As sad as it was that our favourite T.V. series was about to go off the air, it is re-assuring to see that it went out with tremendous style and sophistication. That, rather than attempt to make all kinds of pathetic attempts at grabbing ratings, the show just focussed on a very specific vision of how to make quality television and did all it could in its last two seasons to bring that vision to life. Many of the stories in these last two seasons are imbued with, what I feel, is a tremendous spirit of excellence.
"Ghost Light" is one of the finest examples of that spirit of excellence.
Yes, like everyone else, I watched this tale for the first time and was pretty sure I had little or no clue as to what exactly had happened. But that, in my opinion, is what impressed me the most about this story. This was not your average "just explain everything in the last episode" formulae that we'd been accustomed to for the last 25 years or so (with a few notable exceptions, such as "Warrior's Gate"). This was a different kind of storytelling. All the elements of a complete story are there - it's just up to you to link them together and make your own decisions about some of the more vital aspects of the plot. Which is an extremely mature method of stoytelling. Probably too mature for most television audiences, of course. But that doesn't mean this story should be dismissed as too high-handed. To me, that would be the equivalent of dismissing Picasso's work cause it "looks too wierd". Just because the style doesn't make sense to everyone - doesn't mean the art is bad.
One of the greatest appeals about this particular style of storytelling is that, with every viewing, you can get something "new" out of it. For instance, when I just re-watched this a few days previously, I made a new conclusion about Light. I had often wondered why he was so disturbed by the whole concept of evolution and change. If he was surveying planets, wouldn't he have seen this on other worlds too? I noticed that the Doctor makes several references to Light being extremely ancient. Perhaps, then, Light is from one of the "higher" races that populate the Whoniverse. And it seems that many of these higher races are like the Time Lords. Very stagnant. Very resistant to any kind of real change. So when Light surveyed them, there would be no real sense of evolution there. Those races had done all the evolving they ever intended to. Could it be that the Earth was the first world Light went to that wasn't a populated by a higher race? Or is it merely the fact that in all his other surveys, Light just came down, did his census and moved on whereas he became stranded on Earth for a time?
Who knows for sure exactly why. And that's what makes this form of plotting so beautiful. I can spend endless paragraphs just theorising over this one little point. Because, again, Platt doesn't explain more than he needs to. He, instead, just lets use our imaginations. And this, to me, is a great why to appreciate a storyline.
The other strongpoint in the writing is its tremendous sense of style. From beginning to end, we almost feel like where listening to poetry rather than dialogue. With tonnes of litterary references seeping through the script (my favourite being the least cultured of them all where the Doctor paraphrases Douglas Adams!) and a fantastic sense of wordplay which manages to resist becoming tedious. For example, mutliple puns are made using the word "Light" but it never quite gets shoved down our throats. To me, this shows that Platt never wanted to be completely pretentious with his writing. But he did want to show off just how good he is with words.
Moving beyond the script, we see that gorgeous sense of style flowing into the production too. By keeping it all restrained to just a single location, fantastic work was done to make that location look absolutely authentic. Including, of course, an actual fully-functional lift built into the set. And production value is crucial in this tale. With a very moody and atmospheric script, you needed moody and atmospheric direction. And the blend here is seamless.
Acting in this tale, as well as most of the stories in the last two seasons, is second-to-none. All the characters, as strange and absurd as some of them are, are portrayed with conviction and realism. Redvers Fenn Cooper being easilly the most enjoyable of the characters. But then, how can you resist a completely insane character who still ends up being a really nice guy who is pivotal in stopping the machinations of the chief villain? I mean, that's just great characterisation. But of equal importance, was the need to get an actor that would portray him with the subtlety and sensitivity that the part requires. And this was done perfectly. How horrible Redvers might have been in another actor's hands.
Also, the characterisation being done with the two leads continues to work beautifully in Ghost Light. As much as we all love to go on about Rose and the Doctor, all that evolving (if you'll pardon the pun) interplay was also at work between the Doctor and Ace. The Doctor, by this point, had become more mysterious again - and this was a great move on behalf of the producer and script editor. But in developping that mysteriousness, it meant giving much greater attention to the background of the companion. And another layer of Ace is explored quite beautifully in the manor of Gabriel Chase. "Curse of Fenric" will still always be the best Ace story. But "Ghost Light" comes a close second. And it is sad that this whole mentorship between Doctor and companion was never allowed to reach its full conclusion. One hopes that, with the current development going on in Rose, this dynamic of a developping relationship (be it plutonic or romantic) that we saw first with Doctor Seven and Ace will, at last, be explored to its fullest. Both Ace and the Doctor were very different from what they were like when they first met. And character growth in the leads of a T.V. series is a rare and prescious gem. Glad we're getting more of it these days. But let it go on record that we saw it in Ace and the Doctor first. And several important elements of that growth are explored with great depth and sensitivity in Ghost Light. Making it just one more of the many strongpoints of this story.
There is much else to praise but I'll try restrain myself here and just go on about one more really good strongpoint: those gorgeous monologues. There's quite a few, of course. With Sly McCoy getting all the best ones. His abhorrence of burnt toast and the speech he gives to the cockroach are both written and delivered magnificiently. But the final speech that destroys Light is, quite naturally, the best. And though we see several examples with McCoy's Doctor "talking a villain to death" - this is one is my favourite. It is great the way the series used the very strength of the Doctor's words as a means of plot resolution. Making him the ultimate non-violent hero. Again, absolutely great stuff that, for me, brought the series out on a high note.
Any actual complaints? Perhaps two very minor ones. Though I love the incidental music, I would also consider a bit more than just intrusive in places. It's downright oppressive! Making some lines of this beautiful dialogue completely indistinguishable. Even after multiple viewings.
The other complaint being the McCoy gurn during the "I didn't get caught napping!" line. It's odd though, I'll watch the story and hate the gurn. But then, the next time I watch it - I think the gurn is perfect for that line. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, really. But the damned Sylvester McCoy gurn isn't so much a sore point for me as it is a point of mixed opinion!
Aside from those two very slight quibbles, this story is magnificient. Still not quite in what I would label the "classic" category. But then, I have very few stories that I slot in that space. Still, "Ghost Light" comes pretty damned close. One can only hope that the series tries something this bold again someday. It needs another few seasons to really get some solid feet, of course. But once those roots are there - let's see another story like this come out that will both astound and confound its audience!
‘Cerebral’ is a word that often gets thrown about when fans discuss Doctor Who amongst ourselves. Let’s be honest, now - we do like to pat ourselves on the back about how *cerebral* the show is, don’t we? I mean, it is much more cerebral than, say, Star Trek or Star Wars, isn’t it; is it any wonder the Americans don’t really get it? More than that, the very towering cerebrality of the program implies something about *us*, too – after all, the simple fact that we have all gravitated towards this show means that we are part of an elite, a select, clubbish group made up exclusively of those with the rare intellects it takes to comprehend, let alone love, such an esoteric, wonderfully *cerebral* work as Doctor Who. Am I wrong?
Well, as much as it might feel good to go on like this, the cold fact remains that much of Doctor Who’s entertainment value was about as cerebral as a fat lady sitting down on a chocolate pie. Think of how often in the series we can observe ludicrous (a) non-science, (b) plot holes, (c) chases and (d) escapes, (e) so-we-meet-again-Doctor! dialogue (and worse), and then of course there’s (f), the show’s amusing tendency to tie up loose plot strings with huge explosions in the final ten minutes. And please don’t make me bring up the Slitheen . . . . It may be painful, but it must be admitted that Doctor Who drew on a vast mishmash of cultural sources, handling them in countless different ways; and the resulting paté-like texture, while undeniably part of the appeal (Doctor Who almost literally contains something for everyone), means that a whole lot of fat and weird gristle can be found mixed in with the lean. Also, another factor is the continuing emphasis on the program as one for children and the family, which often makes for stories that err on the side of accessibility rather than intellectual challenge, for better or worse.
That said, every once in a while, a story aired that truly did live up to the ‘cerebral’ label, and I don’t think anyone, even those who truly hate ‘Ghost Light,’ can deny that it is one of them. This story is dense, challenging, and occasionally frustrating in its obstinate refusal to be straightforward in its narrative approach. At times, it can seem like the Doctor Who equivalent of a European art film – the emphasis is on impression and imagery rather than on completely comprehensible plotting. Its wordplay is buoyant and witty, but it’s also heavy with literary allusions, and can seem mannered and artificial if not approached in the right spirit. It addresses the abstract concept of evolution, but chooses not to make any sort of obvious statement about it; in other words, it doesn’t put evolution under a microscope to dissect it, but rather bats it about playfully like a balloon. This detached approach is not going to be appreciated by everyone, but it can’t be denied that it was daring for the production team to attempt such a complex story in the context of the Doctor Who format. (It has been suggested that omens of Doctor Who’s impending cancellation liberated the production team to experiment, and indeed, it seems hard to believe they would have attempted such a story had they thought a more accessible approach *could* save the program.)
The abstract, impressionistic nature of ‘Ghost Light’ makes a straightforward explanation of what it’s trying to do difficult, and some other writers here have acknowledged that fact - or demonstrated it! And I’m sure that I shall do no better. But perhaps a good place to start is with the ways in which the story depicts the Victorian era, because this time, unusually, the place/time setting is not only there to create atmosphere, but also to resonate with the conceptual subject matter at hand. ‘Ghost Light’ is set in a great old spooky Victorian house, and it does a good job of conjuring up all the morbid associations we expect from gothic literature of this period – the dead birds all over the place are a nice touch – and, indeed, the direct references to James, Carroll, etc., emphasize the self-conscious ‘literariness’ of the approach. More than simply setting a story in the Victorian, Marc Platt’s script exaggerates the Victorianness to the point where it’s almost laughable – such improbabilities as everyone sitting down to a civilized dinner party in the midst of such bizarre circumstances have an element of parody, and Fenn-Cooper, Matthews and Mackenzie are characters that could easily have appeared in Wodehouse.
But, as I said, the Victoriana goes deeper than surfaces, as the story’s two main villains are revealed as peculiarly Victorian mad scientists, sort of flip sides of the same Darwinian coin: Light is a fastidious cataloguer of life forms, and Josiah seizes on the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a way in which he might gain power for himself. But it is interesting that Platt’s script is more ambivalent than we might expect on the evolutionary question. For while the Doctor criticizes, and ultimately destroys, Light for his refusal to acknowledge evolutionary progress (“We don’t want things to change – we make sure they cannot”), we also can’t say that Josiah’s embracing of the evolutionary concept is held up as inherently superior. After all, Josiah’s ambitions are depicted as disgusting (his cast-off ‘husks’) or absurd (his plot to take over the Empire by assassinating Victoria). Then again, it can be argued that Control and Nimrod are characters who use evolution to dramatically improve themselves . . . . but this is a good example of how ‘Ghost Light’ resists attempts to explain it simply. Suffice it to say that viewers who look for easy answers in the story are setting themselves up for disappointment. (This is not to suggest that such a desire is necessarily wrong – just that it won’t be successful here.)
So, having failed to draw a simple conclusion from the thematic content, perhaps we should at this point turn to the aesthetic elements, which are rather easier. The design, as I said, is very effective at conjuring up the dusty Victorian of ghost stories, and the many dead things and creepy crawlies we encounter not only highlight the natural science themes, but also contribute to the horror of the piece. At many points, ‘Ghost Light’ truly does resemble a nightmare, such as when the insect-headed ‘husks’ (in evening dress!) come to life and shamble towards Ace, or when the wraith-like Control first escapes and chases the others down the hall (a very scary moment). The scene in which Ace wakes up in a comfortable bed only to learn that night is falling heightens the sense that ‘Ghost Light’ is a bad dream from which its characters cannot escape. Even the jokes are often macabre, as when the Reverend Matthews accuses Josiah of “disputing man’s dominion over nature” – while the latter is serving calves’ brains for dinner!
The story’s one real aesthetic flaw, as others have pointed out, is the physical manifestation of Light, who appears not as the ‘angel’ of Ace’s estimation, but more as a tanned, blow-dried eighties news anchor in soft lighting. It doesn’t help that John Hallam seems to be imitating Terry Jones’s Prince Herbert when he speaks, either. By some miracle, the character remains effective in its conception, and perhaps would have benefited from being winged, as the production team apparently wished to do. (But with Hallam playing him, probably not.)
Fortunately, the other actors fare much better. Carl Forgione’s Nimrod is extremely likeable, and comes across as surprisingly soft-spoken, articulate and humane. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ compares him to Caliban from ‘The Tempest,’ but apart from superficial similarities this doesn’t make much sense to me; and, indeed, if there is a Caliban in this story, it must be Sharon Duce’s Control, who, like Shakespeare’s character, is frightening and ‘monstrous,’ embittered towards her superiors (“You promise me my freeness!”), and ultimately sympathetic, despite her initially repulsive appearance. And it’s nice that Platt allows her a more explicitly happy ending than Caliban’s, too. Sylvia Syms is also good as the Mrs. Danvers-esque sinister housekeeper, and it is a credit to the actress that the character is transparently above her station even before her true identity as a gentlewoman is revealed. And Michael Cochrane at times steals the show as Redvers, who is given many of the script’s best lines (“That, sir, is no way to talk to a lady-like”).
And as for the regulars, just like in ‘The Curse of Fenric,’ they seem to enjoy exploring the dramatic opportunities provided by script editor Andrew Cartmel’s controversial ‘manipulation’ stories. Sophie Aldred is particularly good here, and pulls off Ace’s more overtly emotional moments far better than she did in stories like ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’ She is comfortable both with the flippant banter she exchanges with the Doctor (Ace frequently gets the upper hand – “Uncle Josiah knows as much about its secrets as a handbagger knows about the Amazon desert.” “Sounds a bit like you and the TARDIS.”), and with the more serious scenes (she seems genuinely shocked and betrayed when she learns the Doctor has brought her back to Gabriel Chase). And as for the Doctor, Sylvester McCoy does suffer from his well discussed inability to create a sense of danger (when he shouts at Control through the window he seems merely hammy), but overall he’s quite good as well, clearly enjoying himself in his scenes with Aldred. And his performance also softens the manipulative elements of the character brought out in the script – he’s certainly believable in playing this Doctor’s compassion for his companion, as when he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “I think you care a lot, Ace.”
So, how can we sum up ‘Ghost Light’? In the end, the viewer’s appreciation for ‘Ghost Light’ is going to depend on his tolerance for its approach. It’s true that this is a story that remains confused in some ways, even on repeat viewings. Several plot elements, such as the origins of Control and the transformation of Matthews, have to be inferred rather than deduced by the audience, and this is going to make the story somewhat unsatisfying for some viewers, especially uninitiated ones. Like ‘Kinda,’ ‘Ghost Light’ is ultimately apt to remain something of an acquired taste, even for fans, but it is an oddity that is probably worth the effort in the end, whether because of its cerebral quality, or in spite of it.
Either way, it has a wonderful final line.
Every time I see it, Ghost Light never fails to dazzle me. An advantage of the show being so small and unimportant in the late 1980s was that, by having nothing to lose, it could afford to be daring and as a consequence we get this extraordinary story that is simply unlike any other episode. I’m not going to claim that I’ll grasp the multitude of subtexts it presents in this review – after all, how many thousands of words do you want to read?
Like many stories it’s the visuals that make the first impression, and the opulent yet un-showy sets and subdued lighting create an oppressive atmosphere of decay from the start. Add to this the music – Mark Ayres is just about the only person I can think of who made an electronic score work in a period setting, and here he does his best work for the series. He is correct to say in interviews that it’s too loud; this is however a problem addressed with the 5.1 surround mix on the DVD. The whole opening is enigmatic and bizarre, with a montage of unexplained happenings (mysterious figures in chairs, secret passages in walls) that set the scene for a story that never quite divulges its secrets. That said, Ace is definitely not at her most charismatic here (before her catharsis in The Curse Of Fenric), and I do cringe a bit when she talks to the stuffed emu; a childish moment in such a mature and esoteric story seems very incongruous.
In quick succession we are introduced to the first members of the oddball cast: Rev. Matthews, Mrs. Pritchard and Redvers Fenn-Cooper. The guest actors here cannot be faulted and neither can Marc Platt’s dialogue for them; Alan Wareing’s direction is also excellent as the camera ominously follows Mrs. Pritchard around. The eloquent Nimrod is a fascinating character and almost funny in a bizarre kind of way, but the real crown has to go to Ian Hogg who has to be one of the best guest stars the series ever had. He plays a true enigma, a man crippled by acute senses that harks back to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’; these references are so subtle that for an English student like me they’re fun to pick up on, but for a casual viewer they simply add to the overall kaleidoscope.
The Doctor mentions a Chinese firing piece: is this a reference to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang I wonder, one of Platt’s favourite episodes? I’m currently in my third year of an English degree so I pick up on many of the literary references – Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness being the first – and I can say that they help to make the story what it is, as many of its elements may not have been present were it not for them.
The “bog-brain” line shows all that’s wrong with Ace: by having as a companion the kind of character who realistically would swear like my old boss, many strange and totally unbelievable insults have to be substituted to make the character suitable for a family audience. However, this does make her growth in the second half of the season all the more notable and one of my greatest regrets about the series being cancelled when it was is that this burgeoning character arc is cut dead. Also a point for criticism is the glowing snuffbox: while a very dramatic scene, to be sure, it is the one moment of the complex story that I genuinely think should have had more explanation.
One of my favourite moments in the story is the Doctor’s confrontation with Ace, which finally sketches in some plot amongst the madness. I have to say though that I’ve never had any great problem with the plot; it’s the subtexts and undercurrents that make the story so complicated, and all the exposition that’s needed is there provided you have your brain switched on. I would say that this is no more complicated than the following story The Curse Of Fenric, but then again I was six when I first saw that one and twenty when I first saw Ghost Light, so there’s bound to be a discrepancy in how I view them. I would strongly dispute the claim in The Pocket Essentials Guide To Doctor Who, one of the lamest episode guides there ever was, that it makes no allowance for the casual audience – it is fully open to the casual audience, containing none of the inward-looking insularity of old. I just makes no allowance for people who need their plots given to them on a silver platter. And if we’re talking about subtexts, then Gwendoline singing ‘That’s The Way To The Zoo’ is the icing on the cake. The advancing husks make for a surprisingly traditional cliffhanger, but those monsters work as concepts.
Inspector Mackenzie asleep in the drawer shows that the story is capable of pulling surprises all along its length, but really it’s a bit hard to know what to say about the story now because every time I seem to have a handle on something the story veers away onto something else.
Control’s release is one of my all time favourite pieces of direction that the show ever had: a shapeless figure leaps from the dungeon and moves down the tunnel. However, even though the camera is facing directly towards her we can’t see her due to the dark lighting and the other characters until her hand comes round the door. Brilliant – and her Eliza Doolittle-style dialogue works well too.
Rev. Matthew’s transformation is darkly comic in a spooky and very grotesque way, and this is contrasted with Mrs. Grose (named after Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw), the one normal member of the cast. Nimrod’s soliloquy to the fang is a very atmospheric moment among many, as is the Doctor’s musings on what Light actually is.
The frozen staff in the attic are very creepy, and the final form of Matthews is really something. The second episode finishes with another great cliffhanger as Light, whatever it is, finally begins to emerge from the lift. John Hallam’s slightly effeminate performance as Light is a bit of an acquired taste I will admit, but I really like it. I find it a pleasing irony after Matthews denouncing evolution as blasphemous to find a character who is simply bored and frustrated by the whole process.
Oh man, the gurning. It comes to something when the lead actor is the worst in the story, but there you are. At least this time I was writing in my notepad and so didn’t have to watch it. Ace’s flashback is a nice idea but a bit dodgy in practice, as red lighting and Sophie Aldred’s dodgy acting fail to convince that the stuffed animals are coming to life.
The death of the maid shows Light’s amorality as opposed to sheer evil, and the scene where he turns Mrs. Pritchard and Gwendoline to stone is deeply poignant as well as showcasing some excellent special effects.
The forgotten sub-plot of the assassination of Queen Victoria is finally given some time here, and it leads to a dramatic scene at dinner where Aldred actually gives a decent performance as Control threatens to burn the house down. The Doctor talking down Light, while not exactly thrilling, is appropriate to the story although the stop-the-countdown ending tacked on to make it seem more exciting is very artificial and contrived. However, there is finally some good interplay between the regulars at the end.
Ghost Light is, quite simply, amazing. It’s hard to judge it by the standards of other stories as it’s so unlike them, but taken on its own terms it is one of the most original and unique pieces of science-fiction I’ve ever seen. So when’s Marc Platt writing for the new series?
I love these DVD releases of the old series. Not only do you get a good quality version of the story, but also a package of lovingly produced extras. Not that this is a review of last years DVD release of ‘Ghost Light’, but its important to note how much my understanding of this complex story has been aided by the various extras found to be found on the disc. You see, even after multiple viewings of my VHS copy, I never truly understood the intricacies of this serial until only recently…
‘Ghost Light’ is famously the last Doctor Who serial produced as part of its original twenty six year run. It is also, perhaps, the only Doctor Who story that still gets fans scratching their heads over the complexities of the plot fifteen years after the original broadcast. There are various explanations for this. Firstly, ‘Ghost Light’ is a genuinely complex story about evolution and various conceptions of it. So, we have the Reverend Ernest Matthews dismissing entirely Darwinism, and Josiah Smith believing in ‘survival of the fittest’. We know this from his plan to take over the British Empire by killing Queen Victoria, the ‘Crowned-Sax-Coberg’. This illustrates Josiah’s misconceptions about evolution. Secondly the narrative doesn’t flow as it normally would in other more traditional forms of storytelling. There is no clear beginning, middle and end (or exposition, explanation and resolution) in the traditional sense. The viewer has to piece these things together for themselves. Thirdly, some fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ to such an extent that they won’t even attempt to figure out what its all about, many are turned off completely by the unconventional manner the story is being told. Finally, it has to be said that no matter how many times we are told (by people who worked on the serial) that all the pieces of the puzzle are there, up on the screen, some of them aren’t. For example, the viewer could probably figure it out for themselves that the husks are Josiah’s cast offs from previous ‘regenerations’, but why do they still contain residual life? If they are indeed ‘empty shells’ then how is it possible that they are still animated? No explanation is offered. Also, why and how does Reverend Matthews devolve into an Ape by eating a banana? A script that makes the viewer work hard is fine by me, but when key plot points are never explained, it merely confuses, and, ultimately, frustrates. It makes many fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ and means that they’ll never enjoy what is otherwise an excellent McCoy adventure.
‘Ghost Light’ features a wonderful cast. Ian Hogg, who plays Josiah Smith, is superbly sinister, and in an era in which produced few decent villains, may come as something as a surprise to first time viewers of this serial. Sylvia Simms is perfectly cast as the stereotypical Victorian era housekeeper, and Katherine Sleschinger does well as Gwendolyn. John Hallam's performance as Light I feel is a bit off. It is often described as camp, but I’m not really sure that is the correct word to describe it. It is certainly brave, but I’m not sure that the vocal tone used to play the part is correct. Also worthy of mention is Carl Forgaine who plays Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler. Forgaine puts in a superb performance, and his non-human Neanderthal body movements completely sell the character.
Of the two regulars, McCoy really shines here. Able to cast off once and for all the rather goofy elements of his character that were evident in seasons twenty four and to a lesser degree season twenty five, his portrayal of the Doctor hits its peak. Aldred is also decent here, and is helped considerably by a script that not only makes her a central player, but also gives her no cringe worthy dialogue such as "Who do you think you are, armpit?", which featured in this seasons ‘The Curse of Fenric’.
First time Doctor Who writer Marc Platt has produced perhaps the most densely written scripts of the entire series. Barely a word or phrase is wasted, which has the effect of making ‘Ghost Light’ quite exhausting to watch. The plot involves the Doctor and Ace arriving at Gabriel Chase, so as to allow the Doctor to give Ace an initiative test. This is really a front to allow the Doctor to delve into Ace’s past, although we don’t discover this until later in the serial. After this introduction, things move along breathlessly. The main point to make about the beginning-middle portion of the story is that Josiah Smith, who holds a different view on evolution to the Reverend Ernest Mathews (who presumably believes in the creationist theory), has hired Redvers Fenn-Cooper to assassinate Queen Victoria. He even attempts to hire the Doctor to do this, but is turned down (obviously). As events build to the final part, the Doctor releases Light, in order to counter Josiah Smith. This is where things can get confusing. As explained on the ‘Ghost Light’ DVD, Light is a being who travels the universe, cataloguing all life forms. The life form that evolved into Josiah Smith is a part of this process. The role of this entity is to evolve into the highest form of life on any given planet, hence his evolution into a Victorian Gentlemen. The character of Control, then, is to simply stay aboard the space craft and not evolve, so the two can be compared. This is why, when she escapes, she begins to change and evolve into a "Lady-like", and at the end of the serial the two have swapped roles, with Josiah Smith becoming the creature Control evolved out of. The climax of the story sees Light tormented by the constant evolution of life on Earth, and so initiates the ‘Firestorm’ programme to stop evolution on Earth completely. Light is defeated with the Doctor talking him to death, which I rather enjoy.
All of this takes place on a superb set, with moody lighting and high production values. It is a cliché to say that the BBC does costume dramas well, but it is true.
Mark Ayres score is superb, evoking a certain amount of mystery and complimenting the onscreen action. On the DVD he himself says that the incidental music is too loud in the mix, but since I didn’t notice this until he pointed it out, I really don’t care. The X-Files was always slathered with loud, atmospheric music, and so perhaps ‘Ghost Light’ was a little ahead of its time.
‘Ghost Light’ is a near flawless production, and the fact that you get more from the story the more you watch it means it stands up well to repeat viewings. It doesn’t do anything for a sizable minority of fans, and for the first few times I saw it, it did nothing for me either. In fact after first viewing the mid-nineties video release, I actively disliked ‘Ghost Light’. Now I have a better grasp of the complexities of the plot, however, I can’t fail to enjoy such a rich Doctor Who story. Season twenty six was building to go out with a real bang.
‘Ghost Light’ is an especially controversial, dismissed by some fans as convoluted at best, nonsensical at worst. Personally, I feel that not only does ‘Ghost Light’ make sense, but after the dire ‘Battlefield’ the acting, direction, set design and incidental score come together to considerably lift the quality of Season Twenty-Six and the result is a magnificent piece of television and a very fine story.
‘Ghost Light’ is basically about evolution, but it isn’t as straightforward as that. Writer Marc Platt crafts a script that is concerned not with the fact of evolution but about Victorian attitudes towards it and misconceptions about it. Josiah Samuel Smith typifies this; part of Light’s crew, or as the Doctor more accurately puts it, cargo, Josiah has escaped whilst his master sleeps and has gained delusions of grandeur as he tries to evolve into the dominant life form. Which in this case isn’t a human, but a Victorian gentleman and, he hopes, ruler of the British Empire. The problem is, Josiah gets it wrong; his plan to assassinate Queen Victoria is ludicrous, because he simply wouldn’t become King in her place, he’d be executed instead. The point of which is that Josiah doesn’t realize this, because he sees society as an evolutionary ladder; his misconceptions are driven by trying to apply the idea of ecological niches to Victorian London, which is logical from his perspective but essentially flawed in practice. And he’s obsessed with evolution; he spends the first two episodes trying to evolve into a Victorian gentleman but failing to realize that wearing a suit, owning property and throwing dinner parties is not enough. He gets everything wrong; he has his guests murdered, he employs a Neanderthal as a butler, and he preserves Inspector Mackenzie like an insect specimen in a draw. He’s also terrified of Control evolving into a “ladylike”, seemingly because he thinks that she will thus be competing for the same ecological niche that he currently occupies and that this threatens his position. In a story with uniformly excellent acting, Ian Hogg is outstanding as Josiah, a vicious and ruthless being who is nevertheless one of the most intentionally incompetent villains in the series history.
Of course when the Doctor awakens Light at the end of Episode Two, the threat poses by Josiah pales into insignificance, as a being with far greater concerns about evolution is unleashed. Light is a fascinating creation, an obsessive cataloguer of life forms whose need to complete his lists is threatened by the unceasing change and evolution of life on Earth (amusingly, he puts me mind of a psychotic Doctor Who fan, obsessed with completing his or her collection and bleating about the amount of new merchandise constantly being released). My initial reaction to the appearance of John Hallam’s Light is usually one of unease; the definition of the word “camp” seems to vary depending on who you ask, but Hallam’s performance is at first the epitome of camp, which does rather threaten to spoil the gothic mood of ‘Ghost Light’; as Episode Three progresses towards its conclusion however, Hallam’s fey performance is increasingly juxtaposed with the character’s increasing insanity and the result is unnerving, as Light goes from being an “angel” to a monster that dismembers maids, reduces Mackenzie to primordial soup, and threatens to destroy all life on Earth to stop further change. The means of his defeat is magnificent, as the Doctor talks Light into self-destruction by pointing out that he, too, is constantly changing; the demented being is utterly frustrated by this and eventually stops himself from changing in much the same way that he intended to end evolution on Earth once and for all.
The great strength of ‘Ghost Light’ is Platt’s script, full of wit and with, as has been noted by fans of the story, barely a single line that doesn’t in some way either advance the plot or significantly contribute to characterisation. Java is used as a metaphor for death, but it also ties in nicely with the evolutionary theme due to the large number of fossils that have been found there over the years and even Gwendoline’s rendition of “That’s the Way To the Zoo” is significant in that it prefigures the fate of Reverend Matthews, cruelly transformed into a parody of an ape. Matthews is a highly significant character in terms of the evolutionary theme; intentionally or not, the model of evolution used by Platt here bears only passing resemblance to the scientific theory (his suggestion that the insects in the house will one day evolve into more advanced beings is a case in point), but it bears a great deal of resemblance to the common misconceptions about evolution often displayed by members of the public. Matthews represents this ignorance, not because he is religious, but because he is angrily refuting Josiah’s (and Darwin’s) claims that man was descended from a primitive ape ancestor without displaying any real understanding of the theory. Thus, although Matthews does not drive the main plot, he does play a role in the development of the underlying themes of the script.
The script is full of such details, some more subtle than others, with lines such as “There go the rungs on his evolutionary ladder” in Episode Three when Josiah unwillingly switches places with Control. There is also a great deal of wit on display here, such as when Josiah describes the primordial soup that was once Mackenzie as “the cream of Scotland Yard”. Word play is evident throughout, especially in Redvers’ dialogue; he refers to Queen Victoria as “the crowned Saxe Coburg” for example and generally acts as though he believes that he is still exploring the darkest jungles of Africa, which on one level is clearly intended to convey the fact that he is unbalanced, but also imparts a great deal of information about what is going on, especially when he talks of light burning bright in the heart of the interior, which of course reveals that he has at some point found his way down to the “lower observatory” and seen the hibernating Light, which is what drove him insane in the first place.
The characterisation is superb, and is complemented by some fine acting; Michael Cochrane is perfectly cast as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, conveying all the eccentricity of a stereotypical British explorer with confidence. He isn’t the only stereotype on display here; Mackenzie is clearly a pastiche of the archetypal traditional British police officer as seen in fiction, a bumbling plod utterly out of his depth who spends much of his time eating or sleeping (Platt of course deliberately exaggerates both of these clichés, with Mackenize having been in a period of enforced hibernation for two years and ravenous as a result; he eats several large meals after the Doctor awakens him!) and plays second fiddle to the eccentric amateur sleuth, i.e. the Doctor. Veteran actor Frank Windsor is superb in the role, and he is in good company; Sylvia Sims is suitably terrifying as the typical stern Victorian housekeeper, also exaggerated by the script into the head of a gaggle of gun-toting maids. Rather less typical at first glance is Nimrod, a Neanderthal employed as a butler, but when we consider that Redvers is a stereotypical explorer whose response to meeting tribal cultures is to offer brightly coloured beads, he too stands revealed as an amusing pastiche of another cliché, as he spouts Earthly wisdom and respects the Doctor’s shaman-like traits as though he is some kind of witch-doctor. Carl Forgione provides an understated and quite performance which is perfectly in keeping with the “noble savage” character type that he is playing. Thus we are presented not only with Victorian attitudes to evolution, but also with characters that are a clear nod to Victorian fiction, or at least common perception of what Victorian fiction is like.
Crucially, in addition to creating all of these memorable supporting characters, Platt also provides a script that serves both Doctor and Ace beautifully. The Doctor’s manipulative streak becomes readily apparent here, as he brings Ace back to a house that terrified her as a child, largely to satisfy his own curiosity. Ace works better here than in any of pervious stories, and this largely down to the script, which reveals some of the darker secrets of her past but also shows that she feels guilty about them, hints at the reasons for her rather troubled past (the attack on her friend Manisha) and really starts to suggest that she is finding some kind of redemption by travelling with the Doctor whether she is seeking it or not. Happily, Sophie Aldred puts in her best performance as Ace here, and whilst I’ll never find her convincing, she is far more natural in the role than on most prior occasions. Sylvester McCoy meanwhile positively shines here; he gives his most austere and mysterious performance so far, and is very well served by Platt’s script. He is melancholy when the Doctor tells Ace, “I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls… And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.” And he even conveys anger convincingly when he tells Light to leave Control alone in Episode Three. The Doctor gets some fine scenes here; he demolishes Josiah’s plans with ease at the dinner table in Episode Three, as he breaks his hold over Mrs. Pritchard, and convinces Redvers to turn on his benefactor and throw his invitation to Buckingham Palace into the fire. Finally, there is his defeat of Light; as though to compensate for the rather iconic but ultimately nonsensical (on screen, at least) scene in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ wherein he talks the Dalek Supreme to death, here his similar defeat of Light is far more smoothly achieved. He keeps talking to the increasingly frustrated Light, pointing out that he too is constantly changing; as he does so, Light’s aura fades as he becomes more and more distraught (which is presumably why he doesn’t obliterate the Doctor with a thought) and almost piteously cries, “You are endlessly agitating, unceasingly mischievous, will you never stop?” The Doctor’s reply is, of course, “I suppose I could, it would make a change”.
The script and the acting are instrumental to the success of ‘Ghost Light’, but everything else comes together here too; Alan Wareing’s direction is superb, exploiting the gothic feel of the detailed period sets beautifully, and is greatly helped by the flawless costumes and sets, not to mention Mark Ayers’ impressive incidental score which enhances the sinister atmosphere with great accomplishment. ‘Ghost Light’ is Doctor Who as I like it; it brims with outlandish ideas, it looks gorgeous, and the acting is great. It clearly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for me it is an example of Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who at its best.
Before I start this essay I should warn you that I am a biologist, damn it, not a movie critic. But I also love Scifi movies and television and Doctor Who in particular. Ghost Light is noted as being the penultimate story of the TV series, tackling evolution, and for being so creepy. However reviews are often mixed, especially in discussion about the complexity of the plot and the topic of evolution. I agree with most of the reviews that the story has an effectively creepy atmosphere, great lines, and enough twists and turns to well sustain interest in the three-part story. But what I offer is a biology professor’s view could illuminate something about how evolution is used in this story.
Evolution is usually presented in one of several ways in scifi & fantasy. The first is to rehash the monkey trial with a dialog between hip scientists and old earth creationists. This is seen in some versions of the Lost World but is best used in the dramatization of “Inherit the Wind”. This is done effectively in Ghost Light with the conservative 19th Century character of Rev. Mathews.
The next way evolution is portrayed is as a weird form of metamorphosis. Pokemon, Altered States and the Outer Limits episode the Sixth Finger are notable examples. While Doctor Who already covered this in the Mutants, Ghost Light uses the metamorphosis of the aliens and discussion of everyone constantly adapting. Josiah even goes as far as causing poor old Rev. Mathews to evolve (or de-evolve) into a more primitive kind of primate. While this devise works well for cinema, it is not the way that evolution actually occurs. Evolution is genetic and occurs between generations. It is all about sex and not “survival of the fittest” as most people misunderstand.
The third way that evolution is portrayed is to suggest an extra-terrestrial origin or cause in the evolution of humans. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Quatermass and the Pit are notable examples. The Image of Fendahl is a clear example in Doctor Who and so perhaps is Earthshock. Although extra-terrestrials are not implicated in the evolution of our species directly in Ghost Light, the fact that they could cause the good reverend to change make it possible.
Thus far nothing is unique and nothing is complex in this story. But Ghost Light also presents a new way to use evolution as a scifi vehicle. The alien crew has the job of cataloging all of Earth’s species. However Light discovers that in the time that it takes to finish the task, life evolves into new species so the process has to be continually repeated. Tired of this endless pursuit, he plans to end all life on Earth so that his catalog will be forever and correct. This is a really interesting concept. But is it complex? Some reviewers seem to think not and say that the plot is implausible because life couldn’t evolve that fast. A recent study showed that river spawning salmon that were released into a lake in the 1930s had adapted and evolved into a new species by the 1990’s. It turns out that evolution can occur in as little as just a few generations.
In two and half centuries thousands of naturalists and scientists have named and described over a million species of plants, animals and microbes. New species are still being discovered every day and in recent years many of these require using DNA technology to distinguish forms as separate species. A totally new species of whale was recently discovered this way. The rate of discovering new species suggests that there are at least 5 million species alive today and perhaps as many as 50-100 million species. The majority of organisms are types of primitive microbes that live under the ocean floor and deep underground in places that life was not known to exist until the last 25 years. Plus it often takes scientists a year or two to identify, describe and catalog a new species. So the task of cataloging every species on the planet is quite enormous. If we use the conservative figure of 5 million species and assume that Light and his small crew could identify, describe and catalog and average of one species in a single day (an extraordinary feat), then it would take them more than 13,000 years to complete the task. This is plenty of time for new species to evolve and create the endless cycle portrayed in Ghost Light.
Overall Ghost Light is a good piece of science fiction and ranks among the better Doctor Who adventures. I rate it much higher because of the scifi new concept that it makes. Three and a half stars out of four.