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"Xmas Marks the Spot"

'The Real Ghostbusters' Christmas Special—An Annual Viewing

Every cartoon series has a Christmas special (well, most of them). They are, mostly, pretty terrible, churned out with little thought to what might make them different to all the others. A few stand out, though, and one has stuck with me from my earliest years. That most special of Christmas specials is “Xmas Marks the Spot,” the last episode of the first season of The Real Ghostbusters.

RGB has stood the test of time as my favourite animated series, and arguably my favourite children's programme (that depends on how you categorise Doctor Who). For the first couple of years—the first season and then the long run in syndication—RGB featured genuinely witty, well-written scripts, some surprisingly creepy moments, and some of the most memorable monster designs in telefantasy. Yes, it became dumbed down as it went on further and ended as a shadow of its former self, but to begin with, it was a truly brilliant show.

“Xmas Marks the Spot” is not my favourite episode of the series (that's the baseball episode, “Night Game"—every American show needs a baseball episode too), nor is it the most remarkable or unique (for my money, that has to be the truly surreal “Chicken, He Clucked.”) It is, however, one of the most memorable, most effective, and cleverest episodes of the series, one that takes a ludicrous concept and runs with it for twenty ingenious minutes.

Written by chief scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski—better known now as the creator of Babylon 5—the RGB Christmas special takes a not uncommon route for a festive episode. Yes, it's a take on Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol. Now, pop cultural takes on the classic Christmas novella would make for an article in itself. The Muppets have done it, Doctor Who has done it, even The Flintstones have done it. It doesn't matter. It's a more interesting, more potent way of doing a Christmas special than just having the characters give each other presents or going on a winter vacation. There's scope for the episode to actually be about something.

Peter Venkman (played by the original and best voice artist, Lorenzo Music) doesn't hate Christmas, but to him, it's just another day. Christmas is no fun when your wheeler-dealer dad is always out of town, and so, over the years, Peter has managed to convince himself that he doesn't care about the holidays. He needs a lesson in Christmas spirit... Fortunately, some Christmas spirits are available to teach him.

The episode has a more contrived set up than most. Usually, there's a spectral menace that needs dealing with in or around New York. This time, however, the 'busters have to abandon their faithful hearse Ecto 1 when they are stranded in a snowstorm, only to be whisked through time and space to 19th century London. It all seems fairly unlikely, but it gets even more so when the 'busters immediately stumble upon the home of one Ebenezer Scrooge. (The episode end makes it clear that there are forces at work ensuring this all happens, so it isn't purely down to a cosmic coincidence.)

The four heroes are too late to stop the ghost of Jacob Marley from escaping back into the spirit world, but they are just in time to encounter three more spirits... “big, powerful,” and heading straight for Scrooge's place. It's the Ghostbusters to the rescue, storming in and immediately busting the three Ghosts of Christmas. It's one of those ideas that's just inspired. Of course, Scrooge isn't keen to give up his hard-earned cash to pay the Ghostbusters, but after some negotiation, they go on their way, and are swept back through the time slip.

Scrooge (guest voice Peter Renaday), inspired, sits down to write his memoir, A Christmas Humbug. It's the story of how he bested the Ghosts of Christmas (all by himself, of course). Meanwhile, 150 years later, the 'busters return to New York to find the book a perennial bestseller. So influential, in fact, that now no one celebrates Christmas at all, and people are incredible sods to each other all the time (just like in New York most of the time). “We've really done it this time,” says Ray (the great Frank Welker). “We've just killed Christmas.”

From then (and this is after only about ten minutes runtime), the narrative takes two tracks. Peter, Ray, and Winston go back to the time slip in an attempt to convince Scrooge of the error of his ways. This involves the three of them taking the place of the ghosts, with Peter dragging up as the very feminine Ghost of Christmas Past. As a nice nod to the blazing light of the ghost in the book, he's equipped with a set of blinding magnesium flares. What follows is an unforgettable sequence in which Venkman tries to convince Scrooge that he's flying through his past by running him in circles in a wheelchair with a ViewMaster on his face. The question of where he got ViewMaster slides of Scrooge's schoolhouse remains unanswered.

In the 20th century, Egon resolves to enter the containment unit and rescue the three ghosts. Now, we'd had a glimpse into the inside of the unit in the Halloween episode, “When Hallowe'en Was Forever,” but this is something else. Egon (Maurice LaMarche, who also voices Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Present) constructs a sort of environmental suit that “demolecularises” him, while another lash-up opens a crack in the containment field. He has one hour to get in and out, or he'll be permanently spectral and trapped inside forever. And so he enters the otherworldly interior of the unit, a strange pocket dimension in which the ghosts are imprisoned after capture.

While these two epic threads are playing out, Janine (the faithful secretary, voiced by Laura Summer) is of course convinced that Christmas is nothing but humbug, but agrees to help out of her love for Egon. She is assisted, sort of, by Slimer (Frank Welker's other great role in the series), although he mostly gets himself into trouble and is nearly pulled into the containment unit. Now, one thing we never found out is who or what Slimer was the ghost of. Fan lore is that he's the ghost of John Belushi, but the backstory for the films suggests that he was summoned into existence by arcane rituals as a being of pure appetite. You might say that there is more of gravy than of grave to this ghost.

In 1837, Winston (Arsenio Hall) tries his luck as the Ghost of Christmas Present, while Ray gets robed up as the Ghost of Christmas Future. In 1986, Egon manages to find the three Christmas Spirits, but there's trouble: the other ghosts have figured out what's going on. Cue every ghost captured in the run of the series so far, including the Sandman, the Winged Puma, Samhain the spirit of Hallowe'en, Big Ugly, the fat blue sleepy ghost... all coming after him at once. After a breakneck chase out of the unit, Egon escapes with the three ghosts in the nick of time.

In the end, of course, everything works out fine. The three Ghosts of Christmas are returned to their proper time to give Scrooge a slightly more convincing lesson, and Christmas is saved for futurity. While defending Christmas to the old miser, Peter has realised just how much he's missed by shutting himself off from it all, and resolves to appreciate it in the future. Subtle it isn't, but then it's Christmas. We don't want subtle, we want hammered home platitudes.

It's a tremendous episode packed with incidents and Christmas spirit (literal and figurative). I watch it every year, sometimes several times. It's a classic.

“Merry Christmas to all—and to all, a good night!”