As sad as it was that our favourite T.V. series was about to go off the air, it is re-assuring to see that it went out with tremendous style and sophistication. That, rather than attempt to make all kinds of pathetic attempts at grabbing ratings, the show just focussed on a very specific vision of how to make quality television and did all it could in its last two seasons to bring that vision to life. Many of the stories in these last two seasons are imbued with, what I feel, is a tremendous spirit of excellence.
"Ghost Light" is one of the finest examples of that spirit of excellence.
Yes, like everyone else, I watched this tale for the first time and was pretty sure I had little or no clue as to what exactly had happened. But that, in my opinion, is what impressed me the most about this story. This was not your average "just explain everything in the last episode" formulae that we'd been accustomed to for the last 25 years or so (with a few notable exceptions, such as "Warrior's Gate"). This was a different kind of storytelling. All the elements of a complete story are there - it's just up to you to link them together and make your own decisions about some of the more vital aspects of the plot. Which is an extremely mature method of stoytelling. Probably too mature for most television audiences, of course. But that doesn't mean this story should be dismissed as too high-handed. To me, that would be the equivalent of dismissing Picasso's work cause it "looks too wierd". Just because the style doesn't make sense to everyone - doesn't mean the art is bad.
One of the greatest appeals about this particular style of storytelling is that, with every viewing, you can get something "new" out of it. For instance, when I just re-watched this a few days previously, I made a new conclusion about Light. I had often wondered why he was so disturbed by the whole concept of evolution and change. If he was surveying planets, wouldn't he have seen this on other worlds too? I noticed that the Doctor makes several references to Light being extremely ancient. Perhaps, then, Light is from one of the "higher" races that populate the Whoniverse. And it seems that many of these higher races are like the Time Lords. Very stagnant. Very resistant to any kind of real change. So when Light surveyed them, there would be no real sense of evolution there. Those races had done all the evolving they ever intended to. Could it be that the Earth was the first world Light went to that wasn't a populated by a higher race? Or is it merely the fact that in all his other surveys, Light just came down, did his census and moved on whereas he became stranded on Earth for a time?
Who knows for sure exactly why. And that's what makes this form of plotting so beautiful. I can spend endless paragraphs just theorising over this one little point. Because, again, Platt doesn't explain more than he needs to. He, instead, just lets use our imaginations. And this, to me, is a great why to appreciate a storyline.
The other strongpoint in the writing is its tremendous sense of style. From beginning to end, we almost feel like where listening to poetry rather than dialogue. With tonnes of litterary references seeping through the script (my favourite being the least cultured of them all where the Doctor paraphrases Douglas Adams!) and a fantastic sense of wordplay which manages to resist becoming tedious. For example, mutliple puns are made using the word "Light" but it never quite gets shoved down our throats. To me, this shows that Platt never wanted to be completely pretentious with his writing. But he did want to show off just how good he is with words.
Moving beyond the script, we see that gorgeous sense of style flowing into the production too. By keeping it all restrained to just a single location, fantastic work was done to make that location look absolutely authentic. Including, of course, an actual fully-functional lift built into the set. And production value is crucial in this tale. With a very moody and atmospheric script, you needed moody and atmospheric direction. And the blend here is seamless.
Acting in this tale, as well as most of the stories in the last two seasons, is second-to-none. All the characters, as strange and absurd as some of them are, are portrayed with conviction and realism. Redvers Fenn Cooper being easilly the most enjoyable of the characters. But then, how can you resist a completely insane character who still ends up being a really nice guy who is pivotal in stopping the machinations of the chief villain? I mean, that's just great characterisation. But of equal importance, was the need to get an actor that would portray him with the subtlety and sensitivity that the part requires. And this was done perfectly. How horrible Redvers might have been in another actor's hands.
Also, the characterisation being done with the two leads continues to work beautifully in Ghost Light. As much as we all love to go on about Rose and the Doctor, all that evolving (if you'll pardon the pun) interplay was also at work between the Doctor and Ace. The Doctor, by this point, had become more mysterious again - and this was a great move on behalf of the producer and script editor. But in developping that mysteriousness, it meant giving much greater attention to the background of the companion. And another layer of Ace is explored quite beautifully in the manor of Gabriel Chase. "Curse of Fenric" will still always be the best Ace story. But "Ghost Light" comes a close second. And it is sad that this whole mentorship between Doctor and companion was never allowed to reach its full conclusion. One hopes that, with the current development going on in Rose, this dynamic of a developing relationship (be it platonic or romantic) that we saw first with Doctor Seven and Ace will, at last, be explored to its fullest. Both Ace and the Doctor were very different from what they were like when they first met. And character growth in the leads of a T.V. series is a rare and precious gem. Glad we're getting more of it these days. But let it go on record that we saw it in Ace and the Doctor first. And several important elements of that growth are explored with great depth and sensitivity in Ghost Light. Making it just one more of the many strongpoints of this story.
There is much else to praise but I'll try restrain myself here and just go on about one more really good strongpoint: those gorgeous monologues. There's quite a few, of course. With Sly McCoy getting all the best ones. His abhorrence of burnt toast and the speech he gives to the cockroach are both written and delivered magnificiently. But the final speech that destroys Light is, quite naturally, the best. And though we see several examples with McCoy's Doctor "talking a villain to death" - this is one is my favourite. It is great the way the series used the very strength of the Doctor's words as a means of plot resolution. Making him the ultimate non-violent hero. Again, absolutely great stuff that, for me, brought the series out on a high note.
Any actual complaints? Perhaps two very minor ones. Though I love the incidental music, I would also consider a bit more than just intrusive in places. It's downright oppressive! Making some lines of this beautiful dialogue completely indistinguishable. Even after multiple viewings.
The other complaint being the McCoy gurn during the "I didn't get caught napping!" line. It's odd though, I'll watch the story and hate the gurn. But then, the next time I watch it - I think the gurn is perfect for that line. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, really. But the damned Sylvester McCoy gurn isn't so much a sore point for me as it is a point of mixed opinion!
Aside from those two very slight quibbles, this story is magnificent. Still not quite in what I would label the "classic" category. But then, I have very few stories that I slot in that space. Still, "Ghost Light" comes pretty damned close. One can only hope that the series tries something this bold again someday. It needs another few seasons to really get some solid feet, of course. But once those roots are there - let's see another story like this come out that will both astound and confound its audience!