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Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

‘Cerebral’ is a word that often gets thrown about when fans discuss Doctor Who amongst ourselves. Let’s be honest, now - we do like to pat ourselves on the back about how *cerebral* the show is, don’t we? I mean, it is much more cerebral than, say, Star Trek or Star Wars, isn’t it; is it any wonder the Americans don’t really get it? More than that, the very towering cerebrality of the program implies something about *us*, too – after all, the simple fact that we have all gravitated towards this show means that we are part of an elite, a select, clubbish group made up exclusively of those with the rare intellects it takes to comprehend, let alone love, such an esoteric, wonderfully *cerebral* work as Doctor Who. Am I wrong?

Well, as much as it might feel good to go on like this, the cold fact remains that much of Doctor Who’s entertainment value was about as cerebral as a fat lady sitting down on a chocolate pie. Think of how often in the series we can observe ludicrous (a) non-science, (b) plot holes, (c) chases and (d) escapes, (e) so-we-meet-again-Doctor! dialogue (and worse), and then of course there’s (f), the show’s amusing tendency to tie up loose plot strings with huge explosions in the final ten minutes. And please don’t make me bring up the Slitheen . . . . It may be painful, but it must be admitted that Doctor Who drew on a vast mishmash of cultural sources, handling them in countless different ways; and the resulting paté-like texture, while undeniably part of the appeal (Doctor Who almost literally contains something for everyone), means that a whole lot of fat and weird gristle can be found mixed in with the lean. Also, another factor is the continuing emphasis on the program as one for children and the family, which often makes for stories that err on the side of accessibility rather than intellectual challenge, for better or worse.

That said, every once in a while, a story aired that truly did live up to the ‘cerebral’ label, and I don’t think anyone, even those who truly hate ‘Ghost Light,’ can deny that it is one of them. This story is dense, challenging, and occasionally frustrating in its obstinate refusal to be straightforward in its narrative approach. At times, it can seem like the Doctor Who equivalent of a European art film – the emphasis is on impression and imagery rather than on completely comprehensible plotting. Its wordplay is buoyant and witty, but it’s also heavy with literary allusions, and can seem mannered and artificial if not approached in the right spirit. It addresses the abstract concept of evolution, but chooses not to make any sort of obvious statement about it; in other words, it doesn’t put evolution under a microscope to dissect it, but rather bats it about playfully like a balloon. This detached approach is not going to be appreciated by everyone, but it can’t be denied that it was daring for the production team to attempt such a complex story in the context of the Doctor Who format. (It has been suggested that omens of Doctor Who’s impending cancellation liberated the production team to experiment, and indeed, it seems hard to believe they would have attempted such a story had they thought a more accessible approach *could* save the program.)

The abstract, impressionistic nature of ‘Ghost Light’ makes a straightforward explanation of what it’s trying to do difficult, and some other writers here have acknowledged that fact - or demonstrated it! And I’m sure that I shall do no better. But perhaps a good place to start is with the ways in which the story depicts the Victorian era, because this time, unusually, the place/time setting is not only there to create atmosphere, but also to resonate with the conceptual subject matter at hand. ‘Ghost Light’ is set in a great old spooky Victorian house, and it does a good job of conjuring up all the morbid associations we expect from gothic literature of this period – the dead birds all over the place are a nice touch – and, indeed, the direct references to James, Carroll, etc., emphasize the self-conscious ‘literariness’ of the approach. More than simply setting a story in the Victorian, Marc Platt’s script exaggerates the Victorianness to the point where it’s almost laughable – such improbabilities as everyone sitting down to a civilized dinner party in the midst of such bizarre circumstances have an element of parody, and Fenn-Cooper, Matthews and Mackenzie are characters that could easily have appeared in Wodehouse. 

But, as I said, the Victoriana goes deeper than surfaces, as the story’s two main villains are revealed as peculiarly Victorian mad scientists, sort of flip sides of the same Darwinian coin: Light is a fastidious cataloguer of life forms, and Josiah seizes on the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a way in which he might gain power for himself. But it is interesting that Platt’s script is more ambivalent than we might expect on the evolutionary question. For while the Doctor criticizes, and ultimately destroys, Light for his refusal to acknowledge evolutionary progress (“We don’t want things to change – we make sure they cannot”), we also can’t say that Josiah’s embracing of the evolutionary concept is held up as inherently superior. After all, Josiah’s ambitions are depicted as disgusting (his cast-off ‘husks’) or absurd (his plot to take over the Empire by assassinating Victoria). Then again, it can be argued that Control and Nimrod are characters who use evolution to dramatically improve themselves . . . . but this is a good example of how ‘Ghost Light’ resists attempts to explain it simply. Suffice it to say that viewers who look for easy answers in the story are setting themselves up for disappointment. (This is not to suggest that such a desire is necessarily wrong – just that it won’t be successful here.)

So, having failed to draw a simple conclusion from the thematic content, perhaps we should at this point turn to the aesthetic elements, which are rather easier. The design, as I said, is very effective at conjuring up the dusty Victorian of ghost stories, and the many dead things and creepy crawlies we encounter not only highlight the natural science themes, but also contribute to the horror of the piece. At many points, ‘Ghost Light’ truly does resemble a nightmare, such as when the insect-headed ‘husks’ (in evening dress!) come to life and shamble towards Ace, or when the wraith-like Control first escapes and chases the others down the hall (a very scary moment). The scene in which Ace wakes up in a comfortable bed only to learn that night is falling heightens the sense that ‘Ghost Light’ is a bad dream from which its characters cannot escape. Even the jokes are often macabre, as when the Reverend Matthews accuses Josiah of “disputing man’s dominion over nature” – while the latter is serving calves’ brains for dinner! 

The story’s one real aesthetic flaw, as others have pointed out, is the physical manifestation of Light, who appears not as the ‘angel’ of Ace’s estimation, but more as a tanned, blow-dried eighties news anchor in soft lighting. It doesn’t help that John Hallam seems to be imitating Terry Jones’s Prince Herbert when he speaks, either. By some miracle, the character remains effective in its conception, and perhaps would have benefited from being winged, as the production team apparently wished to do. (But with Hallam playing him, probably not.)

Fortunately, the other actors fare much better. Carl Forgione’s Nimrod is extremely likeable, and comes across as surprisingly soft-spoken, articulate and humane. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ compares him to Caliban from ‘The Tempest,’ but apart from superficial similarities this doesn’t make much sense to me; and, indeed, if there is a Caliban in this story, it must be Sharon Duce’s Control, who, like Shakespeare’s character, is frightening and ‘monstrous,’ embittered towards her superiors (“You promise me my freeness!”), and ultimately sympathetic, despite her initially repulsive appearance. And it’s nice that Platt allows her a more explicitly happy ending than Caliban’s, too. Sylvia Syms is also good as the Mrs. Danvers-esque sinister housekeeper, and it is a credit to the actress that the character is transparently above her station even before her true identity as a gentlewoman is revealed. And Michael Cochrane at times steals the show as Redvers, who is given many of the script’s best lines (“That, sir, is no way to talk to a lady-like”).

And as for the regulars, just like in ‘The Curse of Fenric,’ they seem to enjoy exploring the dramatic opportunities provided by script editor Andrew Cartmel’s controversial ‘manipulation’ stories. Sophie Aldred is particularly good here, and pulls off Ace’s more overtly emotional moments far better than she did in stories like ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’ She is comfortable both with the flippant banter she exchanges with the Doctor (Ace frequently gets the upper hand – “Uncle Josiah knows as much about its secrets as a handbagger knows about the Amazon desert.” “Sounds a bit like you and the TARDIS.”), and with the more serious scenes (she seems genuinely shocked and betrayed when she learns the Doctor has brought her back to Gabriel Chase). And as for the Doctor, Sylvester McCoy does suffer from his well discussed inability to create a sense of danger (when he shouts at Control through the window he seems merely hammy), but overall he’s quite good as well, clearly enjoying himself in his scenes with Aldred. And his performance also softens the manipulative elements of the character brought out in the script – he’s certainly believable in playing this Doctor’s compassion for his companion, as when he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “I think you care a lot, Ace.”

So, how can we sum up ‘Ghost Light’? In the end, the viewer’s appreciation for ‘Ghost Light’ is going to depend on his tolerance for its approach. It’s true that this is a story that remains confused in some ways, even on repeat viewings. Several plot elements, such as the origins of Control and the transformation of Matthews, have to be inferred rather than deduced by the audience, and this is going to make the story somewhat unsatisfying for some viewers, especially uninitiated ones. Like ‘Kinda,’ ‘Ghost Light’ is ultimately apt to remain something of an acquired taste, even for fans, but it is an oddity that is probably worth the effort in the end, whether because of its cerebral quality, or in spite of it. 

Either way, it has a wonderful final line.