“Ghost Light” is only the second story in Sylvester McCoy’s time on Doctor Who that actually offers a good, strong, well-acted narrative. The story famously requires multiple viewings to really work out what’s going on, but in the end it generally makes sense despite the lunacy of the characters and situations. Author Marc Platt has written a highly imaginative plot filled with great concepts and literary allusions.
It’s difficult to write a standard, linear review of this particular story. It contains a complicated mix of characters and plotlines that all intersect and interact to produce a narrative where only half the events are explicitly explained on screen. The deleted scenes on the DVD contain some information that probably shouldn’t have been cut since they clear up a number of questions, such as why the Reverend Ernest Matthews is at the house in the first place, or what the glowing eyes on the animals are meant to be, or the fact that Control has control over the husks in the cellar. The loss of some of this story information leaves the viewer asking questions that would otherwise have been explained, rendering the story more confusing than it needed to be. And if there was ever a Doctor Who story that cried out for more explanations, “Ghost Light” would certainly be at the top of the list.
Nevertheless, the basic storyline does hang together. It revolves around an alien life form called Light, whose spacecraft is in the basement of an opulent house in Perivale, sometime around 1883, a century before Ace’s time. Light is a cataloguer of life forms, who carries with him on his ship two other aliens, one of whom remains in her original form (named Control, as in the control group in an experiment), while the other “evolves” and takes a shape comparable to the local life forms on the planet. The three are essentially a survey team, with Light being powerful and dominant, while the other two serve him. When the Doctor and Ace arrive, Light has been dormant for a long time for reasons unexplained. Control has been imprisoned by the other alien, who has taken to calling himself Josiah Smith and has taken over the household of a Victorian gentleman and his family. He kills the husband, then hypnotizes the wife and daughter along with the household maids, and passes himself off as the girl’s uncle. Josiah frees a specimen from Light’s ship, a Neanderthal named Nimrod, and employs him as the butler. He also apparently invites a famous explorer named Redvers Fenn-Cooper to the house, knowing that Fenn-Cooper has an invitation to Buckingham Palace. Josiah plans to assassinate Queen Victoria and take her place as the head of the British Empire. Fenn-Cooper finds his way down into the cellar where the spaceship is, is driven mad when he sees Light, and is then imprisoned in the house until Josiah is ready to use him.
None of this is presented in a straightforward fashion. The information is doled out in bits and pieces over the course of the three episodes. Sometimes it comes explicitly through dialogue, and sometimes it just has to be inferred by what the characters say or do. So it is primarily this way in which the story is told that has lead to the confusion about it over the years, because the answers to the important questions are there. Less important questions aren’t always answered, though as I said some of those are addressed in the deleted scenes, meaning the narrative suffers from the need to fit the episodes to broadcast length. But it’s not just the narrative structure that’s the problem. As with so many seventh Doctor stories, characters say and do bizarre things that simply do not make sense in any real-world context, and that is as true of “Ghost Light” as it is of other McCoy-era stories. Take for example the way in which Fenn-Cooper constantly rambles about the darkest reaches of Africa, or speaks about himself in the third person. Now at least the character has a reason, since he’s been driven insane. But it’s still a prime example of what the audience would perceive as simply an utterly bizarre character, until his ordeal is explained later in the story. A better example would be Josiah’s extremely odd attempts at serving dinner, while all the time bizarre things are happening in the house that would make any sane person either run away or deal with the problem. Josiah is, of course, play-acting at being a fine Victorian gentleman who entertains his guests, so the first time is excusable. But how me can continue the charade when Light is roaming the house is beyond me. Even more bizarre is the way the Doctor plays along with it, not once but twice. At least it does lead to the very funny line from Nimrod about Light instigating the firestorm program sometime prior to dinner.
The narrative makes very interesting use of the theory of evolution, while the Victorian setting makes the subject matter topical for the characters in the story. Oddly enough, none of the characters in the story truly seem to understand the theory, including the Doctor. Josiah Smith seems to believe that if he assassinates Queen Victoria that he will take her place. In misapplying natural selection to the social order of society, Josiah apparently believes that survival of the fittest means that he’ll evolve from a Victorian “man of property” to the ruler of an empire. The Reverend Matthews, who is unfortunately an extreme stereotype of the narrow-minded religious leader rather than a genuinely rounded character, dismisses the theory on religious grounds. There is a parallel drawn between Matthews and Light, in that both stubbornly refuse to accept something that contradicts their own view of the world. Matthews simply dismisses evolution with contempt, but Light has the power to end evolution entirely by ending all life on Earth, thus assuring that his catalog is complete and accurate. The Doctor tells a cockroach not to worry, that all civilizations start with foraging but that things will soon change, seemingly implying that cockroaches have a civilization that will one day produce TV, diet Coke and nukes, given enough time and enough change throughout the cockroach generations. Unless he’s just waxing poetic.
The story delves into Ace’s past, one of the first times a companion is developed in this way in the series. Unfortunately, what is revealed continues to characterize Ace as either extremely disturbed or criminal, as it is revealed that she burned the house down in 1983. After her friend Manisha was attacked, she ran away in grief and anger and climbed the wall that circled the house. She was frightened by the “evil” she felt while in the house, and so she burned the place to the ground. We’ve already learned that she used explosives to blow up classrooms and the art projects of her fellow students, and now arson is added to her list of crimes. The problem is, none of this really meshes with the personality given to her onscreen by Sophie Aldred, who’s really rather likeable and not at all thug-like or crazy. While Ace does like to blow things up, it’s often treated as a bit of a joke rather than as a serious mental problem. All of this is probably why I’ve always had such a problem with Ace. She just isn’t credible, because the backstory jars terribly with the on-screen persona of the character. However there’s no denying that she and Sylvester McCoy make a good team and work well together, and that does paper over a lot of defects. And on another note, it’s nice to see her out of the bomber jacket. Sophie Aldred looks quite nice in both her outfit from episode one and the period dress that she wears in the final episode. I don’t much care for the tuxedo though.
On to the acting, which is generally of a high standard in “Ghost Light”. This comes as quite a relief after all the amateur dramatics in “Battlefield”. Everyone is quite strong, even with the weird stuff they have to say and do. Sophie Aldred is much better than she has been in the past, and Sylvester McCoy, while variable, gives one of his best efforts, with the exception of the “I didn’t get caught napping” scene, which is just awful. When he confronts Ace after she realizes she’s in Perivale, or when he’s looking slyly pleased with himself because Control trusted him, McCoy is genuinely compelling to watch. On the other hand, John Hallam, the actor playing Light, is a bit odd and slightly laughable when his voice goes all high-pitched. As the episode goes on, Light’s dangerous actions do a lot to counter his slightly goofy voice, though he never really becomes frightening. Carl Forgione is great as Nimrod, who in another bit of well-judged humor, is the nicest and most civilized character in the story even though he’s a Neanderthal. Lastly, Ian Hogg makes a great villain, even if he is rather clueless about the society he is trying to emulate and rule.
“Ghost Light” is the type of story that no other TV show could tell. It’s slightly rough around the edges because it could stand a few more explanations, but the idea behind the story is genuinely original and interesting and the characters are well thought out and well-performed for the most part. My opinion of “Ghost Light” has gone up recently as I’ve watched the story again for the first time in a number of years, and indeed I’ve developed a certain level of enthusiasm for the story. As the original series drew to a close, it’s nice to see a good story like this to help Doctor Who end on a series of high notes.