"I can't stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls. Then there's unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty. We all have a universe of our own terrors to face."
IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in Gabriel Chase House, dinner guests to a strange naturalist with a madman in the attic and monsters in the cellar.
REVIEW: Let's come right out and say it. I probably won't get every single nuance in Marc Platt's famously coded script, but it's not my first time, so I should do okay. Though Ghost Light looks like a mix of Black Orchid and Kinda, we should understand it as an exercise much like Robert Holmes' The Talons of Weng-Chiang. That serial wasn't told in the normal Doctor Who "voice", it used its setting to turn the program into a small slice of Victoriana, and treated its characters and events as a Victorian genre writer would, commenting on that genre's tropes as they are being used (and so, the racist portrayal of the Chinese, gentlemen detectives, Ripperology clichés, etc.). Platt's starting point is equally Victorian, but less fictional. Ghost Light is instead imbued with the era's obsession with naturalism (not the literary kind, in fact, rather the opposite), explorers mapping out the increasingly-known world, cataloging all manner of fauna and flora, and, the big one, the concept of evolution as described by Darwin.
On the surface, this is what the story is about, and Platt gives us a creepy house (and the story at this point DOES work as a creepy monster-under-the-stairs tale) filled with stuffed animals, creatures collected and cataloged, but nature without life. Nature dead, frozen in time, static. This will become very important later. The house has an odd Neanderthal butler (a real one, not a throwback, since he recognizes the Doctor's Stone Age tip), a Great White Hunter gone mad and hunting himself (Homo Sapiens treated as just another specimen), and a Reverend come to argue against evolution (evolution isn't just biological, he has failed to adapt to new knowledge and scientific advancement). Gwendoline's song is about zoos and monkeys (but also about "nuts", fitting with what's going on on the top floor). But while there are forces trying to stop or delay evolution, evolution is a force in the story as well. The monster in the cellar has learned to speak since Josiah checked on it last, he suspects moths are now adapting to pollution, and there are a great number of references to transformations, from Ace and Gwendoline dressing up as boys to Ace mistaken for an Alice (Alice in Wonderland being all about transformation of body and mind; cute too that Ace is normally linked to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, exchanging one modern fairy tale for another in this piece). And of course, this whole ARC of the series is about Ace's personal evolution. The Doctor has brought her here in part because she sensed an alien evil in the house back when she was 13 (in 1983) and trusts her instincts (as a Wolf of Fenric, she must be more sensitive than most), and in part to make her face her fears. He's grooming her for something, jumpstarting her evolution. So what happens when a "mere mortal" adapts to life with the Doctor?
We're learning more and more about Ace. She's opening up. She made a reference to Gabriel Chase in The Curse of Fenric, and here we learn about her going inside on a dare, and how the friend who played dare games with her, Manisha, was the victim of a racially-motivated crime. It informs her reaction to Mike Smith and his mum's whites-only B&B, and her general sensitivity to injustice. Ironically, the episode that sheds light on Ace's character is one of the most darkly-lit since the Philip Hinchcliffe era. This is, in fact, such a dark world, that Light is dangerous to it. It's what makes Redvers go insane, and obviously, the title of the story promises more on that count.
VERSIONS: The DVD includes deleted scenes from this episode, including a long sequence in which the Doctor and Ace investigate the room they landed in and find taxidermy products while Josiah spies on them, the Doctor berating the Reverend for his closed-mindedness, and a different voice-over from the monster as the husks stumble towards Ace. What I most miss is the best Darwinian joke of the episode, the Doctor being surprised Darwin had problems with seasickness given where he came from (i.e. out of the sea; it's an evolution gag).
REWATCHABILITY: High - Part 1 isn't as opaque as the story's reputation would make it. It's a spooky haunted house story with a strong theme and some great Ace material.