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27 November 2015 @ 08:43 pm
The Randomiser: Ghost Light  
It's always slightly surprising when an old Doctor Who episode continues to look good. Ghost Light has the advantage of a historical setting which the BBC has always been more comfortable with but, if my memory of TV history is correct (and I'm no expert), things like the costume department had already been sub-contracted out by this point, but there are very few effects here that would look out of place in the modern series which is impressive given that, in real terms, the show was operating on a very tight budget by this point.

Ghost Light comes from that Doctor Who period when the show was arguably finding its feet again after the problems of the early 1980s (or arguably the problems inherent in the combination of John Nathan-Turner as producer and Eric Saward as script editor). The major problems suffered by this era are the budgets that were low even by Doctor Who standards resulting particularly in some rather wooden acting, and an assumption that information could be delivered at break-neck speed because the audience now possessed the ability to rewind and rewatch. Ghost Light has always been particularly criticised for this latter flaw. It's actually difficult to figure out how much of a problem that is. Now that I know what is going on the story is revealed as incredibly coherent, but I remember thinking it was a somewhat disjointed sequence of bizarre scenes and characters when I first saw it. Tame Layman did not seem particularly confused by it, and he sat through it perfectly happily when there is a very real risk that he will bail in the presence of TV that is playing fast and loose with evolution.

It's not an easy story to summarise, but the short version is that the Doctor takes Ace, against her knowledge and will, into the past of a house that had terrified her as a teenager. There they find a mixture of bizarre inhabitants, the mad explorer, the grim and efficient housekeeper, the lively young girl with an enthusiasm for sending people to Java, the neanderthal butler, the nocturnal Josiah Smith who presides over the household while, trapped in the basement, there is a control creature that aspires to become a ladylike. The story is like a strange mixture of Turn of the Screw and Pygmalion, liberally sprinkled with the trappings of the tales of Victorian explorers.

One thing I don't think was obvious at the time, but is much clearer on rewatching, is the way that the seventh Doctor repeatedly bites off more than he can chew. He will formulate some plan, act all mysterious about it, and then something will happen - usually the appearance of an unexpected party - and he ends up improvising frantically to keep everything under control. Here he is instrumental in the awakening of the creature Light, thinking it will solve the problem of Josiah Smith and his plan to assassinate Queen Victoria, but instead Light is revealed to be a far greater menace as its psyche unravels when confronted with the fact that its meticulous catalogue of all life on Earth has become horrifically out of date. This is also, quite probably, the nadir of his treatment of Ace. In a paternalistic move to force her to confront her fears, he fails to stop and think that the terrified reaction of her younger self might have had a basis in something very real and that, in some things, should be allowed to know her own mind. He almost, but not quite, acknowledges this towards the end. This is very much a dark Doctor, however. While he does not actively connive in the deaths of Mrs Pritchard and Gwendoline, he does not much mourn either. He could have forgiven Gwendoline sending so many people to Java, the Doctor muses, if she hadn't enjoyed it quite so much. This in spite of the fact that it is made very clear that Gwendoline was, to a large extent, being mind-controlled.

However it is mostly difficult to fault Ghost Light. Its flaws are those of the era as a whole and it rises above many of the era's issues - the overall acting standard, for instance, is much better here than in many of the seventh Doctor's stories. It looks gorgeous and manages to tell a packed tale, in a short time span, without leaving any major plot holes uncovered. It isn't as crowd-pleasing as many of Doctor Who's acknowledged classics, but it should probably be counted among their number.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/179779.html.