Monday, 21 December 2009

Ghosts in Spaaace!

For me, Christmas will always be linked to the first season of The X-Files, which was shown over the winter of 1994-5 in the UK. The first episode (the pilot) was aired by the BBC on 19th September, the final one – Scully finds the alien in a flask – on 9th March. The period between Halloween and Christmas is of course a time for ghost stories. And oddly enough, for a series that will always be associated in the popular imagination with UFO conspiracy claptrap that made no real sense, TXF really delivered the goods on supernatural fiction.

Rewatching Season 1 over the last week or so served to underline what a mixed bag of ideas Chris Carter introduced. The UFO stuff was rather ponderous and silly from the start, while the standalone episodes were often sprightly and great fun. And what a lot of ghosts there are. There’s the murdered company boss in ‘Shadows’, the haunted computer of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, the maybe-spirit of Scully’s old dad in ‘Beyond the Sea’, a reincarnated killer in ‘Lazarus’, the weird healing powers of ‘Miracle Man’, the Manitou lycanthropes of ‘Shapes’, and a reincarnated cop in ‘Born Again’ - it’s a choice buffet of spookitude.


And then there’s ‘Space’. This one is peculiar in that it comes close to combining the story arc of the alien conspiracy tosh with a standalone ghost story. The story begins with the revelation of the so-called Face on Mars, and an interview in which a NASA spokesman points out that it’s produced by chance, just like one of those images of Mother Theresa that turned up in buns a few years ago.


The spokesman is former Gemini astronaut and now mission controller Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt. I think I can almost forgive Chris Carter his clunky, infodumpish dialogue for that one inspired name – exactly what a former astronaut should be called. Anyway, it turns out that the Face on Mars has not come as any surprise to Belt. We see him in his hotel room later, lying awake in trepidation. Suddenly the Face appears on the bedroom ceiling and hurtles towards him…
Cue the opening credits and that famous sig tune.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the idea that a kind of alien ghost possessed Belt when he was on a Gemini spacewalk in the Sixties, and ever since has been using him to sabotage the space programme. Mulder and Scully do their wise-cracking bit of poking around, after they’re called in by another member of the mission control team. But in the end it’s Marcus Aurelius Belt (I had to type it again) who thwarts the space spook.
Now the only other show I can think of that’s had a space ghost in it is Scooby-Doo. There is something about the high-tech, cutting edge, sci-fi business of space exploration that makes ghosts seem dodgy and rather absurd. Yes, as ‘Space’ shows, it can be done. Not a brilliant episode of TXF, perhaps, but not by any means a poor one.


And why should ghosts somehow cease to work in a story if it’s all about control panels, flashing lights and people counting backwards? Is it because we assume ghosts are inherently things of the past – the historical past? If so this is somewhat lazy thinking, and I admit I’m as prone to it as anyone else.

I’ve just listened to a fairly decent BBC 7 reading of ‘The Signalman’, a story that’s been anthologised so often that merely mentioning it about true ghost story fans can be guaranteed to raise a groan or two. Yet Dickens’ story is all about the white heat of Victorian technology. The telegraph, the electric bell, the railways itself are all new and innovative. They are as far from the conventional Gothic palaver of ruined abbeys and secret panels as you can get.

There are other examples of supernatural tales involving bits of technology. Haunted cars are common. Keith Roberts’ ‘The Scarlet Lady’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Mr Wrong’ are good and very different examples. Then there are planes. Robert Westall’s Wellington bomber in ‘Blackham’s Wimpey’ is the best ghostly aviation story I’ve read. Perhaps you know of some other good ones.


But ships are the ultimate hi-tech haunt. We can now view a stately galleon or a Napoleonic frigate as a quaint old thing, forgetting that all sailing ships were finely crafted instruments of war and trade. To people who’d never seen a ship – such as some Pacific islanders – they were so large as to be almost incomprehensible at first. But of course sailors were always superstitious, and the sea has at least as many legends as the land. So the ghost ships sail on.

If we ever push out into space as Europeans once set sail for new worlds on earth, with we take our ghosts with us? Or will we find ghosts waiting? One Ray Bradbury story (whose title eludes me) concerns an earthman who lands on an asteroid that – rather improbably – has a breathable atmosphere. He settles down to wait for rescue, but then finds himself possessed by the spirits of long-dead warriors who perished ages ago amid general mayhem. (Interestingly, John Carpenter used this same idea in his disappointing film Ghosts of Mars – no idea if Bradbury got a credit or a percentage.)

Well, Bradbury was always a bit of a law unto himself. Futuristic settings and ghosts don’t present an appealing combination to most authors, and perhaps that’s just as well. Mixing your genres is rather like mixing your drinks – you can only get away with it so often because you have a nasty mishap. Something to remember over the Yuletide break!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're quite right about ghosts and modern technology, whenever 'modern' is. 'The Signalman' is an excellent example, although most signalman can probably tell you a tale as spooky, we are good at scaring each other. I'm surprised actually that there aren't more railway ghost stories, 'real' and imagined, I'm looking forward to the one in the next ST mag. The sea is probably the best and again, I think, underused setting for spookiness, I was on the beach on Boxing day and thought of "The Coastguard" very evocative but all the Foxes were sleeping off the Christmas pud in gardens.

Thornavis.

valdemar said...

Thanks for that, T. Oddly enough, it was Lovecraft - who was anti the trad ghost story - who used the sea quite a bit.

Glad you liked ST16, and Mike's story in particular.