Mention just the title to fans of Classic Who and you're likely to elicit a series of responses. For some, it's a compelling piece of work full of atmosphere and good dialogue. For others, it's a baffling mess of ideas string together across three episodes. For me, I fall into the former category rather than the latter. Why? Because Ghost Light might be the most deceptively complex Doctor Who stories ever made.
On one level, Ghost Light is an alien invasion story masquerading as a Gothic ghost story. All the elements for a Gothic tale are here: large spooky house, a strange and dominating male figure, a seemingly innocent young female, a menacing housekeeper, guests who are not what they seem, and family secrets all come into play. What makes Ghost Light unique is what writer Marc Platt and script editor Andrew Cartmel do with them by turning some of the tropes on their head (Gwendoline becomes both victim and villain for example) and by turning it not into a ghost story but into a tale of alien invasion that is largely contained to this one house. In fact, it might well be considered more in the vain of the Gothic genre than many of the tales from the era more than a decade before that is more generally associated with Doctor Who and that genre.
On another level, it's a tale about Victorian naturalists and evolution. Light in his way is a Victorian naturalist, cataloging different species and eventually coming to feel overwhelmed by what he's encountering (becoming a kind of conservative who wants everything to stay the same). Control and Josiah are evolution and science at work: Control being the experimental control who stays aboard and never changes while Josiah is a creature that goes out and adapts to the environment around him. Evolution plays a major role in the story, both in terms of dialogue but also in plot.
Speaking of dialogue, Platt's script bristles with references and wit. There's the occasional reference to the series' past with a brief reference to The Talons of Weng-Chiang and the works of Douglas Adams. There's literary references ranging from Henry James to George Bernard Shaw, and even pop culture references such as the Beatles. Platt also pokes fun at Victorian culture with characters such as the anti-evolutionary Reverend Matthews and a reference to one of the real-life examples of evolution pointed to in the era the story is set. The wit is on play as well with some wonderful one-liners that, along with the aforementioned references, makes this one of the most literary and humorous tales the series has ever produced.
Yet for all of that, it never loses sight of its characters. By both design and accident of scheduling, this was to become the first in a series of stories that developed the character of Ace and, indeed, in three episodes Ace got more character development than some companions had in multiple seasons just a few years before. Yet the Doctor is never too far away with Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor firing on all cylinders playing master chess-player and unknowing clown, depending on whichever suits him. Outside of the TARDIS crew, all of the characters here are richly drawn and superbly brought to life from Ian Hogg as Josiah, Sylvia Syms as the housekeeper Mrs Pritchard, and Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper. It's a richly written tale, brought to life superbly.
All that being said, I stand by what I said in my review of Platt's own novelization in 2011: Ghost Light works better as a novel than it does on-screen. What it needs, as my best friend said when we recently sat down and watched this, is a scene where Ace (or really anyone) sits the Doctor down and says “What is going on here?” Outside of that, it needs what Platt was able to do in the novel: have space for the story to breathe and be fully told. Perhaps if it had been an episode longer and hadn't needed to be cut down as much (the DVD features nearly a full episode's worth of deleted scenes) it would be a clearer tale. That said, the idea that the story is a baffling mess is unfounded as there are plenty of context clues and references made for viewers to follow the story, if not always totally understand why something is happening.
In the end, Ghost Light is far from your typical Doctor Who tale. It's a layered tale, full of incident and references that make it among the most literary tales the series has ever produced on screen. It's a story that shows that, even in the last days of its original run, the series still had legs to run with. Or, to put in another way, it was still evolving...
GHOST LIGHT is amazing. Watch it once and you'll be befuddled. Watch it twice and you'll be astounded. At the very least it's one of the more complex stories they ever did, simply because they don't stop very often to explain what's going on. Ace was always a bit smarter than the average companion, and here she proves that she can work the plot out on her own without needing to constantly ask the Doctor what's up. Why do all the older companions need to be certifiable idiots? One effect of making Ace brighter is that they needed to make the Doctor smarter to show her up, and Sylvester McCoy is definitely up to the task. He's quiet and cunning and utterly cool.
We get an excellent guest cast. Most memorable for me is Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper (James Fennimore-Cooper?), a great white hunter gone insane and skulking about a Victorian mansion. The mansion is eerie, populated by weird creatures and weirder humans, and some who aren't quite human. The music is a huge step up from the early-Eighties muzak, and contributes to the gloomy, spooky atmosphere.
Three aliens are living on Earth, in Perivale of all places. One plots to assassinate Queen Victoria while he keeps the other two locked away. One of them, "Control", breaks free and wants to become more human. The third, "Light", gets loose and threatens to freeze all life on the Earth to stop it evolving -- it turns out that these three were a survey team, but their insane, obsessive leader could not deal with all lifeforms on Earth constantly changing and evolving, so they ended up staying much longer than they'd planned. They have a Neandertal butler as well.
The story makes good use of the theory of evolution as well as Victorian anti-evolutionists. The result is a creepy and suspenseful little chamber-drama, the like of which DOCTOR WHO had never quite managed before -- although some episodes of the new series have come close.
I can't say much about this fun and riveting take of semi-gothic horror with Doctor Who's usual mix of science fiction and wit. It will always be a worthwhile purchase in my eyes. The episode arrived on time and was in absolutely perfect condition, including the original plastic shrinkwrap and seals. Worth every penny;-)
Another incredible story from the most underrated Doctor. I ordered this because it was the only cheap one that came from the good era of Sylvester McCoy, but even I, huge fan of his that I am, was unprepared for how good the story was. One of the things I like most about seasons 25 & 26 is that you really get a feel for all the characters that are only in one serial, & this was no exception. And it was a complex story; the Doctor said as much himself with the quote at the top. I was surprised to find that this was McCoy's favorite serial he starred in. I'm not sure that it's mine, but it's certainly a good choice.
doctor who:ghost light is one of the most detailed stories of any doctor who period. it has a haunted and creepy old house storie feeling to the alien threat which makes the story a magical and special take on the doctor who stories as they come to be known. the doctor and ace make one hell of a double team of talent and acting. Sylvester McCoy is at his top level of acting as the doctor in this story. Sophie Aldred as ace does a remarkable job in this remarkable gem of a tale. the set design is top class all around. i love the mood and seting of this storie. it stands out as one of the best doctor who tales ever to grace the screen. it stands out as a classical doctor who tale in every sense.
This story made absolutely no sense. It had great production values and great acting, but I have no idea what was going on or what it was even about. I think whoever wrote it was chemically altered because it's absolutely bonkers. Buuuut it's Doctor Who so I can't give it less than 3 stars. And anyhow the production value was excellent, like I said.