Monday, 8 October 2012

Review: Doctor Who Classic: Ghost Light

The Doctor plays many games at once...
Doctor Who - Season 26, Story Two - Ghost Light
Written between 28th and 29th June 2012

Ghost Light certainly didn't feel like Doctor Who, but that was a good thing, because it felt like something much better and bigger. It's almost the definition of High Concept, and in this form, I love it. In certain areas of the fandom it gets a bit of flak for being as such, many people requiring mulitple viewings. I wasn't such a person, although that was probably because I knew the basic plot before I watched it unfold, the concept having fascinated me as a child. It was also the beginning of the Ace trilogy, three stories accidentally arranged so as to provide one last burst of character development for this brilliant companion.
      As a thirteen-year-old girl, Ace was angered when her friend's flat was firebombed by racists. Finding herself in the haunted house named Gabriel Chase, she was scared by the place and burnt it down. The Doctor brings her to the house, 100 years prior, to face the evil she felt those years ago. It turns out that the house is controlled by the hypnotised puppet of evolutionary scientist Josiah Smith, a strange figure who is revealed to have been shedding inferior forms and has a Neanderthal butler. Josiah is left over from an alien science expedition who last visited the planet in the late Ice Age, intended upon cataloguing all life on Earth. Josiah rebelled against a powerful being known as Light, and now plans to assassinate Queen Victoria and take over the Earth. Light is revived, Smith's plan is foiled and after The Doctor shows Light that he too is changing, the powerful being self-terminates.
     The entire story is a powerful metaphor surrounding the acceptance of the Theory of Evolution in popular culture. This is highlighted at the beginning, where a priest dismisses Smith's belief in Evolutionary theory (from his advanced alien nature) as blasphemy, and is rewarded with transformation into an ape. Smith himself is someone who has accepted Evolution as empirical fact (he wants to take over the British Empire.) His rebellion is against Light, whose angelic appearance reveals his role as Religious Fundamentalism, so determined to reject Evolution and/or any change in their worldview that they'd rather destroy the Earth. The beauty of Ghost Light is that like most metaphorical Who, it can be interpreted in so many different ways.
     But beyond the metaphorical interpretation, the serial returns very successfully to gothic humour of the style prized by Robert Holmes in the 70s. The Cartmel era seems very successful at returning to old-school scares, and this story is no exception; as well as the Haunted House mechanic, we have freakish insectoid experiments, zombie-like creatures and people being turned to stone. It's also got this smog-thick atmosphere that makes every moment all the more delicious, and matches not only McCoy's darker costume but also his much darker persona.
Light cannot accept Change.
     Where the serial does fail is in the characterisation of its many minor characters. It was originally meant to be a four-parter, and one can see this, as it feels as if all of the important bits like atmosphere and theme have been left in while the rest was sojurned out. Some of those minor characters could have been really powerful, but it's left as a bit of a hodge-podge instead. The most egregious example is by far the mother and daughter of the house, who, having been released from their hypnosis by The Doctor, are instantly frozen by Light to stop them from changing further.
     That scene in particular brought home for me the realisation that we're getting close to the end of the Original run. It just happens to be, due to the series' rearranging, the final scene ever shot for the 63-89 series of Doctor Who. I'm glad that even in this near-final story, Doctor Who continues to be intelligent, exciting and as brilliant as ever. On to the end, gentlemen.


NEXT WEEK: The show won't survive Survival. Let's see how it all ends.
P.S. I already covered The Curse Of Fenric.

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