Day 360 — December 26th 2021

Ghost Light Parts One and Two

Ah, Ghost Light. The ‘complicated’ Doctor Who story. I’ll confess that I was just as baffled by this story on first viewing as everyone seems to be, although part of that was down to my not understanding the format. When I first saw this on DVD in about 2004, I confidently assured my grandfather (who I’d roped into watching it with me) that it would all make sense in Episode Four… only to discover for the first time that there’s three part stories. Whoops. I broadly understand the story now, having seen it explained online plenty of times, but watching this first episode I can absolutely understand how people find themselves lost.

This is probably the single densest script in all of Doctor Who. There’s so many words. Every line seems to be a joke or a reference, and half of them went right over my head. I’m not sure if this is a case that it would have been more familiar in 1989 or if it’s just ‘clever’ in a way that you don’t often see, and you either get it or you don’t. I also suspect there’s an element in here of being wilfully impenetrable, and I can’t help but wonder if one of Doctor Who’s lines might be knowingly referring to the script itself;

Gwendoline: ‘Sir, I think Mister Matthews is confused.’
Doctor Who: ‘Never mind, I’ll have him completely bewildered by the time
I’m finished.’

I felt bad in the last story for criticising Sylvester McCoy, because he can often come in for a bit of a beating at the hands of Doctor Who fans and I broadly love his incarnation. This episode feels like night and day with that whole story. Here he’s absolutely at the top of his game, beautifully playing every line, abs clearly enjoying having some richer material to work with. He delivers the jokes with precision, and it’s impressive that you still root for him even when you know he’s being purposely manipulative of Ace.

This episode also gives us two of McCoy’s best speeches from his entire run in the show. The first comes when he’s mistaken for Josiah Smith;

Doctor Who: ‘Let me guess. My theories appall you, my heresies outrage you,
I never answer letters, and you don’t like my tie.’

And the second is perhaps his definitive moment in the role;

Ace: ‘Don’t you have things you hate?’
Doctor Who: ‘I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.’
Ace: ‘I told you I never wanted to come back here again.’
Doctor Who: ‘Then there’s unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty.’
Ace: ‘Too right.’
Doctor Who: ‘We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.’

I love that final line, and it’s almost always the first thing I think of when picturing this incarnation. He knows the universe isn’t always sunshine and roses, but he’s of the mind that these terrors need to be faced head on. I like that.

Overall, I think I’m going with a 6/10.

This one continues to be just as dense as the opening episode. Ghost Light was the last story of the programme’s original run to go into production, and it’s fair to say that they didn’t let the actors have it easy for their final outing. Just trying to memorise all the lines must have been a mammoth task — this feels a world away from the likes of Battlefield.

We’ve got the McCoy era’s greatest strength in display again in this episode — striking visuals that are sure to leave a lasting impression. There’s the maids with guns (who emerge from hidden panels in the walls of the house), and the Reverend Matthews being turned into an ape. The sight of Josiah slowly decaying until all that’s left is the husk of his body is properly horrific, and opening the drawer of specimens to find a policeman perfectly preserved is one of those properly ‘wtf’ moments the series is so good at.

I know the general plot of the story, but perhaps more than any other this one is all about themes and atmosphere than trying to tell a narrative. It’s a commentary on evolution and perception, and generally more thoughtful than, say, The Horns of Nimon. This can all be a bit much at times, but it’s properly enjoyable to watch. Where I criticised the last story for featuring performances which would have felt at home on CBBC, here everyone’s giving their best and collectively raising the script.

The jokes have landed far better for me here than in Part One, and I don’t know if that’s because I understand them better here or if it’s because I’m getting used to the unique rhythm of the dialogue. I’m especially fond of the policeman’s reaction to Nimrod’s story of the Old World;

Nimrod: ‘At the season when the ice floods swamp the pasture lands, we herded the mammoths sunwards to find new grazing.’
Inspector: ‘Tricky things, mammoths.’

Something else which really captivates me with this one is the whole idea of Ace visiting the house a hundred years before she saw it before. I love the idea of history imprinting itself on a location, so the thought of getting to go back and witness moments that happened in places you knew — long before you knew them — fascinates me. People always ask where you’d go if you had a TARDIS of your own, and one of my very first choices would be to see my childhood farm fifty years before I was there, and a hundred, and two hundred! That sort of thing really fires my imagination.

This one has a good go at really selling the culture shock between two different eras. I love that while Ace knows this place as a suburb of London, she’s reminded that in 1883 it’s still a little village if it’s own, with only seven houses. This clash of cultures comes up again when Nimrod compares his own world to this one; ‘the wild world is lost in a desert of smoke and straight lines. There is smoke thickening…’ is a gorgeously lyrical description, and fits the theme of the story so well.

One last thing I want to mention, and I’ll do it now in case I forget to bring it up tomorrow; the sets in this story are some of the very best we’ve ever had. The BBC have always risen to the occasion with historical productions, right back to the earliest days of the series, so it’s nice to see they’ve not lost their touch right here at the end. The main hall of Gabriel Chase is beautiful, with that staircase dominating, but all the other rooms are so well realised that it’s easy to forget they’re temporary structures in a studio, rather than the kind of locations the show spends so much time in at this stage. I love the exterior shots of the house, too, and the little tower added in post production — so well integrated that it’s a shock to visit the actual location and discover it’s not there in real life.

The tower, and the light streaming from a window, for the key image of the DVD cover to this story. Artist Clayton Hickman has said before that he was never keen on this one and was pleased to revisit it a decade later for the soundtrack release. I think it’s one of my absolute favourite covers, though, and captures the atmosphere so perfectly. All my Doctor Who DVDs and Blu-Rays are in a series of bulky cases which cut down on how much shelf space is needed to store them, the original cases long gone. But I kept this one! It’s tucked in the cupboard so I can take a look at it now and then. A proper favourite bit of Doctor Who artwork, which I ripped off shamelessly for a Paul McGann Big Finish cover a few years ago.

7/10

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.