TV Club: Doctor Who, Ghost Light

“Ghost Light” (season 26, episodes 5-7. Originally aired Oct. 4-18, 1989)

“Ghost Light” has a fitting title: It was the last Doctor Who serial to be filmed before the show was cancelled. (The last story broadcast was “Survival,” but it went before the cameras before “Ghost Light” did.) After this, except for one brief, tragic misfire, Doctor Who really did become a ghost, doomed to wander the earth as a forgotten-cult-TV spectre in the form of quasi-canonical novels and radiodramas until the day it would finally, like its hero, regenerate into a new form.

That title is also pretty ironic, considering that “Ghost Light” has a well-earned reputation as the murkiest, most difficult Doctor Who story ever televised. What begins as a mysterious Victorian ghost story shot through with surreal images and an array of insane characters to rival Alice In Wonderland swings wildly into a sci-fi tale about ancient aliens and evolution, refusing to make it easy to figure out how everything connects. Even the BBC’s official website for the story suggests that “in order to appreciate fully what’s going on it is probably necessary to watch ‘Ghost Light’ two or three times.” Naturally that’s made “Ghost Light” awfully divisive; its proponents suggest that there’s a brilliant story to be cherished here if you’re only willing to work to solve the puzzle that writer Marc Platt lays out. The other school grumbles that if it’s a puzzle, it’s still missing too many pieces to be properly solved, and it’s only a puzzle because the script does such a poor job of explaining anything. That’s compounded by post-production problems that reduce comprehensibility even further, including a bad sound mix that renders some dialogue totally inaudible, and drastic editing to make it fit the three-episode running time. I lean toward the second school.

Originally published Aug. 19, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Remembrance Of The Daleks

“Remembrance Of The Daleks” (season 25, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Oct. 5-26, 1988)

Even when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—perhaps especially when a TV series has a plot device like time travel—it’s awfully dangerous to go messing around with the established history that helps create its central premise, particularly when the show has built up 25 seasons’ worth of continuity baggage in the interim. So the sheer audacity of what “Remembrance Of The Daleks” tries to do by revisiting the time and place of the Doctor’s earliest-known adventure is little short of breathtaking once you realize what the writers are up to: Redefining the reason why the Doctor fled his home planet all those years ago, and thus implicitly suggesting that he’s never quite been the person we thought he was.

That’s the kind of thing that can completely wreck a series from within, and it’s a credit to writer Ben Aaronovich and script editor Andrew Cartmel that the gamble works as well as it does. Whether it was a good idea to have tried in the first place is, I think, debatable. But let’s come back to that later; there’s a lot happening in “Remembrance Of The Daleks,” and I shouldn’t jump too far ahead.

First, a little bit about where we are in the series right now: “Remembrance” kicks off season 25, the second year of Sylvester McCoy’s run as the Seventh Doctor, which began in the aftermath of the utterly disastrous “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc two years earlier when both script editor Eric Saward and star Colin Baker had both abruptly left or been forced out, ending Doctor Who’s most unwatchable era. Producer John Nathan-Turner (who somewhat surprisingly still had his job) brought in McCoy and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, to rejuvenate the series and find some new, more palatable direction. And although McCoy’s introduction, “Time And The Rani,” was unpromisingly silly and vapid, Doctor Who did improve, though it took the show the better part of the next season to find its feet. Ratings were still way down, and Doctor Who would wind up cancelled two years later anyway—but on the whole, the final two seasons were smarter, better-written, and more full of ambitious ideas than Doctor Who had been in years. They weren’t always able to actually achieve those high ambitions, hampered by Cartmel’s inexperience and the show’s low budget, but even the failures here are more compelling than the best stuff from the years immediately prior.

Originally published Aug. 5, 2012 on Read the complete article.

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