Ghost Light
Target novelisation
Ghost Light

Author Mark Platt Cover image
Published 1990
ISBN 0 426 20351 8
First Edition Cover Alistair Pearson

Back cover blurb: Perivale, 1983 A column of smoke rises from the blazing ruins of a forgotten, decaying mansion. Perivale, 1883 In the sleepy, rural parish of Greenford Parva, Gabriel Chase is by far the most imposing edifice. The villagers shun the grim house, but the owner, the reclusive and controversial naturalist Josiah Samuel Smith, receives occasional visitors. The Reverend Ernest Matthews, for instance, dean of Mortarhouse College, has travelled from Oxford to refute Smith's blasphemous theories of evolution. And in a deserted upstairs room, the Doctor and Ace venture from the TARDIS to explore the Victorian mansion... Who - or what - is Josiah Smith? What terrible secrets does his house conceal? And why does Ace find everything so frightening familiar?


A Review by Finn Clark 28/4/02

Marc Platt's novelisation style differs from Ben Aaronovitch's. He doesn't go in for the detailed backstories we saw in Remembrance of the Daleks, concentrating more on extra scenes and atmosphere. I've just flicked through the deleted scenes at the back of the Titan script book (snippets which reached the rehearsal stage but didn't survive through to the final programme through time pressures) and most of them were familiar from the novelisation in some form. Again, this is a lot like a Director's Cut.

This is a spooky book. Gabriel Chase on television was pretty, a credit to the set designers, but it didn't particularly evoke a haunted house. This is genuinely eerie, with Josiah being positively vampiric. It's disquieting, even subtly disgusting.

As a story it works very well, with events moving surprisingly fast. I like the brisk pace of these novelisations, though the complexity of the TV story has been retained. You'll have to concentrate if you want to follow everything that's going on. The characters are lively and actually develop and do stuff, which is also an advance on Lungbarrow and Time's Crucible. Admittedly the theme of evolution is a big help, with no one ending up the same as they began. There's less ambiguity though, with the Doctor's agenda for Ace being presented directly through point-of-view scenes right at the beginning.

The dialogue is great. The Doctor and Ace have a life and sparkle to them; novelists can sometimes drone a bit, but this has been filtered through a performance. There are some wonderful lines here, while the character interactions often sparkle. The culture shocks with Ace's anachronistic apparel are funnier than on TV (though I missed the Reverend Ernest Matthews' facial expression after being called "bogbrain").

Page 110 has Turn of the Screw in-jokes, with reference to Mrs Grose. Grrr, snarl... but actually, as in-jokes go, they're quite good ones.

Judging by page 122, I'd say it's possibly more important to read the Target novelisations than to watch the TV stories if researching a McCoy and Ace story. This was where the writers laid out the backstory that was only referenced obliquely on television, in this case "families and mums and mum's fancy man".

Marc spends more time building up the beginning of the story. Episode one takes us almost to the novelisation's halfway point. However that doesn't mean the story's conclusion is hurried or skimmed, with McKenzie's demise being disgusting (all the more so for being understated) and the fate of Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard is possibly one of the most horrible things in Doctor Who prose fiction. That bit really got to me, possibly because I'd been drawn into sympathising with the characters almost despite myself. Gwendoline's poor confused mind gets a particularly good airing.

This is a luscious book that compares favourably with many NAs in every department, though it's shorter by a third. I reckon it's Marc Platt's best book to date, blending rich complexity with a enthralling story and rattling pace into something that's damn near perfect if you can just forget it's a novelisation.

When The Novel(ization) Is Better Than The Original by Matthew Kresal 26/8/11

It is no secret that several stories of the later years of the original series of Doctor Who suffered from edits made for reasons of running time rather than plot necessity. Ghost Light was one of the best examples of this and it does indeed remain a Doctor Who story that raises a lot of questions. Some of those questions though have been answered and have been for some time. The Target novelization of the story, published in 1990 and novelized by Marc Platt (the same writer who wrote the television story), shows that in some cases television stories work better on the printed page.

What shines through the most is the plot and the details of it lost in the television version due to the aforementioned editing. A novel (or rather novelization) by definition gives the author a chance to let the reader get inside the heads of character's and also to allow for more depth in terms of the plot. Ghost Light's novelization does exactly that. Platt doesn't do any huge in-depth background about characters, but he gives them depth by adding little pieces here and there. This means that things that perhaps weren't quite clear in television version (such as who Light really is, what's he doing and why he sets out to do what he attempts to do towards the end) are all brought into greater focus. There's also the neat addition of a couple of new scenes in the first chapter that help set up the story and a major plot revelation that comes much later in the story. The result is a story that is much more coherent.

What also shines through is the characterization. Ghost Light has the distinction of being one of the best acted of the original series stories (or at least in my humble opinion anyway) so that fact alone might be surprising. But what the novelization reveals is that not only was much of that on the page all ready but also something else. From Josiah Samuel Smith to the Reverend Ernest Matthews to Nimrod, Control and the mysterious Light itself, this novelized version of Ghost Light gives Platt a chance to shine. This is large part thanks to his descriptions for the characters, their mannerisms and the occasional change of point of view to them at just the right moment for dramatic effect. However, the characters who come through the most are the Doctor and especially Ace. This is very much an Ace story and from the new material in chapter one right through to the very end, that fact is in abundance. The result is that, despite the complexity of the plot, this remains very much a character driven story.

Yet despite all that, it moves at a good pace Those additional bits here and there have some interesting consequences. The big one is that almost half the page count is taken up with just getting through what was the first part of the television story. This is because Platt, like in the television version, builds up the atmosphere of Gabriel Chase and then introduces a bewildering array of characters within it. Yet once Ace goes underground, as it were, the story really starts moving and building up the tension for the dramatic reveal of Light before the Doctor deals with the madness that seems to consume everyone around him. In that way Platt uses the cliffhanger-centered nature of his scripts to his advantage here with the novelization being filled with perhaps more mystery and tension then its television counterpart.

Novelizations offer the opportunity to expand, if not improve upon, the original script that it is based on. From his expansion of elements of the story to rich characterizations and its pacing, Marc Platt's novelization of Ghost Light does all of that. In fact, it does more then that. It shows that, despite being a story originally written for another medium, Ghost Light is better served as novel.

"That's The Way to the Zoo" by Jason A. Miller 24/5/13

I was only 17 when I read the Ghost Light novelization in 1990, and the book's cultural, political and zoological references soared over my head. It was challenging, visceral, scary, disturbing fiction, but far outside my frame of reference for novelizations. I wasn't aware that Doctor Who had stopped production, that Ghost Light was the final classic series episode produced, and that I was reading a eulogy. I didn't like the gruesome, cynical character deaths or creepy-crawly atmosphere (all those insects!). The only element I appreciated was Nimrod, the Neanderthal turned 19th-century Victorian butler, one of the few characters to not suffer a disturbing fate. When I wrote my college admissions essay a few weeks later (Topic: "What historical person would you invite to dinner?"), I chose Nimrod, as a stand-in for Neanderthal Man. In many ways, he was the only character in the book with whom Marc Platt truly empathized; like the Doctor, Nimrod's "family, his people and his world were long dead. They lived only in his thoughts now." When I finally saw Ghost Light on TV years later, I recognized Carl Forgione, who played Nimrod, from Planet of the Spiders. He really did resemble a Neanderthal, with his bald pate and his long, sloping forehead. Carl Forgione is thus an unlikely link between the Cartmel masterplan days and my beloved Pertwee era.

A lot has happened since 1990. I discovered the New Adventures in 1991 and rec.arts.drwho in 1992; I bought the special edition of Curse of Fenric in 1993 and gradually came to a detente with Season 26 (I still disavow Survival). I am now two years older than Platt was when he wrote the book. Revisiting the novelization today, I see it as a work of genius. Platt's chapter titles are sardonic and meaningful in a way that Terrance Dicks' chapter titles, bless him, never were; "Gaslight Boogie" and "Beautiful Soup", could be from any '70s prog-rock or concept album. He incorporates the Victorian parlor song "That's The Way To The Zoo" (which I have now taught to my daughter); rattles off the names of tons of obscure insects and birds; and effortlessly weaves in in allusions to Narnia, Heart of Darkness, Turn of the Screw and Sherlock Holmes (the Doctor is compared to "some half-baked private sleuth").

Platt excels at getting inside the Doctor's head. The Cartmel masterplan saw the Doctor as an unknowable alien god (the oncoming storm), and Platt's first New Adventure, Time's Crucible, kept him at arm's length. Here, though, much of the book is spent in the Doctor's head:

The supporting characters also benefit. Mrs. Pritchard, one many faintly-tragic figures, "pushed to the back of her mind the questions with which she refused to plague herself." Redvers, the British explorer who's been kidnapped and hypnotized by Josiah, mistakes the haunted house for darkest Africa, and gets POV in the form of diary entries, in which he mistakes corridors for jungle (a jungle in which barometers hang on trees). Nimrod "instinctively looked up to where the sky had always been before the advent of ceilings." Years before the angry mass of poorly-written angst that was New Ace, we're told that Ace "hadn't realized she could hate the Doctor so much" or that "sometimes he scared the hell out of her." When Ace yells at the Doctor "You don't have to know everything!", Platt writes, "Oh, how he sometimes wished that was true."

The book is not easy, but the atmospheric prose rarely gets in the way. One effective image is when "Control's flying grey rags made it look like a monstrous bride in pursuit of an absconding lover." For a story that's about evolution, Chapter 7 ends with a remarkable pun: the Doctor "pondered silently, awaiting new developments in whatever form they might evolve." Even when Platt's being gross, he's memorable: Josiah's "skin was flaky and yellow like old paper, but his eyes, although watering heavily, looked out with the eager intent of a new and vigorous creature beneath the desiccated crust." There's a link to Lungbarrow, the Gallifrey-set script proposal from which Ghost Light was adapted, and which became the final 7th Doctor New Adventure in 1997. After Ace remarks "And I thought my family were trouble", Platt writes: "You should see mine, the Doctor was about to say, but he thought better of it."

While the death scenes still bother me - I'm never moved by the gruesome deaths of one-dimensional characters, and Survival and Time of Your Life turn me off beyond salvation - Platt at least writes them elegantly. And there's a lot. The Reverend Ernest Mathews, who refutes evolution, is turned into an ape before dying. Mrs. Pritchard and her daughter recover their true identities about 30 seconds before they're turned to stone (Narnia style). Inspector MacKenzie is turned to soup and served at diner. Platt injects some decency: when Light lures a tray-laden serving maid to her eventual dissection, her death is written off-screen: "The distant clatter of a fallen tureen echoed through the night chorus of insects."

Ghost Light, like most Cartmel-era stories, improves as a book. Shoehorned into 3 parts and filmed in Television Centre, even with clever direction and a really good cast, the televised story defies comprehension. The novelization adds scenes and clarifies on-screen events. It's still a difficult and disturbing read, and takes some - no, a lot of - getting used to. But it's part of how the Target line evolved into New Adventures; even if you're the Reverend Ernest Matthews, you can't deny the existence of this book. You might turn into an ape if you do.