In early 1990, I got the first seven episodes of season 26. They were maybe fourth gen. I thought “Battlefield” was pretty good. “Ghost Light” wasn’t. The tape hiss obscured most of the dialogue. I had to turn the volume way, way up and I still couldn’t make any sense of it. The only actors – and this remains true, twenty-nine years later – who seem to have ever been in a television studio before and know how to project toward the microphones are John Nettleton, who plays a deliberately annoying comedy vicar, and Frank Windsor, who plays a racist Victorian policeman. I had no clue what anybody else was saying.
About a year later, I finally watched a movie version that I’d recorded, or had somebody else record for me, off WGTV. The excuse this time was that somehow the BBC’s new stereo sound mix got messed up by Lionheart, the distributor who edited these into movie versions. Watching this was still a chore and a half, but I started to get it and enjoy it.
In December of 1993, I was in London and bought a copy of the fanzine DWB, which was celebrating Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary with essays loving and praising each Doctor. Virgin had just published Kate Orman’s debut novel, a Seventh Doctor adventure called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and here she was in DWB singing the praises of McCoy, and “Ghost Light” in particular. The story started making a lot more sense when explained by its champions.
And that’s what makes “Ghost Light” such a weird piece of television. It’s a story that could have worked a million times better, but fans of this one – and of “Fenric” – respond with absolutely breathtaking smugness when you mention that you had trouble understanding it. It’s not just the unbelievably bad sound mix and godawful delivery, which the later commercial releases still provide, which is why we watched the DVD with the (often comically inaccurate) subtitles tonight, it’s that the writer and script editor wanted to send the audience on a thrill ride and give them all the information they need in passing, without spoon-feeding anybody, or having the Doctor sit down with his audience identification character and explain what’s happening.
So in the late nineties I liked it – it was, once, incredibly interesting watching Orman and her husband-to-be Jon Blum and their internet pals defend the show’s last three seasons on rec.arts.drwho – but, over time, I liked it less and less. In early 2006, I watched it with my older children. They loved every minute of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years, and then we hit this and “Fenric” and they reacted like they were getting lessons in Esperanto instead of time-travel teevee.
My older son was about nine then. “This sucks,” he said, with emphasis.
I was Livejournal-friends with a McCoy-is-God fellow in Indiana then. I reported how badly they reacted to these popular stories, and how the third cliffhanger of “Fenric” – which I’d have said was the original run of Who‘s last great cliffhanger – ended with the kids asking “What? What did he say? Did he stand up? This is stupid.” The guy said that my kids were wrong.
No, I’m pretty sure that when Doctor Who‘s target audience of thrilled seven and nine year-olds stop enjoying the show and start telling you that it sucks that they may be onto something.
And tonight, subtitles on to help – not that the half-assed transcription helped a very great deal – our favorite eight year-old critic didn’t find it thrilling, either. He found it weird and hard to follow. It makes sense to me, because I’ve sat through it twenty times and can see how all the explanations are hidden here, there, and everywhere except in an A, B, C pattern, and I have read twenty thousand essays, reviews and criticisms of this weird story that celebrate its weirdness, often very smugly.
“But did you like it?” I asked our son.
“I like having my tummy rubbed,” he replied.