric with a shiny console room.

On further reflection re. the Seventh, I still think he's played by McCoy as upper-class, just an upper-class Scot rather than an upper-class Englishman, only a little way down the ladder compared to the rest of us.

All of this just my opinion, of course, your mileage may vary, etc. etc.

Siskoid said...

Snell: I totally get where you're coming from. There's an artificiality there that springs up in Doctor Who every so often when the story becomes more satire than realism. That the human characters (though I feel some sympathy for Gwendoline and even Control and Redvers) are mind-controlled "toys" (on the literal level) makes this no different to me than a story about Cybermen or whatever. They have a reason to be 2D instead of 3D. Bad Doctor Who doesn't give any reasoning for slim characterization. And I think in this case, for Gwendoline and perhaps others, the imposed 2D-ness is not only part of the point, but their personal tragedy, the cause of their anxiety.

Siskoid said...

Madeley: He is a Lord, after all. And at the start of the new series, his Monarchy has fallen, so he's a broke Doctor.

What this whole discussion made me think of is the concept of "slumming it", historically a distasteful practice that involved the rich visiting poor areas as if it were a human zoo or safari park. And the Pulp song (bettered by William Shatner) "Common People".

Madeley said...

Taking a holiday in other people's misery, absolutely. 80s Doctor Who, the rise of 2000AD, even Pulp's place in the Britpop 90s, it's all part of a shift in British cultural attitudes, a sea-change that's still going on, and will probably continue for another generation. I doubt the Ninth Doctor was even possible before 1989. Maybe not even 1999.

snell said...

Fair enough, but a) I thought Katharine Schlesinger's performance to be pretty bad, even as a "puppet," ending any sympathy I might have had for her; b) through Part 2, Control isn't even really a character yet, barely 1D, let alone 2D (although of course that changes in Part 3); and Redvers has one tiny 30 second scene in Part 2. That leaves us with precious little to interact with in the episode...

Anonymous said...

Re: Tom Baker and Bohemian / class. I always think of the scene where the Doctor and Drax meet up again for the first time after hundreds of years; Drax most assuredly is a common man, a working man, and a little beneath the Doctor's station. The Doctor even insists on being called "Doctor", in the way snooty doctors get sometimes.

Not sure how much we can and/or should read into that scene, but it's the only time we've seen other Gallifreyans who aren't either ruling class, mad scientists, or Ostrogoths.

As for Pertwee being a little too chummy with authority figures, I see him as a temporarily embarrassed aristocrat having to lodge below his station. As soon as he got his knowledge of materialization codes back he was off on space adventures again. (While he did return to UNIT pretty often, I can't fault him for having developed genuine affection for the Brig and the rest.)

Siskoid said...

On the basis of guest cast, you have a point. It is by no means the only thing I'm watching Doctor Who for. What Ghost Light lacks in guest characterization, it makes up for in direction, design, regular cast moments, mood, script and mystery.

CiB said...

Madely- that "sea change" in "British cultural atttitudes" goes back much further. Really, it goes back to 1945, when World War 2 had proven once and for all that the British Empire was no longer feasible or acceptable. From there in the 50's you have the End of Empire and the beginning of the Commonwealth (that is, the change from "These places are under our Imperial Thumb" to "these nations are our friends and allies with which whom we have a shared history due to our formerly Imperial Thumb").

Since then the UK has had to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer the dominant super power in the world, and is, in fact, largely irrelevant on the worlds stage. Bit's of Britain have been fine with that going right back to 1945, other bits are going to struggle with this for generations to come. Indeed, even in the 60's for some sections of British society the Empire was something they'd quite like to brush under the carpet and pretend never happened due to being ashamed of being a country that would be involved in that.

The majority of Britons, I think, had already gone through this "sea-change" before Doctor Who started, and that's one of the reasons why the Doctor has always been a critic of imperialist values.

Really, the only way in which the Ninth Doctor would not have been "possible" before 1989 would be due to their not having been an Eighth yet. In the 60's it wouldn't have been possible due to the "Character doesn't speak with a BBC English accent", but thats the only reason why.

Siskoid said...

Pertwee is "chummy" with the upper class (belongs to clubs etc.), but is still infuriated with every authority figure he comes across in modern day Britain. So he's anti-establishment, yes, but comes FROM the establishment (the Time Lords being the space-time continuum's ultimate establishment). That's his inner paradox, which is what I believe makes any character three-dimensional, interesting and conflicted. He must struggle with the values that have molded him (his society) and his impulse to reject those values. But can he divorce himself from those values he has integrated?

So we have a Doctor who's FOR the common man and greater good, but also a Doctor who can be insufferably smug and superior (even working class Eccleston).

Madeley said...

CiB- I disagree to the extent that I think that as late as the 80s the BBC only tolerated working class characters that knew their place, usually in some grim kitchen sink drama or sitcom. But you're right, all of this forms part of the greater, radical social changes of the 20th Century.

Siskoid- Yeah, the default setting of every Doctor is "smug git".

CiB said...

Madeley- 1980's BBC is full of characters to the contrary. Only Fools and Horses (a program fundamentally about people "not knowing their place"), Red Dwarf (which is fundamentally about the class system, at least as far as it's creators are concerned), Rab C. Nesbitt (which, in many ways, was working class Glasgow speaking out against this establishment on behalf of all Scots- look at the infamous subtitles episode), the fact that Billy Connolly was on telly in the 1970's, Porridge etc. There are far to many of them for these all to be exceptions to the rule.

Never mind a certain sci fi program they did that in the early 1970's did a couple of stories about miners rights where working class people who didn't "know their place" were front, centre and sympathetic.

Madeley said...

I have to say this is the most fun I've had in a comments section for some time, really enjoying the different perspectives.

CiB- I'm continuing to reply not because I'm trying to get the last word or anything, but because I think this is genuinely an interesting conversation, and I hope you don't think I'm being one of those argumentative internet pedants.

I mentioned sitcoms as being one of the places that working class people were "allowed" in my earlier comment, because regardless of the satirical and sympathetic approach the characters were still there to be laughed at. Only Fools and Horses in particular is a show about how laughable people are when they get ideas above their station.

Siskoid said...

Well, I'm glad to hear you guys aren't waging class warfare!

Craig Oxbrow said...

We can if you'd like. :) The Who-makers at the time wanted Thatcher out, after all.

The Doctor picking the dress, making Ace look the part so she'd seem conforming and "safe" to the pseudo-Victorians in the house?

 

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