“Ghost Light” (season 26, episodes 5-7. Originally aired Oct. 4-18, 1989)
“Ghost Light” has a fitting title: It was the last Doctor Who serial to be filmed before the show was cancelled. (The last story broadcast was “Survival,” but it went before the cameras before “Ghost Light” did.) After this, except for one brief, tragic misfire, Doctor Who really did become a ghost, doomed to wander the earth as a forgotten-cult-TV spectre in the form of quasi-canonical novels and radiodramas until the day it would finally, like its hero, regenerate into a new form.
That title is also pretty ironic, considering that “Ghost Light” has a well-earned reputation as the murkiest, most difficult Doctor Who story ever televised. What begins as a mysterious Victorian ghost story shot through with surreal images and an array of insane characters to rival Alice In Wonderland swings wildly into a sci-fi tale about ancient aliens and evolution, refusing to make it easy to figure out how everything connects. Even the BBC’s official website for the story suggests that “in order to appreciate fully what's going on it is probably necessary to watch ‘Ghost Light’ two or three times.” Naturally that’s made “Ghost Light” awfully divisive; its proponents suggest that there’s a brilliant story to be cherished here if you’re only willing to work to solve the puzzle that writer Marc Platt lays out. The other school grumbles that if it’s a puzzle, it’s still missing too many pieces to be properly solved, and it’s only a puzzle because the script does such a poor job of explaining anything. That’s compounded by post-production problems that reduce comprehensibility even further, including a bad sound mix that renders some dialogue totally inaudible, and drastic editing to make it fit the three-episode running time. I lean toward the second school.
So what haunts Gabriel Chase if not ghosts? Well, here’s where “Ghost Light” gets weird. And this is not easy to boil down to a few simple sentences, so bear with me.
We also meet a couple other minor players worth mentioning. First, the magnificently muttonchopped Reverend Matthews, a stuffy and judgmental preacher who’s come to see the master of the house to harangue him for his support of Darwin, and winds up getting devolved into a chimpanzee by a cackling Josiah instead. There’s also a Victorian big-game hunter and adventurer in the Allan Quatermain mode, who has been made crazy, amnesiac, and slightly radioactive by a mysterious light somewhere in the house, where he has come to save Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the famous Victorian big-game hunter and adventurer, from some dastardly fate at the hands of Josiah Smith. No sooner does he see his reflection and realize that he is Redvers Fenn-Cooper, when suddenly the household staff appears and whisks him away to be locked up in the attic with a straitjacket. And there’s also a policeman, Inspector Mackenzie, who the Doctor finds comatose in a collection drawer like one of Josiah’s butterflies, and who came to the house to investigate the disappearance of its real owner, Gwendoline’s father—two years earlier.
In the second cliffhanger, the final presence emerges from the cellar: It’s Josiah’s boss, an angelic-seeming being called Light, who scares Josiah even more than Control does. And at last, the Doctor finally tells Ace (and us) what’s he’s apparently known the whole time: Light, Josiah and Control are all ancient beings—or perhaps very sophisticated machines that are able to mimic life, or something like that. Light came to Earth millions of years ago to catalog all life on the planet—”every organism from the smallest bacteria to the largest ichthyosaur.” But he hadn’t counted on evolution creating new forms of life faster than he could catalog them, and so he was never able to finish the job despite centuries of work. Josiah and Control were originally servants, or perhaps subroutines, of Light’s mission. If I’m understanding the murky explanation correctly, Josiah was the program that actually went out into the world and counted up the animals, and Control stayed behind on the ship and watched Josiah in case of malfunction or other problems. But Light, frustrated by his task, went to sleep in the ship, where he’s been perhaps for millennia, leaving Josiah to start dreaming about not just cataloging Earth, but conquering it. In the end, the Doctor and his allies must stop two insane plans: Josiah has hatched a harebrained scheme to assassinate Queen Victoria and take over the British Empire, apparently entirely hinged on the fact that Redvers has a written invitation to meet her highness. And Light has decided to bring the number of species on Earth to a manageable number: Zero.
But it’s difficult to enjoy “Ghost Light” as a whole. Frankly, I can’t quite understand why “Ghost Light” has a such a stellar reputation in Doctor Who fandom. Yes, you have to watch it a couple of times to understand it, but that doesn’t make it Mulholland Drive or Watchmen. Lots of it does make more sense on a repeat viewing, but it’s also true that there’s plenty that seems even more incoherent or absurd. To take just one example: It’s hard to accept the idea that Light, whose sole purpose is to catalog biological life, is so completely flummoxed by such a fundamental aspect of it as evolution. How to explain that away? Maybe he comes from a planet where life didn’t evolve but was created in some other way and never changes. Maybe he’s a computer that wasn’t programmed correctly or was damaged, and is behaving like the godlike-but-dumb robots that popped up repeatedly on the original Star Trek. Maybe he does know about evolution, but is obsessive-compulsive about his catalog anyway and is simply too slow to finish before some new microbe evolves. All of those are possibilities that make sense, and I’ve seen them suggested around the Internet, but they’re not in the script, not deeper than implication, anyway. It doesn’t really matter how well a plot hole is explained away if the plot hole is still there.
Repeatedly, actions happen that are not adequately explained. Characters do things that are not adequately motivated. Explanations are given in single lines of dialogue that we are forced to accept, given no coherent sense to be drawn from what we have been shown visually up to this point. The idea that Josiah is an alien entity who has been evolving in stages from a primitive animal to a full-fledged Victorian gentleman is an interesting concept that is not strongly supported by what we’re actually shown before this explanation comes down. If the monsters in tuxedos are old husks that Josiah has cast off, why are they still moving? And if Josiah is meant to be evolving into a human, why does he go through a “Gary Oldman as young Dracula” phase? Wouldn’t it have fit the theme better if he, rather than Nimrod the butler, had been a Neanderthal? I’m even not sure what, if anything, Platt is trying to say about evolution other than “it’s a little creepy, don’t you think?” And based on his own explanation of Light’s mission (which is on the DVD extras), I’m even less convinced that Platt had a coherent idea in mind:
The idea is that there is an experiment. [Light] sends half of it [Josiah] out on to the planet's surface, and it evolves on the surface into the dominant life-form and disseminates [he apparently means “collects”] the information which Light then puts into the catalogue. Because it’s an experiment, there is also a control side of the experiment, which is a very basic life form. It’s a sort of life-unit which doesn’t change.
Sounds OK, except that in the story Light’s mission is clearly described (as much as anything is) as a biological survey. Putting together a complete catalog of biological life on Earth isn’t an “experiment.” It’s a matter of counting and compiling data. Experiments are about testing a hypothesis to see if it’s true or false, or to see what effect X has on Y. But Light is not agitated because his theory was proven wrong, he’s just sick of counting things. And surveys don’t need a control. So if Light really is conducting an experiment, and if Control is an “unchanging life-unit” and Josiah is out there changing and adapting its form to the local population, then Light’s experiment can’t be about anything but ... evolution. You know, the concept he supposedly doesn’t know anything about.
• The Doctor asks, rhetorically: “Who was it said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?” Former Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams, of course.
• Gwendolyn: "Sir, I think Mr Matthews is confused." The Doctor: "Never mind. I'll have him completely bewildered by the time I'm finished."
• The Doctor: "I can't stand burned toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls."
• During poor unhinged Redvers’ rambling monologue about his memories of Africa, he mentions finding a swamp filled with living dinosaurs, a story his friend Dr. Conan Doyle refused to believe—implying that, whether it really happened or not, Redvers inadvertently inspired The Lost World.
• Upcoming schedule:
[Note: Slight change of plans from previous schedule—the Labor Day holiday bumps everything forward, so the plan is now as follows.]
Sept. 16: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 30: “The Romans”
Oct. 14: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 28: “The Deadly Assassin”