Written by Marc Platt
Directed by Alan Wareing
Transmitted 4 October – 18 October 1989
“Redvers had some stories… The pygmies led him blindfolded for three whole days through uncharted jungle. They took him to a swamp full of giant lizards like giant dinosaurs.
“Do you know young Conan Doyle just laughed at him?
“Well… that’s doctors for you.”
As part of an initiative test, the Doctor has taken Ace to an unknown location for a surprise; a seemingly normal Victorian house which is anything but. A diabolical alien known as Josiah Samuel Smith has taken over the house, bending it to their will with one goal, to assassinate the Queen and take over England. Deep in the bowels of the house, Smith has a pair of prisoners, one a bestial creature surviving off of scraps, the other revered as a God by a primate, impossibly serving as a man servant.
The Doctor plays the mad house as a master manipulator, a role that developed through McCoy’s brief run in the part. Playing with Smith and the other tenants of the house, he appears to have the situation well in hand, but the truth of the matter is something other. In his attempt to teach Ace a lesson, he has exposed her to one of her darkest memories, a haunted house that she had firebombed as a teenager. By bringing her to the same house earlier in time, the true horror of the haunting is evident and it could potentially crush her psyche and her trust with the Doctor.
The final season of Doctor Who is, in many ways, it’s most ambitious and adult in decades, certainly since 1970 when the program re-invented itself. The scripts were more far-reaching and diverse in their directions, from the straight forward and lighter Battlefield to the intense Curse of Fenric and Survival, a story which appears to be yet another Master adventure on the surface but is deeply embedded with meaning. In the case of Ghost Light, author Marc Platt adapted a tale that was intended to explore the Doctor’s family into one that more fully developed the companion Ace while utilizing the amazing aptitude of the BBC to craft beautiful period dramas.
This is a story that has a lot of naysayers and for good reason; it is overly complicated and crammed into three parts when four would have been better, McCoy is not exactly up to the demands on him and it is very difficult to even talk about what happened. For me, it is a special story that I hold a lot of care for simply because of the mood, set design and guest cast. The script is rushed and awkward at times but also brimming with evocative imagery and moving emotional exchanges. Ghost Light functions as a horror story, a cerebral thriller, a science fiction tale and a domestic drama. It’s marvelous.
The ‘monsters’ of the story, a pair of husks that ‘Josiah’ had discarded as he out-evolved his previous forms, are memorable creations. I quite like the image of creatures in tuxedos launching attacks from behind velvet curtains. Smith himself is a suitably insidious villain, oozing with charm and malevolence, he even tries to buy the Doctor’s services! Additionally, Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper is outstanding; a big game hunter wandering the halls of the house with an elephant gun, recounting his adventures in the jungle, his mind shattered.
When the facade is pulled back and the Doctor frees Josiah’s prisoners, things get a bit… overloaded. Both ‘Control’ and ‘Light’ threaten Josiah’s plans as they develop their own. Light is an alien that started a catalog of all life, took two samples, one free to evolve into other forms and another that would remain static. The first got ideas above his station and imprisoned his master and the control subject. Now free, Light is frustrated to see that his catalog is useless and vows to destroy all life on the planet. Meanwhile Control has become ‘infected’ by the same evolutionary bug that drove Josiah to dreams of empire, but in her case she simply desires to be a lady.
There is so much to love about this story… but a lot that hampers its enjoyment.
Sure, you have to watch this story very closely, paying clear attention to it (possibly twice) and even then you may scratch your head wondering who or what ‘Light’ is. That’s a failing in the story as the dramatic potential is undercut by a plot interlaced with layers, characters and revelations that all play out in concurrence. The story does not always play to its strengths and can easily lose even the most devoted fan. Some of the performances, such as Ian Hogg as Smith, are extraordinary, and while McCoy has some outstanding moments he also gurns at the camera so badly I wince in pain *for* him.
Doctor Who in 1983 was, even at its best, formulaic. In 1989, it was trying something new, something that the new series could take some lessons from. Even at its worst, Ghost Light tells a complete story that develops the companion, uses the Doctor, has monsters and an amazing guest cast. A true gem of the classic program, this story deserves an other look.