Ghost Light occupies an unusual place in Doctor Who history. Sitting as the final story to be filmed, it serves as a reminder of what we lost when the show went off the air: Clever, dark and tremendous fun, filled to the brim with witty one-liners and a fantastic supporting cast, with a genuinely surprising twist. This shows off everything Doctor Who can do at its best, yet is exactly the sort of thing that would never get made today.
Ghost Light kick off with the Doctor and Ace arriving in a Victorian mansion, Gabriel Chase, for what the Doctor calls “the initiative test” but things soon take a turn when Ace realises where they are. She burnt down the entire house 100 years in the future (her own past) after breaking in and feeling “an evil memory lingering. A dark secret after the candle is out… An evil older than time itself.”
The evil in question is an entity known as Light, an Eternal who crashed his spaceship eons ago on the site where the house now stands as he was attempting to catalogue all life. Now he’s awake again but life has evolved so Light seeks to destroy all life on Earth so that his database will never be incomplete. The Doctor defeats him by a classic bit of manipulation pointing out that Light has evolved himself in the process. With that Light is defeated, he’s gone, dispersed, but leaving an imprint of his evil in the house – hence what Ace will feel 100 years later.
So if that’s the basic fundamental plot why does it have a reputation for being so damn confusing? Because there’s much more going on than just that, that’s why. As well as Light we’ve also got…
- Josiah Samuel Smith, an evolved alien now posing as a Victorian gentleman who seeks to use the unwitting help of the explorer Redvers Fenn Cooper to overthrow Queen Victoria.
- Smith’s Neanderthal servant Nimrod.
- Control, another alien like Smith who complicates his plans.
- Inspector McKenzie who has been at the house for two years, either preserved or hypnotised, and held captive in a cupboard.
- The Reverend Matthews who, as a creationist, comes to dispute Smith’s evolutionary studies.
The supporting characters are what breath life into an otherwise relatively by-the-numbers story. The best example lies in the reverend: encouraged by the Doctor to read Darwin’s works rather than condemn him, he is later the subject of some fantastically dark humour as he undergoes evolution himself in reverse by becoming an ape. The transformation sequence is about as grim as 80s Doctor Who can get, as he’s unaware of it until it’s almost over. “Man was never a chattering ape!” he shouts… and then his hands start growing hair, he squats in his chair rather than sitting in it and he starts making chimp noises. And his final words? “You’re no better than animals!” All immediately after proclaiming Smith’s theories will result in “divine retribution” for his “blasphemy”. Marc Platt knows how to write a character out from a story!
Then there’s the inspector. We don’t see a great deal of him and his presence is barely felt after we first meet him. This turns out to be because he’s the main course. The Doctor instructs Ace not to have any of the soup that’s being served for dinner. This is of course made from the inspector – the cream of Scotland Yard – after he’s been de-evolved himself into Primordial Soup. This is what Light is planning to do to the entire population of the world. Obviously the Doctor stops him as discussed earlier.
So what do we make of Ghost Light today? You seriously have to admire Platt’s ambition, that’s for sure. Taking his basic idea of evolution in a “haunted” house and filling it with several other subplots that all somehow tie together is ambitious to do in any format, but on serialised 1980s televison even moreso. That the whole thing comes together well is impressive enough but that it comes together as well as it does is a testament to his abilities and skills as a writer. Watch this again today and prepare to be impressed. Doctor Who has cerainly evolved since 1989 but it’s still just as good.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.