“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.
Before I go too much farther, if any story needs a plot summary, it’s this one, so here goes. The Seventh Doctor and Ace (previously covered in TV Club in “Remembrance Of The Daleks” and “The Curse Of Fenric”) arrive in the TARDIS in a Victorian mansion called Gabriel Chase; the year is 1883. As we’ve seen, their relationship is unusual for the series because there’s something of a hidden agenda in it for the Doctor—this version of the character, as imagined by script editor Andrew Cartmel, is a manipulative schemer who knows more than he lets on, and unlike previous incarnations his travels are often not the random journeys they seem to be but destinations with a goal he doesn’t reveal until late in the story. And especially in season 26, many of the journeys are secretly about helping Ace grow and mature, in this case to force her to confront an old childhood trauma. She doesn’t realize it at first, but the mansion is the same one that she burned down when she was a kid (100 years later, in 1983) because she was convinced it was haunted. And since this is Doctor Who, it kind of was haunted, but not exactly by ghosts. The Doctor has brought her to the building’s past to show her how it got that way. It means terrorizing her, but the Doctor must figure she’ll be stronger for it in the end.
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.
Gabriel Chase’s owner—or so we think as the story begins—is a sinister gentleman named Josiah Smith. He’s filled the house with thousands of butterflies in jars and other biological specimens, and has scandalized his neighbors with public support for Charles Darwin’s new and deeply controversial theory of evolution. He’s also so sensitive to light that he wears dark glasses constantly and demands that his entire household be only active at night. In fact, he’s terrified even by the mention of the word “light.” He does employ a full staff of daytime maids, but they’re so terrified of him that they flee the house every day before sunset arrives—which is when the rest of the house wakes up, as if they were robots being switched on or the dead returning to life. He seems to have them all under his mental control, including his young ward Gwendoline, who has developed a bizarrely bloodthirsty side under his influence. This might lead you to suspect that Josiah is really a vampire, but things aren’t nearly that simple. We’ll come back to that. Oh, and one of the servants, the butler Nimrod, is clearly a Neanderthal, even if he wears a fine suit and speaks with the cadence of Jeeves.
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.
Josiah also has something nasty walled up in his cellar, something that utters crazy-sounding threats and ravings in a raspy voice, calling itself “Control” in the third person. He clearly hates and fears it, especially after escapes and calls to threaten him on the in-house telephone (just the thing for a forward-thinking member of the Victorian upper class). It’s not the only weird thing in the cellar. For one thing, the cellar itself is actually a spaceship, which the mansion was apparently built on top of. (Or maybe, given the ending, the ship materialized underneath the building somehow. It’s never made clear.) Also, Ace is attacked by a pair of monsters with grotesque heads, one insectoid and another reptilian. It turns out that these are earlier forms of Josiah himself, who has the ability to mutate himself and “evolve” into more complex forms. His final mutation is a sly satirical dig at human vanity: Josiah loses his light-sensitivity and becomes the pinnacle of evolution on Earth: an Englishman.
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.
Did I leave anything important out? In a story this dense, yes. There’s just too much plot stuffed into these three episodes for any of it to have enough room to breathe, and the narrative shortcuts the story takes to make itself fit that length go far past trimming the fat to amputating limbs. Too much is left out that should have been clearly explained, ghost-story/mystery or no. You have to do a lot of work to piece things together, extrapolating the backstory from brief, often single-sentence bits of dialogue that hint and suggest more than they clarify. And, at least for me, once I did assemble the puzzle enough to get a sense of it—which required watching twice, rewinding frequently, with the subtitles on to parse out the more inaudible or opaquely written dialogue—my reaction wasn’t awe at its brilliance, but annoyance that so much of the secret behind what’s really going on depends on the two major villains separately coming up with grandiose plans that are, at heart, deeply stupid. What was buried underneath the confusion didn’t seem worth digging for that deeply, not when so much of the story is so rushed and sloppy and badly constructed in the telling of it.
Which is not to say there’s nothing to be enjoyed here. Visually, “Ghost Light” has a pervasively sinister atmosphere that contributes greatly to the entertainment factor. The mutation of Reverend Matthews into a chimpanzee is unnerving and delightfully wicked, even if the events surrounding it are opaque. Light’s casual announcement that he’s murdered and dissected one of the maids “to see how it works” is a triumph of insane creepiness in a story with plenty of competition for the title. And Platt has an ear for a well-turned phrase, giving his characters lots of wickedly funny and allusive dialogue. I particularly like Nimrod’s wistful story about how he misses the old days back in the Pleistocene, of living in caves and fighting bears, and is now stuck in a modern world where he doesn’t belong, “lost in a desert of smoke and straight lines.”
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.
• “Ghost Light” is full of homages to gothic novels and Victorian tales of the supernatural and macabre. Josiah Smith shares aspects with Dracula. His relationship with Control, a sinister gentleman and a madwoman locked in an attic, recalls the Rochesters in Jane Eyre. The character of Mrs. Grose, the day housekeeper, is a direct reference to Henry James’ “Turn Of The Screw.” Control’s early costuming resembles John Merrick’s in The Elephant Man, and her transformation into an elegant “ladylike” is taken from G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion—which is also, in its way, about evolution. “Ghost Light” also homages older Doctor Who several times: The Doctor’s reference to a Chinese fowling piece is a nod to the weapon he uses against the giant rat in “Talons Of Weng-Chiang.” And the relationship between Josiah, Control, and Light—a surveyor, a technical program that stays behind in the ship, and an insane, malfunctioning supercomputer—is uncannily reminiscent of “The Face Of Evil.”
• 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”