Ghost Light demands some effort of the viewer. It’s not a story to just watch once. The reason this happened is that it was originally an overly long, complex set of scripts that then got edited down by one episode, and the way this was done was to remove any kind of exposition scenes. Pretty much all the plot strands remained in place, and there are a lot of them, but hardly any lines where people are explaining things. Part of the problem (if you see it as that) is the subtle character arc Ace is following, leading towards her Season 27 departure that never happened. The Doctor is encouraging her to stand on her own two feet, training her to deal with situations by herself, so she is functioning here as a secondary Doctor rather than a companion who asks questions on behalf of the viewers.
There is barely a line of dialogue that doesn’t advance the story, and for those who don’t like too much padding in Doctor Who, here’s what you get when there isn’t any at all. Despite plenty of views to the contrary, it all makes perfect sense, but it needs concentration and more than one viewing. But the thing is, this is not really a valid complaint at this stage in the game. By 1989 a lot of households had VHS recorders, the commercial VHS release schedule was well under way, and there were fewer than 5 years between this story’s broadcast and commercial release (The Curse of Fenric was out in less than 2). So if we are going to make a value judgement about the complexity of a story, we need to bear that in mind and look at this in a very different way to a 1960s story, for example, in which everything not making sense on first viewing would have appeared to be an insurmountable problem for a contemporary viewer. Having said that, it’s not hugely valid to make judgements about Doctor Who by pretending the episodes do not exist in the realms of DVDs and downloads anyway. We don’t have to get ourselves into the mindset of one-time viewers, although it can be interesting to do so.
The only argument against Ghost Light’s complexity that I think is perfectly valid is that it forgets about child viewers. We don’t need Doctor Who to patronise children, but then again we don’t want it to exclude them either. I am unconvinced as to whether Ghost Light really does exclude them, but I just think it worth pointing out that it is a reasonable discussion topic, whereas talk of it not making sense really isn’t. I can only offer the perspective of anecdotal evidence, but I did actually experience this story as a child when it was first broadcast, and found it the most forgettable of the 26th Season, and I think it is fair to say that was because it is beyond the understanding of a primary school child. It was difficult to engage with the story.
And of course it is one thing to say that a story needs to be watched more than once to fully understand it, as long as it is enjoyable enough to tempt the viewer into a second viewing. I’m not sure Ghost Light really falls into that category. For an (admittedly entirely unfair) comparison, take a look at the first series of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (US version), based on Douglas Adams books. I would say it is hugely advantageous to watch it twice over, but the key point is that it makes you want to do that. But what’s the distinction here? What is it that makes the viewer want to watch Dirk twice and therefore absorb and understand all the nuances and incredibly complex plot strands? What is it that Ghost Light lacks, to make it a less successful example of this particular type of television, the complex multiple-viewing kind of story? I would say an emotional connection. Ace has an emotional journey, but it is relatively disconnected, and other than that, what is here to make us care? What is there in the performances or characters that makes us want to experience them a second time, and in the process gain a deeper understanding of the plot threads? In the absence of likeable characters or even a particularly likeable Doctor, sadly not a lot.
So we have established that Ghost Light is complex and looked at the value of this kind of degree of complexity, but what is it all about? Evolution, science vs superstition or perhaps science vs religion or even science vs magic? Ace still has a sense of something evil existing when she burns down the house, perhaps validating the supernatural in some sense, and Mrs Grose is a reference to The Turn of the Screw. The rejection of evolution is mocked, but so is a common misunderstanding of how it works. And just why is Light so stupid? There is a huge amount going on here, and we’ll take a detailed look at it all… tomorrow. RP
The view from across the pond:
Ghost Light is one of those rare episodes I remember watching with my oldest and most trusted friend, Jerome. Jerome is sort of like Omega to my Rassilon; we’re old, dear friends who know all of the other’s darkest secrets and would do anything for one another (except maybe read one’s website). But there’s also a chance I’ll sabotage his ship when he flies into a sun. It could happen! (He might not have been aiming for the sun when he started out, but he is now!) For a guy who loves all the same things I do, he never stuck with anything for more than about 12 minutes without jumping to Wikipedia to read how it ended. That made Ghost Light really special and unusual in that we did watch it together. It also meant that if two heads were really better than one, we’d get something great out of this episode. True to form, what we took from the episode was great. Namely that houses in England have names, that there could be a policeman in the bottom drawer of one’s desk, that Victorian gentleman were the highest form of evolution on the planet, that finger sandwiches are delicious and should be eaten at every turn and, most importantly, that mammoths are tricky things. Even my nieces and nephews know that last point because every so often I tell them in no uncertain term: “Tricky things, mammoths!” It’s important to keep kids informed about potential difficulties in their future!
Both Jerome and I noticed at the time that the sound quality was terrible and that was a shame because visually Ghost Light is a treat. The cast is great too. Nimrod (oh, yeah, there’s also that …) is a marvelous character full of wisdom, which is exactly what one would not expect from most Neanderthals, and a reminder why we all know never to invite our ancestors around for dinner. Inspector Mackenzie adds some comic relief to an otherwise dark episode, spitting as he eats an unending array of foods. Josiah is a formidable enemy that actually makes for a great villain for McCoy’s darker Doctor. But then there was Light and Control, which took me out of the episode a bit. Both are jarring in a very unusual way: their voices are freakishly unexpected. Light, a large angel-like entity, speaks in this high key that is off-putting as he intones “I wanted to see how it works, so I dismantled it” in reference to a human being. Control has this deeply guttural, whiny voice, crying at a moment’s notice in the most nerve shattering way as she wants to be “ladylike”.
The entire story is dark and foreboding and in that way, is great. The scene where the room full of stuffed animals seems to come to life is a horror trope worthy of late 80’s Doctor Who. Like our recent reviews of Mawdryn Undead and Enlightenment, this story has an incredible atmosphere that cannot be ignored. But the biggest question is: what the hell was it about?!? It seems not even the cast and crew really knew what was going on in it. It’s unnerving yes, but that could be because of the lack of any idea what was going on. Sure we have some great references to Conan Doyle’s Lost World as well as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as alluded to above but that doesn’t tell us anything. There’s plenty to be said about evolution and change too. Imagery is rife with such memorable scenes as the tuxedo wearing mantis and … ant? And Ace’s terror is palpable as we explore the universe of our own terrors. But… what’s it about?
Is the episode pro-evolution? Is it anti-change? Is it pro-change? Anti-religion, as Rev. Matthews gets turned into a monkey? Light doesn’t like that things keep changing but as the Doctor points out, it’s inevitable. Light changes his mind, changes his location… change cannot be fought. Light is trying to make sense of it like the audience is trying to make sense of the script. And, like Captain Kirk talking to a particularly difficult robot, the Doctor convinces Light to kill himself, because that’s what one does, especially when you’re a hyper-evolved being who still throws temper tantrums! Unfortunately, McCoy doesn’t do angry well. His fist clenching, neck compressing, growling doesn’t come across as particularly powerful; it comes off as more desperate to squeeze out water from a rag. I sort of laugh at this and then feel guilty because I really like Sylvester an awful lot.
The fact is, I’m a fan of Ghost Light despite my cluelessness about what’s going on. The atmosphere, the old house, the abominations in the cellar, the dangerous ghost, the evil Josiah and the brilliant Mackenzie all make this 3-part story one of the highlights of the McCoy era. Which says something: Imagine how amazing it could have been if it made sense!! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Themes in Ghost Light