|Dates||Oct. 4, 1989 -
Oct. 18, 1989
With Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred.
Written by Marc Platt. Script-edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Directed by Alan Wareing. Produced by John-Natahan Turner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor encounters the powerful forces of evolution in a strange house infested with aliens.|
A Confusing Muddle! by Kevin Guhl 9/12/96
After watching Ghost Light, don't be surprised if you exhale a nice, long, "Huh...". Maybe this story would be Saturday morning cartoon fare for the likes of Einstein, but to me. It was very convoluted!
This adventure sends the Doctor and Ace to a Victorian mansion, where strange aliens stalk the corridors at night. What unravels, through the seventh Doctor's usual game-play, is a tale of ancient forces doing battle on Earth.
However surreal Ghost Light can be, I found that it was enjoyable. Forget all the literal Who episodes you've seen, sit back and absorb this adventure. What unfolds is a very mystical tale that spell-binds like fairy tales do to children. The effects are done well. The Doctor and Ace undergo so much involving character development. And of historical note, this was the last episode filmed of the original series.
You've Got To Watch It At Least Three Times by Carl Malmstrom 11/5/97
I may never say this about another Doctor Who story, but this one should have been strung out into four or five parts. There's so much going on in this story, it can't all be deciphered in one (or even two) viewings. I've now seen it half a dozen times, and I think the entire story finally makes sense. Once you undestand it, though, I think it's one of Sylvester McCoy's better stories. It's certainly original. There's no shortage of intrigue, evil, or Victorian drama in this story and none of it weighs it down too much, either.
The scene in Part One where Ace asks the Doctor, "Don't you have things that you hate?", is one of the defining moments of the entire series. The Doctor replies to her question with, "I can't stand burned toast. I loathe bus stations -- terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls...and then there's unrequited love...and tyranny and cruelty ["Too right," interjects Ace]. We all have a universe of our own terrors to face." Ace replies with, "I fight mine on my own terms!" It's a classic, beautiful moment.
Granted, the story does get a little weird, and after Part One, the dark, mysterious mansion becomes less dark and mysterious and more just plain strange, but the good parts of the story easily outweigh the bad. If you've only seen this story once or twice though, and especially if you're confused by it, go back and watch it again. Watch it until you understand it. You won't regret it.
Overtly magnificent by Tom May 26/1/98
"...and there's unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty..."
I put it to you: is there is a story that compares with this, intellectually? Ghost Light is a frankly superb mix of influences. Marc Platt underlines the story with literature en masse. Black humour, Darwinism, Victorianna, Shelley, Stoker and Conrad. The characters are all well played, and interesting, especially Nimrod, Fenn Cooper and Josiah. A bestial theme is nicely suplemented by Gwendoline's piano tune, and the sinister transformation of Rev. Matthews into an ape. The incidental music is great, the sets are second to none, and an eerie atmosphere is produced as a consequence. McCoy and Aldred are at their best here. McCoy is simultaneously tender, manipulative and wistful, exemplified by that scene. One of the finest scenes ever, in my opinion is the reflective, "White kids firebombed it," scene. The Seventh Doctor was the Doctor who squarly took on the fascists and racists, and I find it inconceivable that the Beeb ended the series as it was peaking. Episode Three is a slight disappointment as Light is a little too jovial and airy for my liking. Even so, this is a complex, wonderfully plotted classic that comfortably sits within my top five Doctor Who adventures. 10/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 10/4/99
To say that Ghost Light is a challenging story that demands the viewers` attention would be something of an understatement. What Ghost Light sets out to do is to reintroduce,some of the mystery back to Doctor Who, something which it succeeds in doing admirably. This is due largely to Marc Platt`s scripts which not only flesh out the characters of The Doctor and Ace but are also extremely clever in the way that it deals with the themes of evolution and Victorian values.
The production values are of a high standard throughout, and the atmosphere and mystery is reinforced by the chlaustrophobic setting, that of a haunted house. The acting is of a universally high standard, from both the supporting cast and the two regulars. Sophie Aldred excels as Ace as she is forced to confront her fears, while Sylvester McCoy brings a new dimension to The Doctor by not only making him tender but also manipulative and, to a degree, spiteful.
Together with excellent incidental music, courtesy of Mark Ayres, Ghost Light really does withstand repeated viewing, as every word has some significance to the plot. Doctor Who has finally come of age, something ironic given that it was the last show to be produced at the BBC.
Is this an asylum with the inmates in charge? by Will Jones 12/6/99
As Doctor Who stories go, Ghost Light stands out as perhaps the least typical example of what the programme could do ever made. No straightforward tale of a lunatic who wants to conquer or destroy the world (although there is one of each in here), nor the rebellion of the oppressed (yet again the story contains this), nor yet a simple trip into Earth's history (but this too happens in the story), it is clear that Ghost Light is one of the most complex examples of Doctor Who ever produced.
A lot of it is, of course, utterly bizarre. This tale has to include the strangest cast of characters ever assembled for one story. The servants at a Victorian mansion, a Neanderthal, an African explorer, a priest, a policeman, a gentleman, a savage, and an alien who looks like an angel, not to mention of course a time traveller and a girl from the 1980s via the far future all combine to make this story nothing less than memorable. It's hardly traditional Doctor Who and all the fresher for it. Ghost Light feels different somehow – smaller scale, and more personal. After all, a great deal of this deals with the psychological results of Ace blowing up Gabriel Chase in 1983.
Marc Platt's script is utterly magnificent, of course, delivering great lines by the bucketload while keeping all the action taut and to the point – even if sometimes it’s hard to say what the point is. A l that happens in this story that isn't explained. Why does the insect collection suddenly come alive? What kind of creatures are Josiah and Control? We never find out who they are, or why they are aboard Light's ship. For all that, it does make a real change to have a situation which isn't immediately obvious. This kind of story gives us an insight into what it may be like to be a companion - we're confused while the Doctor somehow magically understands everything.
The acting in this story is first-rate, with particular merit going to Ian Hogg as Smith and Carl Forgione as Nimrod. Forgione gives the most bizarre of characters real life, making him utterly sympathetic and believable. Sophie Aldred underlines why Ace is the best companion bar none, and McCoy's acting is as brilliant as ever, maybe even better. The direction by Alan Wareing is far more interesting than usual as well, with particular note going to the sequence involving Ace hearing” dead birds screeching at her, and the howl of a fire engine or police car.
It's not the perfect story, of course. Sometimes it does all seem a little too bizarre to be believed, and a lot of the first two episodes seems to depend a lot on people doing odd things for no apparent reason, sometimes explained later, sometimes not. You do wonder occasionally whether to bother with something this dense. But persevere, and you'll be thoroughly rewarded.
This is not Doctor Who as we know and love it, but it's no less wonderful for all this. Any other reservations would probably be plot-wise, but these are niggles: watched a few times on video it makes fairly good sense. It's a crying shame something this promising was the last Doctor Who story to be made regularly by the BBC, as a series following in these footsteps could have been even greater than what came before. (8/10)
A Bit Of A Let Down by Gerry Hume 10/2/00
A lot of people regard this as a bit of a classic and I would like to agree. Unfortunately, despite the early promise of the first two episode I find the resolution a bit of an anti- climax. Light makes for a very disappointing baddy as he comes on looking like a very camp cross between Liberace and Frankie Howard. Not very scary, pretty ridiculous looking in fact. However the main problem with with the story is that the resolution, and Light's destruction, is based on very bad science.The Dr argues him into self destruct mode by pointing out that evolution is an ongoing, dynamic process and so everything is constantly changing. Now, I know that, and just about every schoolboy knows that, so I'm pretty sure that an advanced civilization smart enough to construct such a being/machine would have progammed this elementary piece of knowledge into it. It would have been sorely ill equipped for its task otherwise. It just seems so implausible that Light could not have known this and could have a nervous breakdown when told that. For me, it fatally undermines the credibility of the whole story.
In addition the idea of winding up some poor old computer with some kind of logical conundrum is a very hackneyed Star Trek ploy; Captain Kirk seemed to do it most weeks. Only Marc Platt seems to think it's a clever idea. I know one has to suspend ones disbelief with Dr Who but the central ideas surely need some kind of scientific plausibility.
As I said, its a shame as the story has a great atmospheric setting and some wierd and wonderful moments and characters. It's sad that one of the central ideas is so weak.
Monkey Business by Rob Matthews 2/8/00
Each Doctor has his own milieu, a place where he looks most comfortable and with which we most identify him. Hartnell had the historical stories, spending his time with Marco Polo, ancient Aztecs and meddling Monks. Troughton had the bases under attack from monsters. Pertwee was stuck in Southern England and surrounded by a military organisation. Tom Baker - hmm, harder to pin down. Perhaps he was the truest wanderer of the lot. Peter Davison suited Agathie Christie-type rural England of the twenties. Black Orchid was tailor-made for his version of the Doc. Colin Baker will, unfortunately, always be associated in my memory with that bloody trial room.
And... well, I'm sure you can see where I'm headed with this. Ghost Light showcases Sylvester McCoy's Doctor in his most fitting environment. A dark-hued Victorian house full of weird things and bizarre headgames. The only thing missing is that there's not a chessboard on show.
That little observation aside, this is definitely one of my favourite serials. The sets and costumes are so thoroughly crawly, the music is the best I ever heard in the show and all the acting is wonderful - Nimrod, Josiah, Cooper, Mrs Pritchard, Gwendoline, Control, the Inspector...
Ah, Light. Well, yes, he is a bit of a letdown. All that stuff about 'change' gets fairly ridiculous (you get the feeling he'd suffer a major trauma if he had to change his underpants), and it is difficult to believe that someone who travels in a stone spaceship powered by thought would be so damn outraged by the fact of evolution. The episode might have gotten away with this if Platt had written in just one or two lines to justify it - perhaps a comical explanation that Light was actually a simpleton, a village idiot who'd been sent away to do this impossible survey because his advanced people wanted rid of him (I think that would have worked in a blackly comic story like this) . Or perhaps it could have been suggested that life on Earth evolves at a far faster rate than on most other planets, hence his irritation.
Anyway, Doctor Who isn't great literature or cinema. It was supposed to be a kid's television show, and we should be grateful that it could produce something this dark, twisted and literate. There's so much in Ghost Light that's haunting and memorable that I'm prepared to ignore the weak conclusion.
Hilights are that conversation between Ace and the Doctor, Gwendoline's song, the transformation of Reverend Matthews, the icky husks in Victorian suits, the moths and locusts coming alive, Ace's 'nightmare' scene, the reference to the 'Crowned Saxe-Coburg', and the way the word 'Java' is made so chilling.
"They're gone. Like a passing thought". This is a superb moment, entirely suited to the story. Oddly fitting that soon after this, the Doctor was gone from our screens too.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 6/4/01
Very few DW Stories blow the viewer away with their depth and imagination as much as Ghost Light does. It is the perfect 3-parter too, with so much crammed in. The screen is dominated throughout by wonderful images, marvelous dialogue and an atmosphere you can feel - it's that rich and all-consuming.
The story's greatest strength lies in its setting. Gabriel Chase is a classic old Horror House. Complete with its old lifts, wide staircase, secret cupboards it glories in a bygone world. But Gabriel Chase is so much more than that. It is a house that hides a terror that is very real for our heroine - Ace. A house that contains as diverse a cast of characters you will ever find. The House is the basis for the atmosphere of this story, but it's the Direction that sets it apart from the average. Wareing skillfully weaves the images together, focusing on the many set pieces - and bringing all the many facets to a successful conclusion in Part Three. The brilliant Musical Score that accompanies the action further enhances the experience. There is a marvelous metaphor throughout of Dark versus Light, represented stylishly in the Direction and the Writing.
The Doctor is his most controlling and manipulative - a blueprint the New Adventure Writers took to its peak. To bring Ace to the stage of her greatest fear, and to not even consult her! This is Doctor Manipulative. Yet McCoy still makes the Doctor supremely likeable. As he moves the pieces into their fitting places - he is saving the universe yet again - a Hero indeed.
Ace is brilliant too. With rich material like this, it is no wonder DW fans look to her as possibly the most rounded and developed of companions. The rest of the cast are so diverse, a short review like this does them little justice. But they are all fascinating. My favorites being the marvelously loopy Fenn Cooper, and the Neanderthal Butler with his old superstitions. The rest are brilliantly conceived (by Marc Platt) and portrayed, by the outstanding ensemble of actors and actresses.
The story has been slated (and applauded) for its complexity. I don't mind the complexity. It lends itself to multiple viewings very well because of it. This is a story that can be enjoyed better the 3rd or 4th times round than the 1st. To revel in the clever dialogue, the subtle evolutionary references. For that reason it's a must to own on video. Play it late at night with the lights off, with the bedcovers around you - and let the majesty of Ghost Light surround you! 10/10.
A Review by Alan Thomas 29/10/01
Superbly executed, scary, weird, and very complex, Ghost Light is certainly one of the best stories of the McCoy years.
The complexity actually helps the story a lot. The story features different sub-plots for each of the characters. Ace has a main segment of the plot, and the other characters (Control, Light, Smith, Gwendoline, Mrs. Pritchard, Nimrod) have smaller stories. One of the most interesting things in this story is the role of the Doctor. He has no plot in story. Rather, he precipitates the plot and pushes the pieces into place. He is a darker, much more manipulative character. This ties in well with the accusation that he becomes Merlin in Battlefield.
Sophie Aldred gives a truly excellent performance as Ace. She really evolves, making her seem a hell of a lot more 3D than a lot of companions.
All in all, Ghost Light is deserved of high praise. It's brilliant!
A Review by Terrence Keenan 25/6/02
Coventional Fan Wisdom states that Ghost Light is a complex story, working on multiple levels and would be better appreciated after multiple viewings. CFW also states that Ghost Light is also the be-all-and-end-all story about Victorian England.
I beg to differ on both parts.
Ghost Light is a very simple story, linear in design, but filled with odd bits to either make it stand out, or as art for art sake. Take your pick, depending on your train of thought. The plot is simple, the Doctor arrives with Ace in Gabriel Chase in the 1890s, where evolution has been warped by the aliens who live in residence here. The head of the aliens, Light, is brought back into reality and is threatened by the fact his mission of catalogueing all Earth species is no longer up to date because of evolution. Light then dies and the remaining aliens leave.
As an American, I'm not 100% on my knowledge of Victorian England, but I can think of two stories that methinks reflect the times better -- The Talons of Weng Chiang & The Horror of Fang Rock, done with simple character nods and location.
The complexities of the story come from elements that have nothing to do with the plot, little bits of visual touches that are just red herrings in terms of the plot. It doesn't matter that the eyes of the taxidermied animals glow, nor that the butterflies come alive for no reason, or that Nimrod is a neanderthal butler. These elements are there to give visual clues to the theme of evolution, and evolution gone awry.
Performances vary. Sylvester is tolerable, ranging from brilliant bits to utterly bad overacting. Sophie Aldred is annoying, and as usual completely unconvincing as a teenager. The guests run the gamut from great to taking the piss, the worst being John Hallam's Liberace ham job creation of Light. The best of the bunch is Carl Forgoine's Nimrod, who plays the neaderthal just right.
The subplot of Ace's role with Gabriel Chase: well, it's pointless and basically there to give an excuse for the TARDIS crew to be there 100 years previously. Granted, it's fairly original for The Doc to take a companion to a location for psychological therapy reasons and it beats the "Holiday in Hell" routine that has started many a DW story.
In the end, Ghost Light is a simple tale with red herrings that make this serial seem more comlex than it is. It's also one of only two stories from the McCoy worth investing time with.
In my initial review for Ghost Light, the general tone is one of begrudging admiration. I had just started my re-evaluation of the McCoy era and was still very much in anti-7th Doctor mode. So instead of coming out and saying "That's really brilliant." I was more like, "It's a good one, but it's a McCoy story so it still sucks anyway."
Ghost Light demands repeat viewings. It's a puzzle story, where you end up watching with a notepad and write down all the bits you missed last time around. It's a serial where the visuals tell as much of the story as the characters and the dialogue. There's a helluva lot going on, and each viewing is like peeling an onion, with layers upon layers underneath.
So, what is Ghost Light really about?
It's about Darwinism, no doubt. It's a commentary on Victorian attitudes and mores. And it's about Ace and her fears (forming a loose trilogy with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, which also deals with Ace's fears and Survival, which turns its attention to Ace's desires). And when I watch is again, I'll find other things that Ghost Light is about.
It was the Ace storyline which I found most fascinating this time around. Marc Platt's script cleverly hides the Ace storyline with dollops of black humor and the Victorian and Darwin themes. The Aliens (Light, Control, Josiah Smith) almost seem an afterthought, a sop to Who conventions. Both Gwendolyn and Control serve as possible Aces, with Control representing an Ace who has the chance to not make the same mistake she did (burning down Gabriel Chase, which Ace has guilt about) and Gwendolyn depicting an Ace without guilt over burning down the house, and eventually moving onto more horrific crimes, including multiple murders. The real climax is when Ace screams at Control not to burn down Gabriel Chase because she already did it. The defeat of Light and the takeoff of the ship is an afterthought.
The Doctor acts as a catalyst in the story. He restores Redfern Fenn-Cooper's sanity, helps Control evolve to be more "lady-like", returns Gwendolyn to her mother, Lady Pritchard, and most importantly forces Ace to reveal her fears about Gabriel Chase and admit she torched the mansion when she was thirteen.
There are lots of other interesting bits in Ghost Light. There are numerous literary references, including Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), and George Bernard Shaw (Pygmillion) being the big ones. Light and Reverend Matthews fulfill the same purpose of being the bulwarks against change, so it's fitting that Matthews has already been "sent to Java" before Light appears. Speaking of Java, that is easily one of the creepiest recurring ideas in any Who story, especially coming from the very innocent looking Katharine Schlesinger.
In terms of performance, the only bad bit in the entire serial is Sylv's "take the survey and go" line, where he looks like having an attack of Bell's Palsy. Otherwise, the whole cast is brilliant. Syl and Sophie both take turns stealing the show from each other, with the rest of the cast holding their own quite well.
Well? I'm going to come out and say what I should have said in my initial review. Ghost Light is really brilliant. And demands multiple viewings. So get out your copy and start watching. It'll be worth it.
Burning Down The House by Andrew Wixon 20/8/02
I remember on one occasion watching Ghost Light, happily crashed out on the sofa, and my father wandering in. 'What are you watching?' he inquired as usual.
'Doctor Who,' I replied (just for a change).
'Oh,' he said. There was a long pause. 'Are you sure? The sets and costumes look quite good, that's all...'
And he had a point. The production values of this story are impeccable: the interior of the house, the effects work (well, maybe the Husks are slightly iffy), the costumes (few things gladden my heart more than the sight of attractive young women in Victorian garb having a catfight, or indeed just standing around), they're all great. The performances are very good as well, the regulars more than making up for their poor showing in the previous story. The dialogue is relishable, too: it seems like there's a new joke or allusion every time you watch the story - there are references to The Dark Angel, Pygmalion, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (cheeky, that one), The Lost World. And it contains one of the scenes in Doctor Who that creeps me out the most - the one where Matthews starts his slide back down the ladder. So simply in terms of simple treats for the eye, ear and mind, Ghost Light succeeds in a very big way.
Which is just as well, as I haven't a clue what the hell's going on in terms of actual plot and back-story throughout the entire story. Oh, I know what the story's about - it's about the conflict between light and darkness, chaos and order, stability and flux - but quite how this translates into the events on the screen, well, it beats me all to perdition. I can't figure it out. Why is no-one surprised when the Doctor and Ace suddenly arrive? Why has Josiah kept Mackenzie in deep freeze rather than having him killed? What forced Light into hibernation in the first place? What's going on with Redver's snuff box? What's going on with Control and Josiah? Is Josiah's plan to kill Queen Victoria as token a maguffin as it appears to be, or does it tie into the plot somehow? What's going on with the glowing glass eyes in the rocking horse and stuffed emu? I can't stand the confusion in my mind!!!
Seriously though, imagine this story with the same production values and quality of acting as Battlefield. Would the tenebrousness of the plot still be as warmly indulged? I doubt it. As it is, this is hugely watchable in a passive kind of way (just sit back and let it wash over you, don't worry about trying to make sense of it all). The description 'a triumph of style over substance' gets used a lot when 80s DW is under discussion, but in this case it's entirely justified.
Loose Threads, Faint Shadows by Mike Morris 4/9/02
Ghost Light is one of those stories that one might call an exemplar; it seems to be the archetypal Cartmel-era story. In the same way that The Brain of Morbius is a perfect example of early-Hinchcliffe Hammer pastiches, and Revelation of the Daleks sums up everything about the intention behind Season 22, the fractured narrative of Ghost Light with its condensed Victorian influences, dark tones and manipulative Doctor says a hell of a lot about where Andrew Cartmel wanted the series to go. This is part of the reason that some three-part story in a haunted house is so heavily-discussed; Ghost Light expresses Cartmel's vision so flawlessly that any comments made about it pertain to the ethos of the Cartmel era as a whole.
It's also quite complicated, you know. I'm not sure if anyone's mentioned that before.
And yet it isn't complicated at all. As Terrance Keenan perceptively points out above, the main plot is actually very simple indeed. In fact, it's easily squashed into a few sentences at the start of Part Three, with the whole "while it slept the survey got out of Control" scene. Having said that, there's an awful lot of stuff going on at any given time. I remember watching Ghost Light for the first time; I always felt a step behind the narrative, and although by the end I understood the main plot perfectly well, I still felt that I'd missed a lot.
All that said, recently I watched it with my sister (11), my brother (9), and my mum, whose interest in sci-fi is, well, not that pronounced. Only twice was I asked for clarification on anything - the husks and the insects coming alive. If the story can play to that audience, well, it's not so complicated at all. I'd argue that it's only that complex to a certain section of viewers - the kind who watch a lot of science fiction on telly.
Part of the reason that the story is seen as so complex is that it is structured in a fundamentally different way to more or less every other Doctor Who story (and more or less every televised sci-fi story). It doesn't follow the straight-line, plot-based narrative that almost all Doctor Who stories are based on. There's a whole host of separate threads going on - the husks, Gwendoline and Lady Pritchard, Josiah's evolution, Control and Redvers, Ace's history, Light. By looking at it quite dispassionately, a lot of these characters are superfluous to the "plot" - Redvers Fenn-Cooper doesn't contribute anything much to the Light's-in-the-spaceship-in-the-cellar scenario, for example. One might call these "subplots", but this is only partially true, because all these threads are given exactly the same weight.
In fact, in the Doctor Who sense of the world, Ghost Light doesn't really have a plot at all, or at least not in the in the way that The Brain of Morbius is fundamentally about Solon making a body for his master. It's not even completely true to say that Ghost Light is different because it's about evolution, because Full Circle is about evolution but still builds up a plot around the idea. Ghost Light, however, is more a series of vignettes grouped around a central concept. The concept itself is quite loose, one might assume it started out as being about evolution, but broadened into a study of change as opposed to Victorian ideas. As well the change/static idea, other ideas recur, such as the notion of appearance and recurring ideas about racism.
In fact, what we have is something almost unique in Doctor Who; a fundamentally post-modern narrative structure.
No, no, don't stop reading. The problem with saying something's post-modern is that "post-modern" is bandied about so much it's a rather blurry idea, and in fact it always was. It was conceived as an alternative to Modernism, and as such it's more a reaction to Modernist thinking than a defined doctrine in its own right.
So while Modernism was about carefully pushing a single premise as far as it could go, Post-Modernism gleefully addressed several ideas quite loosely. Modernism tended to use a single reference, and use that reference to create something entirely new, but Post-Modernism used multiple references and acknowledged those references quite openly. And while Modernism tended to be about simplicity and rationality, Post-Modernism was complex and delighted in introducing details out of whimsy.
Films like Scream or anything by the Coen Brothers are good examples of post-modern works, whereas the recent rash of teenage adaptations of classic texts (Cruel Intentions or 10 Things I Hate About You) are actually more Modernist than anything else - faithful reworkings of a single reference.
Now that's what I call a digression. To get back to Doctor Who, The Brain of Morbius, for example, is a very Modernist story - a careful adaptation of Frankenstein to suit Doctor Who's formula. It uses the same settings, the same moral debates, the same tone. In fact, most Doctor Who stories are loosely Modernist; generally they are about "linear" plots, about simple storylines, and the stories have a no-frills quickness to them; those that don't are dismissed as "padded".
Ghost Light, meanwhile, condenses and references numerous sources, but not in any particularly careful way. For the average Doctor Who viewer, it's frustratingly difficult to find any real influences to cling on to, and what references there are can only be called loose. The story tips its hat to Kafka's Metamorphosis, for example, but there are few enough actual parallels; it evokes the spirit of that story rather than anything specific (Josiah's transformation is completely different to that of Kafka's narrator). Ditto the Pygmalion angle - Control wants to become a "lady-like", but beyond that there are no similarities at all.
It's easy to imagine a Robert Holmes adaptation of Metamorphosis. We'd have a giant insect, a tortured transformation... well, maybe he already did it with The Ark In Space, in a sense. We'd have a very easy-to-read narrative. With Ghost Light, there's no unifying plot, just unifying ideas that bring disparate elements together. Josiah's skin-shedding is related to Ace's "scratch the Victorian veneer" comment, which can then be grouped with Redver's terrified references to "the Interior", and also to his gazing at a faded image of himself. All these scenes are, broadly, about appearance, and the horrors that may lie beneath it, albeit in a loose way rather than anything specific. It's one of the story's many motifs, like the constant racial allusions ("turn all the atlases pink", Ace's story about Manisha, Inspector MacKenzie's casual racism) and of course about the idea of change - which is then contrasted with Victorian conservatism, summed up by the revelation that Josiah Smith doesn't kill his specimens, but holds them in stasis (and that's why the insects come back to life, because they were never actually dead, just preserved like Inspector MacKenzie. That's my reading of it anyway).
Is this loose, multi-faceted, non-linear structure better or worse than the traditional Doctor Who way of telling a story? Um, I would only say that it's different, and is probably better adapted to the fourteen-episode season as more can be said (or hinted at) in a shorter space of time. Set against that, it's much easier to get this type of story wrong, as if the writing's not top-notch then it can degenerate into an utter mess. Really, though, it's a question of personal preference. I tend to be suckered in by individual sequences rather than clear storylines, but I can see why people might object to it.
Me, I really enjoy it.
I enjoy Ian Hogg's magnificent performance as alien, I enjoy the off-kilter, almost drunken way he delivers his dialogue. I enjoy Aldred's wonderfully-acted scenes. I enjoy the understated way that the script portrays a Neanderthal butler, I love the way Light is voiced, I love the "monkey-house" song, I adore Gwendoline's stylised facial expressions and the way they contrast with Ace's naturalism (more references to appearance there), and I revel in McCoy giving his best performance, except for one extraordinary aberration - the "forget the survey and go" scene, which lovers of Ghost Light tactfully ignore. The stunning moments come thick and fast. This kind of storytelling has been called "self-indulgent" by some, but that thinking ignores the thematic consistency underlying the story. It has also been called pretentious, but I'd prefer to think of it as ambitious; and as an accusation, "pretentious" is bloody annoying, as it suggests that Doctor Who has no right to take itself seriously. This certainly isn't true since even a story like The Androids of Tara takes itself seriously in its own way.
It's aided no end by being one of Doctor Who's most stylish productions, with the Gabriel Chase flawlessly created and more or less everything being utterly convincing; the husks would hold their own on television today, so by the standard of the time they're remarkable. The direction is hugely atmospheric, with a whole host of close-ups, but to counterbalance some scenes are shot with a gutsy lack of showiness. Josiah's "I'm a man of property" is particularly brave, showing us Josiah's back and relying on Hogg's body language and voice to convey Josiah's emotions, and therefore displaying the various emotions of everyone else at the table when confronted with this breakdown. In addition the music is outstanding. As Andrew Wixon says above, this story might have been written off as just another quirky McCoy tale if this end of things wasn't so impressive. However, we sometimes forget that at this stage of Who's history, with the short season and relatively high budget, it's not ridiculous to expect that side of things to be of a reasonable standard.
The dialogue is wonderful, with more one-liners than any other story. In fact the only place the script falls down is in the creation of Inspector MacKenzie and Mrs Gross, both of whom are the kind of stereotypes that the Cartmel era was guilty of producing rather too often. Still, that's a minor quibble.
Another thing said, in The Pocket Essentials Guide To Doctor Who, is that "you can hear the nails being hammered in Doctor Who's coffin as you watch it." Hmm; I think this is crap, frankly, which assumes Doctor Who means nice, light, 26-episodes-a-season Doctor Who. This is a different sort of Doctor Who, set up for shorter seasons, with weightier stories that say a lot more. It's therefore inevitable they'll be less straightforward. Ghost Light is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else; there are all sorts of questions hanging unresolved at the conclusion, and still more with answers that are implied rather than stated. But the story works differently to other stories, and we're supposed to enjoy it in a different way...
...and prepare for the dodgiest metaphor you'll ever hear...
...for, if most Doctor Who stories are solid things, to be measured and quantified, then Ghost Light is liquid. It shifts and alters, it's indefinite, and the tighter you grasp it the more it will escape you. So enjoy the feel, and grab what you can. That's the level at which it's supposed to work; and at that level it's a magnificent piece of television.
Simply bad by Antony Tomlinson 21/1/03
A lot has been made of Ghost Light's references to other literary works - Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness, the Lost World etc. Yet most people seem to have ignored the story's biggest influence - the Rocky Horror Show. It's all in there - the creepy old house, the hidden spaceship, the excessive cast of camp alien characters, the cannibalism, the transvestitism - even Light's glittery shoulder-pads are in keeping with the musical. And I have to say, I think Ghost Light would have been improved by a few song and dance routines, because this story is absolutely dreadful.
People have said that Ghost Light has few simple plotlines hidden beneath a complex veneer. I agree. However, I would also argue that the underlying plots aren't very good. Firstly, there's Light. It is a super-being that wants to catalogue all life on Earth, but is alarmed that life keeps evolving (presumably it failed biology at school). So it decides to blow up the world. What Light is, of course, is just a more po-faced version of the traditional Doctor Who mad computer, with its "human life is imperfect and must be destroyed" spiel and its gibbering malfunctions. The Doctor eventually disarms Light via some bad acting and a philosophically confused argument about how "everything changes, even you" (if this story had a sense of humour this would have precipitated Light's changing out his Alvin Stardust outfit and into something more leathery for the finale). Light eventually just fizzles out, leaving us wondering whether Pertwee's sonic screwdriver could have done the job less painfully.
Then there's Josiah Smith. As charismatic villains go, he probably rates somewhere just below the Dalek Supreme and somewhere just above those disembodied brains in The Keys of Marinus. The character spends most of the story ineffectually running about (quite sensibly) trying to keep Light locked up, while (unfortunately) failing to freeze the regular leads. Then, just when things look like they might get interesting, he unveils his dastardly plan... which is to kill Queen Victoria. For heaven's sake, is that really the best plan he could come up with? Did he sit there thinking, "what evil thing will I do? Hmm, I could bring back the dinosaurs. Or I could enslave the world with an army of killer monkey-vicars. Ha, ha, hee. Nah. I can't be bothered actually, I think I'll just kill Queen Victoria. That'll probably annoy someone." I would have preferred it if his plan was to burgle the local post office - at least that would have made sense. I mean, what was he going to do after Queen Victoria died, anyway? Dress up as Edward VII? Marry Prince Albert? Bake the British government into a paella? It was lucky for him that his plan did fail, otherwise he could have been severely embarrassed.
The worst thing about Ghost Light is Ace. Watching an adolescent whinge is never much fun (that's why Adric had to die) and it would have been humane to have her sent to Java for the entire story. But no, it's the usual "oi, why do you keep messing with my head mate, bleeding heck we're in Perivale, Gordon Bennett I hate you all" drivel. And then there's the mystery of her trip to the house in 1983. What terrible thing did she find there, we ask? Was it some twisted abomination? Perhaps it was a mass of crawling insect life, evolving before her eyes? No, it was nothing really, she was just a bit spooked. So she decided to burn the house down. What a thrilling revelation.
Then there's burnt toast. Ben Arranovitch has a lot to answer for - the "rice pudding" speech in Remembrance of the Daleks had me in hysterics when it was first broadcast. However, that was before we had to endure a whole season of burnt toast and cold tea followed by half a decade of novels in which Doctor continually bleats "ooh, I hope the Time Lords don't destroy the universe because I'll miss the daffodils". It drives me nuts. McCoy's overacting doesn't help either.
But surely Ghost Light is incredibly deep, addressing a range of philosophical concerns such as race, Darwinism and Victorian values. Well, the race element consists in Ace's line about the burning of her friend and the policeman's abuse of Nimrod - it is not a playing out of race issues in the manner of Remembrance of the Daleks. Ghost Light is no more a study of racism than Silver Nemesis is a study of Nazism - it's something that is just tacked on. As for Darwinism, Ghost Light joins every B-movie that has used cod evolutionary theory to justify the presence of snarling monsters. And though the characters do rant on about Darwin's theories throughout the story, they never say anything very interesting about them. Equally, the exploration of Victorian values consists in a lot of people sitting round saying "ooh, you know we look like ladies and gentlemen, but we're all animals really." It's a bland account of the savagery beneath the bow ties (particularly when compared to a tense drama such as The Horror of Fang Rock).
Ghost Light is a lot like Resurrection of the Daleks. It is a self-important story, packed with a lot of ideas that don't really fit together and which are fairly dull when separated out. Yet fans, desperate to find Doctor Who's "mature" period, have decided that Ghost Light must only be incomprehensible because it is so clever. Still, in many ways I^̉m glad Ghost Light exists. It was a bit of a risk for the BBC to do such a weird story and it does look lovely. Just please don't make me watch it again.
A tricky puzzle by Michael Hickerson 7/2/03
I'm usually a "purist" when it comes to watching Doctor Who -- I prefer my stories to be in episode format with cliffhangers conviently placed every 25 minutes or so as a good stopping point. I admit that I tend to watch Who is small doses rather than one large gulp -- usually one to two episodes at a time. Honestly, I think Who is better if viewed this way since this is the way the creators designed it to be viewed.
But, as with all things, there are exceptions to that rule. And Ghost Light is one of them.
Ghost Light is one of the few Dr. Who stories out there that actually benefits from being viewed all in one sitting and maybe even in the movie format to cut down on interruptions to it. It's a marvellous dense story that is packed with layer upon layer. And it's one of those stories that you may not get in one, two or even three viewings.
I know that when the story first aired many years ago, I didn't exactly get it the first time I saw it. Nor did it become abudantly clear when I re-watched it. However, based on the ravings of fellow fans, I kept giving Ghost Light a chance and suddenly, one day, it all came together. Suddenly, the light went off for this story, everything clicked and I suddenly understood what everyone was raving about. (Part of this I blame on a poor U.S. syndication copy. The sound levels were so off that it was easy to miss some of the dialogue over the incidental music and since much of what takes place in the story is driven by the dialogue, if you miss that, you may miss the entire point of the story)
Ghost Light is definitely a story that was intended for the video age. It takes repeat viewings to get all of it and to have it all make sense. But it's one of those stories that rewards you for repeat viewing.
Marc Platt is a self-described Who fan -- one of only two "fan" writers who got to write for the series. (The other being Andrew Smith who gave us the superlative Full Circle.) Platt has since gone on to write several great Who novels and some entertaining Who audios. But none of them are quite the joy that Ghost Light is. It's obvious from the first scene that Platt is a Who fan. Platt writes all the characters with such a delight and relish that it makes it a joy to watch. Also, it's fascinating to watch his wordplay and see how things build on each other. The script is like an onion -- you peel away one layer to reveal two more. Platt takes the old theme of the haunted house and spins it on it's ear. This time, instead of a house being haunted we see just why it's haunted. Platt takes a chance to push the character of Ace forward in a new way, all the while making the seventh Doctor even darker and more manipulative than we've already seen. Indeed, the entire story sets up what I consider to be the pivotal moment of the McCoy years in the next story, The Curse of Fenric. By having Ace manipulated by the Doctor to find out what is wrong at the house she burned down as a teengarer, we see her growing frustration with the Doctor and his games, thus making the "You always know what's going on" scene in Fenric work so much more.
The storyline is one that doesn't begin to really crystalize until the final episode. Platt gives us hints along the way, but cleverly keeps us from guessing too much until the final episode, that moves at a breakneck speed. The first two episodes are slow moving and methodical, setting up the chain of events that will come crashing down in episode three. And it all works. One of the great things about the script is that in the final analysis, everything that had seemed so disjointed up to this point, suddenly comes together and makes sense.
It's a complex script along the lines of Warriors' Gate. It's experimental and new. And it even feels fresh after repeated viewings. That's a rare quality in not only Who but in any show. (One other such example is the superb X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space")
But for a story to be a classic, it's got to have more than a great script. And Ghost Light does.
First of all, it's got a memorable score by Mark Ayres. Lob what criticisms you will at the JN-T years, but one thing the man gave us was distinctive Who scores. Not that I don't like the Dudley Simpson scores from the early days, but there is just a part of me that prefers what the program did with the incidental music in the 80s. Each score was unique and evocative. In the case of Ghost Light, it not only helps to establish the story, but it also helps to enhance the mood and increase the suspense and tension. It's also one of those scores that will get stuck in your head if you're not careful.
Second of all, there is the direction of Alan Wareing. I have praised him before for his work on Greatest Show and I praise him again here. The direction could easily have been very static -- a typical BBC period piece. But Wareing tries new things visually with the show. He gives Ghost Light a unique sense of lighting and atmosphere. The house is foreboding at the right moments. There is nothing quite as visually arrestting as the dark ring/light inner sanctum of the gods from Greatest Show, but the visual style and flourishes are still there. Wareing was one of Who's great directors and it's a shame the series didn't continue so we could get more great work from him.
And finally, there is the entire cast of the show. Each actor gives his or her best and really makes Ghost Light come alive.
McCoy and Aldred are up to their usual standards of excellence and really make the Doctor/Ace pairing come alive.
But the real scene stealer is Ian Hogg as Josiah. I remember when Ghost Light was first aired, there being some talk of Hogg being the next Doctor. Certainly based on what we saw here, he'd be a great choice. Hogg brings Josiah to life in so many forms -- and all of them believable. Josiah is truly a great villain for the series and certainly one of the more intriguing adversaries we've seen the Doctor encounter in his many travels. (And while I'm not sure if he'd be a great Doctor, he might make for a really great Master should the series ever see the light of day again).
Ghost Light is, quite simply, a masterpiece. It's complex and entertaining. It is one of the crown jewels of the McCoy years and it shows that Who was once again finding it's storytelling greatness and it's stride. It's just a crying shame the Beeb decided to put it on hiatus indefinitely when the series was hitting such a creative stide. I can only imagine what might have been had we seen the stories continue. Alas, we shall never know...
A Review by David Thiel 25/4/03
Having recently watched Ghost Light for the first time in perhaps a decade, I wondered if my original take on the production - a stylish, incomprehensible mess - would be challenged. Unfortunately, while evolution is the theme of this story, my own views on it have been unchanged by time's passage.
Many have seen Ghost Light as the distillation of Andrew Cartmel's tenure as script editor on Doctor Who, and I cannot disagree. It featured a universe-weary, manipulative Doctor who knew what he would find before he arrived. It emphasized the companion's role, and played up her sexuality. It attempted to evoke an aura of mood and mystery through non sequitur, partially-formed allegory and outright refusal to explain what in the heck was occurring on-screen.
The core of the plot - the Doctor discovers a long-buried alien presence whose power, once awakened, will destroy the Earth - was simple enough, so simple that it wasn't new when The Daemons aired 18 years prior. In this case, the devil - and the confusion - was in the details.
There were so many maddeningly unanswered questions. What's with the radioactive snuffbox? How did Redvers encounter Light if the latter didn't wake up until the end of episode two? Why was he driven mad when no one else seemed particularly bothered by the nature of the effeminate alien? If "going to Java" was a euphemism for death, as it appeared, how did the Inspector come to be merely in suspended animation? Why did the eyes of the stuffed animals glow, and the insects return to life? Why were Josiah's husks animate? Why did they help Control? How did Josiah turn the Reverend into an ape? How would killing the Queen put him in charge of England? Why hadn't he already acted on his plan?
One of the major plot hurdles one must leap involves Light's mission. Are we to believe that his world had never previously encountered evolution? If the point had been that the diversity of life and the speed of the evolutionary process were much greater on Earth, it might have made a bit more sense. One could argue, I suppose, that Light was meant to mirror the Reverend's own steadfast denial of natural selection, but aside from the alien's angelic appearance, there was nothing to suggest that he refused to believe out of religious convictions.
Another is the revelation of Ace's terrible secret regarding the future of Gabriel Chase. She burned down the house? So what? We're talking about a woman who, by her own admission, preferred to blow things up. I was waiting for something more, perhaps an innocent life taken by the blaze or some other repercussion of her impulsive action, but no, her childhood trauma was that she torched an abandoned, scary house. Good riddance, I say.
This revelation was the ostensible purpose for the Doctor's visit, because, as in every one of the season 25 stories, the Doctor was privy to a great deal of prior knowledge about the nature of the conflict and was, to some degree, deliberately setting events into motion. When the insects began to awaken, the Doctor admitted that things were occurring more rapidly than anticipated, implying that on some level, he did indeed anticipate them. (If so, what was his plan, aside from delving into Ace's psyche? Stopping Josiah? From what? Josiah didn't appear to have a coherent scheme or any urgency in carrying it out.) This depiction of the Time Lord as a manipulator rather than a heroic bystander turned Doctor Who on its head, and not in a good way.
It turned the Doctor into both protagonist and antagonist, and made him the source of the mystery rather than the hero attempting to uncover it. It was further exacerbated by the Doctor's newfound tendency to withhold vital information about his motivations from both companion and audience until late in the game. Of course, one of Cartmel's goals was to return to the days when we didn't know everything about the character, but did that require a personality transplant and a complete inversion of his 24-year-role as either a witness to history or a revolutionary reacting to unpredictable circumstances? How sympathetic a character could the Doctor be if his intended actions resulted in so many deaths?
Unfortunately, Ghost Light seems to have become the template for many subsequent Doctor Who adventures, certainly the original novels that followed in the wake of the series' cancellation. Whether that's because it reflected the final era of the televised show, or because it represented a more mature, layered story that appealed to an aging fan base uncomfortable with their love of a straightforward adventure yarn about monsters is open to debate.
In my view, the new, dark Doctor was good for precisely one story - Remembrance of the Daleks. It worked then because it was such a surprise, and because it involved the settling of a score with the Time Lord's oldest, most implacable foes. That was a grand tale, but it would've been best left a one-off.
"I wanted to see how it worked... so I dismantled it" by Joe Ford 24/5/03
I almost refused to write a review of Ghost Light simply because Mike Morris' definitive review of this story is one of my favourite pieces on this site and I couldn't hope to say anything else on the matter. However after watching the story recently I realised there's still quite a lot more to say.
The attention to detail is immediately apparent seconds into the show. The shadowy sets, the intense performances, the outstanding production values, the carefully written story. It's all there in that first scene throwing up the creepy mystery of what on earth is living in the basement. We know this is going to be something special.
The Doctor and Ace are so comfortable with each other at this point and we are just as comfortable to watch them. His quiet aside to her "I like the dress" never fails to raise a smile. It's unexpected and delightful. Sophie Aldred's performance is nothing short of astonishing, worthy of an experienced actress and not a relative newcomer to TV. "Scratch the Victorian veneer!" she growls with real contempt "and something nasty'll come crawling out!" And it's damn scary. Ace's story about Manisha subverts our attention of the companion, suddenly she is the more important character and her rapidly unfolding past is vital to the plot. This scene is Sophie's best ever, her quiet anger is quite hypnotic.
But let's not forget McCoy's stunning performance, so good here I am utterly confused at his lapses elsewhere. If he can perform this well I can see perfectly why JNT was compelled to offer him the part. His darker shades add a whole new dimension to his character. This the beginning of the Virgin New Adventures Doctor, angry, intelligent and witty and playing with people's lives.
Alan Wareing is the real star of the show, his direction knocks spots of so many who've taken a spot on Doctor Who. There are so many touches he adds to the story that adds to the overall experience. The TARDIS landing takes on a sinister turn because of that damned rocking horse with the glowing eye. The blue ambulance light that hits Ace during here bird song nightmare foreshadows a later twist with twisted ease. The camera flies around the house creatively never forgetting to unsettle us. There are lots of gorgeous silouhette shots that heighten the atmosphere, Gwendolyn and Josiah are introduced against a darkened fire-lit back drop, Ace is lit up by the pulsing heart of the basement. Wareing cares about every shot in the story and visually the story is just a treat, easily one of the most atmospheric period stories.
It is amazing to think that little actually happens in the story. Taking away the script and just concentrating on the plot all that happens is a bunch of characters walk around a house and visit the scary basement a couple of times. And yet there is more content in this story than practically any other in Doctor Who's canon. Weird dialogue abounds that WANTS to confuse you, demanding extra viewings. "Perhaps you will evolve into a young lady", "Darwinian clap-trap", "Having trouble with your connection?", "Ratkin", "Not a patch on the flying Scotsman", "Which is the Jekyll and which is the Hyde?", "There goes the rungs in his evolutionary ladder." With the script of Ghost Light you surely get your money's worth. It's also tremendously witty with some terrific laugh out loud moments ("He can't see my ankles!", "The cream of Scotland Yard.") and it's all wrapped into a disturbing black comedy.
But it's not all giggles, there is a real theme to this story. Evolution was a popular theme at the time but it is taken to intelligent extremes here, the writer and director never letting us forget what the story is about. Every character evolves in some way (even the house). The story unfolds with real emotion too, Gwendolyn's discovery of her mother, Ace's dark secret, Control's growing independence... these plot threats evolve unexpectedly through the course of the story.
The house almost becomes a character in its own right with the characters trapped in its belly. There is an oppressive, claustrophobia air that enhances the story almost as though being trapped in the house forces the truth from the characters.
People have compared the story to Sapphire and Steel and it is impossible to deny that the surreal horror of this story mirrors the creepy weirdness that series exuded aplenty. There are too many macabre moments, the maids flowing like ghosts from the wall panels, Inspector Mackenzie being found in the draw, Matthews de-evolving into a monkey whilst munching on a banana whilst giving a lecture on evolution, Mrs Pritchard and her daughter turning to stone so they will "never change again..."
It's almost a shame to have Josiah's husks in the spaceship as such obvious audience friendly tactics almost threaten to destabilise the gothic atmosphere of the piece. Alan Wareing is so attuned with the script however he uses them quickly and efficiently, using them for cool shock moments like their heads exploding suddenly.
But let's not forget the characters, I love Mrs Grose, a grotesque parody of Victorian maid only there to remind us to be scared and add some period detail but she's played with such gusto I wish we could see more of her. All the actors are determined to make this a winner and Josiah, Mrs Pritchard and Gwendolyn are without a doubt three of the scariest characters in the shows entire run. "I'm sure she'll enjoy java uncle, once she gets there" Gwendolyn says whilst resting on her uncles knees smiling. Surely the greatest expression of horror in Doctor Who comes later in the tale when Matthews sits there hooting like a monkey whilst Gwendolyn approaches him with a chloroform hankie ("We're so glad he has to go..."). It still terrifies me and I've seen it loads of times. Ian Hogg and Slyvia Syms deserve such praise, they add so much gravity to the story.
My friend Luke watched this with me one day and was in total awe at the first two atmospheric episodes but laughed himself silly when Light appeared, screaming he was somehow camper than my other half Simon (hmmm...). He still laughs about now (his favourite line is "Look at these microbes..."). But I digress, my point is I disagree with him strongly. I love Light, he's totally chilling as growls about the destruction of Earth in his soft voice in the guise of angel. He's one of the most effective bad guys to emerge from the McCoy era.
The world in jeopardy plot would be laughable if it wasn't played so well. McCoy's speech to Light about his lack of imagination reminds me of Star Trek in all the best ways, talking the villain to death being a staple ingredient of that show. But it also reminds why I'll love Doctor Who more, wittier, cleverer and much more confident (well except maybe DS9...). The way this shattering twist resolves itself is so relaxed and confident only Doctor Who could get away with it. "Explode or fly" indeed!
I'm so glad Ghost Light was made, it makes a mockery of all those non fans that take the mickey of the show. It is as stylish a movie and as clever as a novel. The music is just divine and the piece lives up to re-watching over and over again. That this was the last Doctor Who story to be made adds that extra poignancy but that is so very good means the show went out kicking and screaming.
I love it.
A Review by Bob Aylward 10/7/03
I probably should go back and watch this one again, which is the popular advice and well taken.
First, I should say that I am not a big fan of McCoy stories (audio or video). However, I must say that McCoy does seem to enjoy playing the Doctor and it's unfortunate that he picked up the role when the show was in its dying days.
A bizarre, fast paced, intriguing story. I waited until 2003 to finally watch this story and it's much better than the vastly over-rated, horror/sci-fi The Curse of Fenric.
A very good supporting cast with Ian Hogg playing a very mysterious Josiah Samuel Smith.
I am willing to be most Who fans have seen this one. If you haven't it's worth a whirl and beware of the Light. 7/10.
Ageless by Tim Roll-Pickering 31703
Victorian Britain is an exceptionally popular era for television and so it should come as no surprise that several Doctor Who television stories are set there. But whereas other stories have used the period as a backdrop to the events, Ghost Light goes straight to the heart, exploring one of the greatest scientific debates of the era and examining a part of Victorian society at the same time. Period drama is something that the BBC's designers excel at and Ghost Light is blessed with some highly realistic sets that form an excellent backdrop to the events of the story. Marc Platt's script is notorious for being so packed that virtually every line is essential but it does well in capturing both the Victorian style and also Ace's secrets as she recalls her past and how her happy childhood was destroyed when racists firebombed her friends' flat. Structuring the story around the companion is a strong departure from the norm, but it makes Ace an ever stronger companion and thus enhances the viewer's impression of the Doctor as an enigmatic individual given the way in which he puts Ace into a situation she desperately wants to avoid.
The story's main theme is evolution and both sides of the Victorian debate are presented, though the story comes down heavily on the side of the Darwinians, focusing heavily on the way things change and thus making the Reverend Ernest Matthews' point of view seem merely a superstitious reaction against the developments in knowledge. The theme works on many levels as different characters develop and evolve throughout the course of the story whilst some fall and devolve. The change in positions between Control and Josiah Samuel Smith is the most obvious but by no means the only one, with Ace evolving into an ever stronger character whilst Light devolves from his arrogant position of power as he realises how evolution is affecting even him. Whilst there are some parts of the story that aren't very clear at all, such as why Redver Fenn-Cooper's snuff box is radioactive or whether or not he really did find the spaceship in an African jungle, the story nevertheless manages to move on and work at many different levels. For the video generation/fans who can watch this story time and again there will always be some new angle to spot and delight them, but even for the viewer watching it only once there is a highly rewarding adventure to be enjoyed.
The cast is near uniformly perfect throughout the story, with the top honours going to Carl Forgoine as Nimrod, who plays the part superbly by appearing a simple servant at first but in reality being a loyal worshiper of Light who knows far more than he reveals. Ian Hogg plays Josiah Samuel Smith as both the initial lucifugous 'mad professor' form and the final Victorian gentleman, evolving from a weak scientist into a ruthless schemer with the performance reflecting the physical change in the character. Equally well acted is Control, with Sharon Duce playing her in Part Three like a lower class woman who has suddenly found herself in the world of the upper classes and is striving to rapidly become an acceptable 'lady like'.
The production rarely falters with only the Husks failing to inspire but fortunately they are not seen for long onscreen and are for the most part covered by their suits. Otherwise the sets are wonderful, as are the costumes, and Alan Wareing's direction enhances the production no end, as does Mark Ayres' score and the animal noise sound effects. The video effects also work well, adding little touches such as the stuffed animal eyes lighting up or showing Light slowly adapting to his new physical form. Ghost Light is a tale that works on many levels but is realised so spectacularly strongly that it has not aged at all. 9/10
Primitive Campy Rubbish by Brian Klein 22/10/03
Okay I still trying to come up with a really great review for The Three Doctors, but for some reason I have been afflicted with writers' block for that particular story. So I have decided to review another story, and that story is obviously Ghost Light. Please before you read my review, scroll up and read Antony Tomlinson's and Gerry Hume's reviews. These reviews pretty much capture the tone and style of my own review, and they are dead right about this story.
Ghost Light to me is to Doctor Who as 2001: A Space Odyssey is to Science Fiction: An incredible mess with some good interesting ideas and visuals, complex but with no clear explanations or plot, both raise more questions than they answer and that isn't a good thing, the directors of these stories are often used to justify the greatness of the work (Kubrick directing 2001, often at times is the only, or one of the many reasons why people see this dull, pretentious movie as a science fiction ^"classic", the same thing can be applied to Ghost Light, in that one of the many reasons people consider this story a classic is due to Alan Wareing's direction, which I am not saying that they are bad directors, but shouldn't be use to justify the greatness of the work), and the endings of both stories are complete nonsensical letdowns. In one word, both can be summarized as overrated
Perhaps the major problem plagueing this story is that it doesn't know what it wants to be: a end to the Cartmel era, or to Doctor Who as a series, or as a final scary story for the series. It fails quite miserably in all of these areas, I'm afraid. The story seems to me to do several things that I take extreme offense towards.
Pyramid of Mars: A burned down house features in both stories, which the TARDIS travels to a time before the house is burned (whereas the reason in Pyramid makes sense, the reason in Ghost is ridiculous), a powerful creature is held captive and released in both stories (Suketh, a believable villain in Pyramid, Light, a campy villain at best, in Ghost), house where the evil activity is taking place is secluded in both stories, and both have deus ex machina endings. But Pyramid is much superior to Ghost Light.
Talons of Weng-Chiang: Both are style over substance late nineteenth century era stories, the companions of the Doctor in both stories are considered savages, dumb police officer features in both stories, Reverend Matthews is the surrogate Professor Litefoot of Ghost Light, and like Litefoot got knocked out twice in his own home (which I would like to dub the Litefoot effect), so does Rev. Matthews get chloroformed twice in Smith's house. Smith and Light take on a similar role like Chang and Magnus Greel. Smith being the better villain of the two (although like Tomlinson's review stated he is by no means a great villain, I loved that comparison Tomlinson made about Smith and the brain's from The Keys of Marinus) and Light whose outfit is like Magnus Greel's without the helmet. I don't really like Talons but I still think that it has slighty more substance than Ghost Light.
Horror of Fang Rock: Alien ship crashes on earth while surveying the planet, and the alien's mission starts to influence the late nineteenth century era, both stories are filled with subplots that really do not connect with the main plot (for example the subplot in Horror of Fang Rock with Lord Palmerdale, and Skinsdale and secret information which is never clearly defined doesn't actually interfere with the enjoyability of this all time classic, whereas the subplots about characters in Ghost Light don't make sense and ruin the story for me) Even the bribing of Vince by Lord Palmerdale is stolen in this story when Smith tries to bribe the Doctor to help him get rid of Light. This classic story and excellent drama (which is number three on my Top Ten list) is definitely superior to Ghost Light.
Image of the Fendahl: Haunted House, with a female creature spouting gibberish (the old woman in Image, Control in Ghost Light), the race memory concept (or deja vu) is used to the max here. For example, Gwendoline is so worried about her "Uncle" Smith in the beginning of episode two ,that she pulls a Pertwee and for no sensible reason at all changes clothes in the middle of it all (a la the Silurians, Terror of the Autons, Planet of the Daleks, etc.) Ace must have acquired Peri's ability to kill by tapping from Revelation of the Daleks as we see her trying to attack the two husks with a cane, again in episode two, Smith has acquired previous villain characteristics from the Borad and the Autons, like the ability to reproduce himself and have doubles from Timelash and both Auton stories of the Pertwee era. The Doctor taps into his most recent previous incarnation and delivers an incredibly inconsistent performance in Ghost Light, that it almost outdoes his immediate predecessor's incredibly inconsistent, bad performance in Mindwarp. Again Image is superior to Ghost Light.
Why are the eyes glowing, even on the rocking horse in Smith's house? Why isn't anyone in the house alarmed or surprised about the Doctor and Ace's arrivals? Who exactly is Gabriel Chase? Why does the Doctor bring Ace back to 1883 presumed by many as a form of therapy, if Ace burned down the house in 1983 or let me put it this way: How does traveling back one hundred years before an incident occurs supposed to relieve you of your trauma, especially since it has been stated several times that the Doctor really doesn't know what happen to Ace to make her burn the house down? Is Smith an alien, and how exactly did he keep Light captive in his spaceship (especially since light seems to be able to travel through anything)? If Smith is an alien, then why does he even give a damn about the English empire, and Queen Victoria? What influence was Platt under when he thought the so called "twist" of having Smith kill the Queen was a good idea (with unbelievably poor subtlety as seen in the target practice scene with is unintentionally funny because of how stupid this plan, or lack thereof is)? How long has the spaceship been on Earth? Why doesn't anyone bother to find out about MacKenzie's disappearance from 1881 to 1883, especially if he was sent to Smith's house by Scotland Yard? If Light is so feared that he is locked up by the household and Smith, then why does one of the maids then believe that she can take Light out with a gun? Why do they go about their "normal" business after Light is resurrected, as it nothing had happened? If Light took Nimrod from his group of neanderthals (which Light says he classified on Earth) then why can't he believe that he is on Earth? Why does a neanderthal like Nimrod who is supposed to be lower than man on the evolution scale, seem to be on the same level, or of higher intelligence than the modern day man (as demonstrated by his managing the spaceship)? And did Light augment his intelligence (which doesn't seem likely since this flaming super twerp cannot grasp the concept of evolution and change)? How were there more than one Smith? How did Smith turn Reverend Matthews into an ape? Why do the Husks in the spaceship look like Omega and the Nucleus from Arc of Infinity and The Invisible Enemy (probably a subtle hint by the Cartmel-era production team toward how "highly" they considered this story by referencing two terrible stories in this way, plus did you notice the breaking down of the first Smith was a lot like the breaking down of Omega in Arc of Infinity) and why are they dressed in period costumes/Dress/Frock Coats? Why do Ace and Gwen dress up in men's clothes for (the clothing issue stolen from Horror which was done much better with Leela)? Why does Control jump out a window, and then in a few scenes later reappear inside the house without injury? Such questions perplex me about the "plot" and the so called "intelligent" nature of the story.
Critique of Ghost Light by Bob Brodman 10/1/03
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, some 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 that 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. 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 an 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.