Timestamp #157: Ghost Light

Doctor Who: Ghost Light
(3 episodes, s26e05-e07, 1989)

 

Welcome to Gabriel Chase.

In the depths of a gothic manor’s basement, a mysterious figure in a solid cage is fed dinner and the Times. The Reverend Ernest Matthews arrives, as does the TARDIS. Ace emerges from the bad parking job into a laboratory (or a nursery), and the Doctor refuses to tell her where they’ve landed. The house staff leaves – “Heaven help anyone who’s still here.” – and locks the door behind them. The clock strikes six and the spookiness ramps up with new servants emerging from the walls.

The Doctor and Ace explore, finding a radioactive snuff box with the initials RFC engraved upon it. Its owner, Redvers Finn-Cooper, is missing in the house, but another explorer is here to find him. This new player pulls an elephant rifle on the Doctor, but seeing his own reflection reveals him to be Finn-Cooper, driven insane. Elsewhere, head housekeeper Lady Pritchard and the owner’s ward Gwendoline encounter the ornery reverend, then retrieve the explorer as the butler Nimrod (a literal Neanderthal) invites the Doctor and Ace to meet with the reverend and Josiah Samuel Smith, the owner of the house.

This story is all over the place. It’s goofy. It’s wacky. It’s chaotic.

It’s frustrating.

Everyone’s going crazy over Ace’s late 1980s fashion, so she is taken away for proper period clothing. Locked in a room, a straight-jacketed Finn-Cooper is exposed to his glowing snuff box, but everyone is driven away from the scene by the occupants of the house. Everyone gathers for dinner as Nimrod opens some kind of control room and is subsequently stricken down by an unseen force.

Ace (looking good in her new fancy duds) figures out that she knows Gabriel Chase from her time in Perivale. It is the house that she burned to the ground in 1983 after sensing a dangerous evil presence. The Doctor brought her here, much to her anger, to understand the horrors that she sensed. As the Doctor presses, Ace runs for the cellar.

Lady Pritchard knocks out the reverend as Smith solicits the Doctor for help in ridding the house of the evil. In the cellar, Ace finds the control room and the incapacitated Nimrod before being attacked by two zombie-like husks, and as the first episode ends I still have no idea what in the world I am even watching.

The Doctor discovers a human in suspended animation, nestled among the insect collection. In the cellar, Nimrod comes to Ace’s defense as the mysterious cell is being opened. In the battle, Ace and Nimrod end up facing off and breaking the light in the wall. The Doctor escapes from the house staff by using his radiation monitor as a mock gun and taking the lift to the cellar with Smith as a captive. Once there, the Doctor figures out that the cellar is a stone spaceship and Smith is an alien of some sort. The Doctor turns the table on Smith and inadvertently frees Control, the being in the cell. As daylight breaks, Smith and the house staff retreat upstairs with the reverend as the master of the house evolves into another husk,

Oh, and Smith transforms the reverend into an ape and places him on display.

The Doctor revives the suspended human, Inspector Mackenzie, while Ace gets some sleep and breakfast before joining the Doctor and Mackenzie just before dark. Nimrod tells a a tale of worship and the light as Control skulks about the house The Doctor puts all the pieces together as the light in the cellar wall, an egg of some sort, hatches. Ace and the inspector explore the attic, finding Smith, Pritchard, and Gwendoline frozen as statues. As the Doctor moves the clock to six, the statues and house awaken, and Control exits the lift followed by a bright burst of light.

The light belongs to an alien surveyor who came to Earth thousands of years before to catalog all life on the planet. It completed its task and collected samples (incluiding Nimrod), it went into hibernation. While Light hibernated and Control was imprisoned to serve as the “control” subject in the scientific observation, Smith mutinied against Light, trapping the surveyor and evolving into a Victorian gentleman. He intended on using Finn-Cooper’s relationship with Queen Victoria to assassinate the monarch and take control of the monarchy.

Light is angry that his catalog is incomplete due to evolution over the millennia, so he decides to eradicate all life on the planet. He kills off a maid, Gwendoline, Pritchard (Gwendoline’s missing mother), and the inspector while Ace fights for her life several times over and Control evolves into a Victorian woman.

The Doctor maneuvers Light into a logic trap, suggesting that the surveyor has not only evolved, but also missed several creatures of myth in his audit. In the end, Smith is imprisoned as the new “control” while Control, Fenn-Cooper, and Nimrod take the alien spacecraft on an exploration of the universe. Light, on the other hand, is dispersed into the house itself, becoming the evil presence that Ace encountered in 1983. When the Doctor asks if she has any regrets, Ace says she should have blown the house up instead.

“Wicked,” the Doctor says, drawing this house of horrors to a close.

 

There is a good story buried in this serial, but the plot is so convoluted and twisted that the narrative path is lost in the weeds. It sheds light on Ace’s character and backstory, and it builds on the Doctor’s mystery and simmering darkness. There’s also a lot to be said for a story that dumps the viewer into the narrative world without guidance, but the good ones guide the audience to understanding and resolution. This one capitalized on frustration in chaos, and that hurt my experience.

 

Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”

 

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Timestamp #157: Ghost Light

  1. I love Andrew Cartmel and how he nurtured new authors, encouraged story and character arcs, and encouraged doing new things with Doctor Who. His weakness, I think, was that he was really awful at editing for time. Many stories in this era suffered from having material cut for time, which is why the DVD releases have a lot of “director’s cut” style versions that added material never broadcast. That material always enhances the material. Even with that, Ghost Light isn’t great, but I think that it does at least make it understandable.

    I really dread you watching Curse of Fenric without the director’s cut (it adds 20 minutes of extra material) and strongly suggest you try and find it before viewing.

  2. […] Ace and the Doctor find the chess set, but it’s rigged with poison gas and explosives. They dive into a bunker as the building explodes (and hits the camera in the process). Luckily, they save the genealogical research, which jogs Ace’s memory: Kathleen has a chess set. As the bullets fly and the Soviets discover the chemical weapons, the travelers make their way to the bunk rooms. The Soviet and British soldiers join forces to stop the chemical threat, and the Doctor secures the chess set and takes it to the chemical weapons bunker while Ace guards Kathleen and Audrey, discussing the spooky house in Perivale. […]

  3. […] Ace and the Doctor find the chess set, but it’s rigged with poison gas and explosives. They dive into a bunker as the building explodes (and hits the camera in the process). Luckily, they save the genealogical research, which jogs Ace’s memory: Kathleen has a chess set. As the bullets fly and the Soviets discover the chemical weapons, the travelers make their way to the bunk rooms. The Soviet and British soldiers join forces to stop the chemical threat, and the Doctor secures the chess set and takes it to the chemical weapons bunker while Ace guards Kathleen and Audrey, discussing the spooky house in Perivale. […]

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