Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Story 153 - Ghost Light

In which the Doctor decides to take Ace to the scene of one of her darkest moments - though she doesn't realise it to begin with... The TARDIS materialises in an attic nursery. The house is Gabriel Chase, Perivale, and the year is 1883.
Downstairs, the day staff hurry out as the sun goes down, determined never to remain in the house after dark. The stern Mrs Pritchard oversees the appearance of the evening staff - strange young women who emerge from hidden panels in the walls. The Reverend Ernest Matthews arrives for dinner. he is a fierce opponent of Josiah Samuel Smith. Smith is an advocate of Charles Darwin's theories on evolution, whilst Matthews, as a churchman, is a staunch Creationist. The Doctor and Ace descend from the attic and meet the house's strange inhabitants. The butler is a Neanderthal named Nimrod. They witness he and Mrs Pritchard subduing a man named Redvers Fenn-Cooper, who dresses as though about to set off on safari. he appears to be quite manic, obsessed by the light at the heart of the dark continent. Ace meets and befriends Smith's ward - Gwendoline. The Doctor observes Fenn-Cooper being confronted by a silver snuff box, which opens to reveal a blinding light. The box has a radioactive signature.

When Ace learns that this is the house which she visited in 1983, following a racist attack on a friend, she is furious at the Doctor for toying with her emotions. He wants her to confront and overcome her demons, and is keen to know the nature of the evil which she felt in this place, which prompted her to burn it to the ground. Upset, she runs off and descends to the cellar in a lift. The cellar appears to contain advanced technology, contained within a stone vault. Ace finds two bizarre figures - one reptilian, and one insectoid, yet wearing dinner suits. They come to life and attack her, but she is rescued by the Doctor. Inspecting Smith's collection of animal and insect specimens, the Doctor discovers the comatose body of Chief Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard. The policeman comes back to life, and explains that he came here two years ago to find out what happened to the owners. At dinner, Smith appears. he is light-phobic, and wears dark glasses, His skin is pale and peeling. Matthews is shocked when Ace and Gwendoline appear in men's dinner suits. Fenn-Cooper is more rational, but talks about hunting a rare creature. Later, Smith meets with Matthews privately - and turns him into an ape. In the cellar, there is a being trapped behind a locked door. It is female, and is called Control. It escapes, and Smith appears to be terrified of it. He tries to bribe the Doctor to kill it. Control releases another captive being - Light.

It transpires that Smith is an alien who has been evolving over time. The reptilian and insectoid husks encountered by Ace were previous forms, discarded as a snake sheds its skin. Light has been on a mission to catalogue all life in the universe, accompanied by two assistants. When he arrives on a new planet, he sends one of his assistants out to experience it, whilst the other is kept in his ship to act as a control element in his experiment. Smith is one of the assistants, and has now taken over. He seeks to reach his ultimate evolutionary form on the Earth - as leader of the British Empire. Fenn-Cooper has an invite to meet Queen Victoria, and Smith has brainwashed him into assassinating her. The explorer first encountered the aliens whilst on an expedition to Africa, and he helped them come to Perivale. Nimrod was collected on their arrival hundreds of thousands of years ago. Light kills Mackenzie and some of the staff out of scientific curiosity. Gwendoline turns out to be quite psychotic - her mind having been twisted by Smith. It is revealed that her father - the real owner of Gabriel Chase - was killed by Smith, and her mother is really Mrs Pritchard, who has had her memories removed. As mother and daughter are reunited, Light destroys them by turning them to stone, so that they do not change any more. Control quickly evolves, and becomes a young woman. She is befriended by Fenn-Cooper. The Doctor convinces Light that his catalogue can never be complete, as he has slept for centuries and missed many species, and those alive today are constantly evolving. Even he is changing. Light decides to destroy the Earth in a fire-storm - to stop life from evolving. Unable to cope with evolution, Light is destroyed. In the cellar - really Light's spaceship - the fire storm is stopped. Smith is captured and locked up, just as he had incarcerated Control. She, Nimrod and Fenn-Cooper decide to use the ship to go explore the cosmos. Ace now knows the nature of the evil that took place in Gabriel Chase, which will lie empty for a hundred years until it is destroyed by fire...

This three part story was written by Marc Platt - his only contribution to the series - and was broadcast between 4th and 19th October, 1989. It was the last Doctor Who story to be recorded prior to the series being cancelled, though broadcast in the second slot. It was the all-studio story made alongside the all-location Survival, which was already in the can.
Platt's original pitch had been to take the Doctor back to his ancestral home on Gallifrey - a Ghormenghast-ian Gothic mansion by the name of "Lungbarrow". The Doctor's origins would have been revealed. Mercifully, producer John Nathan-Turner and Script Editor Andrew Cartmel chose to veto this idea. Cartmel had sought to re-introduce an element of mystery about the Doctor, so a story setting out his origins would have been an utterly stupid notion.
Platt redeveloped his story to be more of a haunted house mystery. He was a great fan of Victorian Gothic literature, and his day job used to be cataloguing archives at the BBC - the inspiration for Light's mission. The other big influence on the script is the clash between Darwin's theories of evolution, and biblical Creationism - represented by high churchman Rev Matthews.
At the time of broadcast, fans were somewhat baffled by the story. It seems that the cast were similarly confused by it. It demands multiple viewings - which means that, as piece of drama, it fails.
The problem was that a lot of what happens does not have a clear explanation - the animated husks being the most obvious example. Even if you do work out that they are Smith's cast-offs, how do they come to life? Why do they come to life? The truth is that JNT wanted conventional monsters - so they are there just to perform that role.
It turns out that a lot of material, that would have helped clarify things, was cut out to keep it to three episodes. Would it have been better as a four-parter? There wasn't quite enough material to strectch it that far. There is a laughable interview with Platt and Cartmel on the DVD where they claim it is all straight-forward - they, of course, knowing what it was supposed to be all about.

The baffled cast is as follows. Smith is Ian Hogg - best known for playing policeman Rockliffe on BBC TV. Fenn-Cooper is Black Orchid's Michael Cochrane. Mrs Pritchard is Sylvia Syms. Matthews is John Nettleton. Control is Sharon Duce. Gwendoline is Katharine Schlesinger. Light is John Hallam. Mackenzie is The King's Demons Frank Windsor, Nimrod is another returnee to the series - Carl Forgione, who had been one of Lupton's circle in Planet of the Spiders.
Episode endings are:
  1. Ace has run away from the Doctor and descended to the cellar in a lift. She comes across two dinner-suited figures - one with a reptilian head, and the other that of an insect. They stir to life and lumber towards her...
  2. The lift ascends to the ground floor, and everyone shields their eyes as a blast of light emerges. Light is free...
  3. Fenn-Cooper, Nimrod and Control have left to explore the universe - the spaceship travelling at the speed of thought. Ace now knows the nature of what she felt here, one hundred years from now...

Overall, wonderful cast, lovely performances and great sets / props. Shame the story story requires interviews made years later to make it comprehensible. 80th place in the DWM 50th Anniversary poll. A lot of people mistake complexity for quality, don't they?
Things you might like to know:
  • I've mentioned some of Platt's influences above. Other obvious ones include The Rocky Horror Show - a couple turn up at a Gothic mansion and there are bizarre characters who turn out to be aliens, and someone gets eaten  for dinner. There are quotes from everyone from Conan-Doyle to Douglas Adams to the Beatles. Lewis Carroll is another big influence.
  • Platt got to unleash Lungbarrow on the world thanks to the Virgin New Adventures book series - a source of onanism for a certain segment of fandom. As I've said, spelling out the Doctor's back-story was a stupid idea. Also, the series when it came back in 2005, has totally ignored and contradicted it.
  • Platt had been submitting story ideas since 1975.
  • The final shot ever recorded for the programme at BBC TV Centre was the turning of Mrs Pritchard and Gwendoline to stone.
  • The music is by the programme's audio-archivist Mark Ayres. He admits that it doesn't always work - sometimes drowning out dialogue.
  • The establishing shot of Gabriel Chase was filmed by director Alan Wareing during the location work for Survival.
  • The TARDIS materialises with the door facing a wall. Ace jokes about the Doctor's navigation skills - despite this being the only time it has been a problem since she arrived. We won't see something similar until Fear Her in 2006.
  • The look of Light was based on Pre-Raphaelite imagery. Note the back of his costume. It is supposed to be indicative of a winged beetle.
  • Lots of wonderful imagery, but not always making sense. The eyes of the stuffed birds lighting up. dead things coming to life. How does Smith turn Matthews into a monkey? What makes the candle flare up? Why are there any day staff at all? Lots more - not least who puts Ace into her nightie?
  • Casting that might have been: Harry Enfield as Redvers, and Michael Caine as Smith, or possibly Light.
  • The husk costumes were originally going to reuse fish and frog masks from a recent BBC production of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, made by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, and featuring Elisabeth Sladen. They didn't quite fit the costumes, so new masks were made,
  • An early draft of Evil of the Daleks would have featured a Neanderthal (named Og). He would have acted as a Control to Jamie, in order to identify the Human Factor.

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