Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Sunday, 22 April 2007 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

As sad as it was that our favourite T.V. series was about to go off the air, it is re-assuring to see that it went out with tremendous style and sophistication. That, rather than attempt to make all kinds of pathetic attempts at grabbing ratings, the show just focussed on a very specific vision of how to make quality television and did all it could in its last two seasons to bring that vision to life. Many of the stories in these last two seasons are imbued with, what I feel, is a tremendous spirit of excellence. 

"Ghost Light" is one of the finest examples of that spirit of excellence. 

Yes, like everyone else, I watched this tale for the first time and was pretty sure I had little or no clue as to what exactly had happened. But that, in my opinion, is what impressed me the most about this story. This was not your average "just explain everything in the last episode" formulae that we'd been accustomed to for the last 25 years or so (with a few notable exceptions, such as "Warrior's Gate"). This was a different kind of storytelling. All the elements of a complete story are there - it's just up to you to link them together and make your own decisions about some of the more vital aspects of the plot. Which is an extremely mature method of stoytelling. Probably too mature for most television audiences, of course. But that doesn't mean this story should be dismissed as too high-handed. To me, that would be the equivalent of dismissing Picasso's work cause it "looks too wierd". Just because the style doesn't make sense to everyone - doesn't mean the art is bad. 

One of the greatest appeals about this particular style of storytelling is that, with every viewing, you can get something "new" out of it. For instance, when I just re-watched this a few days previously, I made a new conclusion about Light. I had often wondered why he was so disturbed by the whole concept of evolution and change. If he was surveying planets, wouldn't he have seen this on other worlds too? I noticed that the Doctor makes several references to Light being extremely ancient. Perhaps, then, Light is from one of the "higher" races that populate the Whoniverse. And it seems that many of these higher races are like the Time Lords. Very stagnant. Very resistant to any kind of real change. So when Light surveyed them, there would be no real sense of evolution there. Those races had done all the evolving they ever intended to. Could it be that the Earth was the first world Light went to that wasn't a populated by a higher race? Or is it merely the fact that in all his other surveys, Light just came down, did his census and moved on whereas he became stranded on Earth for a time? 

Who knows for sure exactly why. And that's what makes this form of plotting so beautiful. I can spend endless paragraphs just theorising over this one little point. Because, again, Platt doesn't explain more than he needs to. He, instead, just lets use our imaginations. And this, to me, is a great why to appreciate a storyline.

The other strongpoint in the writing is its tremendous sense of style. From beginning to end, we almost feel like where listening to poetry rather than dialogue. With tonnes of litterary references seeping through the script (my favourite being the least cultured of them all where the Doctor paraphrases Douglas Adams!) and a fantastic sense of wordplay which manages to resist becoming tedious. For example, mutliple puns are made using the word "Light" but it never quite gets shoved down our throats. To me, this shows that Platt never wanted to be completely pretentious with his writing. But he did want to show off just how good he is with words. 

Moving beyond the script, we see that gorgeous sense of style flowing into the production too. By keeping it all restrained to just a single location, fantastic work was done to make that location look absolutely authentic. Including, of course, an actual fully-functional lift built into the set. And production value is crucial in this tale. With a very moody and atmospheric script, you needed moody and atmospheric direction. And the blend here is seamless. 

Acting in this tale, as well as most of the stories in the last two seasons, is second-to-none. All the characters, as strange and absurd as some of them are, are portrayed with conviction and realism. Redvers Fenn Cooper being easilly the most enjoyable of the characters. But then, how can you resist a completely insane character who still ends up being a really nice guy who is pivotal in stopping the machinations of the chief villain? I mean, that's just great characterisation. But of equal importance, was the need to get an actor that would portray him with the subtlety and sensitivity that the part requires. And this was done perfectly. How horrible Redvers might have been in another actor's hands. 

Also, the characterisation being done with the two leads continues to work beautifully in Ghost Light. As much as we all love to go on about Rose and the Doctor, all that evolving (if you'll pardon the pun) interplay was also at work between the Doctor and Ace. The Doctor, by this point, had become more mysterious again - and this was a great move on behalf of the producer and script editor. But in developping that mysteriousness, it meant giving much greater attention to the background of the companion. And another layer of Ace is explored quite beautifully in the manor of Gabriel Chase. "Curse of Fenric" will still always be the best Ace story. But "Ghost Light" comes a close second. And it is sad that this whole mentorship between Doctor and companion was never allowed to reach its full conclusion. One hopes that, with the current development going on in Rose, this dynamic of a developing relationship (be it platonic or romantic) that we saw first with Doctor Seven and Ace will, at last, be explored to its fullest. Both Ace and the Doctor were very different from what they were like when they first met. And character growth in the leads of a T.V. series is a rare and precious gem. Glad we're getting more of it these days. But let it go on record that we saw it in Ace and the Doctor first. And several important elements of that growth are explored with great depth and sensitivity in Ghost Light. Making it just one more of the many strongpoints of this story.

There is much else to praise but I'll try restrain myself here and just go on about one more really good strongpoint: those gorgeous monologues. There's quite a few, of course. With Sly McCoy getting all the best ones. His abhorrence of burnt toast and the speech he gives to the cockroach are both written and delivered magnificiently. But the final speech that destroys Light is, quite naturally, the best. And though we see several examples with McCoy's Doctor "talking a villain to death" - this is one is my favourite. It is great the way the series used the very strength of the Doctor's words as a means of plot resolution. Making him the ultimate non-violent hero. Again, absolutely great stuff that, for me, brought the series out on a high note. 

Any actual complaints? Perhaps two very minor ones. Though I love the incidental music, I would also consider a bit more than just intrusive in places. It's downright oppressive! Making some lines of this beautiful dialogue completely indistinguishable. Even after multiple viewings. 

The other complaint being the McCoy gurn during the "I didn't get caught napping!" line. It's odd though, I'll watch the story and hate the gurn. But then, the next time I watch it - I think the gurn is perfect for that line. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, really. But the damned Sylvester McCoy gurn isn't so much a sore point for me as it is a point of mixed opinion! 

Aside from those two very slight quibbles, this story is magnificent. Still not quite in what I would label the "classic" category. But then, I have very few stories that I slot in that space. Still, "Ghost Light" comes pretty damned close. One can only hope that the series tries something this bold again someday. It needs another few seasons to really get some solid feet, of course. But once those roots are there - let's see another story like this come out that will both astound and confound its audience!





Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

‘Cerebral’ is a word that often gets thrown about when fans discuss Doctor Who amongst ourselves. Let’s be honest, now - we do like to pat ourselves on the back about how *cerebral* the show is, don’t we? I mean, it is much more cerebral than, say, Star Trek or Star Wars, isn’t it; is it any wonder the Americans don’t really get it? More than that, the very towering cerebrality of the program implies something about *us*, too – after all, the simple fact that we have all gravitated towards this show means that we are part of an elite, a select, clubbish group made up exclusively of those with the rare intellects it takes to comprehend, let alone love, such an esoteric, wonderfully *cerebral* work as Doctor Who. Am I wrong?

Well, as much as it might feel good to go on like this, the cold fact remains that much of Doctor Who’s entertainment value was about as cerebral as a fat lady sitting down on a chocolate pie. Think of how often in the series we can observe ludicrous (a) non-science, (b) plot holes, (c) chases and (d) escapes, (e) so-we-meet-again-Doctor! dialogue (and worse), and then of course there’s (f), the show’s amusing tendency to tie up loose plot strings with huge explosions in the final ten minutes. And please don’t make me bring up the Slitheen . . . . It may be painful, but it must be admitted that Doctor Who drew on a vast mishmash of cultural sources, handling them in countless different ways; and the resulting paté-like texture, while undeniably part of the appeal (Doctor Who almost literally contains something for everyone), means that a whole lot of fat and weird gristle can be found mixed in with the lean. Also, another factor is the continuing emphasis on the program as one for children and the family, which often makes for stories that err on the side of accessibility rather than intellectual challenge, for better or worse.

That said, every once in a while, a story aired that truly did live up to the ‘cerebral’ label, and I don’t think anyone, even those who truly hate ‘Ghost Light,’ can deny that it is one of them. This story is dense, challenging, and occasionally frustrating in its obstinate refusal to be straightforward in its narrative approach. At times, it can seem like the Doctor Who equivalent of a European art film – the emphasis is on impression and imagery rather than on completely comprehensible plotting. Its wordplay is buoyant and witty, but it’s also heavy with literary allusions, and can seem mannered and artificial if not approached in the right spirit. It addresses the abstract concept of evolution, but chooses not to make any sort of obvious statement about it; in other words, it doesn’t put evolution under a microscope to dissect it, but rather bats it about playfully like a balloon. This detached approach is not going to be appreciated by everyone, but it can’t be denied that it was daring for the production team to attempt such a complex story in the context of the Doctor Who format. (It has been suggested that omens of Doctor Who’s impending cancellation liberated the production team to experiment, and indeed, it seems hard to believe they would have attempted such a story had they thought a more accessible approach *could* save the program.)

The abstract, impressionistic nature of ‘Ghost Light’ makes a straightforward explanation of what it’s trying to do difficult, and some other writers here have acknowledged that fact - or demonstrated it! And I’m sure that I shall do no better. But perhaps a good place to start is with the ways in which the story depicts the Victorian era, because this time, unusually, the place/time setting is not only there to create atmosphere, but also to resonate with the conceptual subject matter at hand. ‘Ghost Light’ is set in a great old spooky Victorian house, and it does a good job of conjuring up all the morbid associations we expect from gothic literature of this period – the dead birds all over the place are a nice touch – and, indeed, the direct references to James, Carroll, etc., emphasize the self-conscious ‘literariness’ of the approach. More than simply setting a story in the Victorian, Marc Platt’s script exaggerates the Victorianness to the point where it’s almost laughable – such improbabilities as everyone sitting down to a civilized dinner party in the midst of such bizarre circumstances have an element of parody, and Fenn-Cooper, Matthews and Mackenzie are characters that could easily have appeared in Wodehouse. 

But, as I said, the Victoriana goes deeper than surfaces, as the story’s two main villains are revealed as peculiarly Victorian mad scientists, sort of flip sides of the same Darwinian coin: Light is a fastidious cataloguer of life forms, and Josiah seizes on the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a way in which he might gain power for himself. But it is interesting that Platt’s script is more ambivalent than we might expect on the evolutionary question. For while the Doctor criticizes, and ultimately destroys, Light for his refusal to acknowledge evolutionary progress (“We don’t want things to change – we make sure they cannot”), we also can’t say that Josiah’s embracing of the evolutionary concept is held up as inherently superior. After all, Josiah’s ambitions are depicted as disgusting (his cast-off ‘husks’) or absurd (his plot to take over the Empire by assassinating Victoria). Then again, it can be argued that Control and Nimrod are characters who use evolution to dramatically improve themselves . . . . but this is a good example of how ‘Ghost Light’ resists attempts to explain it simply. Suffice it to say that viewers who look for easy answers in the story are setting themselves up for disappointment. (This is not to suggest that such a desire is necessarily wrong – just that it won’t be successful here.)

So, having failed to draw a simple conclusion from the thematic content, perhaps we should at this point turn to the aesthetic elements, which are rather easier. The design, as I said, is very effective at conjuring up the dusty Victorian of ghost stories, and the many dead things and creepy crawlies we encounter not only highlight the natural science themes, but also contribute to the horror of the piece. At many points, ‘Ghost Light’ truly does resemble a nightmare, such as when the insect-headed ‘husks’ (in evening dress!) come to life and shamble towards Ace, or when the wraith-like Control first escapes and chases the others down the hall (a very scary moment). The scene in which Ace wakes up in a comfortable bed only to learn that night is falling heightens the sense that ‘Ghost Light’ is a bad dream from which its characters cannot escape. Even the jokes are often macabre, as when the Reverend Matthews accuses Josiah of “disputing man’s dominion over nature” – while the latter is serving calves’ brains for dinner! 

The story’s one real aesthetic flaw, as others have pointed out, is the physical manifestation of Light, who appears not as the ‘angel’ of Ace’s estimation, but more as a tanned, blow-dried eighties news anchor in soft lighting. It doesn’t help that John Hallam seems to be imitating Terry Jones’s Prince Herbert when he speaks, either. By some miracle, the character remains effective in its conception, and perhaps would have benefited from being winged, as the production team apparently wished to do. (But with Hallam playing him, probably not.)

Fortunately, the other actors fare much better. Carl Forgione’s Nimrod is extremely likeable, and comes across as surprisingly soft-spoken, articulate and humane. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ compares him to Caliban from ‘The Tempest,’ but apart from superficial similarities this doesn’t make much sense to me; and, indeed, if there is a Caliban in this story, it must be Sharon Duce’s Control, who, like Shakespeare’s character, is frightening and ‘monstrous,’ embittered towards her superiors (“You promise me my freeness!”), and ultimately sympathetic, despite her initially repulsive appearance. And it’s nice that Platt allows her a more explicitly happy ending than Caliban’s, too. Sylvia Syms is also good as the Mrs. Danvers-esque sinister housekeeper, and it is a credit to the actress that the character is transparently above her station even before her true identity as a gentlewoman is revealed. And Michael Cochrane at times steals the show as Redvers, who is given many of the script’s best lines (“That, sir, is no way to talk to a lady-like”).

And as for the regulars, just like in ‘The Curse of Fenric,’ they seem to enjoy exploring the dramatic opportunities provided by script editor Andrew Cartmel’s controversial ‘manipulation’ stories. Sophie Aldred is particularly good here, and pulls off Ace’s more overtly emotional moments far better than she did in stories like ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’ She is comfortable both with the flippant banter she exchanges with the Doctor (Ace frequently gets the upper hand – “Uncle Josiah knows as much about its secrets as a handbagger knows about the Amazon desert.” “Sounds a bit like you and the TARDIS.”), and with the more serious scenes (she seems genuinely shocked and betrayed when she learns the Doctor has brought her back to Gabriel Chase). And as for the Doctor, Sylvester McCoy does suffer from his well discussed inability to create a sense of danger (when he shouts at Control through the window he seems merely hammy), but overall he’s quite good as well, clearly enjoying himself in his scenes with Aldred. And his performance also softens the manipulative elements of the character brought out in the script – he’s certainly believable in playing this Doctor’s compassion for his companion, as when he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “I think you care a lot, Ace.”

So, how can we sum up ‘Ghost Light’? In the end, the viewer’s appreciation for ‘Ghost Light’ is going to depend on his tolerance for its approach. It’s true that this is a story that remains confused in some ways, even on repeat viewings. Several plot elements, such as the origins of Control and the transformation of Matthews, have to be inferred rather than deduced by the audience, and this is going to make the story somewhat unsatisfying for some viewers, especially uninitiated ones. Like ‘Kinda,’ ‘Ghost Light’ is ultimately apt to remain something of an acquired taste, even for fans, but it is an oddity that is probably worth the effort in the end, whether because of its cerebral quality, or in spite of it. 

Either way, it has a wonderful final line.





The Curse of FenricBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

The Curse Of Fenric and I go back and long, long way. In fact, this was only the second Doctor Who story I ever saw (the first being Death To The Daleks) way back in 1991 when I was six years old. I didn’t get into Death To The Daleks at that age, so this is the point where I trace the beginning of my fandom – having said that, I can quite honestly and categorically say that watching this story for the first time all those years ago was the most scared I have ever been in my life. Perhaps that’s why the McCoy title sequence never bothered me too much – I associated it with this story so instead of it being brash and gaudy I found it menacing, signalling what was to come in this story. I was so frightened that I didn’t watch this story again for years and years (meaning that my ancient VHS tape is still in great condition) but now, aged 21, The Curse Of Fenric stands proud in my top three stories of all time.

It begins as it means to go on: scarily, with two Russian dinghies heading towards the English coast. Under the water lies the forgotten remains of a Viking longboat, and on the surface a strange mist is falling. The rear dinghy is enveloped…and vanishes. Only one of its crew is found later, washed up on the shore – a gibbering, petrified wreck. I could go on like this for the distance, as it’s such a captivating story that knows exactly how to get a reaction from the audience – be it excitement, interest, puzzlement or terror – and executes it brilliantly. Part of its appeal lies in the unease and fear created by the sense of the unknown, the bread and butter of successful horror. The fact that the soldier Gayev is unable to say what has terrified him so badly, the scene becomes even scarier. I’ve gone on in my reviews elsewhere about my love of a good, absorbing mystery, and Gayev being mute works much more effectively than a cheesy “it was…it was…aargh!” which a lesser story may have employed. This sense extends to the plot: what is the Viking longboat doing there? We find out later, but rarely do we learn anything conclusive. This is evidence that this story is at least as confusing (not to mention thematically rich) as the preceding Ghost Light. Great though that story is the general weirdness of its plot and themes are its be-all-and-end-all; The Curse Of Fenric on the other hand is much, much more.

You look differently on things depending on what mood you’re in. This is such a good story that I actually really like both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in it. I’d say they’d both improved since their debuts and to an extent this is true, but Aldred’s performance in much of Battlefield suggests a flaw in this. It must be said that elements coming together is a key factor in the overall impression of a story – a scene or a line might work very well in a story like this, but may just annoy if in a weak story. Anyway, I’m waffling a bit: they’re both on good form here, both clearly enjoying the brilliant script.

Dr Judson’s office is a good example of the quality of the period detail of the story: historically accurate yes, but fundamentally an ordinary room which helps create a sense of realism; visually gorgeous as it was the sepia-tinted The Empty Child very definitely takes place in Blitzworld™, a Second World War that is definitely an artistic construction, whereas it’s easier to believe that this could be real. Dinsdale Landen is brilliant as the tortured Dr Judson and – spookily – he died the day before the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk. 

Petrossian’s melodramatic comment that the evil is “cold against your skin” is cheesy, but the scene is rescued by Tomek Bork as the noble(ish) Captain Soren. Apparently Bork was upset at being asked to play a fervent Communist, raising the question about why he auditioned for the role of a fervent Communist, but whatever he felt he gave a performance to be proud of. Ace lying in bed listening to a crying baby is truly chilling, and is followed immediately by Petrossian being clobbered by something that comes out of the sea – this mystery is reaching critical mass. However, I should say that the new 5.1 surround mix replaces his scream with a different one that doesn’t sound half as good as before.

The exchange between the vicar and Miss Hardaker is a brilliantly written one, with Wainwright’s doubts introduced early on without being rubbed in the audience’s face. Unfortunately Jean does not convince as a Londoner, although I’m more inclined to think that Joanne Bell as Phyllis is speaking with her natural accent – which in turn sounds weird when she is eventually turned into an Haemovore, possibly because of the traditional image of the erudite, upper-class vampire. The line of “Maidens’ Point? Well, that rules us out” shocked me a lot when I heard it, as it’s really not what I expect from an original series story; indeed it has only just been added to the DVD as its inclusion in the 1991 video release would have meant a 12 rating. If this was a Russell T. Davies episode I’d be lashing into him right now – but if this was a Davies episode that would have been the third such gag so far (I know, cheap shot).

The ULTIMA machine is very impressive but the thought that it can translate Viking runes is rather implausible and almost spoils things until you remember that these runes were cut specifically for use in the machine, as their translation facilitates the release of Fenric. This is followed by the Doctor revealing to Ace that there’s been subsidence in a grave – the implication is clear, but rather than darkly dwell on it (“something’s been moving under there…”) the Doctor cracks a witticism about Communion wine. This means the subtle implication is left to linger in the mind unaided, adding to the atmosphere, and it also shows that the Doctor knows what’s going on but isn’t telling. The fact that we can’t trust the Doctor adds greatly to the sense of unease, and Ace forlornly reading off a list of the dead Vikings is wonderfully atmospheric. 

The sense that the Doctor is leading the audience behind is heightened when he finds the sealed orders from Russia (which the Commandos would really like to get back) but refuses to explain what they are or what they mean – the audience is left to make their own conclusions when it is revealed that they share chilling parallels with the runes in the church crypt. The first scene with Millington in his office is almost dialogue free, showing how much the music adds to the atmosphere: Mark Ayres is the one person I can think of who can make synthesiser music work in a period setting. The aforementioned translation of the runes is as spooky and atmospheric as everything else, and would make a great poem if a bit of creative editing was done on it. The scenes where it is read are helped greatly by cutting to the runes or to the unique underwater photography (okay not quite unique as Paradise Towers had some, and so did Warriors Of The Deep etc…but who cares about them?); this is much more interesting than merely lingering on the reader, and shows what a good director Nicholas Mallet can be. In fact, it almost makes up for him allowing us to see “PEX LIVES” written on the wall too early in Paradise Towers.

Next we see the dead Russian soldier under the water, which is one of this story’s several nightmare moments. However, my marginally stronger constitution now allows me to look at the scene a bit more closely and you can definitely see his eyes move. Then again, paint my face white, immerse me in water and tell me to play dead and my eyes’d probably move too. That or I’d die. I say paint my face white: he was a black man apparently, and they did a reverse minstrel on him to get that ultra-realistic “deathly pallor” look. Tasteful.

Cory Pulman makes a pleasing impression as the hard done by Kathleen Dudman, although the baby’s Superted toy is the kind of anachronism you’d think someone would have noticed. Also, for Aaron Hanley (who’ll be around sixteen at the time of writing), being able to say he’s been in Doctor Who at a time when the show is quite well-regarded and mainstream again carries less street cred than you’d first think when you consider he’s playing Sophie Aldred’s mother. Alfred Lynch is also good as Millington; I didn’t react well to his deadpan character at first, but it has grown on me a lot over the years.

Into part two, and the drowned soldier waking up is the moment that freaked me out the most as a youngster, and therefore is my candidate for Doctor Who’s scariest ever moment for the default reason that it’s the moment that scared me the most. QED. However, the close up of the Haemovore’s hand looks very fake and rubbery – you can even see the bubbles escaping through the hole in the glove. They definitely work better in long shots. Fenric getting round the Doctor’s plan of giving the translation to Dr Judson by burning new ones into the wall is a great plot device, but I do feel it could have been better explained as it took me years to work out what was going on in this story. I’m alright now, I understand it because I’ve had so many years to think about it, but looking at it objectively I have to criticise it. I’m no fan of crass exposition, but sometimes the plot is a little too cryptic for its own good. It does lead to a nice revelation from the Doctor though, about nine hundred year old runes that weren’t there before (although wouldn’t Judson have noticed too?).

Nurse Crane is a great character. Making someone annoying is a difficult task for a writer and actress as they can’t genuinely irritate the audience; the viewer must like being annoyed by them to feel an appropriate level of schadenfreude at their eventual demise. Here this works very well. Ace’s anger at the poison (glowing green, naturally – my earlier comment about The Empty Child succumbing to simulacra applies here to an extent) is rather poorly acted, letting the side down a bit. However, Aldred makes up for this with the lovely scene where she comforts Wainwright over his loss of faith, which also has a parallel with The Empty Child. The ULTIMA machine is booby trapped with a big green bottle of poison in full view, which is rather silly, although it does lead to an amazing scene where Millington reveals to the Doctor exactly how the toxin will be released. The Discontinuity Guide asks how the Russians expect to get away with the ULTIMA machine in their little dinghies: firstly Millington suggests that they only want a part of it, and in any case unless they rowed all the way from Norway it’s safe to assume that they have some transport waiting somewhere, out at sea.

I’m still not sure how Millington and Judson know about Fenric. Then again there’s a lot I don’t understand about this story; it is ripe for fan speculation, which is always a laugh (except when it gets out of hand). My theory is that Fenric implanted the knowledge in their heads, since he’s been manipulating their entire lives.

More atmosphere (yes, more) comes when Jean and Phyllis are swallowed by the sea. They work much better as zombies (apart from the aforementioned accent) as there’s less call for them to be naturalistic, which really isn’t their strength. Here’s another interesting nugget: when the Doctor tells Kathleen he doesn’t know if he has family, she replies “it’s the war isn’t it? It must be terrible not knowing” to which he replies “yes”. This takes on a double meaning in light of the new series…maybe there was trouble brewing even at this stage in his life. Nice bit of retro-active continuity there. You’ll have to excuse me one moment as my head appears to have become lodged in my bottom, but I think I’m alright now.

Ace explains to Judson about the logic diagram, which is the closest we get to some proper exposition. Come to think about it season 26 is full of complicated plots – apart from Ghost Light (which needs no mention) there’s the ambiguous link between the Cheetahs and their planet in Survival, and Battlefield which is just generally garbled. The Haemovores also appear properly now – they are well designed, costumed and shot which is reflected in the fact that like the Zygons they are popular monsters despite only having one appearance in the show.

Into part three and it’s raining all of a sudden. Since the changing weather was by necessity worked into the plot I really don’t have a problem with it and I think its weirdness adds a lot. In fact, the special edition’s regrading process takes something away because although the faded colours are there the light and shade is still that of bright sunshine, so if anything it looks even less realistic. What’s the problem with it being rainy while the sun is shining? That happens. There wouldn’t be rainbows if it didn’t. I’m waffling again, aren’t I? The Haemovores marching along the foggy beach look wonderful.

The scene where Kathleen rebukes Ace for suggesting she’s an unmarried mother is a good one; Ace often puts her foot in it in period stories but here it feels natural and a mistake that could genuinely be made, as opposed to calling a nineteenth century gentleman “bog brain”. The later scene when she learns of her husband’s presumed death is also brilliantly acted.

The curse being passed down through the generations taps into a derivative but successful idea that mankind is being manipulated, although it does raise the question of whether there’s a conflict of interest between Fenric and the Fendahl. Next we come to the famous battle in the church. This is pretty ordinary, with the seeping water being unimaginative nonsense, and is only really notable for the reappearance of Ace’s ladder last seen in Ian Briggs’s previous story Dragonfire. While it worked in such a silly story as that, it feels like too much of a contrivance in a more realistic story here and also shows how elements of Ace’s character were not built upon by other writers. It is notable that we get more “professor” lines here than in any story since Dragonfire too.

Eeeeeevil, eeeeevil since the dawn if tiiiiiime! It’s a well written scene, but Sylvester McCoy is floundering hopelessly. It’s a shame as it’s potentially a good scene as well as being an important one for the plot, but all people do is laugh at it. Ace manipulating the soldier is a disappointing scene though, and possibly the worst of the story. She’s there talking utter gibberish, and this highly trained soldier’s standing their lapping it up. Sorry, I don’t buy that. After this the word ‘Ingiga’ comes out of the ULTIMA machine – it took a long time to work out that Ingiga refers to “the great wyrm” or something like that, and so here probably refers to the Ancient One. The cliffhanger is great, if slightly cheesy, but it loses something in the feature version as all the build up comes to naught. Much as I like the feature version it’s not perfect – while I appreciate having to edit the episodes into one for timing reasons some of the cut outs could have been better left out, such as lingering shots of people sitting or walking that add nothing to the story. Fenric’s teleporter is a great special effect though. 

Ace’s cry of “Mum, I’m sorry!” is a good subtle moment of characterisation, and is soon followed by a well directed sequence where the soldiers shoot at Phyllis and Jean. Fenric’s “eulogy” shows a villain with a black and twisted sense of humour, which is very rare and makes it such a great villain. Nurse Crane’s death is deeply disturbing, helped by Landen’s unsettling smile; the guest cast of this story have a fairly high mortality rate of 64.7%, and these deaths are the deaths of real, fleshed out characters. Phyllis’s and Jean’s deaths are also good, and the Ancient One comes across as a very sympathetic character. I like the shock of Fenric passing into Soren after being defeated at chess (yes that’s derivative too but it’s still pretty stylish). My only gripe is that Fenric keeps going round with his eyes shut.

The revelation that the baby is Ace’s mother is great, although the flashbacks added to the feature version are unnecessary and overstate the point. The Doctor’s dark betrayal is another great moment, as McCoy seizes the opportunity to play to his strengths. The notion that Fenric has been following the Doctor’s travels affecting the chess set in Silver Nemesis gives the McCoy years a proto-Bad Wolf set up, which is nice. My only gripe with the ending is that Fenric is killed so easily; okay so Soren’s body is killed but does Fenric die so easily when deprived of a host? That’s disappointing. Also, the bunker exploding for no good reason is melodramatic and should surely release the poison. The final scene is beautiful, but again the feature version (through necessity of some technical problem) cuts out the Doctor’s final line. This is a disappointment, although it’s still a great sentiment to end on.

The Curse Of Fenric is very nearly perfect, and the teeny, tiny flaws I’ve mentioned can’t diminish its greatness at all. This story defined my childhood terrors and as such affects me deeply – therefore, ironically in such a long review (3070 words), I find it quite hard to sum up quickly. Therefore, I’ll end with a message to all the parents who complained that The Unquiet Dead was too scary: your kids may have sleepless nights now, but in ten years time they’ll never get enough of it.





BattlefieldBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Battlefield has suffered since it first went out, being viewed as the weak link in a generally strong period for the show and even as a nadir of 80s Doctor Who. Ben Aaronovitch has it doubly hard as far as I'm concerned as I happen to think his other episode, Remembrance Of The Daleks, to be the most horribly overrated in the series's history. On the other hand, I have very fond memories of seeing this episode when I was a kid, and I used to rave about it years ago. Consequently, I can never make up my mind about Battlefield.

It certainly gets off to a poor start, with the same continuity-tsunami that characterises much of Remembrance owing to the requirement once again to dig up the Brigadier. It suffers as well considering its status as a McCoy season opener: it's hardly the Star Wars homage of Remembrance (the best bit about the episode), and as for Time And The Rani...tacky it may be, but a regeneration is a regeneration. Aside from the very first scene though, the first episode shows a lot of promise, with an unusually multi-cultural feel that almost borders on political correctness (shock horror!). There is an enormous drag factor evident though in Keff McCulloch's appalling score, as Arthurian warriors slug it out to the sound of a Milli Vanilli backing track.

Given my general dislike of excess continuity it is still nice to see UNIT back again and the namedrops come thick and fast, with the Doctor mentioning five monsters in as many seconds Normally I'd hate this, but I'm in a kind mood. This is punctuated by the occasional piece of nice pyrotechnics, of which it seems there can never be too much in this story. Bear in mind though that this story is set in the future (i.e. now, from their point of view) and this leads to some odd jokes, like three drinks costing five pounds (innocent times) and the Brigadier dismissing a telephone call by saying "I don't care if it's the King!", the "ha ha, Queen Elizabeth has popped her clogs" subtext of which blowing my earlier remark about political correctness to pieces.

What the story is notable for, and this episode in particular, is the monumentally rubbish fight scenes: it's as if the stunt men decided to save on effects by attacking each other in slow motion. If you look at the episode though it is actually deceptively expensive but - in true John Nathan-Turner style - the money has gone on all the wrong things. For example, they hired a helicopter when stock footage would have done; I know we'd all be moaning about it but we might have got a better battle, so it would be the lesser of two evils.

Meanwhile, while the battle rages, the heroes have gone for a swift half in the local pub, where they find a scabbard that can mysteriously heat up and cool down (rubbish for swords, great for making hot milk). This is the first example of a very shaky plot: why have the soldiers come to Earth, why do they want Excalibur? The episode hinges on these questions, but never is any attempt made to address them. Even so, I quite like the pub scenes as there's some great dialogue; even if Ling Tai is not the greatest actress in the world, at least she looks like she's enjoying herself. Ace is annoying, but it is good for the season as it paves the way for her personal growth in Ghost Light and The Curse Of Fenric. Curse was originally intended to come before this, but Ace would never have worked if the episodes were that way round.

It is in part two where things start to fall apart, with the introduction of Mordred, woefully played by Christopher Bowen. He is from the Ronnie Kray school of Mummy's boy villains, and his remark in part four of "my mother will destroy you!" is possibly the lamest threat I've ever heard. I bet he was the school bully just because his mum was a mighty sorceress. The summoning of Morgaine is painful, with Mordred spouting ridiculously portentous sub-Tolkien dialogue, intercut with Sylvester McCoy overacting like a lunatic (not for the last time this story). Worst of all is when Bowen starts screaming "ha ha ha ha ha haaaaa!" at the top of his lungs: I'd call it laughter but there's clearly no humour. Perhaps he has a chest infection.

After this it settles down a bit more, showing that Aaronovitch is clearly better at the human elements of his scripting. The scene with the Brigadier and Morgaine just about stays on this side of self-parody, and the underwater spacecraft is impressive, if a little gaudy. The action scene with the glowing snake thing is a nice idea but badly executed, like all of the serial's action scenes, and the snake thing (no other possible description) is never adequately explained. Also, on your left you will see the infamous scene where the water-filled tank cracked, and McCoy got to be a real hero by running away and shouting for other people to do something. Unable to do the scene twice they were forced to salvage what footage they could, with the result being that the cracked glass is clearly visible. This does give the ship an air of shoddiness, but hey, it is supposed to be thousands of years old.

Episode three continues in the same vein, with dire battles intercut with better moments and the dialogue veering uncontrollably between the good and the downright ludicrous: The soldier's call of "the seabirds are still operational", when taken out of context, is a strong contender for the title of Most Surreal Moment. The killing of Lavell though is a wonderful scene, and Morgaine's subsequent gift of vision to the landlady shows her to be a more complex character than she is allowed to be.

Episode three also contains the scene where all extraneous characters get evacuated. It's a cop-out, yes, but there've been worse in better episodes so I'll let it go, and the scene with the chalk circle is excellent (if shakily acted). The episode also sees a return to some issues left hanging in part one, such as the missile convoy and the continuity references: the Daleks are namechecked, and Bessie is seen for the first time since The Five Doctors. It is a testament to the innocence the programme still had even in its last season that anyone seriously thought the flaming tracks gag would ever work. This kind of thing highlights exactly how little actually happened in episode two.

Moving on to episode four we get the Destroyer: never has such a good idea been wasted so badly. No sooner has Morgaine removed his bonds than the Brigadier has pumped him full of lead (well, silver) and that's the end of him. It. That. Whatever. Oh well, perhaps we'll see more of him in the prequel that Aaronovitch is blatantly setting up. This is in truth a very rushed episode, with the vortex between the pub and the villain's lair being another example of very dodgy deus ex machina plotting. The "is that a spaceship" line got a laugh in spite of myself, but basically the denouement is very cheesy: both the aforementioned death of the Destroyer and also the stop-the-countdown confrontation with Morgaine, with more bad dialogue and overacting. Am I the only one who considers "lock them up" to be slightly inadequate, given their powers?

After this we go back to the Brigadier's house for the final scene, which is pleasant enough - in a sense, the jumps between good and bad make for an appropriate ending for a very uneven story. However, it is still - and yes, I'm in the minority here - the best of Aaronovitch's two scripts for the series.





Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Every time I see it, Ghost Light never fails to dazzle me. An advantage of the show being so small and unimportant in the late 1980s was that, by having nothing to lose, it could afford to be daring and as a consequence we get this extraordinary story that is simply unlike any other episode. I’m not going to claim that I’ll grasp the multitude of subtexts it presents in this review – after all, how many thousands of words do you want to read?

Like many stories it’s the visuals that make the first impression, and the opulent yet un-showy sets and subdued lighting create an oppressive atmosphere of decay from the start. Add to this the music – Mark Ayres is just about the only person I can think of who made an electronic score work in a period setting, and here he does his best work for the series. He is correct to say in interviews that it’s too loud; this is however a problem addressed with the 5.1 surround mix on the DVD. The whole opening is enigmatic and bizarre, with a montage of unexplained happenings (mysterious figures in chairs, secret passages in walls) that set the scene for a story that never quite divulges its secrets. That said, Ace is definitely not at her most charismatic here (before her catharsis in The Curse Of Fenric), and I do cringe a bit when she talks to the stuffed emu; a childish moment in such a mature and esoteric story seems very incongruous.

In quick succession we are introduced to the first members of the oddball cast: Rev. Matthews, Mrs. Pritchard and Redvers Fenn-Cooper. The guest actors here cannot be faulted and neither can Marc Platt’s dialogue for them; Alan Wareing’s direction is also excellent as the camera ominously follows Mrs. Pritchard around. The eloquent Nimrod is a fascinating character and almost funny in a bizarre kind of way, but the real crown has to go to Ian Hogg who has to be one of the best guest stars the series ever had. He plays a true enigma, a man crippled by acute senses that harks back to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’; these references are so subtle that for an English student like me they’re fun to pick up on, but for a casual viewer they simply add to the overall kaleidoscope. 

The Doctor mentions a Chinese firing piece: is this a reference to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang I wonder, one of Platt’s favourite episodes? I’m currently in my third year of an English degree so I pick up on many of the literary references – Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness being the first – and I can say that they help to make the story what it is, as many of its elements may not have been present were it not for them.

The “bog-brain” line shows all that’s wrong with Ace: by having as a companion the kind of character who realistically would swear like my old boss, many strange and totally unbelievable insults have to be substituted to make the character suitable for a family audience. However, this does make her growth in the second half of the season all the more notable and one of my greatest regrets about the series being cancelled when it was is that this burgeoning character arc is cut dead. Also a point for criticism is the glowing snuffbox: while a very dramatic scene, to be sure, it is the one moment of the complex story that I genuinely think should have had more explanation. 

One of my favourite moments in the story is the Doctor’s confrontation with Ace, which finally sketches in some plot amongst the madness. I have to say though that I’ve never had any great problem with the plot; it’s the subtexts and undercurrents that make the story so complicated, and all the exposition that’s needed is there provided you have your brain switched on. I would say that this is no more complicated than the following story The Curse Of Fenric, but then again I was six when I first saw that one and twenty when I first saw Ghost Light, so there’s bound to be a discrepancy in how I view them. I would strongly dispute the claim in The Pocket Essentials Guide To Doctor Who, one of the lamest episode guides there ever was, that it makes no allowance for the casual audience – it is fully open to the casual audience, containing none of the inward-looking insularity of old. I just makes no allowance for people who need their plots given to them on a silver platter. And if we’re talking about subtexts, then Gwendoline singing ‘That’s The Way To The Zoo’ is the icing on the cake. The advancing husks make for a surprisingly traditional cliffhanger, but those monsters work as concepts.

Inspector Mackenzie asleep in the drawer shows that the story is capable of pulling surprises all along its length, but really it’s a bit hard to know what to say about the story now because every time I seem to have a handle on something the story veers away onto something else.

Control’s release is one of my all time favourite pieces of direction that the show ever had: a shapeless figure leaps from the dungeon and moves down the tunnel. However, even though the camera is facing directly towards her we can’t see her due to the dark lighting and the other characters until her hand comes round the door. Brilliant – and her Eliza Doolittle-style dialogue works well too.

Rev. Matthew’s transformation is darkly comic in a spooky and very grotesque way, and this is contrasted with Mrs. Grose (named after Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw), the one normal member of the cast. Nimrod’s soliloquy to the fang is a very atmospheric moment among many, as is the Doctor’s musings on what Light actually is.

The frozen staff in the attic are very creepy, and the final form of Matthews is really something. The second episode finishes with another great cliffhanger as Light, whatever it is, finally begins to emerge from the lift. John Hallam’s slightly effeminate performance as Light is a bit of an acquired taste I will admit, but I really like it. I find it a pleasing irony after Matthews denouncing evolution as blasphemous to find a character who is simply bored and frustrated by the whole process.

Oh man, the gurning. It comes to something when the lead actor is the worst in the story, but there you are. At least this time I was writing in my notepad and so didn’t have to watch it. Ace’s flashback is a nice idea but a bit dodgy in practice, as red lighting and Sophie Aldred’s dodgy acting fail to convince that the stuffed animals are coming to life.

The death of the maid shows Light’s amorality as opposed to sheer evil, and the scene where he turns Mrs. Pritchard and Gwendoline to stone is deeply poignant as well as showcasing some excellent special effects.

The forgotten sub-plot of the assassination of Queen Victoria is finally given some time here, and it leads to a dramatic scene at dinner where Aldred actually gives a decent performance as Control threatens to burn the house down. The Doctor talking down Light, while not exactly thrilling, is appropriate to the story although the stop-the-countdown ending tacked on to make it seem more exciting is very artificial and contrived. However, there is finally some good interplay between the regulars at the end.

Ghost Light is, quite simply, amazing. It’s hard to judge it by the standards of other stories as it’s so unlike them, but taken on its own terms it is one of the most original and unique pieces of science-fiction I’ve ever seen. So when’s Marc Platt writing for the new series?





Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Steve Oliver

I love these DVD releases of the old series. Not only do you get a good quality version of the story, but also a package of lovingly produced extras. Not that this is a review of last years DVD release of ‘Ghost Light’, but its important to note how much my understanding of this complex story has been aided by the various extras found to be found on the disc. You see, even after multiple viewings of my VHS copy, I never truly understood the intricacies of this serial until only recently…

‘Ghost Light’ is famously the last Doctor Who serial produced as part of its original twenty six year run. It is also, perhaps, the only Doctor Who story that still gets fans scratching their heads over the complexities of the plot fifteen years after the original broadcast. There are various explanations for this. Firstly, ‘Ghost Light’ is a genuinely complex story about evolution and various conceptions of it. So, we have the Reverend Ernest Matthews dismissing entirely Darwinism, and Josiah Smith believing in ‘survival of the fittest’. We know this from his plan to take over the British Empire by killing Queen Victoria, the ‘Crowned-Sax-Coberg’. This illustrates Josiah’s misconceptions about evolution. Secondly the narrative doesn’t flow as it normally would in other more traditional forms of storytelling. There is no clear beginning, middle and end (or exposition, explanation and resolution) in the traditional sense. The viewer has to piece these things together for themselves. Thirdly, some fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ to such an extent that they won’t even attempt to figure out what its all about, many are turned off completely by the unconventional manner the story is being told. Finally, it has to be said that no matter how many times we are told (by people who worked on the serial) that all the pieces of the puzzle are there, up on the screen, some of them aren’t. For example, the viewer could probably figure it out for themselves that the husks are Josiah’s cast offs from previous ‘regenerations’, but why do they still contain residual life? If they are indeed ‘empty shells’ then how is it possible that they are still animated? No explanation is offered. Also, why and how does Reverend Matthews devolve into an Ape by eating a banana? A script that makes the viewer work hard is fine by me, but when key plot points are never explained, it merely confuses, and, ultimately, frustrates. It makes many fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ and means that they’ll never enjoy what is otherwise an excellent McCoy adventure.

‘Ghost Light’ features a wonderful cast. Ian Hogg, who plays Josiah Smith, is superbly sinister, and in an era in which produced few decent villains, may come as something as a surprise to first time viewers of this serial. Sylvia Simms is perfectly cast as the stereotypical Victorian era housekeeper, and Katherine Sleschinger does well as Gwendolyn. John Hallam's performance as Light I feel is a bit off. It is often described as camp, but I’m not really sure that is the correct word to describe it. It is certainly brave, but I’m not sure that the vocal tone used to play the part is correct. Also worthy of mention is Carl Forgaine who plays Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler. Forgaine puts in a superb performance, and his non-human Neanderthal body movements completely sell the character.

Of the two regulars, McCoy really shines here. Able to cast off once and for all the rather goofy elements of his character that were evident in seasons twenty four and to a lesser degree season twenty five, his portrayal of the Doctor hits its peak. Aldred is also decent here, and is helped considerably by a script that not only makes her a central player, but also gives her no cringe worthy dialogue such as "Who do you think you are, armpit?", which featured in this seasons ‘The Curse of Fenric’.

First time Doctor Who writer Marc Platt has produced perhaps the most densely written scripts of the entire series. Barely a word or phrase is wasted, which has the effect of making ‘Ghost Light’ quite exhausting to watch. The plot involves the Doctor and Ace arriving at Gabriel Chase, so as to allow the Doctor to give Ace an initiative test. This is really a front to allow the Doctor to delve into Ace’s past, although we don’t discover this until later in the serial. After this introduction, things move along breathlessly. The main point to make about the beginning-middle portion of the story is that Josiah Smith, who holds a different view on evolution to the Reverend Ernest Mathews (who presumably believes in the creationist theory), has hired Redvers Fenn-Cooper to assassinate Queen Victoria. He even attempts to hire the Doctor to do this, but is turned down (obviously). As events build to the final part, the Doctor releases Light, in order to counter Josiah Smith. This is where things can get confusing. As explained on the ‘Ghost Light’ DVD, Light is a being who travels the universe, cataloguing all life forms. The life form that evolved into Josiah Smith is a part of this process. The role of this entity is to evolve into the highest form of life on any given planet, hence his evolution into a Victorian Gentlemen. The character of Control, then, is to simply stay aboard the space craft and not evolve, so the two can be compared. This is why, when she escapes, she begins to change and evolve into a "Lady-like", and at the end of the serial the two have swapped roles, with Josiah Smith becoming the creature Control evolved out of. The climax of the story sees Light tormented by the constant evolution of life on Earth, and so initiates the ‘Firestorm’ programme to stop evolution on Earth completely. Light is defeated with the Doctor talking him to death, which I rather enjoy.

All of this takes place on a superb set, with moody lighting and high production values. It is a cliché to say that the BBC does costume dramas well, but it is true.

Mark Ayres score is superb, evoking a certain amount of mystery and complimenting the onscreen action. On the DVD he himself says that the incidental music is too loud in the mix, but since I didn’t notice this until he pointed it out, I really don’t care. The X-Files was always slathered with loud, atmospheric music, and so perhaps ‘Ghost Light’ was a little ahead of its time.

‘Ghost Light’ is a near flawless production, and the fact that you get more from the story the more you watch it means it stands up well to repeat viewings. It doesn’t do anything for a sizable minority of fans, and for the first few times I saw it, it did nothing for me either. In fact after first viewing the mid-nineties video release, I actively disliked ‘Ghost Light’. Now I have a better grasp of the complexities of the plot, however, I can’t fail to enjoy such a rich Doctor Who story. Season twenty six was building to go out with a real bang.








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