Doctor Who: Ghost Light

"Is this an asylum with the patients in charge?"

Taking place in a creepy Victorian mansion, home to an eccentric collection of creeps, weirdos and monsters, 'Ghost Light' is a semi-successful attempt to recapture the glory days of the show's Gothic era under Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe.

It is something of a cruel irony that Doctor Who was cancelled just as it seemed like the show’s creative team finally figured out how to make good Doctor Who again. Good, mind you, not great. Because while these final three stories represent the best the McCoy era has to offer, compared to the best that previous eras had to offer they are all decidedly average.

'Ghost Light' has a reputation for being a little confusing. Even the cast have freely admitted that most of them hadn't got the foggiest idea what the hell was going on. Like most stories from this era, 'Ghost Light' never stops and takes the time to explain anything clearly. It's not often I say this about Doctor Who stories, but this one really could've done with an extra episode. After multiple rewatches I'm still not entirely sure who or what Josiah exactly is. Was he one of Light's specimens that got loose and took over? How are he and Control able to keep evolving the way they do? Why isn't he at all surprised by the Doctor and Ace's sudden appearance in the house? And how does he know that Doctor is someone who can help him deal with Light? 'Ghost Light' makes no effort to give us straight answers to any of these questions and just expects us to accept that and move on.

Over the last three seasons we've seen the Seventh Doctor slowly transform from a bumbling clown who was always playing the spoons, to a Machiavellian chess master who has more secrets than he has question marks on his jumper. It is a character shift I highly approve of, but feel they take it a little too far in this story, to the point where the Doctor comes across as a seemingly omniscient being whose victories come so easily they ultimately feel unearned. For much of the story the Doctor confidently strolls around the house like he's already worked out every single move that everyone is about to make. Nothing seems to shock or surprise him. He even knows that Inspector Mackenzie has been turned into soup despite not having any opportunity prior to entering the dining room where he could've possibly learned this.


While the script has its share of issues, the quality of the production more than makes up for it. And it is not often I get to say that about a Doctor Who story. This is one of the rare stories that doesn't make me cringe every five minutes while watching it. The whole thing looks impeccable, or as impeccable as late 80s Doctor Who can look. Everything from the sets and costumes, to the direction and music, is fantastic, although the atmospheric lighting is often too atmospheric for its own good. Some scenes are so dark it is difficult to see what is actually happening.

This story also benefits greatly from having what many Seventh Doctor stories have lacked – a strong cast of memorable supporting characters, although perhaps more than is strictly necessary. Is there a point to the character of Inspector Mackenzie? He shows up halfway through, wanders around the house asking everyone what's going on, does nothing substantial, and dies. Meanwhile, Michael Cochrane's explorer disappears for most of the story, only to pop up again in the last episode just so we can learn about Josiah's scheme to take over the British Empire by assassinating Victoria, which not only feels tacked on, but makes not a lick of sense. How will killing Victoria enable him to take over the Empire? The throne would just pass to Edward and even then the real political power was held by Parliament, not the monarchy.

This season saw great emphasis placed on exploring Ace's troubled backstory. This and the next two stories actually form a loose trilogy centred on Ace, her history, and her relationship with the Doctor. This was revolutionary for the show at the time. Before Ace, the show never really bothered to give companions things like character development or detailed backstories and certainly not traumatic ones that left them with emotional scars that still haven't healed. As great as it was to see a more psychologically complex companion, I don't think Sophie Aldred's acting was quite up to the challenge the writers were giving her. The moment near the end, where she finally reveals that she burnt down the house is particularly cringe-worthy.


Notes and Quotes 

--Although aired second, this was actually the last serial of the season shot, therefore the last Doctor Who story produced during its original run.

--This is a surprisingly ghoulish story. The  Reverend Ernest Matthews is turned into an ape and then stuffed and put on display, Light dismembers one of the maids to see how she works, turns Inspector Mackenzie into primordial soup (which is then served for dinner) and turns Gwendoline and her mother into stone.

--This story was originally meant to be set in the Doctor's ancestral home on Gallifrey and would've dealt with his past. After John Nathan-Turner vetoed this, Marc Platt later reworked his idea into a novel, the infamous Lungbarrow, which was also the last of the Virgin New Adventures series featuring the Seventh Doctor.

The Doctor: "Who was it said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?"
--I believe it was this show's former script-editor, Douglas something or other.

Josiah: "I'm as human as you are."
The Doctor: "...Yes."

Gwendoline: "Sir, I think Mr Matthews is confused."
The Doctor: "Never mind. I'll have him completely bewildered by the time I'm finished."

Ace: "Don't you have things you hate?"
The Doctor: "I can't stand burnt toast. I loath bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls."
Ace: "I told you I never wanted to come back here again."
The Doctor: "And then there's unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty."
Ace: "Too right."
The Doctor: "We all have a universe of our own terrors to face."
Ace: "I face mine on my own terms."

Nimrod: "At the season when ice floods swamped the pasturelands, we herded the mammoths sunwards to find new grazing."
Inspector Mackenzie: "Tricky things, mammoths."

The Doctor: "I'm not interested in money. How much?"
Josiah: "Five thousand pounds to rid me of this evil brute."
The Doctor: “Now that’s what I call Victorian value. But I'm still not interested in money.”

Ace: "So I burnt the house down."
The Doctor: "Any regrets?"
Ace: "Yes."
The Doctor: "Yes?"
Ace: "I wish I'd blown it up instead."
The Doctor: "Wicked."

Three out of four bowls of primordial soup.
--
Mark Greig remembers the good old days before the ghost town. We danced and sang, and the music played inna de boomtown More Mark Greig

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