Doctor Who #701: Ghost Light Part 1

"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."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.4 1988. I am reviewing this story AFTER The Curse of Fenric in spite of the original broadcast schedule to restore the writers' intended episode order.

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.


Madeley said...

A great episode from one of Who's most talented writers, who of course only got to write one television story (and the same of course can be said of Robert Sheareman). The scene that today's quote comes from is my favourite in all of Who, and it's tragic that here, in the last story that he filmed as the protagonist, that McCoy has finally nailed the subtlety that elsewhere would often escape him.

Maybe there's an argument to be made that we Who fans put to much weight on the superiority of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe Gothic approach, and it certainly isn't the last word on the character, but it complements the show and the Doctor so well. Fenric and Ghost Light are the most Holmesian stories that Holmes never wrote. Fenric in the way it follows his M.O. (the name of the story follows the "The X of Y" convention, it's the Who version of a Gothic classic, in this case Dracula mixed in with a chunk of Lovecraft), and Ghost Light via the dark Victorian setting. The police officer that turns up later could even almost be one half of a Robert Holmes double act, even if the other half never appears.

snell said...

I will note that this episode suffers from some of the same technical problems that hindered the era: the soundtrack is poorly mixed, with the dialogue occasionally drowned out by the pounding Casio keyboards; and the hyperkinetic editing again does no favors to the actors or script...

Also, if they didn't want the Doctor to go in and see RFC, why unlock the door for him, and then drag him out?

Siskoid said...

Madeley: The Doctor lives so well in that space, I think, partly because he dresses the part. His costumes are Victorian-Edwardian, he's a gentleman adventurer, which fits those eras, and often used as a Sherlock Holmes or Van Helsing type. Even the Time Machine is a trope of that era, via Wells.

Snell: I don't disagree with the mix (another reason the special edition of Fenric was superior), though I do like the cues in Ghost Light. Spooky organ, exotic beats for Redvers, etc.

Madeley said...

There was a lot of unfortunate editing due to circumstance in the era, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it hyperkinetic. Compared to modern television editing standards, it's practically lethargic.

What I have noticed with Ghost Light and Survival is that the picture quality on the DVDs is awful. They really should have let the restoration team do a little work on them, even though they're not damaged in the same way as the copies they have from the black and white era are.

Siskoid said...

Agreed. There are important blurriness issues and the picture is murky.

Anonymous said...

One of my most loved Dr. Who episodes. So happy to read your review of it.


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