Thursday, 3 December 2009

Doctor Who: Ghost Light

Part One

“I’m as human as you are!”


From the beginning to the end everything we see happens in the same few excellent sets, which are stuffed with various objects to draw the eye. The effect is that for once it’s easy to forget that this is the season’s studio-bound story.

Fairly early on we’re made privy to the fact that this richly atmospheric big Victorian house features some oddly futuristic technology and a strange creature which is kept imprisoned in a cell. But the things that are in store for us are much weirder than that. Such as the magnificent sideburns of the Reverend Ernest Matthews, a character so superbly brought to life that I had to be told by the closing titles that it was John Nettles.

The Doctor’s arrived here as some kind of “initiative test” for Ace. And they land in a richly atmospheric part of the house full of stuffed animals and all sorts of artefacts a Victorian explorer might collect. Speaking of which, we meet the magnificently grotesque Redvers Fenn Cooper, who introduces us to the dense literacy of the script with dialogue alluding to The Lost World, Heart of Darkness and no doubt other things. There’s a lot of this sort of thing.

Matthews, clergyman and naturalist who’s quite high up in the Royal Society, has arrived to question the house’s occupant, one Josiah Samuel Smith, on his blasphemous Darwinian theories, which he dismisses. Of course, no one alive today could possibly hold such a view.

On a related theme, Josiah’s manservant, Nimrod, appears to be a Neanderthal, and no one appears to be behaving naturally. This, and the claustrophobic confines of the house, makes things already feel deeply charged. But then things start happening. The creature is found to have escaped from its cell, and Ace realises this house is Gabriel Chase, a place which affected her very strongly with the evil she sense when she was in its ruins at the age of thirteen. This is a great scene, and one that gains a lot from being watched as part of the Marathon. Ace has been travelling with the Doctor for a while now, and her character is ripe for a bit of development.

It’s often argued that the Doctor’s being cruel, forcing Ace to face her fear like this, but it ain’t necessarily so. She seems to have exorcised some demons by the end of the story, and this all seems to tie in to some long-term plan the Doctor has for her. And the Doctor’s motives in this story hinge rather heavily on where all this is going in the long term. Sadly, of course, all this lies mostly in “what if?” territory.

And then there’s the story of Ace’s friend Manisha, of course, although we’re not told how she ties into Gabriel Chase.

I love “That’s the Way to the Zoo.” After all, not all references to the evolution theme have to be subtle. Nor, indeed, are those husks at the cliffhanger. For all that I don’t think this story is half as confusing as it’s supposed to be, I have no idea what the “Ratkin” stuff is supposed to be about.

Part Two

“Tricky things, mammoths.”

Another episode, another dose of splendid weirdness. This time we get an Inspector from Scotland Yard who’s spent the last two years asleep in a drawer. But things are also moving forward; we’re introduced to the powerful “sleeping one” who “must not be woken” in the stone spaceship. Of course, Ace sets in train the chain of events that will lead to its awakening.

There are some revelations which make things clearer. Well, a bit. The husks are previous versions of Josiah, “old cast-offs” from before he evolved into his present form. Josiah’s not the real owner of either the house or the ship, but was originally “part of the cargo”. He knows as much about the ship “as a hamburger knows about the Amazon desert”. And the mysterious escaped creature is called “Control”.

There’s a lot of wit and literary allusion- dare I say, ahem, semiotic thickness- in the dialogue which prevents the exposition from feeling like an exposition, and it’s all done with a real lightness of touch. It says a lot that most of this episode is exposition, the only real respite from it being the splendidly comical scene of the Reverend Ernest Matthews turning into an ape, but that in no way stops it being great.

The awakened Inspector MacKenzie is another fabulous comical grotesque, the classic small-minded ignoramus who tries to bluff his way through life. He’s also a major plot point; two years ago he was sent to the house to investigate the disappearance of its owner, Sir George Pritchard. And no doubt a second inspector was sent to investigate his own disappearance, and so on. No doubt there’s an entire police force hidden within Gabriel Chase.

The Doctor, being the Doctor, has a plan, and it involves doing a deal with Control. He knows this mysterious “sleeping one” is feared by both Josiah and Control, and worshipped by Nimrod, who, wonderfully, has “gone to see a man about a god”. We end with a few revelations- Mrs Pritchard is in fact Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline is her and Sir George’s daughter- and the unleashing of the powerful and mysterious Light…

Part Three

“Even I can’t play so many games at once!”

Sadly, in a story of almost uniformly excellent performances, we get one duff performance, and Light is it. And even McCoy has an odd moment, delivering the line “Only I didn’t get caught napping” in a most peculiar fashion whilst holding his arm right out in front of him for some reason.

We’re not told who he is or where he comes from, but Light’s ship crashed on Earth (although, as we later discover, it wasn’t significantly damaged) and for unexplained reasons he set about cataloguing all of its life forms. But he was shocked to discover that no sooner had he finished than it had all evolved into something else. It’s a little odd that a being capable of travelling through space at the speed of thought should be ignorant of natural selection, but never mind.

Oh, and in a scene absolutely vital to understanding what’s going on, Control states that “Control is me,” and the Doctor continues “And the survey is Josiah,” telling us the crucial fact that Light’s experiments were performed by using a control (Control) for the experiment (Josiah).

Meanwhile, Control spends most of this episode going through a speeded up version of Pygmalion; she’s even dressed as Eliza Doolittle for most of it. And we get more of Ace’s past- she has a sort of mini-breakdown in the corridor implying there’s a question she may have caused people to die. We’re later told she was guilty of arson at thirteen, setting fire to this very house exactly one hundred years later. If she did accidentally kill someone, no wonder she’s repressed the memory of this house and no wonder she was so upset is the first episode. If I’m reading this right, I’m surprised I haven’t heard about it before. It’s a big, big thing for the character.

The increasingly irrelevant Josiah had been planning to cause Redvers to assassinate the “Crowned Saxe-Coburg” in the delusion that he would somehow precede Bertie to the throne and in some way become an absolute monarch, a plan rather casually foiled by Redvers, simply because he likes Control better than him. Control has a rude awakening of the hugeness of the world outside, but fortunately Ace is there to play Henry Higgins.

Probably the best thing about the whole story is that, in spite of everything that’s happened, everybody just appears at dinner because this is Victorian Britain and failing to turn up is Just Not Done. But this leads to a splendid finale, in which the Doctor actually manages to talk Light to death plausibly, Control and Josiah switch roles, and all the characters who clearly aren’t ever going to be able to function in Victorian society just take off in the spacecraft, heading for somewhere “Light years from Zanzibar”.

Brilliant, easily a 5/5. For all the criticism this story sometimes get, it made a lot more sense to me than Battlefield did. I think I pretty much grasped the plot, although there are a couple of points which weren’t explained, although arguably they all lie outside the main plot (Who is Light? Why is he surveying Earth? Why does evolution surprise him? Why did he become dormant? How long have Josiah and Control been active- since 1881 when Sir George was, ahem, sent to Java? If so, what awakened them?). I must admit, though, this is not exactly my first viewing, and I’m probably advantaged by the fact that I watch all drama with subtitles if I can, so I didn’t have any problems with muffled dialogue.


  1. The Reverend Ernest Matthews is played by actor John Nettleton, Not John Nettles. ;-)

  2. Ah. That would explain why he looked so strangely unlike Bergerac, then...