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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Alan
    July 25, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    Well, for what it's worth, I understood "Ghost Light" better than this post.:) That said, for years, I did not understand "Ghost Light," but when I finally grokked it (ultimately with the aid of the Wiki page), I realized that my difficulties in comprehension had nothing to do with complexities of plot or sophistication of message. Rather, it was mainly due to the fact that most of Control's dialogue was completely incomprehensible, owing to her doing an extended Eliza Doolittle impression but with a terribly raspy voice and, for much of her screen time, shouted from the bottom of a lift shaft. It is difficult to follow dialogue of any complexity when one of the participants appears to be speaking absolute gibberish.


  2. William Whyte
    July 25, 2012 @ 12:44 am

    Thanks for cataloguing the paragraphs!

    I love this story, but the "imaginary creatures" speech at the end never quite worked for me. I think because the line between real and imaginary creatures is crystal clear. So it comes across as the Doctor tricking Light (and successfully tricking Light) rather than attacking the nature of reality versus illusion itself. Not only does this cheapen the ending a bit, in terms of its emotional impact, it also cheapens Light by making him appear frankly a bit dim.

    The thing is, it didn't need to be like that. There are lots of intermediate points between real and imaginary. There's Conway's Game of Life, where you can form stable structures that calve and evolve (Bidmead would for sure not have let that go unreferenced). There's sentient computers, possibly in the shape of dogs. There's a vast array of uploaded Time Lord experience preserved for all eternity in some kind of Matrix. There's the characters that form in authors' heads and force their story to be told. There's actors who pretend to be those characters and feel those characters' reality. We're in a continuum; it's analogue, not binary. And this is doubly significant for a program for kids, who live on a boundary between reality and fantasy. (I used to have a train in my pocket and I could take it out and it would turn into a real train that was also me, which meant I could run faster if I did that pumping thing with my arms. I would find it convenient to still have that train).

    Ghost Light stand outs somewhat among the Season 25-26 stories by not being about evil the Doctor has fought since the start of time, but by being about something else. Change the transmission order to put it after Fenric and it fits in nicely with my retirement home/singing detective take on Greatest Show, where all those Evilsincethedawnoftime stories seem like stories the Doctor is telling in a confused way for no obvious reason; in fact, he's telling those stories to Ace, and he's telling them so he can take her to Gabriel Chase, and the imaginary creatures speech is blurring the boundary between imaginary and real the other way, so the Doctor's made-up stories blur through into reality.

    A recurring theme of mine during the C Baker era was wishing that Doctor Who was the kind of story you could show to your not-we friends. Ghost Light was the ultimate not-Colin-Baker story. I actually made twenty friends come over and watch it, drunk.

    My flight's boarding, so: you forgot Warrior's Gate!


  3. David Anderson
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    I disagree, I think, with the absolute opposition between the Enlightenment and anarchism. The definite article in front of Enlightenment is itself the result of historical reordering: the creation of THE Enlightenment that never was so that people can proclaim themselves its true heirs. THE Enlightenment is neatly separated from the dark ages before and from the 'counter-Enlightenment' that came after in a way that becomes troublesome if you try to sort major thinkers into neat camps. (I gather Jonathan Israels has a major project trying to sort the Enlightenment into a nice radical Enlightenment and a nasty moderate Enlightenment, about which the same must surely apply.) (Similar thoughts apply to THE Renaissance and even, to a lesser extent, to THE Reformation.) But also: the program's mercurial roots are planted in a firmly Reithian soil. (Pertwee is perhaps the most Reithian Doctor.) So that I think the mercury can't be seen as in opposition to a Reithian Enlightenment as revision of it. The past is not rejected or opposed, but revisited.

    A second point is what this says about the McCoy Doctor's methods. What McCoy's Doctor does is to turn Josiah's and Light's destructive impulses in on themselves in such a way that those who have the sense to do so can get out of the way. McCoy tells Matthews to change if he doesn't want to die, but change isn't the key here – Gwendoline has changed to survive and dies in the end, and the day staff don't seem to have changed much. Still, the ones who leave in the spaceship are those who have changed in ways that aren't destructive to those around them and haven't left themselves in the path of Light or Josiah.


  4. daibhid-c
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:23 am

    Interesting post about a story I remember liking, but only understood in parts (I must get the DVD and watch it properly; my memory of the McCoy era is mostly trying to watch it on a badly-connected Betamax, which occasionally failed to tape episodes.)

    Good point about the nature of evolution; I'm reminded of a line from Science of Discworld: "The phrase 'survival of the fittest' had the advantage that everyone thought they understood it, and the disadvantage that everyone thought they understood it". Although, as you say, the "survival of the fittest" story is still to come…

    (I've been thinking for a while now that it might be interesting for you to do a Pop Between Realities post on Discworld during the Virgin era. Not just because several writers, including Aaronovitch, were clearly influenced by it, but because the Discworld's Theory of Narrative Causality makes an interesting comparison with your thesis about Doctor Who explicitly running on the logic of story. Of course if you're not familiar with them, I don't expect you to read a series of 39 novels just to discuss their influence on Doctor Who…)


  5. Bennett
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:34 am

    I'm too thick to understand this entry. πŸ™‚


  6. Alphapenguin
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    I was rather hoping you'd do another entry like this for McCoy, and you didn't disappoint. Well done πŸ™‚


  7. Grant, the Hipster Dad
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:07 am

    I think that the much more damning indictment against Ghost Light is that it can't be understood by children. Mine were 10 and 8 when they saw it. The boychild started with Tomb of the Cybermen when he was five, his sister finally got over her fear of the monsters and joined us when we reached Planet of the Spiders. We started in 2002, and finished sometime in early 2007.

    Ghost Light, and also The Curse of Fenric, is a very, very good story, and it went from curiosity to epic in my mind over time. However, those two stories were Doctor Who's first and only unadulterated flops with my kids. They were lost and confused and, in the end, completely bored with both stories. Survival was the return to form they wanted, and the TV Movie the real epic.

    I learned a whole lot more from actually watching Doctor Who in the company of children than from any of the books, magazines, and blogs. Spending a week watching these two gems of season 26 – the better pair of stories, I always thought – crash to earth because they failed their "entertain children" remit was most instructive. Neither Fenric's last-great-classic-Who cliffhanger ("We play the contest again, Time Lord") nor the climax made any sense at all to them. They just didn't get it.

    That said, I recall that we were watching a homebrew DVD made from the commercial VHS of Ghost Light, and that the sound mix was pretty poor. That can't have helped. Did they ever fix that for the proper DVD release?


  8. Jack Graham
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:12 am

    Absolutely fascinating. And thanks for the kind mensh… though I'm a little puzzled and scared by the reference to me as "the erstwhile Jack Graham"! Am I not Jack Graham anymore?


  9. Matt Sharp
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:49 am

    I was going to mention that, possibly with a Princess Bride quote.

    This has come up before, maybe here, but for some reason Doctor Who fans (and, as far as I can tell only Doctor Who fans) appear to believe that 'erstwhile' means 'esteemed' – something to do with Sergeant Benton being described as 'the erstwhile Sergeant Benton' after he was promoted…


  10. C.
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:24 am

    I'm with Alan. "Ghost Light," upon first viewing, is difficult at some points to understand because of the spoken dialogue–Control's and, later, McCoy's (I first thought McCoy was shrieking "Life!!" upon Light's first appearance, which gave the character an interesting twist). Control still is baffling–what the hell is "Ratkin," the mantra she's saying at the end of ep. 1? And Tat Wood brought up other slightly-bizarre aspects of her character–why is she given the Times every morning if she's meant to be the isolated Control in the experiment.

    "Ghost Light" is so close to being the McCoy masterpiece that these sort of things—which Cartmel & the director could and should have worked out better—are more irritating than usual, as they do provide unnecessary obstacles to the viewer.


  11. Anton B
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    Thank you Phillip. I wondered if you would again be eschewing the 'Land of Fiction' trope for Ghost Light and how you would possibly manage it. I needn't have worried. Your cataloging paragraph actually made me laugh out loud.

    'Jabberwocky' has more connotations though doesn't it? Apart from being a mythical beast it is also a metadiegetic conceit within 'Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There'. To clarify, Jabberwocky is a 'mythical' beast in a story told within a poem that is found (written backwards)in a book that Alice reads and has explained to her within the narrative by an extra-diagetic character (Humpty Dumpty is a nursery rhyme). Very soon after she meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee (her own Twin Dillema) who show her the Red King asleep and possibly dreaming his own narrative of 'Alice'. The Red King is another level of fictitious character not existing in any other narrative but as an anthropomorphised rendition of a symbolic game piece and also as a surrogate for the Author, Lewis Carrol, who also places himself within the narrative as the storyteller to Alice on a summer's day picnic.

    What I'm driving at here is a level where one could view Carrol or Charles Dodgson as a prototype Victorian adventurer who, with his young companion (Alice)inserts himself within the land of fiction and whose uncanny mirror doppelganger is the Doctor and his various inquisitive young girl friends (I guess Victoria being the closest to an actual Alice archetype).


  12. BerserkRL
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:47 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  13. BerserkRL
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:53 am

    I disagree, I think, with the absolute opposition between the Enlightenment and anarchism.

    Agreed. After all, historically anarchism is a product of the Enlightenment, and specifically of Enlightenment liberalism; Godwin's entire Enquiry is, as he himself noted, a commentary on the opening pages of Part II of Paine's Rights of Man.

    The use of the term "social Darwinism" also bugs me, because there is really no such thing. If you look at the theorists who are traditionally called social Darwinists, you find a vast variety of figures utterly different from each other, who have in common only that they bear no resemblance to the stereotype of "social Darwinism." (For example, when one goes looking for the Herbert Spencer of legend, one finds instead a thinker who condemns war and the wage system, praises charity, hails the rise of workers' cooperatives, and looks forward to the triumph of universal altruism.)

    "Teleology" is also a unitary term used to cover a vast diversity of actual thought, and the opposition between teleology and mercurial anarchism is a bit … confining.


  14. BerserkRL
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    And of course Spencer had far more influence on Darwin than Darwin had on Spencer, so the most famous social Darwinist is actually pre-Darwinian.


  15. Flynn
    July 25, 2012 @ 4:54 am

    I find whoever did the sound mixing more to blame here than anything else (even Ayres pointed it out on the DVD doc).


  16. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:04 am

    Now I understand your objections to Campbell, in a way that makes me seriously question my own lack thereof.


  17. Henry R. Kujawa
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    Philip Sandifer:
    "in a handful of cases – television and the humanities mainly – one's inability to understand something is somehow the fault of the people who do understand it."

    This was absolutely the case with the infamous "Five Years Later" era of DC's LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, begun around the same time as this (except there, you had 4 editors, 3 writers, and a slew of artists, and none of them really knew what they were doing… so fans re-reading the books over and over and over and then claiming the book was brilliant because the 12th time around they "got" something really doesn't cut it with me).

    "the specific part of that story it reflects is the one nobody talks about – the lost back three quarters of the opener"

    For me, it's a toss-up which I like less– "100,000 B.C." or "Timelash".

    "I'm not a huge fan of the theory that Seasons 25 and 26 are better understood in production order than transmission order"

    I had access to 2 PBS stations at the time, both of whom were running DOCTOR WHO. One of them (NJN in Trenton, I think) ran Season 26 in production order. And it made no F***ing sense at all that way. Trust me.

    "the line is altogether more affecting if you know anything about the house she's taking about, i.e. if Fenric post-dates Ghost Light"


    "two stories in a row, from different writers, about the ideological implications of survival of the fittest"

    This was also a theme in "Greatest Show" via Captain Cook.

    "which Cartmel & the director could and should have worked out better—are more irritating than usual, as they do provide unnecessary obstacles to the viewer"

    It is annoying when the most simple technical things are gotten so wrong you can't follow what you're watching. (This also goes for having the music much louder than the dialogue, instead of the other way round.)

    William Whyte:
    "it also cheapens Light by making him appear frankly a bit dim"

    A creature cataloging other creatures on a planetary expedition who doesn't at all grasp the concept of evolution? What was he, brain damaged?

    David Anderson:
    "the ones who leave in the spaceship are those who have changed in ways that aren't destructive to those around them and haven't left themselves in the path of Light or Josiah"

    I wonder if anyone thought it was "cute" (or confusing) that Michael Cochran was in both this and "Black Orchid" (another period piece)?


  18. C.
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:33 am

    "A creature cataloging other creatures on a planetary expedition who doesn't at all grasp the concept of evolution? What was he, brain damaged?"

    this cracked me up. Yes, it's a bit absurd.

    I'm also still honestly a bit lost as to how the situation at Gabriel Chase came to be. Light and Control/Josiah apparently arrived in Neanderthal times, yes? Then did Light go into suspended animation for millennia, while his ship was underground, and eventually they built Gabriel Chase over it? Wouldn't someone have found the capsule at some point? Then "Josiah" got free ca. 1870, took over the identity of Josiah and brainwashed the family? And he evolved from a lizard-like form–then why is Control humanoid?


  19. Spacewarp
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:46 am

    Hmmm…I'm very unhappy with the idea that people who claim that something "doesn't make sense" are automatically incorrect, wrong, or stupid, just because someone else claims that it DOES make sense.

    Fandom, and particularly Doctor Who fandom, does spend a lot of time attempting to shoe-horn order into situations where there may not necessarily be any. The concept of "Canon" is the most obvious case of this, where various things that don't make sense are given a helpful twist and a bend to make them fit. The Morbius Doctors and Season 6B spring to mind.

    Conversely I also don't like the idea that someone who DOES see order is ridiculed by those who don't. Both viewpoints seem little more than attempts by one set of people to force their opinions on others.

    If all the inherent contradictions and ambiguities in any story can be handwaved away by pointing out that "this obviously means that" and "it's plain that that means this", surely this is just personal interpretation and is no more correct or incorrect than what anyone else sees in the same story?

    Personally I don't think the Holy Roman Bible makes a lot of sense, but there are a lot of people in this world that think it does, and will argue to the death that it does. The question is, who's right? Am I right because the damn book is such a mass of incompatibilities and contradictions? Or is someone else right because they can think up plausible scenarios to explain these contradictions?

    I also think Ghost Light is a shapeless mess, a barely-explained triumph of style over substance that leaves far too much open to interpretation, and appears to substitute mystery and atmosphere for actual decent story-telling, but then that's how it appears to me. Am I right or wrong?


  20. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:47 am

    Surely, in a story such as this, having historical roots in a tradition does not preclude rejecting that tradition. I mean, there's not a lot of thought in the world today period, from any ideology, that doesn't have Enlightenment roots. Regardless, I think the Doctor's specific form of anarchism involves a determined rejection of much of the Enlightenment, although I'm perfectly willing to allow that this rejection may be more in the monstrous offspring sense implied by Deleuze's "taking Kant from behind" than in a straightforward negation.

    As for social Darwinism, that the term is anachronistic does not, to my mind, deprive it of all utility.


  21. spoilersbelow
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    Why can't we have more people like you writing postmodern critiques of things? So much of it gets caught in the old "Luce Irigaray doesn't understand science, still wants attention" school. It's not that it can't be understood, it's that its wrong and doesn't explain anything.

    But using correct interpretations of scientific theory to expound fascinatingly on matters of philosophical import? I am reminded of Julian Jaynes, and I intend that as a huge compliment. You, sir, are the polar opposite of everything I hate in today's postmodernism, and I thank you.


  22. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:00 am

    I think incoherence is generally a much heavier argumentative lift than coherence, if only because an argument for incoherence must, in order to be effective, demonstrate an understanding of the arguments for coherence and be able to push beyond them. Coherence just has to demonstrate one working interpretation. Incoherence has to demonstrate the non-function of every interpretation. And so I find cavalier arguments of incoherence to be on the face of it highly suspicious.

    In the end, though, I think that it doesn't come down to the arbitrariness of personal interpretation. I think that implication and allusion are falsifiable claims – that you can test an interpretation by going to the text and seeing which is better supported. Thinking up plausible scenarios to explain contradictions does constitute making sense out of something, and the argument that something makes no sense has to, from there, move on to other critiques (which there are, for the Holy Roman Bible, scads of available).

    I'm reminded of Chomsky's famed attempt to create a sentence that made grammatical sense but carried no meaning, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously." And the refutation by several people who pointed out that, actually, there are tons of contexts in which that sentence can make sense. Actual non-sense – an outright lack of meaning anything – is exceedingly rare.

    "too much open to interpretation," "barely explained," and "shapeless" are different critiques than "it didn't make sense."


  23. Seeing_I
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:08 am

    What if you understand and appreciate what the story is trying to do, but still think it's an incoherent mess that fails to meaningfully convey its ideas through the drama? "Last Year At Marienbad" it ain't.

    Sorry about your job prospects. Try not projecting your frustrations onto everybody who doesn't see things your way.


  24. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    I think you're somewhat up a creek then – if you can understand what the story is doing then it has, by definition, meaningfully conveyed its ideas. This does not mean that it does not have other flaws, but demonstrably "failure to convey its ideas" is not among them.


  25. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:10 am


    For one thing, Phil, when we were talking on twitter last night, I didn't really see how personally you took the "I didn't understand it" critique. That said, it is a very dense story. I don't think there's a single sentence in the story that's extraneous to the advancement of some thematic, narrative, or character development. Quite often, each line works on all three dimensions at once. So I can see what it might be hard to follow: if you miss a line, you probably missed something pretty important. In that way, it reminds me of a really tightly written short story, like Harlan Ellison at his best. That's good, insofar as it makes good use of the time constraints of having 75 minutes maximum to tell the story. It's bad, insofar as people don't always watch television with the careful attention needed to follow every element in Ghost Light. In that sense, it foreshadows the kinds of storytelling that could work in the wilderness years, when Doctor Who was a novel you could sit down with, read carefully at your own pace, and re-read again to catch stuff you missed. It reminds me of Alan Moore's image of reading slowly by light of a fireplace. An appropriately Victorian image for the story.

    My relationship with Ghost Light is something like Phil's relationship with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Just by chance, I don't think I had ever seen it before I watched it in preparation for this post. I knew its reputation, I had read summaries of the story, but I don't know that I had ever actually seen it. So I didn't really have the genuinely rookie's experience of it: I knew what it was about and what character was doing what, so I could at least see if it was signposting all of that clearly.

    And largely, it was. I find it funny how many of the summaries I read concentrate on the discovery of Josiah's Crowned Saxe-Coburg plot as the climax and major conflict of the story. Watching Ghost Light, it's almost incidental, a sign of how cartoonish and stupid Josiah's literal uptake of Darwinian ideas had become. Josiah is the comedy idiot of the piece, just as much a monkey as he makes Reverend Matthews into.


  26. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:10 am

    I do see one way that people would find Ghost Light confusing, though: a significant number of people in the world misunderstand how evolution works in the same way that Josiah and Rev. Matthews do. In fact, their views map more closely onto contemporary popular views of evolution than on those of the actual participants in Victorian culture. The Anglican Church of the 1800s was opposed to Darwin's theories not because they held to a moronically literalist interpretation of the Bible, but because it interpreted nature as cruel. Institutionalized Christianity at the time had a view of nature that was in line with Romantic ideas of nature as a harmonious purity.

    These ideas continue today, oddly enough, in the propaganda of the secular environmentalist movement: that nature is a harmony which human technology is disrupting. I discovered those naive ideas motivating the original Edge of Darkness, which I watched after reading about it in the Eruditorum. I'm in negotiations with a university press in Canada to publish a book that, in part, explores this very problem: the influence of Eden in modern environmentalism, and how it creates an attitude akin to the imperialist justification of humanity as the apex of nature, Earth's most advanced species empowering itself as master of nature, the responsible mastery of stewardship. (White Ape's Burden, if I can be rhetorical.)

    But I'm talking about Ghost Light. So I guess one way people can find the story confusing is because they misunderstand evolution in the same way Reverend Matthews and Josiah do. The Doctor's conception is generally correct: everything in flux, satisficing adaptations occurring by stumbling rather than design or intention, most of the interesting aspects of the world being spandrels, extraneous to the simple job of surviving, the unnecessary material that we like having because it can be fun to play with. But it's relatively rare that I meet people who do understand evolution correctly who haven't put in some time of advanced study on the topic.


  27. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:11 am

    Interesting, as I definitely lacked any clear memories of Benton being promoted (watching Pertwee out of order does not do wonders for one's love of the non-Brigadier portions of UNIT – they floated around as generic support cast as opposed to standing out particularly), but yes, you're absolutely right that I somehow acquired a wrong definition of the word in my head.


  28. Spacewarp
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    Interestingly, "colourless green ideas" can actually make sense to a synaesthete, of which I am one.

    "Monday and 5 are both red" makes perfect sense to me, but probably not to anyone else.


  29. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:32 am

    Given that I actively write my blog on the theory that the Internet is full of really good things to do if you have about two minutes and want to have light and easy fun, and short on things to do if you have 15-30 minutes and want something substantive, particularly ones that don't require headphones, the idea that television requiring active engagement might be a bad thing is problematic to me. It smacks of an anti-elitism that's just as pernicious as saying that a ropey kid's sci-fi show is prima facie unworthy of being taken seriously.

    Which is where the "it doesn't make sense" argument trips into really pissing me off – it's an outright refusal to engage, and usually one that involves implicitly invalidating the contexts in which something does make sense and does work. The attacks on postmodernism as not making sense aren't attacks on a poorly thought out bit of argument, they're attacks on the entire philosophical context and mindset in which postmodernism works. Whereas I tend to think that any context worth destroying is worth destroying from the inside.


  30. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    As I think about it, Rev. Matthews would fit better in Rick Perry's Texas than Victoria's England. And if you moved the setting of the story to contemporary America, Josiah would transform into Mitt Romney.

    Ghost Light also works to critique and move on from the Doctor's origins as a Victorian scientist. He still carries that imagery with him today (Matt Smith wearing goggles and working underneath the console at the end of The Doctor's Wife is probably the most striking such image), but with Ghost Light finally overcame the unfortunate arrogance of that figure. From the start, as you said, Phil, the Doctor was a renegade figure, but he came dressed in the trappings of a traditional authority. And he would regularly boss people around as if he knew best just because of who he was.

    Pertwee and Tom Baker's Doctors revelled in that arrogance, and quite often pulled it off through sheer force of personality. But I think it was the Colin Baker era where the audience realized (if the character and the show did not) that his arrogance of presuming to lead because he's the smartest man in the room was not a virtue, but a flaw. After the 1980s, the arrogance of the Doctor becomes not something that he justifies, but more regularly something that trips him up and puts him in danger. No recent story puts that in focus more than Midnight and Waters of Mars. Indeed, I'd call that the central character arc of Tennant's Doctor.

    Ghost Light is when the Doctor (both narratively and meta-fictionally) looks the most horrifying element of his heritage, embodied in Josiah Smith (a suitable Victorianization of the Doctor's regular pseudonym), straight in the eye and says, "Yes, I have developed from you, but I am transformed!"


  31. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:35 am

    I believe synesthesia was one of the more common approaches taken to making sense of the sentence.

    It occurs to me that a side effect of the cataloguing within this post is that the paragraph blasting the "it doesn't make sense" approach stands out rather more than it would have in a traditional flow, in which it would have been (assuming I wrote standard music/news paragraphs instead of hiding them elsewhere like I did here) the fourth paragraph of the post, coming after the one beginning "Ghost Light is first and foremost interesting as the first Doctor Who story to begin to polarize people over the question of whether the story makes sense." Where it would have seen at least somewhat less venomous.


  32. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    We were writing our last comments at the same time. So I guess in my original comment, I should have described it as "watching television on a television," maybe around dinnertime, with your boyfriend wandering around distracting you, or when you're interrupted by a phone call or a text message. Or when you are watching television on your computer, but you're doing things in four other browser tabs simultaneously, and eating dinner, and spilling soda on the keyboard. Of course, those are all terrible ways to watch television.

    I think ultimately we arrive at the same conclusion: If you're watching a piece of television that you know is going to be complex and dense, pay proper attention.


  33. John Callaghan
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:39 am

    Benton is promoted in "Robot" and is thereafter referred to as Mr. Benton (apparently – I haven't checked). A pity no under-running story was padded by Benton standing around after the Brigadier had given him an order, coughing meaningfully, until the Brig remembered to say "Mister".

    The original quote about "the erstwhile Sergeant Benton" is from Doctor Who Monthly, I think. What's interesting is how it caught on, and now we have that meaning peculiar to DW fans. (It's even on a documentary on the Day Of The Daleks DVD.) I'm not trying to embarrass you, Mr. Sandifer, and I enjoy your essays a great deal; I'm sure there's room in one of your columns for language which has an extra significance for a specific fandom. For instance, having "a shock of white hair" or a "vintage roadster".

    Not in the same category, but while I think of it, Terrance Dicks' description of Colin Baker's mouth as "sensual" always struck me as a little odd…


  34. Jack Graham
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:51 am

    I've honestly never encountered this before. Still, it's quite fitting. A random mutation being transmitted via reproduction.


  35. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    I didn't even know she was saying "Ratkin" at the cliffhanger, had to look that up from a transcript. Anyways, I think it's a nod to the evolution of mammals. Weren't rats one of the first?


  36. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    Hmmmmmm. I think I disagree strongly with you in some of these points, but I admit, I'll need a bit to process.

    One thing I will bring up points against, though: "the Whoniverse – the idea of a set and singular narrative for the Doctor." That's not what a 'Whoniverse' is supposed to be, at all; an Xverse isn't a grand narrative, it's a setting, a world, a box full of toys that you can pick out and recombine to tell stories. (Not that you're the only one to make this problem; arguably, the idea that the DC Universe is all supposed to be one story is responsible for at least half of the bad ideas perpetrated on it in the Didio era.)

    Also, I don't really get the quote about the evolution of language; specifically, I don't get how it's supposed to be a point in favor of language being genetic.

    Also also: I totally read Lungbarrow without having seen anything else of the Virgin books or the 7th Doctor. I enjoyed it, but I'm glad it never became canon. And I definitely want to see this story.


  37. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    I also think Ghost Light is a shapeless mess, a barely-explained triumph of style over substance that leaves far too much open to interpretation, and appears to substitute mystery and atmosphere for actual decent story-telling, but then that's how it appears to me. Am I right or wrong?

    It depends on what kind of argument you can bring to the table in support of your interpretation, doesn't it? Does the text support such a reading?

    I don't think Ghost Light is "shapeless," given how closely it cleaves to some very specific iconography, be it the Victorian setting, the pointers to evolution (even sitting down to soup is an opportunity) and even the tropes of a haunted house.

    You're closer to the mark in that it's open to interpretation and light on exposition. While it's fair to say one does or doesn't prefer such modes of storytelling, to say it isn't "decent" smacks of the very disdain of the "it isn't understandable" critique — as if stories are "supposed to" be fully readable on first viewing, or that stories requiring active engagement are inferior to those that can be gleaned casually.

    Even here, I'm not sure you're entirely right. The lack of exposition (cut for length and pacing) does open the story for interpretation, but it's no Rorschach inkblot devoid of meaning. The iconography converges, there is a story here, and it's a substantial one, showing us more of Ace's inner life, the Doctor's manipulations, and all the commentary on Victorianism, teleology, and what it really means to be embroiled in constant change.

    That said, of course it's a risk for stories to require active engagement (including multiple viewings and conversations with others) because so many people go to stories not to be engaged, but to disengage, to escape. And it's certainly problematic for a show like Doctor Who, for while it has mercurial roots, it also has a history long enough to evoke nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood in much of its audience, people who want to escape to their past. But to say Who shouldn't require active engagement is, I think, to take the position of Light, who wants nothing to grow and change, but everything neat and tidy and put into little boxes.

    You can be right in saying you don't like Ghost Light for what it asks of you, but I don't think your critique stands up to the text itself and its intentions.


  38. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Depends on what we mean by "meaningfully," doesn't it? In terms of the drama I think Seeing_I has a point, as I find little in Ghost Light that stirs my soul, unlike Happiness Patrol or Paradise Towers. It's intellectually stimulating, but not emotionally engaging — a few bits with Ace notwithstanding, but then I find her arc her a bit less connected to the gestalt of the story itself — and it's through dramatic emotional response I find the most meaning in a story.


  39. Henry R. Kujawa
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:11 am

    Myself, I do think it makes sense. It's just very badly told. and the sound mix makes it worse.

    Adam Riggio:
    "Josiah Smith (a suitable Victorianization of the Doctor's regular pseudonym)"

    HAH! never noticed that.

    Last night I watched THE MALTESE FALCON again. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it now. The scene where the 2 cops come into Spade's apartment, there's a point where he asked how Thursby was killed. Last night, I stopped the tape, ran it back a minute and watched it again, because somehow, over and over, I kept not noticing the moment when they told him Thursby had been killed. Odd.

    Later, Captain Jacoby stumbles in, says a couple words, and dies…

    "Who's that man?"
    "The director's father."

    : )


  40. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:11 am

    Meaning does risk being a somewhat slippery term when made adjacent to "ideas" and "understand," I'll grant. But I took Seeing_I to be responding to the question of whether the story makes sense – that is, whether it parses to begin with.

    "Is it sloppy" or "is it overly vague" are valid questions, but they're separate from the discussion-ending "it doesn't make sense" critique I have it in for.


  41. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    First, I think there's a wonderful profusion of things to do on the Internet if you have a larger chunk of time, want something that you can give your attention to, and are more looking for visual than auditory. This blog being an excellent but by no means unique example.

    Second, I don't think there's actually anything wrong with the idea that being the smartest, most informed person in the room makes you qualified to lead. (Personally, I find the end of Waters of Mars pretty terrible, though in execution, not concept.)


  42. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    Remember the Attack of the Cybermen entry, though. Continuity to dense in its interconnection that it constrains the storylines to the point of death is Phil's definition of The Whoniverse, how he uses the term in his analyses of the show.


  43. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    I agree that there are a lot of very good ways to spend long and involved time on the Internet. I just think there should be more. As it stands I run out of ways to screw around online and avoid work in the early afternoon each day, and I have to go actually write blog posts.

    Speaking of which.


  44. Adam Riggio
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    Being the smartest one in the room is a qualification to lead, that's true. The arrogance is the presumption not only that you are that smart, but that you are that qualified. See how hollow the Doctor's line in Midnight is to justify in the face of skepticism why he's most qualified to be in charge. He doesn't explain his long experience travelling to different planets, fighting a variety of hostile creatures, helping bring peace to dangerous galactic conflicts. No, he just says "Because I'm clever!" as if that really means anything.

    The arrogance isn't in making the claim, but in the belief that you don't have to bother justifying the claim.


  45. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    Adam has the meat of it with the Whoniverse – I use the term specifically to critique a line of thought in which it's treated as a constraint on the series, in keeping with the distinct lack of popularity the specific term has even among those who grant the premise that such a thing as "the universe of Doctor Who" exists.

    The point of the Dessailes quote is less about language being genetic and more about the fact that the concept of descent and mutation does not imply an origin from which all things began, it just implies a point where a whole bunch of alternatives got killed off. The proto-language that is the origin of all spoken languages is not, in fact, the first language, it's just the point where a multitude of other possibilities were terminally rejected.


  46. David Anderson
    July 25, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    Describing the Anglican church of the 1800s as opposed to Darwin's theories on any specific grounds is somewhat of a generalisation: there were then as now literalists, conservatives, liberals, socialists and all shades in between. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey the year before this story is set with an appreciative sermon by Frederick Temple, then Bishop of Exeter, who would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
    Matthews is the least interesting character in the story. I think he's there mainly because even in the late nineteen eighties, let alone now, if you're doing a story about misappropriations of ideas of evolution you have to disassociate yourself from young earth creationism and similar idiocies.


  47. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    So did I, but I felt moved to create a redemptive reading. πŸ˜‰

    And I do think there's a sense in which the story doesn't make sense, at least upon first reading. The first time I saw it (back around 1990 or 91?) I didn't make sense of it. Yes, I didn't make sense of it, but for very good reasons — being too used to more expository Who, the kind of editing used for this story, and most importantly my failure to glean the metaphors in play.

    It came across as a mess when I first saw it, simply because it was so unfamiliar. So many of the cuts are jarring — like when we jump to Gwendoline playing the piano after Pritchard renders Matthews unconscious — actually, it might make more sense to say that the story becomes sensible by reading it as the Doctor reads it, recognizing the kind of story he's in from the context more than the obvious aspects of the plot, or "the drama" as Seeing_I puts it.

    What I do know is upon my first viewing, I could sense there was more lurking beneath the surface, and that it would take effort on my part to unearth the sense it was trying to convey. I had the same reaction to Let's Kill Hitler, but unlike Ghost Light I found a tremendous amount of emotional resonance once I engaged that story actively.

    I think the "it's an incoherent mess" critique applies more to a story like The Invisible Enemy, but in reverse; it seems to cohere on the surface, yet looking under the hood reveals a jumble of ideas held together with duct tape, lacking depth or much semblance of engineering.

    I dunno that it's the case that "it's a mess" signals a thickness on the viewer's part so much as a resentment of having to look under the hood to see how, if at all, it works.


  48. Alan
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    This is obviously fanwanking, but I'd always assumed that Light was an incredibly powerful artificial lifeform (like Control and Josiah) that was damaged when the ship landed and was acting out garbled orders as a result of malfunction. Makes as much sense as anything else.


  49. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Adam: Hmmmm, that's fair, and I can definitely see the arrogance of that.


  50. Seeing_I
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    "I see what you're trying to do there" is not the same as "this story successfully synthesizes its philosophical concerns into a dramatic form." I first saw this in 1989; read the novelization, too. The overall thrust of the piece has never seemed that opaque to me – just incoherent. It's an admirable attempt to deepen the show's remit, another step in an exciting new direction, but for me it just does not work.

    Your analysis is great, and does indeed pick out some things I'd never considered, but "it doesn't make sense" is not a discussion-ender, it's an invitation to more discussion. "You're too thick to understand it" is a discussion-ender.


  51. C.
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    what would've been fine dramatically is if Light knew of evolution, obviously, but was just sick of it, was sick of his work never being done and essentially grew disgusted with the process of life itself. Like a bureaucrat who just flips out exhaustion with his paperwork.

    That reading almost fits, but then you have the part in the final ep where Light starts freaking out when he realizes things are still evolving, as if it's finally come to his notice NOW, and basically he just self-destructs like one of those computers that Kirk flummoxed with a paradox on Star Trek.


  52. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    Well, I mean, I definitely agree that "every story must match up with every contradictory element ever introduced" is a Bad Idea. But the word "Whoniverse" suggests something so radically different than that to me that I just kind of balk whenever it's used like that.

    And I understood how you were using it; I was just commenting that I don't understand how it would have worked in the original book. Sorry for the ambiguity. .


  53. Seeing_I
    July 25, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    "to say Who shouldn't require active engagement is, I think, to take the position of Light, who wants nothing to grow and change, but everything neat and tidy and put into little boxes…You can be right in saying you don't like Ghost Light for what it asks of you, but I don't think your critique stands up to the text itself and its intentions."

    To imply that anyone who didn't like "Ghost Light" just wants to be comforted by nostalgia, or is unable to accept TV viewing that requires active engagement, is pretty obnoxious. And there is a big, big difference in making a piece of drama that requires the audience to decode it, and making a piece of drama with 1/3 of the exposition removed because Andrew Cartmel didn't know how to get a script into shape.


  54. encyclops
    July 25, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    I can't remember whether I "understood" this story when I first saw it as a teenager, but I remember I didn't much like it. The reasons have mostly been noted and better articulated by previous commenters: I didn't find it emotionally engaging, it seemed like less of a narrative than a collection of symbols and easy targets, and the sound mix was so awful that even when I could make out the lines they didn't really land with any impact. I had the same reactions Henry and William described to Light's apparent dimness, and I found his vocal mannerisms and Control's Eliza Doolittle impression intensely embarrassing. My impression was that the story consisted mostly of the Doctor and Ace wandering around the house having cryptic conversations with insane people until, at the climax, the Doctor defeats Light with a barely-more-sophisticated variant on the liar paradox he uses on BOSS.

    That's my teenage self, of course. Since then I've read a lot about this story, I've watched it probably four or five more times over the years, I've read the first two Gormenghast novels, I've read Lungbarrow, I've taken courses in twentieth-century drama, and I've gotten a better sense of how rare a story like this is, on TV in general and on Doctor Who in specific. So I appreciate it a lot more than I used to, and admire it, and even though I'm not sure I quite like or enjoy it as a piece of television (as opposed to a clever toybox for people who write about television), I actually want to, whereas before I felt very comfortable hating it.

    It's a bit smug, though, isn't it? And for some reason it invites its proponents to be a bit smug as well. I'm disappointed that you chose to echo Tat Wood's critique of this where he divides the world into two camps, those who understand this story and those who are brain-damaged (I think he said something about people who've been hit in the head with a brick). That makes me want to like the story less, though I still think it's a shame there aren't more jobs for the kind of person who'd go on to write this fine and otherwise fresh-seeming article, which required a lot of close attention and reading but largely rewarded it.

    Today, I think of Ghost Light as on balance a triumph, the same kind of story as Kinda, Snakedance, and Enlightenment, stories I treasure as part of what makes this show special. Even if this isn't one I adore the way I adore those, I'm glad it was made.


  55. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Tat Wood does have the "those who dislike it are brain damaged" bit, although I admit to finding that a bit charming, if only because he gratuitously takes nearly a page of talking about things other than Doctor Who and especially other than this story as set-up for the joke, and it's absolutely perfect. And, I think, perhaps more to the point, it's a needed calling out, which, yes, I did echo. But equally, I avoided the outright two camps issue – I think there is middle ground on this story. I just think that it's been largely shouted down.

    I think, and this works as a response to a couple of comments here, that the "does it make sense" question is largely to blame here. Because as phrased it's such a basic issue. A story that does not make sense is flat-out bad, and further discussion of its merits is largely pointless. It's such a fundamental critique that it pre-empts further discussion, much like "it doesn't actually move" would pre-empt all further discussions about the design of a car. And in the case of Ghost Light, it's a ridiculous complaint. The story does make sense. It may be flawed for other reasons, but not parsing just isn't one of them.

    There are things to discuss about Ghost Light's quality, including the issues of vagueness, whether Andrew Cartmel's serial inability to guess how long a script will run when filmed harmed this story, and whether the lack of a strong emotional hook undermines things. They're really interesting topics. But so much of the critical air is taken up on this moronic dispute over whether the story makes sense in the first place. A similar problem plagues the River Song storyline, though having raised the point here I doubt I'll pursue it in any detail then.

    And in both cases I find the tactic employed by those who criticize it particularly nasty, and nasty for the same reason that the political attack on the validity of the humanities is nasty – they're rhetorical tactics that wholly dismiss the thing being criticized while allowing no response or further discussion. The people who dismiss Moffat's Doctor Who with a broad "it doesn't make any sense" are doing so largely to avoid discussion on any further merits. And I think there's a ton more to say about it, both good and bad, that discussions of the series never get to because for some reason people spend hours debating whether a show that ten year olds understand is comprehensible or not. (I admit that I'm deeply interested by the people who have been discussing childhood experiences with Ghost Light. For what it's worth, I loved it at 12 or 13 when I first saw it.)

    None of my regular commenters, I should note, have ever taken that reductive, nihilistic approach towards any of the ideas that come up here, including entries like this one or the Three Doctors one in which I blatantly and explicitly made the entry hard to follow. I doubt many of my readers ever would in the first place, whether towards intellectual work or towards Doctor Who. But there is a strain of fandom that does use that logic on Ghost Light, and it's deeply depressing. And I called them out in this post, in a paragraph a ways into the post that, due to cataloguing, jumped to the top to become rather more visible than is helpful.

    Perhaps I'll cheat and bury that paragraph in the middle of the post somewhere for the book version.


  56. Matthew Blanchette
    July 25, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    Well, you know, you didn't actually need to "catalogue" it in such a fashion… πŸ˜‰

    Uncatalogue it, if you will, and the whole problem dissolves entirely.


  57. encyclops
    July 25, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    I can see how it might seem a needed calling-out, if you're coming from a context where you're as familiar with fan reactions to and debates about stories as you are with the stories themselves. I myself am not. πŸ™‚

    The "erstwhile" thing, for instance, is absolutely fascinating. I think that's the word Steven of Radio Free Skaro used to describe his co-host Chris on a recent episode of The Memory Cheats (yes, my fandom-literacy is increasing thanks to podcasts), and it shocked me because I thought for a moment that Chris and Warren had finally come to blows and RFS was defunct.


  58. ireactions
    July 25, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    I don't get the Light character at all. I don't understand. Why would a being charged with surveying planetary life be outraged by evolution? I don't get it. It doesn't make sense (to me).

    It. Doesn't. Make. Sense. (To me.)


  59. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm not saying that disliking Ghost Light means you're coming from a desire for comfortable nostalgia, escape, or a disdain of active engagement, though I do think a good number of Classic Who fans fall into those camps, and I do think those commonly held motives work against a show like Ghost Light. (And these fine motives for watching Who, but they're not the only motives for watching Who, nor should they be.) Me, I don't like the muddled sound, what I see as choppy editing, or the lack of emotional punch from the story; surely there are plenty of other reasons to dislike it.

    However, to say that one doesn't like it because it's shapeless (it's not) or lacks substance (it's got plenty) or that telling a story primarily through metaphor rather than exposition (especially this) isn't "decent storytelling" suggests a surface reading that's more put off by the style of the show than what's contained within.

    So what I'm saying is that a critique against the show on the basis that it requires more than a casual viewing to fully grok is an antiquated critique that doesn't stand up on its own; it belies the kind of conservatism embodied by Light, who is more interested in checking his boxes and being done with it; it seems askew to the general spirit of Who.

    Sure, Cartmel has to cut Platt's exposition, but that doesn't keep Ghost Light from being coherent, from lacking substance, or lacking a story to tell. Just because production infelicities led to a story that requires the audience to decode it isn't that far removed from doing so with intention from the get-go. In the end, the intention doesn't matter, only what's produced, and what we get in Ghost Light is something that actually does cohere upon decoding, whether we like what's under the hood or not.


  60. Matthew Blanchette
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    "yes, you're absolutely right that I somehow acquired a wrong definition of the word in my head."

    I could very easily apply this to a number of obscure words you've misused, you know… such as the Kabbalic (and wholly un-Cyberman-related) term "qlippothic". πŸ˜‰

    Ween yourself off of that dictionary, man! πŸ˜›


  61. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    "I don't understand it" is more an invitation to discussion than "it doesn't make sense." The latter implies that there's no sense to be made, while the former is a recognition of the viewer's role in sense-making, and implies a desire to engage with others who have made sense of it — in order to make sense of it!

    As Phil suggested elsewhere, there's more of an onus on the "incoherent" critique to offer up some evidence, pointing to where the story doesn't gel. Where in the dramatic form of the story does it fail to synthesize its philosophical concerns? That's a very specific charge, and frankly a much better one than "it doesn't make sense," as it seems amenable to consulting the text.


  62. elvwood
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    "(I admit that I'm deeply interested by the people who have been discussing childhood experiences with Ghost Light. For what it's worth, I loved it at 12 or 13 when I first saw it.)"

    I first saw it as an adult, though I had managed to avoid reading much about it and hadn't built up too many preconceptions. My son (then eight IIRC) watched it with me, having read nothing about it. He enjoyed it (though it's not a particular favourite) and had no trouble following it.

    That's true in general, BTW: he understands Steven Moffat's most complicated plots fine, even though he's not a big fan of the current era. The only time I've seen him confused (other than when he can't hear something, but DVDs and PVRs mean this is less of a problem than it once was) is when I tried to explain Mel's timeline. And when I stopped doing so from the Doctor's point of view and switched to hers he got it straight away.


  63. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    This is where the inclusion of Reverend Matthews is so vital, I think, reflecting a viewpoint where everything is designed and "fixed." The only time where life is fixed is when it's dead, so having Light (a metaphor for the Light at the end of the tunnel) decrying change makes sense here.

    On the other hand, Light can also be coded as "The Enlightenment" — so he's also a critique of a particular misconception within Science, the sort of Aristotelian point of view that everything can be known through observation, through survey. And this kind of gets to the human element, that not only do organisms change through the generations, but that people are constantly changing, and that we can only ever really know ourselves. This is the fundamental limit of Science, what Dawkins calls "the hard problem" of subjectivity.

    And this kind of gets to the "it doesn't make sense" critique of the episode itself. Light wants to makes sense of the world, and he can't because of his own misbegotten constraints. Rather than change and adapt, he lashes out and attacks.


  64. Josh Marsfelder
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    I always read Alice as actually closer to the adventurer herself. She has a very occult-tinged character arc in my opinion. If anything, she's closer to The Doctor than Victoria in my view.

    For what it's worth I elaborated on this idea of mine a great deal on my own blog over here if anyone's interested:


  65. Wm Keith
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    A story exemplifing evolution should neither be straightforward, goal-oriented, nor complete. Ghost Light achieves this end so perfectly that it can only have been the product of intelligent design.

    I loved this story on first transmission, and I love it now. It was the pinnacle of Doctor Who's evolution. In retrospect, an extinction event was almost inevitable.


  66. Jesse
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:23 pm



  67. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

    Our esteemed Dr. Sandifer has instilled in me a real and abiding love of the term "qlippothic". It's seriously so great.


  68. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:45 pm



  69. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Matthew – it wouldn't work, I fear. Once I decided to do the cataloguing I stopped really worrying about having completely smooth transitions between every paragraph. The linear version of the post is about 3000 words of fairly sensible prose followed by 1000 words of arbitrarily ordered paragraphs that check off points I realized I missed. πŸ™‚


  70. encyclops
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    I've never seen the VHS I taped off TV within a year of watching the DVD release. My recollection was that the DVD's sound seemed a little better, but I tend to watch just about everything with subtitles these days whether I need to or not. During The Dark Knight Rises I just kept telling myself that sooner or later I'd get to watch it on Blu-Ray with subtitles and it would be like watching an entirely new film….


  71. Matthew Blanchette
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  72. Matthew Blanchette
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    You could've just dropped the arbitrary ones in later and added little bits at the beginning of each to help them segue in a bit better; that's what I do on Wikipedia all the time, and most of the text I'm working with isn't even mine! πŸ™‚


  73. Matthew Blanchette
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    But it's like a mantra; it loses all meaning through too much repetition… πŸ™


  74. ferret
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

    I'm similarly afflicted by an identical misunderstanding of 'erstwhile', that's quite stunning.


  75. ferret
    July 25, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    As a child I took this to mean Earth was somewhat special, with vastly more species of plants, animals etc than other planets (and always evolving to boot).

    To my child mind this seemed borne out by the show itself, in that every alien planet seemed quite barren and entirely devoid of animal life beyond The Alien Species Of The Week.


  76. ferret
    July 25, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    I had just turned 12 when Ghost Light aired, and had no trouble with the story – I found it to be a wonderfully creepy, scary tale.

    The dark environment, the disturbed Renfers, the malevolent staff, the jarring cuts – all good horror for a 11 year old. The fact that by the end of episode 1 you don't know quite what is going on adds to the creeping horror – how's Ace going to escape to safety when she doesn't even know what's happening in this house, what is round the next corner or down the lift shaft?

    By the end of episodes 1 and 2, for 11 year-old me this wasn't "I don't get it" but "this is a mystery, I like mysteries". By the time episode 3 closed I was satisfied everything was resolved, and if anything remained unexplained or inexplicable, well, it gave me something to ponder on, dream about, maybe have the odd nightmare about if I was lucky!


  77. Alan
    July 25, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    And having considered the issue more thoroughly, I am now quite convinced that I was right, that Light was in fact a god-like artificial intelligence which had been damaged after first arriving for its survey mission and fundamentally misconceived how Life itself worked. Only a creature which literally did have an intelligent designer could be capable of both acknowledging that evolution existed and being convinced that it was objectively a Bad Thing. If you imagine Light as a hyper-advanced computer of the sort Kirk was always tripping over — godlike but an idiot in some important way — then you can imagine Josiah and Control as equally defective subroutines bent on permanently severing themselves from the master program and becoming individuals ("freeness") but hindered in their efforts by their own defects.

    Hmm. Survey team? Sevateem? Maybe Light's problem is that hundreds of centuries ago, a young Tom Baker showed up and started ignorantly mucking with his programming. That would explain the hair, if nothing else.


  78. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    I admit that I'm a little puzzled by your complaint here, teasing as I recognize it to be. Stipulated, my familiar with the term and with the Kabbalah comes almost entirely from the pop/occult take on the concept, as opposed to from any actual understanding of Jewish mysticism.

    But when I introduced the term in relation to the Cybermen I think I was on pretty good ground, linking it to Kenneth Grant and what he was doing (though not yet publishing) in the mid-60s. I'll admit that tying Grant to The Tenth Planet was a bigger stretch of chronology than I usually indulge in, but I think the connection to The Tenth Planet, conceptually, is strong. The qlippoth are the perverted husks of the proper sephiroth, just as Mondas is a perverted mutation of Earth.

    Since then I've mostly used it to refer to that "dark mirror" quality of the Cybermen – the degree to which they are a conceptual horror as opposed to the alternative conception of them, as clanking death robots. I feel like this extends pretty well from the Kabbalistic concept, so I'm curious what your complaint is. πŸ™‚


  79. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    I think that, given the resolution of the story, Light is clearly the product of an intelligent designer. Specifically, one with the name "Marc Platt." (I mean this, of course, in its least "stating the obvious" sense.)


  80. Josh Marsfelder
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    Rewatched it last night on my new-ish DVD copy and yeah, the sound mix was a problem even there. Not a big one, but noticeable.

    Incidentally, I think "Ghost Light" is very possibly the only McCoy serial where the jarring editing applied to the stories of the Cartmel era actually helps: It really adds to the mysterious, unnerving tone of the whole thing.


  81. jane
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    The author becoming unhinged because his script is constantly changing? How meta!


  82. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    Well, I'm not sure about Light as an authorial mouthpiece as such, but I think reading the Doctor's refutation of him in part based on his failure to appreciate the existence of imaginary things does come awfully close to suggesting outright that his real crippling flaw is that Marc Platt designed him to be a blinkered fool.


  83. Ununnilium
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    Which is interesting, as I was just re-reading the articles about Big-Ass Science today.


  84. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 25, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    Let it never be said that I'm not consistent in the things I say that piss my readers off. πŸ™‚


  85. Josh Marsfelder
    July 25, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    "It would seem you are not in our collection, Doctor, nor will you ever be."


  86. Spacewarp
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    @John Callaghan

    'I'm sure there's room in one of your columns for language which has an extra significance for a specific fandom. For instance, having "a shock of white hair" or a "vintage roadster"'

    There was a marvellous BBC Radio 4 documentary back in 2009, narrated by Mark Gatiss, about the influence of the Target novels which touched on these literal cliches peculiar to Doctor Who (the 5th Doctor having an "old young face", the 4th Doctor being "bohemian" and the TARDIS making a "wheezing groaning sound").

    Not available on the BBC anymore, but no doubt from the "usual places".


  87. Spacewarp
    July 25, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

    Upon going away, sitting down, and thinking about it some more, I've realised that one of the major elements I dislike about Ghost Light is what I dislike about the McCoy stories as a whole. Lack of exposition. Things appear, or happen, and they are never explained or questioned, but rather the action rushes past them and swiftly moves on. A couple of examples spring to mind – the Doctor's immediate and ready acceptance by Rachel in "Remembrance", and his comment "Cybermen!" when Ace sees them for the first time, with no real explanation to her as to what Cybermen actually are. The first part of Ghost Light is so full of situations and people where the viewer is asking "Who's that? What's happening there? Who's he?" And to be honest we would expect Ace to be asking the same things. Except we don't get that. She comments that Nimrod is a Neanderthal, but then doesn't immediately follow that with the natural question of what a Neanderthal is doing in the 20th Century. She just accepts it. This just smacks of unnatural acting. Admittedly it does serve one very good purpose – to move the action on without stalling things with unnecessary dialogue, and this is a writing style acknowledged and copied by RTD in the new series (which is why he brought back the Sonic and introduced the Psychic paper). However RTD also realised that such writing still has to be used with caution, and his companions are far more naturalistic. They do ask the questions that we would ask, and they ask them at the right time. Ghost Light to me is packed full of detail, and yet none of it is questioned by the one character in it who would question it. If you were in that house, you'd be standing there saying "what the hell is going on here?" every 5 minutes.


  88. David Anderson
    July 26, 2012 @ 12:07 am

    It's not as if Robert Holmes didn't occasionally write villains who were (very very clever) blinkered fools. (For a value of occasionally that amounts to two or three times a script.)


  89. David Anderson
    July 26, 2012 @ 12:12 am

    That's one of the things I least like about the Davies era: as soon as something unusual happens everything is held up while the Doctor and Rose tell each other that it's unusual and they don't know what's going on two or three times. I can manage happily without characters asking obvious questions when there's no answer immediately forthcoming.
    It's plausible that six times out of seven the TARDIS lands in the past without it being televised and nothing happens and there aren't any aliens around, but even so I would expect travellers in the TARDIS to quickly become inured to the fact that there are neanderthals in the nineteenth century. After peril monkey, exposition monkey is the companion role I'm happiest to do without.


  90. Anton B
    July 26, 2012 @ 12:21 am

    Oh I agree, Alice is certainly the eponymous protagonist of the books, I was just attempting to position Carrol as a potential 'Victorian eccentric professor' archetype, possibly pre-dating HG Wells' Time Traveller. It was a bit of a reach I admit. Thanks for the link I'll check out your blog.


  91. Matthew Blanchette
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:14 am

    …never expected to be saying this so soon, but… R.I.P., Mary Tamm. πŸ™


  92. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:21 am

    Jeez. She was even younger than Lis Sladen. πŸ™


  93. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:28 am

    I think the Doctor's specific form of anarchism involves a determined rejection of much of the Enlightenment

    But what you call the Enlightenment strikes me as a caricature. The idea of human beings as being at the apex of nature, for example, is far more a medieval idea than an Enlightenment one; it was vigorously debated in the Enlightenment.

    And anarchism, as I see it, emerges from Enlightenment liberalism as a natural continuation, not as a monstrous offspring. What you call neoliberalism (and I call fascism in liberal camouflage) has far less connection to the Enlightenment than anarchism (in all its varieties) does.

    As for social Darwinism, that the term is anachronistic does not, to my mind, deprive it of all utility.

    But the problem with the term is not just that it's anachronistic, it's that the thinkers it's used to describe have little in common, and the ideas associated with the term apply to almost none of them. The concept is a hindrance to, not a tool of, understanding.


  94. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    And of course there's Gatiss's "Pitch of Fear," available in poor picture quality but complete, here:

    and with good picture quality but with the insult to Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy removed, here:


  95. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:40 am

    he just self-destructs like one of those computers that Kirk flummoxed with a paradox on Star Trek.

    In fairness, they were all running Windows.


  96. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 5:58 am

    It's such a fundamental critique that it pre-empts further discussion, much like "it doesn't actually move" would pre-empt all further discussions about the design of a car.

    I don't think most people use it that way. It's quite common for people to say "this movie doesn't really make sense, but it's exciting and funny and worth watching," whereas they wouldn't make the analogous claim about the car.


  97. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 6:01 am

    Light can also be coded as "The Enlightenment" — so he's also a critique of a particular misconception within Science, the sort of Aristotelian point of view that everything can be known through observation, through survey.

    I don't see how that's an especially Enlightenment view; and the idea that it's an Aristotelian view completely baffles me.


  98. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    I'm surprised I didn't think to quote this earlier. Or indeed that Philip didn't use it as the post's title:

    "There's something here that doesn't make sense. Let's go and poke it with a stick"


  99. David Anderson
    July 26, 2012 @ 6:58 am

    Rodent bones are hard to find. Current thinking is that rodents and primates split more recently than they split from mostly everything else.
    But Light's ship seems to think that mammals evolved from insects via lizards, so who knows.


  100. Matthew Blanchette
    July 26, 2012 @ 7:19 am

    Cancer. AGAIN. They all seem to be dropping like flies… ;_;


  101. Ununnilium
    July 26, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Badly-done exposition should be gotten rid of. Exposition itself should not.


  102. Ununnilium
    July 26, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    Yeah. :/


  103. Henry R. Kujawa
    July 26, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    "what would've been fine dramatically is if Light knew of evolution, obviously, but was just sick of it, was sick of his work never being done and essentially grew disgusted with the process of life itself. Like a bureaucrat who just flips out exhaustion with his paperwork."

    I like that! Too bad it wasn't in the script.

    "That reading almost fits, but then you have the part in the final ep where Light starts freaking out when he realizes things are still evolving, as if it's finally come to his notice NOW, and basically he just self-destructs like one of those computers that Kirk flummoxed with a paradox on Star Trek."

    Uh huh…

    "This is obviously fanwanking, but I'd always assumed that Light was an incredibly powerful artificial lifeform (like Control and Josiah) that was damaged when the ship landed and was acting out garbled orders as a result of malfunction. Makes as much sense as anything else."

    Uh huh. Also a good idea. And not in the script. As Rupert Crosse once said, "WHO WRITES THIS STUFF???"

    The ultimate STAR TREK idiot computer, of course… is "V'Ger". It's the size of Manhattan, it's travelled around the entire galaxy, it's amassed so much information, it's actually become a sentiant being. But not only doesn't it comprehend that "carbon-based units" are actual forms of life, it's SO stupid it doesn't realize it thinks its name is "V'Ger" because some DIRT is covering up the "OYA" in the middle of its name.

    By comparison, HAL 9000 was a lot smarter. As as revealed in Clarke's book sequel, he actually WAS a sentient being. And one who just needed to be dealt honestly with. (I love, love love the movie "2010". But I do wish that scene with Dave & HAL after the explosion had been in it.)


  104. jane
    July 26, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    Aristotle believed that everything was a "kind" of thing, that kinds have essences, that we could make sense of the Universe, from entailed the possibility of grasping the Essence of Being. He also gave us "container logic," which informed his conception of categories. This was his whole basis for creating knowledge.

    When the Enlightenment comes around, this has evolved into Knowing is Seeing, where reason is conceived as a faculty that "sees" ideas, hence the terms "Enlightenment" and "seeing the light" — and it's interesting that the same metaphor's in play for religious revelation or scientific understanding.

    So, the this creature Light, he's programmed to seek Enlightenment by categorizing life, and this is who he is. To "be" Light, he has to understand, and yet he'll never understand because whatever map he has in his head will never suffice in a world that's always changing. So the very reason and basis for his existence is subverted! — and so as a "god" he's rendered incapable of imposing a Grand Narrative upon the world.

    And it's neat how he turns Gwen and her mother to stone, fixing them into place. This is a metaphor for how he thinks, for a creature who can't understand change is ultimately a creature who can't understand Time. Time is Change, and everything changes, so it's apt that it takes a Time Lord — who is also a Master of Fiction, which is all that is not — to come and put Light in his place.


  105. BerserkRL
    July 26, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    Aristotle believed that everything was a "kind" of thing, that kinds have essences

    Okay so far …

    that we could make sense of the Universe

    Well, yes, in part. That's a far cry from saying that "everything can be known through observation, through survey." ?First, he denied that everything can be known; hence his lament that the stars are so far away (and what knowledge we can have is, he stressed, a matter of gradual accumulation over generations). And second, for Aristotle observation provides merely the raw material of knowledge, not knowledge itself.

    from entailed the possibility of grasping the Essence of Being.

    Aristotle denied that Being has an essence. That's the whole point of the categories — that there is no common denominator running through the categories that is separable out as Being per se. On the contrary, he compared the difference between what being means under one category and what being means under another to the difference between the sense in which a person is "healthy" and the sense in which a meal is "healthy"; in other words, it's not even the same property. He's thoroughly disjunctivist about this. (See Meta. III & IV; and NE I for a similar claim about goodness.) The best we can do in understanding "being qua being" is to understand particular kinds of being; the quest for a transcategorial essence of being is precisely the balloon he's explicitly out to puncture.

    He also gave us "container logic," which informed his conception of categories. This was his whole basis for creating knowledge.?

    Depends what you mean by container logic; but if you mean a logic that draws a sharp logical divide between container and content, then the whole thrust of Aristotle's approach is to deny any such divide. Thus for example his denial of a transcategorial genus of being; thus also the arguments in Metaphysics VII and De Anima I for form-matter compounds where the form is part of the matter, or the matter is part of the form, or both.

    When the Enlightenment comes around, this has evolved into Knowing is Seeing, where reason is conceived as a faculty that "sees" ideas

    But a) isn't the view that reason sees ideas an anti-Aristotelean one? For Aristotle ideas are the means of awareness, not the object of awareness. And b) isn't it equally in the Enlightenment that the "reason seeing ideas" way of thinking comes under sustained attack? e.g. in Kant and Reid. (And even Hume, despite his official commitments, admitted in passing that thinking of X involves an active orientation toward a shifting variety of X experiences, not a passive contemplation of an idea of X.) "The" Enlightenment is characterised by deep divides, not consensus, over the nature of knowledge, perception, reason, etc.

    To "be" Light, he has to understand, and yet he'll never understand because whatever map he has in his head will never suffice in a world that's always changing.

    This sounds more like a Platonic than an Aristotelean problem. Plato was the one who agonised about how to map a static conceptual map onto a world of flux. Aristotle was much more comfortable seeing the world as a mix of stability and flux, with neither aspect a threat to the other.


  106. Tommy
    July 26, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    "I'd like to point out that the argument is not "it doesn't make sense" but rather "I'm too thick to understand it." "

    I gave up on this article after that statement. Just couldn't meet this half-way.

    I do like Marc Platt's audio work quite a lot- Spare Parts, Time-Reef, The Silver Turk, but I've just never seen eye to eye with this story (me and Ghostlight have given each other many dirty looks over the years). Every time I think I've 'got' it, I come back to it again and feel like I'm back to square one with it. Much like Moffat's worser efforts, I just find the story's high-functioning excesses to feel cold and sociopathic and difficult to warm to.


  107. Spacewarp
    July 26, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    RE: Youtube Pitch of Fear. Weirdly both blocked in the UK


  108. daibhid-c
    July 27, 2012 @ 1:51 am

    I don't want to start another discussion on this thread about misdefinitions, but are you sure you mean "eschewing" there?


  109. Alan
    July 28, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    The Internet seems to have eaten my post from Thursday, which is perhaps just as well as it was somewhat intemperate. The gist of it was that, after consideration, I had become somewhat upset at the insinuation that people who complain that "Ghost Light" doesn't make sense are "thick." I adore this story, but I adore it because of the mood, the aesthetics, the expansion of the Doctor's role as Trickster god, the endlessly fascinating Doctor-Ace relationship, the lesbian subtext between Ace and Gwendolyn which foreshadowed "Survival" beautifully, and in generally, the performances of McCoy and Aldred. I don't adore it because of how well the plot hangs together or how adroitly the themes are developed by the author because it doesn't and they aren't. To wit:

    1. Josiah's plan appears to consist of the following four steps: (step 1) use Redvers to gain access to Queen Victoria, (step 2) have Redvers assassinate Queen Victoria, (step 3) A MIRACLE HAPPENS, (step 4) Josiah takes over the British Empire. That doesn't make sense.

    2. Control appears to be some poorly explained aspect of the alien ship which for some reason initially manifested as a subliterate Cockney charwoman but eventually "evolves" into a proper British lady by winning the heart of Redvers and reading the London Times. That doesn't make sense.

    3. Everyone in the house goes dormant during the day. Why? Because it's creeeeeeppy that way.

    4. Light appears to be some type of alien (or possibly an AI) that came to Earth to catalog its various life forms but absolutely doesn't understand what "life" is. The only way this can possibly work (outside of my "defective AI" fanwankery) is if (a) Light's unchanging race came into existence through some process other than evolution, (b) Light was sent out to catalog all the other (presumably unchanging) races of the universe, and (c) Light's very first encounter with the evolutionary process was when he came to Earth. That doesn't make any sense.

    I can find value and worth in Dadaist poetry, Surrealist art, and the Matrix trilogy despite the fact that by objective standards they "don't make sense." I don't think that makes me "thick." Of course, that's probably the sort of thing a thick person would say.


  110. David Anderson
    July 31, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    I think the answers are in turn:
    1) Josiah is an idiot.
    Philip in his review of Brain of Morbius pointed out that all the villains are in one way or another idiots. Very clever idiots apart from Condo, but nevertheless idiots. Thinking about it, I think it's true that many of the greatest Doctor Who stories are about the power and malignancy of very clever idiocy. Especially those stories by Robert Holmes.
    2. This one, it is true, is not explained in the story as shown. She is basically the counterpart to Josiah. (Control as the control of an experiment.)
    3. Josiah is nocturnal and a control freak who wants to keep everyone under his thumb.
    4. See 1. Although I think Light is rather mad than an idiot. His problem is the same as Tristram Shandy experienced in writing his Life and Opinions: for every day he spends writing his autobiography there's another day added that he'll have to cover later and so he'll never finish. Only Tristram Shandy because a fool can become wise; Light because he refuses to recognise he's a fool cannot.


  111. BerserkRL
    August 3, 2012 @ 7:24 am

    for every day he spends writing his autobiography there's another day added that he'll have to cover later and so he'll never finish

    And then today I swallowed some deadly poison, which I feel beginning to work, and then finished my autobiography by writing this sentence.


  112. Jesse
    August 6, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  113. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 6, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    In the same entry, yes.


  114. Froborr
    October 5, 2012 @ 8:44 am



  115. Kodanshi
    November 11, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    I think it’s interesting that Ace mentions white kids firebombing Manisha’s flat (the implication being it’s a racist attack). Immediately after the incident, Ace goes to Gabriel Chase and ends up burning it down because she senses it as ‘evil’.

    It isn’t evil as such, merely alien, as she discovers in the course of Ghost Light. So her response to someone attacking a building because of an ‘alien’ presence is to… go and burn down something else that is ‘alien’.


  116. orfeo
    September 30, 2018 @ 5:47 am

    The script of Ghost Light is dazzlingly good. And the production is of a high standard so that one can appreciate the quality of the script.

    The script of this blog post might have also been good. It’s hard to tell, because the production values are a shambles.


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