“Ghost Light” features the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and is the second story in the rather excellent 26th and final season of classic Doctor Who. What’s really impressed me this season is that on top of the usual twisty-turny plot mechanics that we’re used to with classic Doctor Who (and is often lacking in modern Doctor Who), this season has a greater reach, with villains that have motivations reaching farther than just the story at hand and with more relevance to the Doctor and companion than just landing themselves in the trouble-of-the-week.
Spoilers, of course!
The Doctor brings Ace to 1883, to a house that Ace, when she was younger, had burned to the ground a hundred years later because she had felt something evil there. The house currently belongs to a strange man named Josiah Smith, who lives there with his ward Gwendoline, a housekeeper named Lady Pritchard, an explorer named Redvers Fenn-Cooper, who has gone insane, and a Neanderthal butler named Nimrod. Also visiting is the Reverend Ernest Matthews, who staunchly opposes the theory of evolution that Smith has been spreading. All of the people they encounter are very strange, and the serving staff carry guns, making this a very surreal episode.
I’ve actually had quite a problem trying to write this review because it relies so heavily on the surreality of the situation, the reveal of all of the secrets, and the motivation behind the main villain. It’s difficult to talk about it without rewriting the entire plot out, and I really don’t want to do that, so I’ll try to hit the major points here. Through the first two episodes of the story, you encounter strings of images that simply make no sense, from the Neanderthal butler to the gun-toting maids to the transformation of the reverend into an ape to the owner who seems to consider all of this perfectly normal. You’re just as confused as the Doctor as things begin to develop: there’s a spaceship beneath the house, in which an observer called Light arrived millenia ago to catalog all life on Earth. When it completed its work, it went into sleep, and its servant, the survey agent now known as Josiah Smith, continued to experiment. His current plan was to overthrow Queen Victoria to take control of the British Empire and make it a better place. The Doctor releases Light, who is upset that life on Earth has evolved, making his catalog obsolete, and decides to extinguish all life on the planet to stop it from changing. While the Doctor argues with Light and convinces it of the futility of opposing evolution, causing it to dissipate, Josiah Smith’s experiment control, a being named Control, rebels against him and gains the upper hand, and leaves with Cooper and Nimrod in the spaceship.
Now that summary doesn’t sound particularly interesting, or coherent for that matter, but that’s part of the brilliance of the episode. You spend the nearly the first half of the story trying to make sense of all of these strange things going on, and you find that they do make sense, though it’s sense on a more grand, cosmic scale. Then there’s the story of Light. I am fascinated by stories of nearly-omnipotent beings that are bound fast by rules that are barely comprehensible to humans (which is one of the reasons I love Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman). Light has only one purpose, to catalog life, and when he’s stymied by evolution, he can’t handle it. The only weakness to this episode, in my mind, was Smith’s plan. It’s very interesting that his purpose was to make the Earth a better place, but the method, taking over the British Empire, was odd.
Add to all this the Doctor. Not only was he in his fine manipulative form, his purpose for coming here was to investigate an important event in Ace’s life. He wasn’t just wandering as he normally does. Other than possibly “The Key to Time”, the latter half of the Seventh Doctor’s run has the most coherent and intricate storyline of the classic show, revolving around his relationship with Ace, and this episode is significant in establishing both Ace’s past and how much the Doctor treasures her, setting up the emotional basis for the next episode, “The Curse of Fenric.”
Sometimes I feel that every time I watch an episode of Doctor Who, I have to rethink who my favorite Doctors are, because the one I’m watching always pops to the top. After a bit of time, the list usually reorders to my usual favorites, but the Seventh Doctor keeps bubbling up the list, because of episodes like this one.