Now, although everyone is talking about Game of Thrones, as good as I think it is, my favourite tele-fantasy will always be Doctor Who. So, having avoided any Who related blog articles for quite a while, I did get thinking about some of the more interesting stories to grace the series over fifty years. One in particular came to mind, mainly because it’s an excellent example of the series doing what it does best (and also perhaps worse) all in the same few episodes. It is not my favourite story by far, but it’s certainly one that requires multiple viewings to appreciate and proves itself a rewarding viewing experience. So, I give you:
Ghost Light (written by Marc Platt, directed by Alan Wareing; 3 episodes, 1989)
What Ghost Light lacks in coherence and clear narrative it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The final serial to be filmed for the series’ last ever original season (although not the last to be broadcast), Ghost Light not once panders to the sensitivities of the casual viewer. This is either a huge weakness, or a strength, depending on how you like your Doctor Who. Watching Ghost Light is like watching a bizarre dream set in a large late Victorian house, where characters appear and disappear with little or no logical relation or communication to each other. In episode one, The Doctor’s attempts to introduce himself and Ace are usually ignored or quickly interrupted by another strange occurrence. One long held joke is that Ghost Light makes perfect sense once you’ve seen its fourth and final episode; the joke being that there is no fourth episode. Arguably one of the most multi-layered and complex stories from the series’ original 26 seasons, Ghost Light further investigates the psyche and past of Ace, one of The Doctor’s better realised female companions, and lifts the lid on such themes as memory, change, evolution and Victorian morality, in a house where everyone seems to be on the edge of losing their minds and each room is full of creepy stuffed animals and there is even an alien spacecraft stored in the basement. It’s one that can stand its own against the recent Stephen Moffet penned convoluted plot epics. It’s like The Shining meets Antiques Roadshow, by way of The Ascent of Man. The themes of change and evolution dominate throughout, with all of the characters going through their own metamorphosis, from Ace’s many changes of attire to Control’s more obvious Eliza Doolittle-esque learning curve to a Victorian lady. Ghost Light is so multi-layered; it is possibly unique amongst Doctor Who stories, in that one viewing just can’t be enough.
Devoid of the usual explanatory scenes, Ghost Light is actually a pretty disappointing drama, in the sense that no casual viewer will have any idea of what is going on. And there is a lot going on. McCoy’s darker manipulative Doctor, who has come a long way since the pantomime tomfoolery of season 24, even admits that even he can’t play this many games at once. Characters come and go with little or no explanation, and yet the whole enterprise remains captivating, and captures an atmospheric Gothic sensibility hardly seen or felt since Tom Baker’s first few seasons, under producer Phillip Hinchcliffe (new script editor Andrew Cartmel apparently took inspiration from the early Baker serials, and it shows, forgoing the silliness that marred McCoy’s earlier Who serials). Ghost Light is like a Hinchcliffe serial on hallucinogenics.
Probably the very last serial you should show any casual viewer, particularly if you want them to actually get to like the show, but a perfect example of the risks that Doctor Who could take within its flexible format, and how in its final neglected days the original series went out with all its creative guns blazing. Sylvester McCoy’s remit to return the mystery to the character of The Doctor is almost complete here; he is the shadowy manipulator, one step ahead of all the other characters, and a very strong guest cast keep me watching even when I haven’t a clue what’s going on. Plus the production design is sublime, if a little stagy (and that is actually no big criticism). However, I’m sorry I can’t quite tell you what Ghost Light is about; therein lies the serial’s appeal and why it stands up to repeated viewings like no Doctor Who story before it. Believe me, you’ll need to.