Review [DW]: “Ghost Light”

26×2. Ghost Light
Writer: Marc Platt
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor brings Ace to Gabriel Chase, a then-abandoned house that she burned down in her youth, in late 19th century Perivale, where the denizens of an alien ship – Light, a surveyor who has long been asleep, Josiah Smith, who is plotting against the throne and has attracted controversy over his embrace of the theory of evolution, and Control, who escapes and seeks to become a “ladylike” – are engaged in a bizarre power struggle.

Review: Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Ghost Light” is a deeply weird piece of work. If I had to pick two scenes that sum up the entire serial, it would probably be Gwendoline’s piano performance of “That’s The Way To The Zoo,” which is appropriate for both the script’s theme of evolution and the general level of chaos at Gabriel Chase, and the Doctor’s exclamation, in response to the latest episode of bizarre behavior, of, “Even I can’t play this many games at once!” It’s the sort of effort that earns a certain respect just for having the courage of its strange convictions even if it hadn’t entirely succeeded.

Fortunately, “Ghost Light'” is mostly a success. The Seventh Doctor again strikes a somewhat enigmatic pose, and our sympathies probably lie more with Ace when she discovers that he’s brought her back to a place where she had a disturbing experience when she was young. But he’s also trying to enable her to face her fears, and he does his best to prevent the denizens of Gabriel Chase from being victimized further by Josiah and helps Control to escape her imprisonment. In an echo of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” there’s an illuminating contrast between the Doctor as an explorer with a keen scientific mind and a moral compass and both Light and Josiah. Light is an explorer as well, but he cares only for the accuracy of his “survey” and is prepared to destroy Earth rather than allow the process of evolution to render it out of date (also proving himself to be a terrible scientist with his willingness to fudge the data).¬†Josiah possesses more imagination but uses his power in self-serving ways, plotting to take over the British Empire, keeping several people in states of hypnosis or mind control for his own ends, and arranging a “trip to Java” for Reverend Matthews by turning him into an ape when he continues to argue against the validity of evolutionary science. The theme of evolution and change is also reflected in the characters of Nimrod, who, ironically, was chosen as a representative of a species that stopped evolving (Neanderthals) but who eventually realizes that Light is not worthy of his people’s worship as “the Burning One,” and Control, whose original nature was that of a largely unchanging being but becomes a “ladylike” (as she puts it) after escaping.

It would be fair to say that “Ghost Light” might have benefited from being four episodes long instead of three. At least one critical turning point, in which the Doctor apparently makes contact with Control and agrees to help her, is left off-screen, and while I thought I had understood the nature of the relationship between Josiah and Control, the DVD extra with writer Marc Platt reveals that I was wrong. Based on the Doctor’s comment that “Josiah is the survey” (emphasis mine), my interpretation had been that the two were personified representations of the very concepts of the survey and control in a general sense, with Control’s imprisonment reflecting the fact that the survey had gotten out of control. Instead, according to Platt, Josiah was apparently meant to be a survey agent who metamorphoses into the dominant species of every planet they visit, with Control playing the role of an unchanging experimental control. But this is far from clear, and I know I’m not alone among Who fans in finding the serial’s plot to be somewhat obscure. I also have to question just what kind of survey Light has been running, and where, such that he’s so thoroughly flummoxed by the concepts of evolution and adaptation. We’ve seen plenty of other planets on Doctor Who, after all, and even when the series plays fast and loose with science, it has never implied that a biological process like evolution is somehow unique to Earth.

As has been the case for a number of serials in this era of Doctor Who, “Ghost Light” suffers somewhat from an underdeveloped premise – we’re never told where exactly Josiah gets his powers or how characters like Mrs. Pritchard, Gwendoline, or Redvers Fenn-Cooper became trapped at Gabriel Chase – and at times it teeters on the verge of simply becoming an incoherent mess. But what it does well, it does very well: there’s a uniquely sinister atmosphere that nicely ties into Ace having perceived the house as “haunted” when she encountered it in 1983, there’s some solid character work for Ace (we also learn that she set the fire out of frustration over a friend’s house being destroyed by racist whites),¬† and the Doctor is again suitably mysterious without quite crossing the line into being off-putting or unpleasant. Whatever one might say about the Sylvester McCoy era, it’s certainly not marked by playing it safe, and I for one am enjoying the ride even when it hits bumps in the road.

Rating: *** (out of four)