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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Steve Oliver

I love these DVD releases of the old series. Not only do you get a good quality version of the story, but also a package of lovingly produced extras. Not that this is a review of last years DVD release of ‘Ghost Light’, but its important to note how much my understanding of this complex story has been aided by the various extras found to be found on the disc. You see, even after multiple viewings of my VHS copy, I never truly understood the intricacies of this serial until only recently…

‘Ghost Light’ is famously the last Doctor Who serial produced as part of its original twenty six year run. It is also, perhaps, the only Doctor Who story that still gets fans scratching their heads over the complexities of the plot fifteen years after the original broadcast. There are various explanations for this. Firstly, ‘Ghost Light’ is a genuinely complex story about evolution and various conceptions of it. So, we have the Reverend Ernest Matthews dismissing entirely Darwinism, and Josiah Smith believing in ‘survival of the fittest’. We know this from his plan to take over the British Empire by killing Queen Victoria, the ‘Crowned-Sax-Coberg’. This illustrates Josiah’s misconceptions about evolution. Secondly the narrative doesn’t flow as it normally would in other more traditional forms of storytelling. There is no clear beginning, middle and end (or exposition, explanation and resolution) in the traditional sense. The viewer has to piece these things together for themselves. Thirdly, some fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ to such an extent that they won’t even attempt to figure out what its all about, many are turned off completely by the unconventional manner the story is being told. Finally, it has to be said that no matter how many times we are told (by people who worked on the serial) that all the pieces of the puzzle are there, up on the screen, some of them aren’t. For example, the viewer could probably figure it out for themselves that the husks are Josiah’s cast offs from previous ‘regenerations’, but why do they still contain residual life? If they are indeed ‘empty shells’ then how is it possible that they are still animated? No explanation is offered. Also, why and how does Reverend Matthews devolve into an Ape by eating a banana? A script that makes the viewer work hard is fine by me, but when key plot points are never explained, it merely confuses, and, ultimately, frustrates. It makes many fans dislike ‘Ghost Light’ and means that they’ll never enjoy what is otherwise an excellent McCoy adventure.

‘Ghost Light’ features a wonderful cast. Ian Hogg, who plays Josiah Smith, is superbly sinister, and in an era in which produced few decent villains, may come as something as a surprise to first time viewers of this serial. Sylvia Simms is perfectly cast as the stereotypical Victorian era housekeeper, and Katherine Sleschinger does well as Gwendolyn. John Hallam's performance as Light I feel is a bit off. It is often described as camp, but I’m not really sure that is the correct word to describe it. It is certainly brave, but I’m not sure that the vocal tone used to play the part is correct. Also worthy of mention is Carl Forgaine who plays Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler. Forgaine puts in a superb performance, and his non-human Neanderthal body movements completely sell the character.

Of the two regulars, McCoy really shines here. Able to cast off once and for all the rather goofy elements of his character that were evident in seasons twenty four and to a lesser degree season twenty five, his portrayal of the Doctor hits its peak. Aldred is also decent here, and is helped considerably by a script that not only makes her a central player, but also gives her no cringe worthy dialogue such as "Who do you think you are, armpit?", which featured in this seasons ‘The Curse of Fenric’.

First time Doctor Who writer Marc Platt has produced perhaps the most densely written scripts of the entire series. Barely a word or phrase is wasted, which has the effect of making ‘Ghost Light’ quite exhausting to watch. The plot involves the Doctor and Ace arriving at Gabriel Chase, so as to allow the Doctor to give Ace an initiative test. This is really a front to allow the Doctor to delve into Ace’s past, although we don’t discover this until later in the serial. After this introduction, things move along breathlessly. The main point to make about the beginning-middle portion of the story is that Josiah Smith, who holds a different view on evolution to the Reverend Ernest Mathews (who presumably believes in the creationist theory), has hired Redvers Fenn-Cooper to assassinate Queen Victoria. He even attempts to hire the Doctor to do this, but is turned down (obviously). As events build to the final part, the Doctor releases Light, in order to counter Josiah Smith. This is where things can get confusing. As explained on the ‘Ghost Light’ DVD, Light is a being who travels the universe, cataloguing all life forms. The life form that evolved into Josiah Smith is a part of this process. The role of this entity is to evolve into the highest form of life on any given planet, hence his evolution into a Victorian Gentlemen. The character of Control, then, is to simply stay aboard the space craft and not evolve, so the two can be compared. This is why, when she escapes, she begins to change and evolve into a "Lady-like", and at the end of the serial the two have swapped roles, with Josiah Smith becoming the creature Control evolved out of. The climax of the story sees Light tormented by the constant evolution of life on Earth, and so initiates the ‘Firestorm’ programme to stop evolution on Earth completely. Light is defeated with the Doctor talking him to death, which I rather enjoy.

All of this takes place on a superb set, with moody lighting and high production values. It is a cliché to say that the BBC does costume dramas well, but it is true.

Mark Ayres score is superb, evoking a certain amount of mystery and complimenting the onscreen action. On the DVD he himself says that the incidental music is too loud in the mix, but since I didn’t notice this until he pointed it out, I really don’t care. The X-Files was always slathered with loud, atmospheric music, and so perhaps ‘Ghost Light’ was a little ahead of its time.

‘Ghost Light’ is a near flawless production, and the fact that you get more from the story the more you watch it means it stands up well to repeat viewings. It doesn’t do anything for a sizable minority of fans, and for the first few times I saw it, it did nothing for me either. In fact after first viewing the mid-nineties video release, I actively disliked ‘Ghost Light’. Now I have a better grasp of the complexities of the plot, however, I can’t fail to enjoy such a rich Doctor Who story. Season twenty six was building to go out with a real bang.