Doctor Who #703: Ghost Light Part 3

"Even I can't play this many games at once."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.18 1989.

IN THIS ONE... Dinner at Gabriel Chase. Light finds Earth has changed since he finished his survey. Ace admits to arson.

REVIEW: I am in love with the above shot of Ace juxtaposed with the peacock behind her, where she is soon replaced by a homicidal Gwendoline, making the two girls equivalent in some way. And that equivalence is that both are guilty of crimes. Ace's is revealed in this scene, the burning of the old house a hundred years hence, sirens blaring in Ace's waking fever dream. Gwendoline's is sending people to "Java", including her own father. It's notable that the Doctor rejects Gwendoline for "enjoying it" too much, but embraces Ace's act of delinquency (a rare surprise for him), and forgives her. Ace has the decency to feel guilty, and while her conscience after the fact is admirable, it also comes with a fair amount of self-loathing, self-loathing the Doctor is trying to extinguish. He accepts her as a delinquent because he's one himself, possibly, but as with The Curse of Fenric, he's obviously making her face her guilt and fear so she can accept who she is, for that way lies... well, the series ends before we find out, though the plan was to have her enter Time Lord Academy (as a new kind of Time Lord, human, compassionate and a free-thinker?). Our past makes us who we are, and Ace must accept the things she did because they made her the person she is. That's at least in part of the crux of this story, as evidenced by Josiah falling when his former selves (the rungs of this evolutionary ladder) are blown up.

But while Ace's evolution from disturbed teen to well-rounded adult is what it's all about, it's brought out by a similarly-themed backdrop. One part is the conflict between Josiah and Control, which I can only describe as a war of the sexes, and to my mind, the evolution of the Western family. These characters first evolved from animal forms to human, and from human forms to increasingly more civilized (in Control's case, ladylike) attitudes. Control's evolution is later than Josiah's, so as women's emancipation was late in coming. When she bursts out of the house, she experiences a setback, returning to the house to hide from an empty world too big to understand. It's a world that isn't welcoming to women, so Control returns to the security and domesticity of the house, bickering with Josiah at dinner (where he talks only of politics) and eying the rugged Redvers instead. By the end, Control has taken literal control of her destiny and leads the crew of the stone ship towards new horizons, new surveys. Ultimately, the modern woman is still Ace, who will find herself in this house in 1983 and destroy its patrician foundations altogether.

The other conflict is, of course, the one between Light and change. Now, Light is probably the weakest element of the episode. An angel with a bouffant hairdo and a high-pitched voice, unfortunately reminding me of a similar character in the awful Star Trek episode "And the Children Shall Lead", he's pretty ineffectual. But I suppose he's meant to be. The idea that he's an angel works in the context of his representing religious dogma (i.e. Genesis), and a Garden of Eden frozen in time, where evolution is not possible. His fury at Gwendoline and her mother is because they dared adapt to their situation and change. And so it goes with all of Earth, his solution an apocalyptic firestorm to wipe all life from the planet to his catalog will be up to date for all time. The Doctor's counter-move is to list creatures from myth and legend not included in the survey, then turning Light's hatred of change on him, since he is unchanging too, and make him realize the very nature of the universe is change, at all levels. That makes Light glitch, which again reminds me of Star Trek. Well, the Doctor and Kirk always did share a dislike of narrow-minded computers.

My three usual paragraphs are done, and I haven't even mentioned some of the best moments. Ace given the easy way out (the TARDIS key) and not taking it. And whether "primordial soup" or "the cream of Scotland Yard" is the cruelest and funniest of two jokes about the inspector's final fate. So much stuff! I do wonder what Ghost Light would have been like with a fourth episode, with time to breathe and explain things just a little bit more. I don't think it's in any way as opaque as some of its critics make it out to be, but like The Curse of Fenric, it does suffer from quick editing that doesn't give you time to think about what's happening (the husk explosion is one example of too quick a moment).

VERSIONS: The deleted and extended scenes on the DVD include Light making a quick trip around the world and the maids going after the inspector with a machete. Marc Platt's Target novelization is well regarded as it brings into focus his themes, who the inhabitants of Gabriel Chase are, and Ace's feelings.

REWATCHABILITY: High - In a perfect world, it moves just a touch slower. Even in ours, I love the progress that's being made with Ace, and the final confrontation between the Doctor and Light.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - I understand why some find it too "representational" as opposed to "naturalistic" (pun intended), but I still love it to bits as a moody, well-designed, incredibly weird, thematically rich piece of Victoriana. Best of all is how it advances Ace's story, which is the real highlight of this season.


Madeley said...

Have you ever thought of formatting these posts (and the Star Trek ones) into a series of ebooks? I've seen other people put similar things up for sale on Kindle and the like, and they're quite poor compared to these posts.

One of the parts I most like in this episode is the bit where there firestorm appears to be coming, the set's shaking, we're all ready for a big explosion as the stone ship blasts off, only for the Doctor to tell Ace as they're on their way out that the ship's already gone. It's a nice, subversive way of getting round the budgetary limitations, and adds an extra dreamlike beat, the ship having justs blinked out of exiistence as if it was never there.

Where the budget really lets things down is Light himself. After all the build-up, the terrifying god-figure is a faintly luminescent Liberace. Again, I understand there's a degree of subversion going on, maybe underlining the banality and ineffectiveness of evil in the Whoniverse. And the actor TRIES to go for creepy and unsettling in his delivery, and almost achieves it a couple of times. But there's no way of papering over the fact that he's miscast, and that the costume work doesn't approach the amazing design work for the rest of the characters, or the set.

Does it kill the story? No. It's still one of the best Who scripts ever written, and the show's always been able to transcend its limitations, but I do think that it's the one thing that stops it from equalling Curse of Fenric for me. With a better costume and stronger actor, Light could have been up there with the likes of Sutekh and Omega as a classic Power From Beyond Imagination villain.

Following on from my comment yesterday, so were Light, Control, and Josiah dormant beneath Gabriel Chase since ancient times, only emerging in the 19th Century, or are we supposed to believe that the stone ship's been zipping round the planet unnoticed for thousands of years before picking up Redvers in the jungle then warping back to Perivale? Because I got the impression that Light was only just emerging from hibernation at the end of episode 2.

CiB said...

Madeley- The Plot (or the bits that aren't explained, incording to Andrew Cartmell on one of the DVD's special features)

The ship has three crew- Light (whose in charge) Control and Survey. When on a planet, Light dispatches Survey to the surface of the planet, who then evolves into the dominant type of life there, casting of the previous form like a reptile (creating "husks"- Survey is Josiah). This is an experiment and thus needs a control- Control thus spends all it's time in the ship doing nothing and never evolving. When on planet they take specimans. They go to Earth, take a speciman (Nimrod) and Survey evolves into a human being. They then leave Earth and go to other planets. However, Survey decides that he quite likes being a human being, and there is a mutiny on the ship. Light is imprisoned, the ship comes back and quite a bit of time has passed since their last visit. Survey takes over the house (and has actually only been there for a couple of years at most- basically his arrival is when the original occupants of the house got brainwashed or sent to Java, as apropriate) and due to the ascendency of the British Empire, evolves into a Victorian Gentlemen. By this time an existence of being a lump of life that doesn't do anything has made Control quite mad- she comes to the conclusion that if Survey can be what he wants, she should have her freeness as well, and due in part to not really being able to form her own desires steals Surveys- where he is a gentlemen she wants to be a proper lady-like. Light gets out, sees how much has changed, realises that all his work is obsolete because evolution occurs to quickly and goes mad.

Madeley said...

Ah, a 24 year-old mystery (for me, anyway) solved! Cheers, CiB.

snell said...

The bigger problem with Light is that, c'mon--he cataloged ichtyosaurs AND Neanderthals (separated by some 90 million years), yet he doesn't understand/can't handle evolution?!? That's risible. The microbes would have been just as "evolving before his eyes" before he went to sleep. So the fact that the Doctor is able to "Kirk" him into destroying himself (could Light be a computer/android?) just feels, as is much of the story in my opinion, like a failure on the literal level in order to make a point on the allegorical level.

The fact that 90% of "The "Plot" never makes in onto the screen shows that a) as Siskoid said, it should have been a 4-parter, and b) Ace aside, the episode was completely unbalanced in favor of allegorical at the expense of the literal. Ghost Light may be the most brilliant, insightful "coded" critique of Britain/whatever, but if it neglects to do its job to actually tell a story, in my eyes its an ambitious failure.

CiB said...

Snell- for all most of that wasn't explicitly stated, it is all in there if you look. The problem there is that they wrote Ace to be clever in this story, which means she's not asking "Whats going on?", and because no one else does either the Doctor never explains all this. Thsi means that rather than have the Doctor figure out the plot and explain it to the companion (and thus the audience), as what happens in most Doctor Who, the audience is left to their own devices to figure it out for themselves. This is how I like to be told stories, which is why it's my favorite Doctor Who story.

It's not so much that Light can't handle evolution. What Light can't handle is that once he's revisited Earth he realises that the pace of evolution has meant the catalogue he created is completely useless due to how obsolete it is. To acknowledge that things change and adapt is one thing, to realise that eventually things would change so much that his millenia of work would be just wasted time and effort is quite another.

Look at Samuel Johnson as an example. A man who dedicated years of his life to write the first complete English Dictionary, featuring every word in the language. A project that took him years to complete. Now, imagine how he'd feel looking at the language 300 years later? After most of the words he catalogued were gone, and replaced by new ones entirely incomprehensible to him. He'd realise his dictionary was useless, probably end up thinking that it was time wasted. Ofcourse, he knew before hand that language evolves, after all what he spoke and what Chaucer spoke were hardly similar. But to realise that it would happen after he'd finished, and that his years of work would one day be utterly obsolete and like reading a foriegn language to current English speakers, like reading Chaucer might have been to him... thats a whole different thing to realise.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for all the insights, arguments and counter arguments guys. I'm very impressed at the swelling of comments over the course of the 7th Doctor's tenure in these pages. He's not just MY favorite, it seems.

To answer your top question, Madeley. I've not NOT thought about it. By which I mean I tried to craft a PDF "zine" version (2 issues available under that rubric, see link to the complete list of labels in right margin) though the tools I used were terrible (I've honed my skills and tools to new heights with the Doctor Who RPG Sourcebooks). That was an experiment. Then I started thinking maybe I should do book-length dedicated zines reprinting the Star Trek (per show) and yes the Doctor Who (per Doctor) without all the unconnected articles.

Did not think of making them into Kindle-friendly ebooks, but that's certainly an option. Obviously, they'd need a bit of an edit and the pictures wouldn't be allowed. Well, it could happen. I'm definitely going to do research on the subject if ppl think this is a useful format.

snell said...

CiB--I would like to think that, even if Samuel Johnson had the same reaction, he wouldn't decide that wiping out all language (or the whole planet) wouldn't be a plan he even considered.

Siskoid said...

Nah, at most he would go pee in the fireplace in frustration. Man was an epic boor.


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