With hindsight, Ghost Light is a bit of a fitting title as it was in fact the last story to be made before the show was cancelled in 1989. After this, and the backfire that was the TV Movie in 1996, Doctor Who did become something of a ghost, a show that dedicated fans kept alive but seemed to never be put back onto the television.
And the title is also ironic as Ghost Light is one of the murkiest and most difficult to understand Doctor Who stories to be told to date. What opens as a Victorian ghost-story, with characters so quirky they wouldn't be out of place in Alice in Wonderland, quickly develops into a science-fiction adventure about evolution and it refuses to make sense of what connects it all. Now I really like this story, though I might be harsh for the review, but I would say that its a story worth watching a few times to see if you can kind of get what's going on. I think I've got it, but as the production team didn't even know what it was about, I'm going to be wrong. This has of course made Ghost Light quite a marmite story in the Doctor Who fandom, and all the parts of this story make it an adventure that can only be enjoyed if you grasp all the components. Of course, other fans grumble that its like a puzzle where some of the bits are missing, I can see their point but I enjoy it nonetheless.
The Doctor and Ace arrive in 1883 at a house called Gabriel Chase. Of course, their relationship was a little unusual and we see the Doctor bringing her here to make her face her fears surrounding the house in the modern day. Gabriel Chase was somewhere Ace burnt down in her childhood because her friend was seriously hurt and she wanted to take her frustration out on something. But as the pair quickly discover, there might have been a lingering power that made Ace burn the house down.
So who is the ghost in Ghost Light? That's a question that leads the story to get a little strange. We've got who we suppose is the house's owner, Josiah Smith who has filled the house with hundreds of different stuffed and dead animals and has shocked his neighbours with his belief in Charles Darwin's theories about evolution. He is also sensitive to light so wears dark sunglasses around the dark house and only lets the house's staff work at night. But his sensitivity to the light goes beyond the sun and overhead lighting. Even the word 'light' causes him worry. Every night the daytime staff flee the house, as they claim it comes alive at night. He's night staff seem to act like Robots, but are probably hypnotised, including his ward Gwendolyn, who has developed a bit of a bloodthirsty side to her character under his influence. One might wonder if she and Josiah are vampires, but things are never that simple. And this is all given to us before we meet Josiah's head-butler, a Neanderthal called Nimrod who can speak perfect English.
Over the course of the story, we meet a few unfortunate characters who bite the dust in varying ways. We've first got Reverend Matthews, a man who is stuffy and judgemental and everything that was wrong with Victorian religion. He comes to the house to talk to Josiah about his extreme views on Darwinism and ends up eating a banana which devolves him back into a primate, which is then stuffed and put inside a glass display case. Then there's Inspector McKenzie, a detective from Scotland Yard who was sent to investigate the disappearance of Gwendolyn's parents a few years earlier. The Doctor wakes him up after finding him comatose in a butterfly drawer in the dining room. And then there is a game hunter, who does make it to the end, called Redvers Fenn-Cooper. Josiah brought him to the house because he had an appointment with Queen Victoria and Josiah wants to assassinate her and take the place on the throne. The only problem is Redvers Fenn-Cooper has forgotten who he is and is hunting himself around the house.
On top of all that, Josiah also has something nasty walled up in his cellar, a creature that mutters and shouts mad things and calls itself Control. He hates and fears it, especially after Control escapes and calls him on the home-phone line, but Control isn't the only weird thing to be found in the cellar. For one thing the house is built on a spaceship. And Ace gets attacked by a couple of weird husk-like creatures that turn out to be former skins of Josiah as he evolved himself, shedding those skins like a snake. He's currently in the final stages of his final evolution to loose his sensitivity to light and take the throne.
It takes up until the third and final episode of the story to finally meet the big threat of the story, an angelic being called Light. He's the reason why Josiah and everyone in the house is so terrified of light, and the Doctor tells Ace he's known that Light and Control and Josiah are ancient beings or very sophisticated machines able to mimic human life, who came to earth millions of years ago to catalogue all the animals on the planet. But Light didn't count on evolution taking place and he's now woken to a world he doesn't know anything about. Josiah and Control were just servants to Light's mission, with Josiah going out to count the animals around and Control keeping an eye on him in case anything went wrong. Light, the captain of the mission, got bored and went into a deep sleep. This resulted in Josiah developing a desire to conquer the earth. In the end, the Doctor, Ace and Control must put a stop to Lights deranged plan of learning about all the life currently on Earth and Josiah's plan to overthrow the throne. Light meanwhile decides to wipe out all life on the planet so that it can start again and he can this time, follow the evolution properly.
In a story this dense, there is a lot that will probably be left out and I think that the twenty-five minutes that these stories were told in. Had they been told in 3, forty-five minute episodes, they might have had time to keep a lot of the trimmed or deleted scenes in. There is a lot that gets left out that doesn't get explained and rather than adding to the mystery, just adds to the oddness of the story and not necessarily in a good way. The story requires the viewer to do a lot of thinking back to throwaway lines said by side characters who exposition to try and get the full picture, rather than finding it out at the same time as the Doctor or Ace. As a result, the script and dialogue often feels like something has been missed. And the script must have been a confusing read originally as none of the cast had any idea what was going on in it and that must have made it difficult to act.
However, visually there is a lot to recommend in Ghost Light. It has a creeping sense of unease throughout thanks to the dark corridors, lit only by candlelight and the grand main staircase to the large house is a masterclass at set design, proving that there were still people who were giving the show some love, even if was about to be cancelled. Reverend Matthews becoming a monkey is quite terrifying seeing the fur begin to form across his hands and face and is delightfully wicked. And the scene where Light dismembers a maid, to find out how the human body works is very nasty, waving her arm around as if its nothing. But one of the best lines in this story comes from Nimrod, who pines for his time in his native Pleistocene era where he lived in a cave and fought bears and how he is lost in the Victorian era of cities, machinery and smoke. It's sad in a strange way, thanks to the brilliant performance of the actor.
For a casual viewer, Ghost Light is a tough story to enjoy and I remember when I first saw it, probably around 2007, not enjoying it. I liked the strangeness of but didn't understand it in the slightest. It's only been recently I've developed a love for the story, mainly thanks to my own love of any and all things horror. Even though, it's strange to see this story develop something of a mythical status in the fandom, lots of the story does make sense on the repeated viewings but questions do arise like how does Light, a creature so obsessed with life and how it exists get confused over a fundamental thing like evolution, surely its something he's come across before? This does pose the question of whether Light, Josiah and Control are all robots who don't understand what it is live, even if they understand the basics of life. Its a point that does make sense, but not one that the television serial points out either in the main dialogue or the meanings. But I suppose it doesn't matter how well a plot-hole can be explained away is the plot hole is there to begin with.
Across the story, there are many times when characters perform actions that don't make a lot of sense or seem strange, mainly because I think we've missed a scene somewhere that explains why they've done it. Take the idea that Josiah is an alien creature slowly evolving from his alien form into a Victorian gentleman. It's an interesting concept that's not really supported by what we see before the event actually happens. We're lead to believe that's what happening not categorically told, that's what happening. Author Marc Platt is clearly trying to say something about evolution but even he seems to be a little confused by it, and his confused take on the story in the DVD extras' only adds to the story's less than cohesive feel.
Platt describes Light's purpose as an experiment, though its made clear to us that the group where members of a biological survey. A survey is about counting and collating data, an experiment is something completely different and doesn't feature actions taken by the characters here. But Light isn't agitated or annoyed by the fact his mission is going wrong and surveys don't need a Control. So if Light was conducting an experiment and Control is the thing you don't change, while Josiah is out changing and evolving then Light's mission can't be about anything other than evolution, despite the fact he seems to be so confused about it and all it entails...