“Professor, is this an asylum with the patients in charge?” – Ace
Having read the plot points and extended explanations of the novelization of this story what feels like millions of times as a child, it is difficult imagine watching it without already knowing what was going on. With its intricate cast of characters and dense plot, it was pretty much my favorite Sylvester McCoy story of all time growing up. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that doesn’t come across very well on screen (in some cases perhaps not at all). Indeed, all accounts seem to agree that this episode was incredibly hard to follow in its original airing. Though I would concede that the relationship of Control and Josiah, Nimrod, the husks, and Light’s purpose all do get explained at some point in the dialogue, it is often very fast or so far after the fact such that it would be hard to understand what is going on and piece it all together on one viewing. Plus far too much of the crucial dialogue, so easy to read in novel form, is muffled or altered to the point of being unintelligible–a problem in a story where every word matters. Also, without some of the linking explanation and slower pacing of the novel, many scenes seem disjointed or unexplained. I really wish I could have seen it on TV first as a child just to know what my first impressions would have been but on this viewing these issues kind of take it down a notch in my estimation
All that said, this story is rich with ideas—complicated and unique science fiction ideas that were head and shoulders above almost anything done in previous Who. They end up being a bit obscured but the underlying concepts are big: a celestial being of immense power, cataloguing life with tools that are actually linked sentient creatures that take on the characteristics of their surroundings, falls dormant and his devices are left on their own such that ones rises to the point of a becoming danger to the world order. That this takes place in a Victorian setting of an old, eventually “haunted”, mansion adds to the eerie feel. More importantly, all this is revealed with a very complicated, somewhat non-linear story-telling that heightens the sense of mystery. As layers are pulled away, with a few surprising reveals about what is going on, the dialogue is fast and furious with lots of witty repartee and sly observations.
There is a break-neck pace to the whole story that keeps you captivated. The Doctor is certainly firing on all cylinders—from his dialogue (his badgering of Light to the point of confusion by quoting mythical creatures is great) to his prescience of events (“Don’t have the soup.” – How does he know? My explanation is that he could smell it and knew what it was immediately.) There are also a lot of elements of pathos in this story as well—the sadness of the mother and child reunion between Gwendolyn and Lady Pritchard, our concern for the childlike Control, our pity for Redver’s shattered mind as he discovers himself in the window reflection. We also get quite a lot of the Doctor and Ace’s mentor relationship and more of Ace’s back story as well. Interestingly, we are presented a lot of the story from Ace’s perspective—the Doctor leaves her (and us) figuring out a lot as he arranges things elsewhere and it’s just as shocking for us as for her when half-way through the story she is suddenly greeted by the normality of the maid giving her breakfast in bed. There is definitely a sense of the two of them just having fun throughout—though Ace’s anger at feeling manipulated is a significant point in their relationship.
A few complaints might be certain things being unexplained like the stuffed animals with lights in their eyes or what exactly is happening with Redvers and the light in the snuff box. The appearance of Light (and especially his voice) is not at all as regal as I imagined in my head as a child, but I suppose it was a pretty well done effect for the time. One of the things I don’t like is that his existence doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. If his purpose of cataloguing life over millennia is frustrated by evolutionary change, would that not apply to any planet with life not just Earth? Why can he not handle it? Is Light a being doing a job or a living program gone wrong? That part is never really explained.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
There are several weird and mystifying moments in this story, but what an eye-poppingly shocking moment for a kids’ program when Nimrod walks in and Light turns around with a severed arm in his hand. “I wanted to see how it works, so I dismantled it.” There is definitely a feeling alienness there.
The story does try to be too clever by half. Just like Ace is thrown into an initiative test, we the viewers are also expected to figure out what is going on and catch up. It’s not bad for a story to be dense as Ghost Light is in most cases, but I am not sure if Doctor Who was the best forum. They may have done better to tone it down by having a little more explanation at times, especially the things going on with Ace or our first introduction to Nimrod. Unfortunately, it only served to make Doctor Who more obscure and difficult such that it could not maintain its wider fan base. One of the reasons that despite having terrific stories for the entire last season it was still cancelled?