Sunday 12 December 2010

Ghost Light

The Seventh Doctor takes Ace to a place where she has been before, where mad aliens have a Victorian tea party.

Ghost Light is the story I ought to love, but I don't. There are so many elements in this story that I like, yet I don't particularly enjoy watching it.
I love Season 26. Check. I love Sylvester McCoy. Check. I love the Dark Doctor and his manipulative ways. Check. I love the weird relationship between Ace and the Seventh Doctor. Check. I love the thematic depth of the McCoy era. Check. I love the Virgin New Adventures which are very much influenced by this story. But I still don't like Ghost Light.

This story has so much going for it. You have a performance from McCoy that is pretty strong (I love McCoy, but I understand why people see him as a second-rate actor) and a marvellous performance from Sophie Aldred. You have a drama that put's the Doctor/ Companion relationship in a completely different light. You have an intelligent exploratin of a number of themes. The gothic interior of Gabriel Chase looks magnificent, with all it's stuffed animals. Ghost Light has some wonderful dialogue and a reasonable dose of humour. Yet these elements are let down by a failure in both editing and direction.

You must have seen the sitcom Fawlty Towers. In every Fawlty Towers episode there is a climax where the entire hotel descends into chaos. Basil is ranting like a lunatic, his wife is having a nervous breakdown, Manuel is doing something hilarious and the guests are shouting and demanding their money back. Even as a viewer, you feel overwhelmed by the frantic atmosphere and you just want to get 'out' of that hotel and into the fresh air. Ghost Light is like that all the way through. It is frantic and frenzied. When I watch Ghost Light, I feel like I need to get out of Gabriel Chase and have a space to breath.

Ghost Light suffocates under the weight of too many characters, too many subplots, too many themes, too many ideas and too much clever dialogue. There is just too much going on. Stories can be complex. They can be intelligent. However, they need to be carefully edited so that we can enjoy them without being completely baffled. Battlefield had too many characters and suffered as a result, but it was a fun story that made sense in a beautiful country setting. Curse of Fenric was a really complex story, but it had great action scenes and terrific drama. Survival had some really deep themes, but there was a subtlety to the way they were brought in that did not detract from the story. Ghost Light does not succeed in the way the other stories of Season 26 did, including the equally badly edited Battlefield.

I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing if a story does not immediately make sense. I think Warriors' Gate is a flawless story even though it requires deeper thought to make sense of. In my review of Warriors' Gate, I explained why I think Warriors' Gate works and this one does not. I argued that the main difference is the sense of space and pacing in that story. Ghost Light requires one to take in and make sense of masses of dialogue, while Warriors' Gate works brilliantly on a purely visual level. You can enjoy Warriors' Gate purely through looking at the visual elements and the slower pace gives you the chance to puzzle over what is going on. Ghost Light is like a three-course gourmet meal being served at a fast food restuarant. You don't have the space to take it in and enjoy it.

I agree with viewers who think this story is a lot like the Rocky Horror Show. It has the transvestism, the camp alien, the creepy house and the critique of conventional society. Most of all, it has the crazy frantic pace and incomprehensibility. When I watched Rocky Horror Show, I thought to myself 'What was all that about?' I am sure most of us asked that question the first time we watched Ghost Light.

One casting decision that I think was a mistake was John Hallam as Light. Hallam puts in a good performance, but he does not fit the way the character was meant to be perceived visually. Light's costume was clearly a visual reference to angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, in keeping with the neo-gothic Victorian theme. The problem is that such angels were generally portrayed as adolescent, or at least youthful. Hallam is too old to fit this look and his high-pitched vocal delivery ends up making him seem too camp.

My favorite moment in this story is the Doctor's conversation with Ace about fear. It is perhaps the best bit of dialogue McCoy was ever given:

Ace: "Don't you have things you hate?"
Doctor: "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: "And then there's unrequited love. And tyranny, and cruelty."
Ace: "Too right."
Doctor: "We all have a universe of our own terrors to face."


  1. Boy, a Doctor Who episode with similarities to The Rocky Horror Picture Show? I'd like to see that!

    I may end up agreeing with you that it's not an episode to love but it would be cool to see it at least once.

  2. A lot of fans love this serial and would disagree with my assesment. Because it is a clever story, it has a particular appeal for fans who will watch it and re-watch it.

    If you are a 'proper' Dr. Who fan, you will inevitably watch every story, even the ones that are poorly regarded.