The Real Ghostbusters Episode 13: ‘Xmas Marks the Spot’ (1986)

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So here we are – the final episode of the first season, it’s a seasonal special and it’s reviewed here shortly after the big day. I really wanted to get this review ready for Christmas Eve but it just didn’t happen! This really is one of the best ever episodes, boasting one of the most original storylines of the entire series and full of warm, winter wonderland glow. J. Michael Stracsynski wrote this one, and he’s managed to make a Christmas special that is remarkably free of sentiment, with any preaching kept to a minimum and the show managing to smuggle the concept of ‘killing Christmas’ quite stealthily within a children’s cartoon.

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It’s a snowy Christmas Eve, and the guys are returning from a job, listening to Tahiti on the radio, lamenting the fact that they’re working on this most special of penultimate days (trust me, I know how they feel), as well as the fact that they’re lost on the forest road. Peter doesn’t seem too fussed – it turns out he doesn’t really like Christmas very much, so this is just another night for him. He had lonely Christmases according to Ray, what with his dad never being around, and in a moment of confident psychoanalysis (or just good old guess work), it’s assumed that Peter’s cynicism towards the season is really just a defence mechanism to distract him from the genuine pain he feels this time of year.

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Anyway, the guys take a wrong turn, the car’s engine fails, and in their snowbound search for civilisation, they walk directly into a portal, but since the snow’s so heavy, they assume the light is from a nearby vehicle or something. They emerge on the other side in what looks like an undiscovered community directly out of Victorian England. Horse-led carriages, the works. I guess the guys think they’ve merely arrived in some very, very conservative town, but as soon as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim pick up their depressingly measly Christmas turkey from the local butcher, we the viewer know something’s up.

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Yes, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! And look, there’s Ebenezer Scrooge, looking alarmingly like a slightly younger Monty Burns from The Simpsons, howling in terror at something which, and the guys only see it for a second or two, an apparition flying out of the window wrapped in chains. That’s Jacob Marley, that is. He was Scrooge’s old buddy who warned him on Christmas Eve of the impending arrival of three ghosts in the novel….

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The guys investigate by entering Scrooge’s abode, and true enough, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are right there, in the bedroom, with a cowering Ebenezer in the corner. Now, I don’t remember all three ghosts showing up at once in the novel – Past would come alone, and all three would take it in turns to teach Scrooge the error of his ways. Obviously, having all three in one spot at the same time makes the big plot hook of the episode plausible, so let’s continue. The guys take aim at the festive trio, and despite their pleading to not open fire, they let rip and trap them in a shot, completely ignoring all the warnings that this is NOT A GOOD IDEA. Oh well, in the trap they go. Cue a delighted Scrooge, who dances around his room and thanks the guys for a job well done. The crew don’t bat an eyelid when Scrooge appears to have never heard of a telephone, but things get dramatic when the legendarily tight git gets the shock of his life when he’s presented with the bill, and he refuses to pay. He even goes so far as to suggest the three apparitions as mere flights of fancy, or possibly something he ate. Cue the reliable threat of instantly releasing the ghosts, which scares old Scrooge right good and proper, so he offers them a single coin. Peter’s all set to go absolutely crazy when Ray swiftly informs him that this one coin is a real mint-condition collector’s item, worth a shedload. Mercenary Peter backtracks instantly and accepts the payment. They leave, and Scrooge walks to the window and offers nothing less than a complete declaration of war on Christmas. Eeek.

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Meanwhile the guys stumble back through the portal, back to their car (which now works) and back to the city, although Egon is trouble by the unnerving familiarity of some of the things they’ve experienced…. No one else cares, but what’s unavoidable is the sense that’s something’s changed back home. Where’s the festivity? Where’s the joy? Where’s the Christmas???? Janine and Slimer have turned into complete grouches. Forget ‘Season’s Greetings’, ‘Bah! Humbug’ seems to be the line of the day. And look, the local bookshop is selling everyone’s seasonal favourite novel – ‘A Christmas Humbug’ by Ebenezer Scrooge! His visage is on the front of the book, and of course the guys instantly recognise him as the bloke they just helped….

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So, it turns out that all that ‘fictional’ Christmas Carol stuff was real, that the portal was actually a time slip and that by trapping the three Christmas ghosts, Scrooge’s self-realisation that he was a bloody nightmare to be around never came to fruition, and by him actively waging war on the silly season (and clearly succeeding), Christmas has not just withered away, but has been replaced with a vehemently anti-Christmas celebration. Not celebrating Christmas is one thing, but everyone in town has actually made a point of being extra hateful and mean! No big deal, Peter says, they can just release the ghosts from the trap and put things straight. One problem – Egon’s back at HQ, about to incarcerate the ghosts in the Ecto-Containment Unit! They rush back (although Peter’s in no hurry – remember, he was a grouch before history changed), but it’s too late. Quite matter-of-factly, Egon says that the ghosts have already been locked away. Now, given that Egon was the only one to think something might be up earlier, he’s remarkably slow in following up that worry with an actual theory about what might happened. Ray sums it up very, very succinctly, in what might be the most alarming act-break line in any episode ever. Quite simply, he declares ‘We just killed Christmas. Christmas is gone. Forever!’ Now this is followed by something that really, really used to unnerve me as a child. Just to establish, the guys have a handy viewfinder upstairs that they can use to look inside the Containment Unit, and the final shot of the first act is a peek inside the viewfinder, where we can see the three ghosts being hurtled backwards into the limitless void of ghost limbo. This final shot really freaked me out. Reasons? Well, there’s something hopeless about the situation. The music is the more apocalyptic of the show’s themes. The simple freakiness of that void, which is just some dark blue sky. The strange wail that the ghosts (or the soundtrack?) deliver. The look on Christmas Present’s face. Worried, but eerily static too. The fade to black. Okay, now the latter reason is something I’m going to heavily elaborate on in my write-up of the episode after this one, so it might not make much sense now, but all of these elements combined made for a moment that really burned itself into my mind, and I’d spend night as a child trying to get to sleep just thinking about that image, and it sending the right chills down me. Just one of those things. Wonder if I’m the only one?

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Act Two begins with the anti-Christmas spirit in full flow, with two idiots yelling ‘Bah! Humbug!’ at each other whilst their equally foul-tempered dogs face each other off. Ugly stuff. So, the guys are in a terrible situation. And if any of had forgotten that in the old days when act breaks actually heralded a run of adverts, Peter helpfully summarises all of the chaos that’s just happened. Obviously, the best plan is to return the three Christmas ghosts back to where they belong, but there are hitches – how to release the ghosts without releasing all the other, mean ones, and the fact that time is passing on both sides of the time slip. In other words, they’d hurry up because Christmas Eve is almost over… so for the first problem, Egon’s going to go INSIDE THE CONTAINMENT UNIT! Peter quite rightfully checks Egon’s pulse and asks if he’s recently hit his head, so MAD is his idea. As for the second problem….well, if Egon’s plan doesn’t work, then Peter, Winston and Ray will have to pretend to be the three Christmas ghosts in order to convert Scrooge….

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While the others head off, Egon asks Janine for help in getting inside the Containment Unit, and she eagerly accepts the chance to impress her love. Remember, the change in history might have erased her love of Christmas, but she’s still dopey-lovey all over Egon, which is nice, as she spent the majority of the previous scene yawning and bad-mouthing the whole point of the guys’ plan. Boo. For the second episode in a row, comedy love hearts replace pupils in the eyes of a main character. The guys travel back through the time slip and bizarrely, don’t seem to wait for Egon to bring the ghosts back, instead opting immediately for Plan B, the first phase of which involves Peter putting on a blonde wig and rope-swinging his way right into Scrooge’s bedroom (and onto Scrooge himself)! Peter almost immediately blows his cover, responding to Scrooge’s demand of who has just appeared in his room with the frankly hopeless ‘Hey Jack, I’m Peter…’ before realising what’s at stake and adjusting his introduction correctly. Luckily, Scrooge’s glasses seem to have been lost in the preceding chaos, so I’m hoping that’s the reason this frankly unconvincing ruse seems to work. To be fair, Scrooge does note the change in his house invader’s appearance, not to mention the lack of ghostly aura, but this is all resolved with a flashy light show created by magnesium flares attached to Peter. The glow unfortunately makes Peter’s face the same sickly, amber colour that he suffered in series-highpoint ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’, when he was possessed by a demon, so even though this moment is perfectly innocuous, I get the flashback chills. Anyway, Peter produces one of those cool viewfinder head-set toys that let you lose yourself in location photographs without peripheral distractions, but before we see how this is going to set Scrooge on the path of goodness, we go back to the present…

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Egon’s all set to enter the Containment Unit, attired in a spectacular red and white space suit – he warns Janine that he only has one hour to retrieve the ghosts and get out, or he’s trapped in there forever… when he enters, it’s like a condensed version of the Stargate sequence in 2001, all mind-bending corridors and such, although this only lasts five seconds, whereas in the film it went on for nearly ten minutes.

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In a superfluous bit of suspense, Slimer is left trapped in the basement when the power of the Containment Unit entrance’s suction threatens to drag Slimer inside. Nothing comes from this, Slimer survives a few scenes later, move on please! Oh, before we go back to Peter’s Christmas ghost shenanigans, Janine has a peek at Egon’s progress in the Unit and we see what she sees in the viewfinder. This looks very odd indeed, like he’s in a half-spectacular/half-primitive video game.

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Back to the past though, and Peter’s embarrassing (though admittedly inventive) method of taking Scrooge into a journey through his past is to strap the viewfinder over his eyes, plonk him in a wheelchair, and ride him round in circles (to simulate flying) in his bedroom. Amazingly, this does seem to work, getting Scrooge all sentimental over his past, though how the stock-photos in the viewfinder match key moments in his personal history is anyone’s guess. Still, it gets him all sentimental over his lonely youth, so the plan’s working, I suppose.

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Egon’s now properly inside the containment unit, and if you thought Doctor Who’s Tardis was a miracle of ‘small on the outside/big on the inside’, then prepare to be dazzled. It’s like another dimension entirely in here, and top marks to the writers and designers for conjuring up a spectacle. It’s an eternal world of nothingness, only with lonely rock ledges and islands for the ghosts to hang around on. This place must be absolutely massive, because you’d think there’d be even more ghosts in here, but given the relatively few we see, they must be spread out over even further terrain. And look! Some of these ghosts are familiar….there’s Slug from the very first episode…and the Sandman! Slug looks like he’s having fun partying with some other ghouls (noticeably not his wife and kid), but the Sandman looks very unhappy indeed, very lonely. We’re going to see other familiar faces over the next minute or two, so keep your eyes peeled!

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Anyway, Peter’s shift as ghost is thankfully over, but Scrooge, once he’s realised that he should actually be learning something from this whole escapade, is still not convinced that he should stop being such a miserable so and so, despite Peter resorting to a rare instance of outright Christmassy moralising in this episode (and it’s a good message, so well done).

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Back in the Unit, Egon narrowly avoids Samhain, while Slimer’s still trying to avoid getting hurled into the unit, and in an illogical moment of gravity-defying trickery, Winston’s somehow able to rope-swing himself and Scrooge over the streets of London so that the latter can see all the misery he’s caused. What the rope’s attached to, and how it’s managing to cover so much ground isn’t really explained (Peter and Ray certainly aren’t involved holding the rope, as the moment directly afterwards confirms), but since we’re all distracted by Winston’s ginger beard, I guess no one really cares. After all, it’s Christmas!

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Egon’s descent in the unit however, seems to be all in vain as his hour’s almost up, but he sees the three ghosts looking down in the dumps on their own limbo island, but the moment he gets to them, plenty of other ghosts in the unit suss out what’s going on, and this is where the eagle-eyed will have a ball. Remember, this episode wasn’t available on video tape (at least not in the UK), so you’d have to have taped it. So that means keeping a sly eye on the TV listings. Then there was the old-fashioned days of pausing the video. Remember when DVD came out? One of its minor yet notable virtues was the benefit of getting a perfect pause. Back in the days of video tape, pausing the tape usually meant getting a big fat rip in the picture, which would usually mean tapping the pause button so that the rip would move further and further down the screen until you got as close to a perfect picture as was possible in those days. Oh wait, was this just me. Sorry. Anyway, we get some very pause-worthy moments as the animators have fun chucking in some notable antagonists from previous episodes. Slug’s companions Snarg and Zunk, not to mention Killerwatt, What/Watt from ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’, the Big Bad Ghost from ‘Slimer, Come Home’, the Winged Puma from ‘Look Homeward, Ray’, the narcoleptic ghost from ‘Take Two’, as well as the previously mentioned Samhain and the Sandman. No sign of the doppelganger Ghostbusters from ‘Citizen Ghost’, although the non-show of the Boogieman and any of the trolls from ‘Troll Bridge’ are understandable as they were never trapped in the first place. Anyway, the sight of all these ghosts, for me, was quite full-on – individually the guys barely got away with trapping them. Having them all in one place, and probably being quite angry, made for a classic ‘Oh s***!’ moment in the series. Egon and the Christmas ghosts make a desperate bid for the Containment Unit’s exit, pursued by all of the ghosts, accompanied, it can’t be ignored, by Killerwatt’s inimitable cackle, provided of course, by the excellent James Avery of Shredder/Uncle Phil/General Fang from Fist of the North Star legend. I wonder if he popped back in the studio to deliver that one laugh, or if the makers just recycled one of his many chuckles from ‘Killerwatt’?

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Egon and the Christmas ghosts barely make it, and I sometimes get this bit confused with a similar escape sequence in ‘Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster’, where one of the inmates actually manages to peek his head outside of the unit before being threatened with a proton pack wielding Janine. Both excellent sequences, it must be said! So the Christmas ghosts wisely enter a ghost trap so as to get to the past in quicker time, which is good as Ray’s gig as Christmas Future is going nowhere. Probably the least sinister Ghost of Christmas Future ever, Ray is reduced to playing charades with Scrooge in a lamentable effort to…wait a minute, what exactly is Ray trying to achieve here? Never mind, the real ghosts arrive, and Egon, still in his astronaut get-up, warns Scrooge of the impending arrival of three ghosts. Three more? Scrooge doesn’t feel he can take anymore, but tough.

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Phew, all is done, all is well. Will Scrooge learn his lesson? Likely. Have the Ghostbusters learned theirs, Christmas Present asks? Wait, were they supposed to? Well, Peter has, but I’m not sure the others needed to, except possibly to hear a ghost out when he or she says they don’t want to be trapped. Sounds too risky to me, but what the hell, it’s Christmas. Well anyway, they just want to go home. Christmas Present obliges by immediately warping them to the present. I’ll bet Egon wishes that same thing could have been done for him earlier when he was trying to get the ghosts back to the past. It can’t have been easy, what with Ecto-1 already being used by the guys and Egon most likely having to hail a cab, and then the whole awkwardness of giving the driver directions to the mysterious time slip located somewhere in the forest…oh what the hell, it’s Christmas.

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Everything’s back to normal by the way, so the guys, Janine and Slimer share a drink (of water?) from a punch bowl and toast to Scrooge and the Ghosts. Winston wonders that, if A Christmas Carol was really a true story, then what else might be? Father Christmas? Well, someone outside is beckoning his reindeer to get a move on. Who could it be? Santa? Ray? Billy from Predator? To be fair, he sounds like all three, so the mystery remains…. Never mind, a Merry Christmas to all, and to all…good night!

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EDIT PS: James Avery, mentioned  in my post above, sadly passed away today on New Year’s Day, 2014. Great talent, unforgettable voice, RIP.

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