Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘Ghost Light’ is an especially controversial, dismissed by some fans as convoluted at best, nonsensical at worst. Personally, I feel that not only does ‘Ghost Light’ make sense, but after the dire ‘Battlefield’ the acting, direction, set design and incidental score come together to considerably lift the quality of Season Twenty-Six and the result is a magnificent piece of television and a very fine story.

‘Ghost Light’ is basically about evolution, but it isn’t as straightforward as that. Writer Marc Platt crafts a script that is concerned not with the fact of evolution but about Victorian attitudes towards it and misconceptions about it. Josiah Samuel Smith typifies this; part of Light’s crew, or as the Doctor more accurately puts it, cargo, Josiah has escaped whilst his master sleeps and has gained delusions of grandeur as he tries to evolve into the dominant life form. Which in this case isn’t a human, but a Victorian gentleman and, he hopes, ruler of the British Empire. The problem is, Josiah gets it wrong; his plan to assassinate Queen Victoria is ludicrous, because he simply wouldn’t become King in her place, he’d be executed instead. The point of which is that Josiah doesn’t realize this, because he sees society as an evolutionary ladder; his misconceptions are driven by trying to apply the idea of ecological niches to Victorian London, which is logical from his perspective but essentially flawed in practice. And he’s obsessed with evolution; he spends the first two episodes trying to evolve into a Victorian gentleman but failing to realize that wearing a suit, owning property and throwing dinner parties is not enough. He gets everything wrong; he has his guests murdered, he employs a Neanderthal as a butler, and he preserves Inspector Mackenzie like an insect specimen in a draw. He’s also terrified of Control evolving into a “ladylike”, seemingly because he thinks that she will thus be competing for the same ecological niche that he currently occupies and that this threatens his position. In a story with uniformly excellent acting, Ian Hogg is outstanding as Josiah, a vicious and ruthless being who is nevertheless one of the most intentionally incompetent villains in the series history. 

Of course when the Doctor awakens Light at the end of Episode Two, the threat poses by Josiah pales into insignificance, as a being with far greater concerns about evolution is unleashed. Light is a fascinating creation, an obsessive cataloguer of life forms whose need to complete his lists is threatened by the unceasing change and evolution of life on Earth (amusingly, he puts me mind of a psychotic Doctor Who fan, obsessed with completing his or her collection and bleating about the amount of new merchandise constantly being released). My initial reaction to the appearance of John Hallam’s Light is usually one of unease; the definition of the word “camp” seems to vary depending on who you ask, but Hallam’s performance is at first the epitome of camp, which does rather threaten to spoil the gothic mood of ‘Ghost Light’; as Episode Three progresses towards its conclusion however, Hallam’s fey performance is increasingly juxtaposed with the character’s increasing insanity and the result is unnerving, as Light goes from being an “angel” to a monster that dismembers maids, reduces Mackenzie to primordial soup, and threatens to destroy all life on Earth to stop further change. The means of his defeat is magnificent, as the Doctor talks Light into self-destruction by pointing out that he, too, is constantly changing; the demented being is utterly frustrated by this and eventually stops himself from changing in much the same way that he intended to end evolution on Earth once and for all. 

The great strength of ‘Ghost Light’ is Platt’s script, full of wit and with, as has been noted by fans of the story, barely a single line that doesn’t in some way either advance the plot or significantly contribute to characterisation. Java is used as a metaphor for death, but it also ties in nicely with the evolutionary theme due to the large number of fossils that have been found there over the years and even Gwendoline’s rendition of “That’s the Way To the Zoo” is significant in that it prefigures the fate of Reverend Matthews, cruelly transformed into a parody of an ape. Matthews is a highly significant character in terms of the evolutionary theme; intentionally or not, the model of evolution used by Platt here bears only passing resemblance to the scientific theory (his suggestion that the insects in the house will one day evolve into more advanced beings is a case in point), but it bears a great deal of resemblance to the common misconceptions about evolution often displayed by members of the public. Matthews represents this ignorance, not because he is religious, but because he is angrily refuting Josiah’s (and Darwin’s) claims that man was descended from a primitive ape ancestor without displaying any real understanding of the theory. Thus, although Matthews does not drive the main plot, he does play a role in the development of the underlying themes of the script. 

The script is full of such details, some more subtle than others, with lines such as “There go the rungs on his evolutionary ladder” in Episode Three when Josiah unwillingly switches places with Control. There is also a great deal of wit on display here, such as when Josiah describes the primordial soup that was once Mackenzie as “the cream of Scotland Yard”. Word play is evident throughout, especially in Redvers’ dialogue; he refers to Queen Victoria as “the crowned Saxe Coburg” for example and generally acts as though he believes that he is still exploring the darkest jungles of Africa, which on one level is clearly intended to convey the fact that he is unbalanced, but also imparts a great deal of information about what is going on, especially when he talks of light burning bright in the heart of the interior, which of course reveals that he has at some point found his way down to the “lower observatory” and seen the hibernating Light, which is what drove him insane in the first place. 

The characterisation is superb, and is complemented by some fine acting; Michael Cochrane is perfectly cast as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, conveying all the eccentricity of a stereotypical British explorer with confidence. He isn’t the only stereotype on display here; Mackenzie is clearly a pastiche of the archetypal traditional British police officer as seen in fiction, a bumbling plod utterly out of his depth who spends much of his time eating or sleeping (Platt of course deliberately exaggerates both of these clichés, with Mackenize having been in a period of enforced hibernation for two years and ravenous as a result; he eats several large meals after the Doctor awakens him!) and plays second fiddle to the eccentric amateur sleuth, i.e. the Doctor. Veteran actor Frank Windsor is superb in the role, and he is in good company; Sylvia Sims is suitably terrifying as the typical stern Victorian housekeeper, also exaggerated by the script into the head of a gaggle of gun-toting maids. Rather less typical at first glance is Nimrod, a Neanderthal employed as a butler, but when we consider that Redvers is a stereotypical explorer whose response to meeting tribal cultures is to offer brightly coloured beads, he too stands revealed as an amusing pastiche of another cliché, as he spouts Earthly wisdom and respects the Doctor’s shaman-like traits as though he is some kind of witch-doctor. Carl Forgione provides an understated and quite performance which is perfectly in keeping with the “noble savage” character type that he is playing. Thus we are presented not only with Victorian attitudes to evolution, but also with characters that are a clear nod to Victorian fiction, or at least common perception of what Victorian fiction is like. 

Crucially, in addition to creating all of these memorable supporting characters, Platt also provides a script that serves both Doctor and Ace beautifully. The Doctor’s manipulative streak becomes readily apparent here, as he brings Ace back to a house that terrified her as a child, largely to satisfy his own curiosity. Ace works better here than in any of pervious stories, and this largely down to the script, which reveals some of the darker secrets of her past but also shows that she feels guilty about them, hints at the reasons for her rather troubled past (the attack on her friend Manisha) and really starts to suggest that she is finding some kind of redemption by travelling with the Doctor whether she is seeking it or not. Happily, Sophie Aldred puts in her best performance as Ace here, and whilst I’ll never find her convincing, she is far more natural in the role than on most prior occasions. Sylvester McCoy meanwhile positively shines here; he gives his most austere and mysterious performance so far, and is very well served by Platt’s script. He is melancholy when the Doctor tells Ace, “I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls… And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.” And he even conveys anger convincingly when he tells Light to leave Control alone in Episode Three. The Doctor gets some fine scenes here; he demolishes Josiah’s plans with ease at the dinner table in Episode Three, as he breaks his hold over Mrs. Pritchard, and convinces Redvers to turn on his benefactor and throw his invitation to Buckingham Palace into the fire. Finally, there is his defeat of Light; as though to compensate for the rather iconic but ultimately nonsensical (on screen, at least) scene in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ wherein he talks the Dalek Supreme to death, here his similar defeat of Light is far more smoothly achieved. He keeps talking to the increasingly frustrated Light, pointing out that he too is constantly changing; as he does so, Light’s aura fades as he becomes more and more distraught (which is presumably why he doesn’t obliterate the Doctor with a thought) and almost piteously cries, “You are endlessly agitating, unceasingly mischievous, will you never stop?” The Doctor’s reply is, of course, “I suppose I could, it would make a change”.

The script and the acting are instrumental to the success of ‘Ghost Light’, but everything else comes together here too; Alan Wareing’s direction is superb, exploiting the gothic feel of the detailed period sets beautifully, and is greatly helped by the flawless costumes and sets, not to mention Mark Ayers’ impressive incidental score which enhances the sinister atmosphere with great accomplishment. ‘Ghost Light’ is Doctor Who as I like it; it brims with outlandish ideas, it looks gorgeous, and the acting is great. It clearly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for me it is an example of Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who at its best.

FILTER: - Television - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor