Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Every time I see it, Ghost Light never fails to dazzle me. An advantage of the show being so small and unimportant in the late 1980s was that, by having nothing to lose, it could afford to be daring and as a consequence we get this extraordinary story that is simply unlike any other episode. I’m not going to claim that I’ll grasp the multitude of subtexts it presents in this review – after all, how many thousands of words do you want to read?

Like many stories it’s the visuals that make the first impression, and the opulent yet un-showy sets and subdued lighting create an oppressive atmosphere of decay from the start. Add to this the music – Mark Ayres is just about the only person I can think of who made an electronic score work in a period setting, and here he does his best work for the series. He is correct to say in interviews that it’s too loud; this is however a problem addressed with the 5.1 surround mix on the DVD. The whole opening is enigmatic and bizarre, with a montage of unexplained happenings (mysterious figures in chairs, secret passages in walls) that set the scene for a story that never quite divulges its secrets. That said, Ace is definitely not at her most charismatic here (before her catharsis in The Curse Of Fenric), and I do cringe a bit when she talks to the stuffed emu; a childish moment in such a mature and esoteric story seems very incongruous.

In quick succession we are introduced to the first members of the oddball cast: Rev. Matthews, Mrs. Pritchard and Redvers Fenn-Cooper. The guest actors here cannot be faulted and neither can Marc Platt’s dialogue for them; Alan Wareing’s direction is also excellent as the camera ominously follows Mrs. Pritchard around. The eloquent Nimrod is a fascinating character and almost funny in a bizarre kind of way, but the real crown has to go to Ian Hogg who has to be one of the best guest stars the series ever had. He plays a true enigma, a man crippled by acute senses that harks back to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’; these references are so subtle that for an English student like me they’re fun to pick up on, but for a casual viewer they simply add to the overall kaleidoscope. 

The Doctor mentions a Chinese firing piece: is this a reference to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang I wonder, one of Platt’s favourite episodes? I’m currently in my third year of an English degree so I pick up on many of the literary references – Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness being the first – and I can say that they help to make the story what it is, as many of its elements may not have been present were it not for them.

The “bog-brain” line shows all that’s wrong with Ace: by having as a companion the kind of character who realistically would swear like my old boss, many strange and totally unbelievable insults have to be substituted to make the character suitable for a family audience. However, this does make her growth in the second half of the season all the more notable and one of my greatest regrets about the series being cancelled when it was is that this burgeoning character arc is cut dead. Also a point for criticism is the glowing snuffbox: while a very dramatic scene, to be sure, it is the one moment of the complex story that I genuinely think should have had more explanation. 

One of my favourite moments in the story is the Doctor’s confrontation with Ace, which finally sketches in some plot amongst the madness. I have to say though that I’ve never had any great problem with the plot; it’s the subtexts and undercurrents that make the story so complicated, and all the exposition that’s needed is there provided you have your brain switched on. I would say that this is no more complicated than the following story The Curse Of Fenric, but then again I was six when I first saw that one and twenty when I first saw Ghost Light, so there’s bound to be a discrepancy in how I view them. I would strongly dispute the claim in The Pocket Essentials Guide To Doctor Who, one of the lamest episode guides there ever was, that it makes no allowance for the casual audience – it is fully open to the casual audience, containing none of the inward-looking insularity of old. I just makes no allowance for people who need their plots given to them on a silver platter. And if we’re talking about subtexts, then Gwendoline singing ‘That’s The Way To The Zoo’ is the icing on the cake. The advancing husks make for a surprisingly traditional cliffhanger, but those monsters work as concepts.

Inspector Mackenzie asleep in the drawer shows that the story is capable of pulling surprises all along its length, but really it’s a bit hard to know what to say about the story now because every time I seem to have a handle on something the story veers away onto something else.

Control’s release is one of my all time favourite pieces of direction that the show ever had: a shapeless figure leaps from the dungeon and moves down the tunnel. However, even though the camera is facing directly towards her we can’t see her due to the dark lighting and the other characters until her hand comes round the door. Brilliant – and her Eliza Doolittle-style dialogue works well too.

Rev. Matthew’s transformation is darkly comic in a spooky and very grotesque way, and this is contrasted with Mrs. Grose (named after Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw), the one normal member of the cast. Nimrod’s soliloquy to the fang is a very atmospheric moment among many, as is the Doctor’s musings on what Light actually is.

The frozen staff in the attic are very creepy, and the final form of Matthews is really something. The second episode finishes with another great cliffhanger as Light, whatever it is, finally begins to emerge from the lift. John Hallam’s slightly effeminate performance as Light is a bit of an acquired taste I will admit, but I really like it. I find it a pleasing irony after Matthews denouncing evolution as blasphemous to find a character who is simply bored and frustrated by the whole process.

Oh man, the gurning. It comes to something when the lead actor is the worst in the story, but there you are. At least this time I was writing in my notepad and so didn’t have to watch it. Ace’s flashback is a nice idea but a bit dodgy in practice, as red lighting and Sophie Aldred’s dodgy acting fail to convince that the stuffed animals are coming to life.

The death of the maid shows Light’s amorality as opposed to sheer evil, and the scene where he turns Mrs. Pritchard and Gwendoline to stone is deeply poignant as well as showcasing some excellent special effects.

The forgotten sub-plot of the assassination of Queen Victoria is finally given some time here, and it leads to a dramatic scene at dinner where Aldred actually gives a decent performance as Control threatens to burn the house down. The Doctor talking down Light, while not exactly thrilling, is appropriate to the story although the stop-the-countdown ending tacked on to make it seem more exciting is very artificial and contrived. However, there is finally some good interplay between the regulars at the end.

Ghost Light is, quite simply, amazing. It’s hard to judge it by the standards of other stories as it’s so unlike them, but taken on its own terms it is one of the most original and unique pieces of science-fiction I’ve ever seen. So when’s Marc Platt writing for the new series?