Ghost Light ★★★

Spooky goings-on in a Victorian mansion – you might enjoy it but good luck understanding it!

19045

Season 26 – Story 153

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“This is the house I told you about… That’s your surprise, isn’t it? Bringing me back here” – Ace

Storyline
The Doctor tricks Ace into facing up to her worst nightmare. In 1983, aged 13, she torched Gabriel Chase, a ruined mansion in Perivale, and the Time Lord takes her back to the spooky house, albeit in 1883, to establish the nature of the horror she sensed there. Josiah Smith – a collector of moths, bugs, stuffed birds and preserved people – has a stranglehold on the household. He is in fact a fast-evolving alien, whose stone spaceship lies dormant in the cellar. Ace accidentally frees his fellow crew-members, a female Control creature and angel-like Light. They’ve been travelling through space, classifying life-forms. Josiah has evolved into a Victorian gentleman and now plans to reinvigorate the British Empire by assassinating Queen Victoria, while Light decides to halt evolution by eradicating all life on Earth…

First UK transmissions
Part 1 – Wednesday 4 October 1989
Part 2 – Wednesday 11 October 1989
Part 3 – Wednesday 18 October 1989

Production
OB recording: June 1989 Stanton Court, Weymouth, Dorset
Studio recording: July-August 1989 in TC3

Cast
The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Ace – Sophie Aldred
Josiah Smith – Ian Hogg
Mrs Pritchard – Sylvia Syms
Redvers Fenn-Cooper – Michael Cochrane
Inspector Mackenzie – Frank Windsor
Control – Sharon Duce
Gwendoline – Katharine Schlesinger
Reverend Ernest Matthews – John Nettleton
Light – John Hallam
Nimrod – Carl Forgione
Mrs Grose – Brenda Kempner

Crew
Writer – Marc Platt
Designer – Nick Somerville
Incidental music – Mark Ayres
Script editor – Andrew Cartmel
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Alan Wareing

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Ghost Light, like so many stories of this period, is a shambles. That isn’t to say I dislike it or deny that it has admirable qualities. Crucially, however, as a piece of television drama it is incoherent and almost incomprehensible.

I’ve read other reviewers excusing Ghost Light, raving about its complexity and insisting that repeated viewings will eventually shine light into its obscure recesses. Well, I watched the story on transmission in 1989, again in the 1990s and just recently for this review. Three viewings and I’m none the wiser.

Only by sifting through bonus features on the BBC DVD have I started to make sense of the events and characters in the televised episodes. Although there’s no harm in challenging an audience with a little obfuscation, making them work to unravel a mystery, sense and clarity should be paramount in any narrative. No one will be satisfied with a puzzle if they aren’t given all the pieces.

The annoying thing is that fan-turned-writer Marc Platt is evidently well read and has a great story to tell. He makes much of Ghost Light intriguing and creepy; there are many pearls of dialogue, and I appreciate the underlying concepts of Darwinism, biological classification, evolution and decay – “That’s life,” as the Doctor puts it succinctly.

The incoherence is ultimately Andrew Cartmel’s responsibility. As script editor, it was his job to hone these scripts into three 25-minute episodes of primetime drama. But there were numerous rewrites, indulgences, and excisions before and after recording. Many of the cast have gone on record saying they never fully understood what they were doing. Neither did the director. What hope for the audience?

I still haven’t a clue why Frank Windsor’s policeman is being kept in a drawer then becomes primordial soup; how or why Reverend Matthews is turned into a monkey; why Josiah’s creepy-crawly specimens come to life. What happened to the original master of the house? Why are his wife and daughter behaving so oddly? Why do the night-time maids move like automata and what becomes of them at the story’s end?

Why is Redvers kept in a straitjacket upstairs? Why do the eyes glow on a rocking horse and stuffed birds? Why does the house have the Neanderthal Nimrod for a butler? How can the discarded husks of Josiah move? Why is the spaceship under the house and how long has it been there?

The personal connections and shifting balance of power between the crew – the Josiah creature, Control and Light – are confusing, even when discussed on the DVD, and remain wholly obscure in the drama. Does all this matter? Well, yes, at a time when Doctor Who was having to prove itself and fight for its own survival, it matters greatly.

Ghost Light glimmers, nevertheless, with moments, incidents and little touches to savour. As a studio-bound production it’s actually quite impressive. Perhaps benefitting from the murky, lower-grade videotape used during the late 1980s, the Victorian interiors and costumes look terrific. The lighting is moody when needed, and Alan Wareing’s direction is punchy, if undermined by the choppy shooting script.

An extraordinary guest cast includes a severe Sylvia Syms as the Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper and Ian Hogg as the Jekyll-like Josiah. John Hallam is peculiarly fey as the ethereal Light, while Sharon Duce (then well known for the BBC1 hit, Big Deal) is lumbered with making sense of Control. One of the silliest characters ever served up in Who, she evolves, in the space of about ten minutes, from a harpy flapping about in rags into a defenestrating Eliza Doolittle.

The aspect that fares best in Ghost Light is the Doctor’s cavalier manipulation of Ace. He behaves like a therapist with a sledgehammer, thrusting her into the mansion that’s haunted her teenage years, a building she burnt down. Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy are particularly effective in these scenes. He asked to change the Doctor’s very last line “That’s my girl” to “Wicked!” It’s simpler, touching but laden with meaning and shows what a grip McCoy had on his character and relationship with Ace.

On reflection, I admire the jumbled miasma of evolution v religion with which Marc Platt suffuses Ghost Light. The Christian reverend, a Darwin-sceptic, is forced to evolve, or rather regress, into a monkey-man. Flitting about the aptly named Gabriel Chase, angelic Light decides there will be “no more change, no more evolution, no more life”.

“No more amendments to my catalogue!” he insists, almost like a demented Doctor Who fan. And this particular story – the last made by the BBC for 15 years, the last recorded at Television Centre – seemed for a long while to have put a halt to the ever-evolving Doctor Who, just as it was taking its next giant leap.

Radio Times archive

RT billings  part one  part two  part three

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gallery of rare Radio Times images taken on set in 1989