Day 361 — December 27th 2021

Ghost Light Part Three and Survival Part One

After all that stuff about this one being confusing, I actually think this final episode makes perfect sense. As with the others it’s all about theme more than anything else. Everything smokes down to control. Not the character Control, the concept of it. Light is desperate to control evolution so he can finish his catalog. Josiah is desperate to control the Empire and reshape it in his own image. Doctor Who is desperate for Ace to take control of her own nightmares and come to terms with her past. Only one of these three comes to pass, and you can guess which.

I think the only reason this is considered to be so complicated is that the script is so dense throughout. There’s so much going on that it can become tricky to work out who’s who and what’s what. This final episode is probably the easiest of the lot, because all the pieces are in place and they can get on with simply telling the story.

This is also the scariest episode of the tale, and I think that works in its favour. Of course the big spooky house is creepy in itself, but then you’ve got all the insects coming alive (I think they could make more of this, in all honesty, because it’s brilliant), Ace having to confront her own actions, and images like Light dismembering a maid because he wanted to see how it worked. That whole moment is probably my favourite of the story, because it could end up looking a little silly — as he turns around holding the severed arm — but something about the performance and the sheer shock of it really works.

Light is a great performance from John Hallam (who had a busy year in 1989. I was surprised to see him pop up in EastEnders during my marathon as a cell mate of Den’s in prison), and he walks that fine line between going over the top yet still making it work. He becomes steadily less childlike as the episode goes on, but it’s so subtle that you only realise it in hindsight.

Sophie Aldred’s on fine form here, too, and it’s probably the first time teenage angst has really worked for the character. The way she refuses to talk to Doctor Who is great, and I love the scene in which she flashes back (forwards?) to 1983 with the sirens breaking into the past. It feels so unusual, so unlike anything you usually see in the series that it stands out. I’m a big fan of her final moments in this one, where she confesses that she wishes she’d blown the house up instead of burning it down. If I could make one change to the production, I think I’d set that final scene outside the burnt-out remains of the house in 1983. It would tie in with the things I was talking about yesterday — the sense of the house remaining constant while time flows through and around it.

If I’ve one regret from this one it’s that I knew Ace burned the house down when she was younger. They tease it as a mystery throughout the story and the moment when she finally snaps and admits it is properly powerful, but the moment’s undermined slightly if you already know it’s coming. I’d love to have had that as a proper surprise.

One more thing to add. I’ve seen people complain that the plot of Josiah wanting to assassinate Queen Victoria comes in too late and creates an unnecessary complication towards the end of the story. By contrast, I think it’s my favourite part of the narrative. It’s the thing that ties together a lot of the seemingly disparate elements in the story — Redvers especially. I also really love the way he describes his reasons for wanting to take power of the Empire, and I don’t think I’ve appreciated before just how much it mirrors Light’s own concerns;

Josiah: ‘The British Empire’s an anarchic mess. There’s no clear directive from the throne, mo discipline. Result? Confusion, wastage. I can provide a new order. Wealth, prosperity.’
Doctor Who: ‘Confusion, wastage, tyranny, burnt toast, till all the atlas is pink!’

On top of that, I love the description of the Queen as a ‘Crowned Saxe-Coburg’. Of all the brilliant jokes and allusions threaded through this script, that’s my favourite.

I’ve been debating where to put my score for this episode, but I think I’m going for an 8/10. It’s one I’ve really enjoyed in the end, and I’d be keen to watch it again quite soon, while it’s all fresh in my mind, to see if I get more from the opening episode.

You forget just how much this feels like the 2005 series of Doctor Who, don’t you? At the time it felt a million miles away, but now we’re at the stage where that series is as old as Survival was then, it’s remarkable how similar they feel. Of course we’ve got the setting — contemporary London, but the suburban parts of the city that I don’t think the show has ever explored before. There’s a shot of Doctor Who and Ace up on the hilltop where you can see the city stretching out behind them, including a couple of tower blocks which could very well be the Powell Estate. I was going to look it up and check, but I’ve decided I don’t want to know for certain. I’m going to tell myself that it is and be content with that. Jackie and Rose are right there in the background somewhere while this story is playing out.

Although, actually, when is this one set? I’ve always assumed it was 1989, the same as broadcast, but they’re purposely ambiguous on that point. Ace was 13 in 1983, and 16 by the time she was on Iceworld, so you can just about get away with that being 1987. Doctor Who says she’s been away ‘as long as you think you have’, but doesn’t elaborate. I wonder if she’s been gone three whole years? Her friends don’t seem all that surprised to see her if that’s the case.

Her friends are another area where this feels like the New Testament; I’m just not used to seeing companions with genuine relationships like this. It’s fascinating when Patterson realises who Ace is, and we get hints of her past creeping in. It would almost work better if we saw this before Ghost Light, and his comment that ‘the police let you off with a warning’ was another piece in the puzzle of what Ace did at Gabriel Chase. It’s especially exciting to see Ace interacting with people her own age. We’ve seen companions’ families before (Tegan had loads of them kicking around the fringes of alien invasions) but I don’t think we’ve ever really delved into the world of friends before.

The thing which really stands out for me about this episode is just how solid the direction is. This is Alan Wareing’s third outing as a director for the series, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed just how strong he can be in the role. My favourite thing is the clever use of the camera craning up during the point-of-view attacks on the first two cheetah victims. It means that by the time Ace becomes their next target the camera move alone is enough to indicate to us what’s going on, and it ends up making for one of the very best monster reveals the programme has done — fitting for the last story in a decade when that’s been a particular bugbear of mine.

We also get the brilliant moment when Ace is chased across the waste ground by a cheetah on horseback and we get proper close ups of their respective feet pummelling the ground. I don’t think we’ve ever had a chase sequence as effective as this before. It’s sod’s law — the programme suddenly feeling so much more modern and forward-looking just at the point it’s about to drop off air.


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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.