Ghost Light

Written by:
Marc Platt
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Year: 1989
Video Availability: Try

Note from the Anorak, December 2005:

Even someone as mighty as I can misinterpret the words of the Good Book sometimes. Sadly, I'm afraid to admit that this review ISN'T the Gospel, and that I must have written it under the influence. For Ghostlight is a badly-acted travesty.

Apologies for any suggestion otherwise.


The Anorak.

Along with Fenric, this is probably the only McCoy story that can be considered a (minor) classic. Sandwiched in between garish titles and McCoy's winking is a superior 80s story.

For once, the sets are gothic, the lighting dark. The costumes also score, because in creating a Victorian society on television there's a mental paradox inherent. The costumes should be new, because to the Victorians wearing them they would be. However, as the only Victorians outfits we're used to seeing are aged, worn ones in a museum, seeing new-looking ones on TV just makes it appear that they've come straight from a hire shop. So, even though it's clearly a paradox, Ghost Light looks convincing by having aged, musky outfits for the cast.

Some of the dialogue is trite - "This is Gabriel Chase, is it not?"/"Heaven help anyone still here after dark"/"Who are you calling young lady, bog brain?" - and I do have problems with Sophie Aldred's Am-Dram emoting, but generally this is a sound production. The guest cast are supremely impressive, Ian Hogg particularly, and while Sylvester isn't the best actor in the lead role (sorry, McCoy fans!) he does adequately with some slightly pretentious lines. Mark Ayres's music is also great, and Alan Wareing, as I've said before, is by some margin the best director of the era.

The whole thing's a breakneck pace of demented character skits, and the sort of thing that would bewilder any casual viewer. It's nice to know that even in its final year Doctor Who was still daring to break the mould.
* * * *

Another strong episode, with an Alice in Wonderland reference at the start. A reference to The Beatles is pure Cornell territory, however. (Okay, I know Paul Cornell didn't even register Who-wise at this stage, but Marc Platt gave birth to him).

As a bridging episode between the set-up and resolution, then this one doesn't really have a lot to discuss, but is still very commendable. And even though much of its high concepts are strictly Emperor's New Clothes territory, this is easily one of the ten most intellectual Doctor Who stories.

Redvers Fenn-Cooper is, of course, the funny boss from Perfect World, and Josiah Smith is one of the series' best-ever villains, played to perfection by a wonderful Ian Hogg.
* * * *

What a shame. 12 seconds tarnish this episode, and the story overall. Yes, just 12 seconds. But what a 12 seconds. You know what I'm referring to, I'm sure - the Doctor threatens Light by gurning at him. I'm used to it more now, but the first few times I witnessed this sad spectacle I felt so embarrassed I wanted to die. Even the staunchest McCoy supporter can't deny this is an atrocious piece of "acting". It's possibly just this side of Tom's "are you listening, Romana?" or the whole of Colin in The Trial of The Trial of a Time Lord, but it's a definite top three moment. In fact, it's worse. Much worse. At least the Bakers knew they were acting badly - Sylvester's really trying here, highlighting his limited range for all to see. It's a shame, because it's what the era's detractors remember more about this story than anything else.

The Doctor's quite callous to Ace this episode, and she and Gwendoline rolling around on that bed, Gwendoline spreading her arms and sitting astride her is... interesting. There's also plenty of evidence of video effects subtly supplementing the visuals, a notable achievement of the McCoy era.

John Hallam's fey Light is a debatable element with fans, but I really quite like him. Sadly, the make-up on Carl Forgoine this episode isn't as impressive. The first few times I saw this story I thought - apart from not being able to understand a word of it - that the climax was weak. The Doctor defeats Light by making four puns on the word "change". And that's about it. Where's the Brigadier and his TNT when you need him? Though I guess a more visceral climax would be out of place in this very wordy Who story.

Despite these flaws, it's still a cracking episode, and the Doctor's dinnertable jousting with Josiah is magnificent.
* * * *

While no individual episode touches absolute perfection, this is an extremely admirable production, albeit one that has to be worked at in order to be understood. Sylvester's lapse in the final episode is extremely unfortunate, but generally this is one of the half-dozen greatest stories of the 80s.
* * * * *