Let me tell you about a writer I adore. M.R. James, once provost of Eton, legitimate world expert on Biblical scholarship, and editor of Le Fanu’s work.
More pertinently, he wrote ghost stories. Some of the greatest ghost stories in the English language. He combined both a pleasing terror and a distinct chill, and his warnings to the curious have inspired and influenced every genre writer since Ghost Stories of an Antiquary were first published in 1904.
Given Doctor Who has undertaken every single genre on Earth, and indeed, mined whole writer’s back catalogues at times – hello, fans of Nigel Kneale – it surprises that it had never tackled the ghost story until recently.
However, actually, I’m leading you on there. Doctor Who did tackle the ghost story. It tackled it in the 1960s!
There’s a lowly two part William Hartnell story which doesn’t get much credit, called The Rescue. A whodunit with only one suspect, a strange story conclusion, and a weird atmosphere are but a few of its criticisms by fans. It also has a hilarious cliffhanger, where some spikes slowly move out from a wall, pushing Ian towards a 2 foot incline, while his path to the Doctor is blocked by two easily negotiable bars!
On the other hand, all of these fit another interpretation. That The Rescue is a ghost story!
Ok, not the cliffhanger, that’s just a bit of fun.
The Rescue starts with two survivors of a crashed spacecraft, Bennett and the young, innocent Vicki. They’ve landed on a planet which later did a duet with Eminem. Now, there is the insinuation early on that something nasty was done to the rest of the crew, and this gives us the first impression that this is not a story with the traditional plot twist. When there’s only two suspects in the story, and one is the new companion, that’s not the story. When John Hannah stabs a policeman to death in the opening seconds of a Taggart, we know that’s not the whodunit plot of the story. Because we just saw it happen! Since the new companion isn’t going to be (and shouldn’t be) portrayed as a mass murderer, it’s clear Bennett’s up to no good.
And he’s seen as a haunted man, a man who has done terribly things off-screen, but, what can he see? All the time Ray Barrett, in a fine performance, portrays Bennett as man just looking over his shoulder, or with an added hint of horror when Vicki talks to him, like he was just expecting someone else to show up. Or something else.
The Doctor is left to excitedly uncover the mystery, as he sees it, and swiftly unmasks Bennett, who has been masquerading as one of the ancient creatures of this seemingly abandoned planet. And then, he equally swiftly realises that he’d left himself alone and without backup or defence against an insane and desperate man who isn’t actually crippled. The Doctor walked into this scene assuming he was in the same show as The Sensorites, and so is expecting the same sort of denouement.
He was very nearly done for, before…
Well, that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
I do like how the Doctor knew instantly that Koquellion had to be Bennett, because he had visited the planet before, and so recognised what the creature ought to be. It’s one of the little set pieces that really make for the story. We also get the contrast of Vicki to the departed Susan, with the former being a blast of fresh air into the series, with her sweetness and giddiness undercoated with the harsh reality of someone who could probably look after themselves if needs must. She befriended that sand dragon quite easily, until it got murdered by Barbara in one of the most shocking scenes of pet abuse in Doctor Who history.
(It’s better in context, slightly.)
We also have a fantastic performance from William Hartnell, with his blatant depression at losing his granddaughter, and his attempts to cover this, blossoming over into an instinctive need to find out whats going on. So he falls head first into danger, and is nearly bumped off. He’s mourning Susan’s loss like it was a death, and so nearly walks into his own.
Thank goodness for those ghosts!
Why, the two creatures who appear at the end of the story to save the Doctor’s life!
Seriously, if you read the end of The Rescue as the ghosts of Bennett’s victim returning from beyond the grave, the entire thing makes sense.
A man who appears on the scene, with something shady in his past. The hint something isn’t right. A slow foreshadowing up to the reveal. Not all Jamesian ghosts were malignant. In Lost Hearts, terrifying ghost children appear to save another child their same fate. In Tractate Middoth, the ghost not only sees to the wrong heir to his fortunes, but also finds the time to set up his current heir in marriage. In The Rescue, The Doctor is saved by the creatures who want him to avoid their own fate, at the hands of the same killer.
The entire thing is basically M.R. James as Doctor Who, with William Hartnell as interested dusty old antiquarian bystander. Bennett murders the crew of his ship, and the friendly locals, and all that is left in the way of him getting away with it is the young Vicki. Right when it looks like he will get away with it, the ghostly image of two of his dead victims show up, like the old book lover in The Tractate Middoth, and take off Bennett to his doom.
Course, one could see it as a dues ex machina involving actual locals. But if you consider the whole thing our very own Ghost Story for Christmas, then suddenly, the entire thing makes sense.