The Doctor brings Ace to Gabriel Chase, a house in her hometown of Perivale which Ace attempted to burn down in her past. This is not the reason why the Doctor has come here though: a mysterious and highly mentally unstable being lurks below the house.
Ghost Light has a reputation for being quite hard to follow. It is probably some of the most mature and advanced science fiction Doctor Who has ever attempted. This was my first time watching it and I think I broadly understood it, although it is probably in a minority of stories that would really benefit from having a fourth part to the story, as there is not a scene or a line wasted, making it very difficult to make notes on! This is a story with Ace at its core and certainly paves the way for the companion development in the revived era.
It’s true, isn’t it? This is the house I told you about.
You were thirteen. You climbed over the wall for a dare.
That’s your surprise, isn’t it? Bringing me back here.
Remind me what it was that you sensed when you entered this deserted house? An aura of intense evil?
Don’t you have things you hate?
I can’t stand burnt toast. I loath bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls.
I told you I never wanted to come here again.
And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.
We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.
I face mine on my own terms.Ace and the Seventh Doctor
This story depicts an interesting take on the Doctor and companion dynamic here, something which has only been seen fleetingly in the relationship between Tom Baker and Leela. The Doctor certainly has had an impact on his companions’ through the course of their travels across each and every incarnation, however, before this point there was very little manipulation of the companion to the extent we see here. As a result, the Doctor comes across as quite scheming, whilst he is trying to ensure that Ace develops to face the fear of her own past, something that would certainly become an element of the remaining two stories of the original show’s run. It certainly makes the Doctor unlikeable when Ace realises that not only has the Doctor brought her to a haunted house, but the very haunted house that clearly had a profound effect on the young Ace. Whilst the Doctor’s behaviour here is morally ambiguous in bringing his young companion face to face with her fears, it does allow both him and the audience to understand her a bit more. Ace clearly had a traumatic time when she visited the house in her original years, evidenced by her horror at being back there, the flashing blue lights and her referring to the Doctor at one point as being her ‘probation officer’.
Who was it who said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?The Seventh Doctor
The story has a central theme of evolution. Light, the controller of the alien spacecraft, decides to destroy the Earth after realising that life has progressed on the planet since he originally catalogued it previously, at which time he picked up Nimrod, a Neanderthal who acts as a butler to the mutinous Josiah Samuel Smith. Josiah eventually evolves to the superior living being at the time – Victorian Man – and his ultimate plan to assassinate Queen Victoria. The visiting Reverend Ernest Matthews is a fine example of the members of the Church who stood up against Darwin after the publication of On the Origin of Species and looks the part too, with his mutton-chops evoking the cartoons of the key players of this period of history. Control evolves through the story into a more sophisticated lady of society, which eventually leads to the downfall of Josiah’s plan to commit regicide. Ace ‘evolves’ through the story, as she is seen to elevate herself to make herself acceptable to Victorian norms and values but she also manages to learn from her fear and she is certainly a different character from the one we see at the beginning of this story. The idea of evolution being reversed is also played around with too, especially when it comes to the fates of Matthews, trapped forever in a state between ape and man, and the kindly but ineffectual Inspector Mackenzie, who is reverted to primordial soup. These are quite big ideas being played around with for a show that is so easily dismissed as being a kids’ show.
This story is really well written by Marc Platt and is tightly plotted, although it possibly is a little bit confusing and could benefit from having the additional time and space a fourth part would have afforded it. It is to Platt and script editor Andrew Cartmel’s immense credit that this story makes any sense at all in it’s reduced form and I look forward to potentially understanding it more on future rewatches. An additional 25 minutes would perhaps have allowed some of the subplots, like Control evolving, the story around Mrs Pritchard and Gwendoline , and Josiah’s plot to use Fenn-Cooper to assassinate Queen Victoria some more time to breathe. This is quite a mature story for Doctor Who to tackle with quite a high concept villain and the husks included to provide a more traditional foe, something that John Nathan-Turner insisted on. It’s not surprising that Platt has been asked back to work on the Virgin New Adventures and subsequently Big Finish given that he clearly understands how to write for the show. Here, he takes the haunted house concept and introduces an alien spaceship under the house, which has returned to catalogue all life on the Earth after an original expedition to do so some time previously. This is quite a bleak story with some inventive deaths for the characters, such as those mentioned above for the Inspector and the Reverend, as well as the fates of Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard after they are finally reunited as mother and daughter and the maid who Light pulls apart to understand how humanity has evolved.
The guest cast here are really strong, and I feel that the regulars feel forced to join them. This is a strong and emotional episode for Aldred and she does a decent job – unlike in Battlefield, there were no moments where Ace acts out like a petulant child, which made a welcome change. John Nettleton is an actor for whom I have a tremendous fondness due to his recurring role in Yes, Minster and Yes, Prime Minister and I was overjoyed to see him here as the Reverend. John Hallam is great in his role as Light, seeming almost ethereal and dithering, but utterly ruthless, making the most of relatively little screen time. All the cast here are well served, despite a feeling that the story is bursting at the seams at times.
Verdict: I’m sure that my appreciation of Ghost Light will only increase with future visits, but I really enjoyed this story that doesn’t feed its audience all the answers. 10/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Ian Hogg (Josiah), Sylvia Syms (Mrs. Pritchard), Michael Cochrane (Redvers Fenn-Cooper), Sharon Duce (Control), Katharine Schlesinger (Gwendoline), John Nettleton (Reverend Ernest Matthews), Carl Forgione (Nimrod), Brenda Kempner (Mrs Grose), Frank Windsor (Inspector Mackenzie) & John Hallam (Light)
Writer: Marc Platt
Director: Alan Wareing
Behind the Scenes
- Working titles included The Bestiary and Life-Circle.
- Ghost Light was the last serial of the original run to be produced, although The Curse of Fenric and Survival came after it in transmission order. It is therefore, the final story to include any significant footage filmed at BBC Television Centre.
- Marc Platt is one of two writers in the show’s history to have a script accepted with no professional writing experience. The other is Andrew Smith, who wrote Full Circle.
- Sylvester McCoy named this as his favourite serial and Andrew Cartmel refers to it as the “jewel in the crown”.
- The story evolved out of a rejected script called Lungbarrow, which John Nathan-Turner rejected due to it revealing too much about the Doctor’s past. Marc Platt would go on to reuse the rejected ideas for the Virgin New Adventures novel of the same name.
- John Nathan-Turner was concerned about the lack of a traditional monster, so Platt devised the husks, prior evolutionary forms of Josiah. THe initial idea was to have an army of these, which was cut down to firstly three, then ultimately two for budgetary reasons.
- Ian Hogg went on to appear in The Sandman and Protect and Survive.
- Michael Cochrane had previously appeared in Black Orchid and would go on to appear in Big Finish productions, including No Man’s Land, Brotherhood of the Daleks, Trail of the White Worm/The Oseidon Adventure and The Fate of Krelos/Return to Telos.
- Carl Forgione previously appeared in Planet of the Spiders.
- Frank Windsor had previously appeared in The King’s Demons. He was cast in this story as he was well known TV Detective, having played John Watt on Z-Cars.
When Ace realises that the house is Gabriel Chase, the house that she burnt down as a child and that the Doctor has been lying to her.
Sir, I think Mr Matthews is confused.
Never mind. I’ll have him completely bewildered by the time I’m finished with him.Gwendoline and the Seventh Doctor
Previous Seventh Doctor Story: Battlefield