Doctor Who: Ghost Light Review
Quickly following the release of producer John Nathan-Turner’s first story in charge of Doctor Who, The Leisure Hive, comes Ghost Light his last, which was also the last to be made before the show's 1989 cancellation. Although eventually screened second in the season’s transmission order, the fact it was entirely studio bound meant it was filmed after the other three stories - Battlefield, The Curse of Fenric and Survival - were in the can, their extensive location work dictating the order of production. Rather sadly no one at the time (with the possible exception of JNT himself) realised that it would be the last set of episodes they worked on, making it an almost accidental coda to the series’ first twenty-six year unbroken run.
The story has a reputation amongst fans of being almost impossible to follow, at least during a first viewing. On the surface, the beginning doesn’t seem too bad – the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) brings companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) to the Victorian mansion Gabriel Chase, a house which a hundred years in the future she will burn down as a teenager, scared out of her wits by some indefinable terror lurking within. The Doctor, continuing his quest to improve and enlighten his wayward companion, decides it would be a cathartic experience if he brings her back to the time of the evil, to help her understand and conquer the fears she had.
So far so good. However, it’s what they find within the house that causes all the confusion. A multitude of characters roam around, sometimes seemingly at random, all with their own agendas and purposes. It is perfectly possible to work it all out eventually, but the swift pace the episodes move at and the multitude of plot strands mean that only the most astute will get it first time around. Marc Platt’s script is so packed with ideas and literary references that it’s one of those stories in which one can spot new things even on multiple viewings, and unravelling the conundrum it sets its audience is one of the many pleasures to be had from the story. To attempt a synopsis here would be to double the length of the review, but suffice to say it involves a scientific survey to catalogue all living things hitting a snag when its leader encounters the concept of evolution, and gets in a right strop about it. (For those that can’t figure it out, there’s plenty of explanation to be found in the extras on the disk).
Even when it’s not entirely clear what is what, Ghost Light is by no means a frustrating viewing experience. The great thing is that even if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, the atmosphere is such that you can just sink into it anyway, enjoying the ride without necessarily being cognisant of the destination. There is plenty to divert, like the witty play on traditional Victorian stereotypes (the vicar condemning “Darwinian claptrap,” the National Geographic explorer who lives to hunt, no matter what the prey, the Victorian gentlemen with the seedy underbelly amongst many others) as well as the sumptuous sets and a fine ensemble of actors.
The production, as said shot entirely in studio, takes advantage of the BBC’s reputation for superlative costume dramas. Gabriel Chase is a very impressive-looking Victorian house, totally believable and belying the myth that Doctor Who constantly had cheap-looking sets. All the rooms are packed with small details, from the initial laboratory/observatory the Doctor and Ace first encounter, through to the dining room complete with its entomological collection that comes alive and on to the impressive (if perhaps slightly small) main hallway. If disappointment is to be had from the sets, it’s in the rather sparse cellar/spaceship construct, a few glowing windows and tubes of Perspex filling in for the bridge of what one assumes is meant to be a sophisticated ship, one we are told moves at “the speed of thought.” This isn’t enough to detract, though, from the good work elsewhere.
This elegance is extended to the guest cast, often cited as one of the finest Who ever had. It’s not hard to see why when the list includes such worthies as Sylvia Syms, Frank Windsor and Ian Hogg. Inevitably given the shortness of the story and number of characters involved, some get more action than others, Syms in particular not having much to do other than look sinister until the third episode. Of those that do, Ian Hogg as principal villain Josiah and Michael Cochrane as confused explorer Redvers Fenn-Cooper give the best performances, Hogg evidently enjoying his role as chief baddie and Cochrane playing his dazed explorer with a twinkle in his eye. Of those with less to do, it’s Windsor, as “the cream of Scotland Yard” Inspector Mackenzie, who seizes his role with the most gusto, seeming to have the single aim of making McCoy laugh whenever they're in a scene together.
Direction, by Alan Wareing (who also did the same season’s Survival) is crisp and fast, not letting the pace up from the moment the TARDIS arrives right through to the denouncement. It is complimented by Mark Ayres’ suitably gothic musical score – in one of the extras Ayres expresses dissatisfaction with the way Wareing used his music, saying the director wanted it to do things it wasn’t designed to do, but, aside from the fact it is at times rather too loud, it works very well (even better with the new 5.1 mix included on the disk).
That said, there are a couple of areas that, given more time and money (the eternal bugbear of Doctor Who) could have been improved. The embodiment of Light, played by John Hallam, in particular is not everything it could be. His ethereal voice and odd robes are a little over the top, detracting rather than adding to the deistic impression we are meant to get from the character. The Doctor, and McCoy’s portrayal of him, also wobbles at time. Platt gives him one too many determinedly quotable speeches, diatribes about hating bus stations and burnt toast that end up sounding silly rather than profound as they’re meant to. In his portrayal, McCoy is often criticised for overacting accompanied by a tendency to gurn, and episode three has one of the best examples of this, his yelling at Light near the beginning robbing the scene of the tension he’s so evidently trying to impart as he pulls a succession of faces at the entity – faced with that, it’s hard to see why Light doesn’t just burst out laughing. This is a shame as elsewhere he gives a good, controlled rendition of his Doctor, complimented well by Sophie Aldred as Ace, who is on top form here. Her only problem is that perennial issue that has always surrounded the character of Ace – even in 1989 going round shouting scumbag and bog off at people was a little passé, and time hasn’t been kind to these phrases. These are all minor points though, that don't manage to detract from the whole.
Ghost Light makes a particularly frustrating note to have ended Doctor Who’s twenty-six year continuous (well, nearly continuous) run, not because it’s weak, but because it’s so good, and promises great things for the future. It has a style not really seen in the programme before, a more complex, intelligent approach that many now say was a great harbinger for what might have been. Inspired by the style of the previous season’s Remembrance of the Daleks, Platt built a story around companion Ace as much as the Doctor, one with wit, panache and a creepy atmosphere that had been sadly missing over the past few years of the programme. Was it too complex for its own good? Possibly in regards to a once-only transmitted television story but, as someone once remarked, it’s not meant for that. It’s the first story designed for the video age, wherein fans can go back and piece together the plot on subsequent watchings. This makes it a much more rewarding experience than other stories from the late 80s, and as such makes an ideal, even more so than most, release onto DVD. The Independent at the time called it “the best Doctor Who story in ten years" and, while I wouldn’t go that far (stories such as The Caves of Androzani and Curse of Fenric, my personal favourite, pip it), it’s certainly in the top ten. Well worth unravelling.
The disk is laid out in exactly the same way as the previous Who releases. The main menu has a running loop of short clips from the story, while subsequent menus are all static. Both the story itself and all extras are subtitled (including the commentary) and the easter egg is in exactly the same place as it always is.
Not stellar. There’s a fair level of grain and a general softness of image which make this one of the weaker of recent releases, which is a shame given how good the very next story, The Curse of Fenric, looked on its release last year.
Mark Ayres works his magic again on another excellent 5.1 remix that significantly improves the original track (which is also included). The music levels are better and dialogue is crisper. Very nice.
Excellent commentary from Sophie Aldred, writer Marc Platt, script editor Andrew Cartmel and composer Mark Ayres. All contribute to an entertaining, relaxed look back at the making of the story, as well as explaining what exactly it's all about, making for a very diverting track.
The usual mixture of fact and trivia about every aspect of production, from past credits of those involved on both sides of the camera to transmission details. Works well in conjunction with the commentary.
Light in Dark Places
Very enjoyable forty minute talking heads retrospective of the making of the story. Most of the principal actors join Mark Ayres and script editor Andrew Cartmel (but not, regrettably Marc Platt) in reminiscing about the shoot. Aside from a couple of necessarily avante-guarde shots (shooting a close-up of someone’s mouth while they’re talking stopped being cool about five years ago) this is excellent, with a lot of pleasure to be had from seeing how much the actors, guests as well as regulars, enjoyed working on the show.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Fifteen scenes, each preceded by a caption mocked up as though it were from a melodramatic Victorian novel, which works well. A few of these cuts add light (no pun intended) to plot points unclear in the episodes themselves, while others are snips of only a couple of seconds duration.
Writer’s Question Time
Extracts from Marc Platt’s panel at Panopticon 1990, in which he talks about the story. Interesting enough, but twelve minutes is quite long enough – aside from when he talks about the various cultural influences on his work (Lewis Carroll, William Blake and so on) he doesn’t add much that isn’t already known.
Twenty minutes of footage taken during the recording of the story. We see the cast and director working out their marks before the scenes are shot. Revealing in that it shows how quickly everything was put together, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Although I’m not a big fan of these, this is a better than usual collection of fifty-three pictures taken during production, featuring a mixture of behind the scenes shots of moments being filmed and some stills from the production itself.
If you really want to, you can listen to the music on its own, which is nice.
A less exciting Easter Egg this time around, this is just another version of the scene in which Gwendoline sings her song. Clocking in at just over a minute, this could easily have been put into the deleted scenes section.
One of the best stories from 1980s Who gets another excellent release from the Restoration Team. Although not as jammed packed with extras as some other releases, there’s enough here to satisfy any fan, with the documentary and commentary being particular highlights.