Doctor Who
Ghost Light

Starring: Sylvester McCoy
BBC Worldwide
RRP 19.99
Certificate: PG
Available 20 September 2004

The Doctor and Ace find themselves in a sinister mansion in Perivale, 1883. Josiah Samuel Smith occupies the house, but he is more than the Victorian scientist he appears to be. Ace must confront her own worst nightmares when she discovers that her past and the house's future are inextricably linked...

Many fans dislike Ghost Light, dismissing it as incomprehensible twaddle. Among this story's harshest critics is Sci-Fi Online's very own Anthony Clark, who so wanted to avoid watching the thing again that he asked if I could step in to review it instead.

I, on the other hand, have a high regard for this three-part serial, so here comes the case for the defence.

It is true that several aspects of this story are not as clear as they could or should be. Explanations regarding the precise relationship between Josiah (Ian Hogg), Control (Sharon Duce) and Light (John Hallam) had been whittled away from Marc Platt's vastly over-long script long before the production even got into the studio. As a result, we only get a vague impression of an alien crew and life system - which in a way succeeds in making them seem all the more alien and strange.

Nevertheless, I cannot quite believe that there are fans out there who haven't yet worked out that the dinner-jacketed aliens are husks cast off by Josiah, like a reptile shedding its old skin, as he evolves his way up to becoming a Victorian gentleman. This is explained perfectly clearly. My only complaint about the husks is that there should have been many more of them, showing more gradual stages in Josiah's development.

Mystified viewers will find all the answers they need among this DVD's special features, which include a new 40-minute documentary, Light in Dark Places; Writer's Question Time, a 12-minute Q&A session with Platt recorded at a 1990 Doctor Who convention; the usual in-depth on-screen production notes; and an audio commentary with Sophie Aldred (Ace), Marc Platt, script editor Andrew Cartmel and musician Mark Ayres. It is amusing to note that even Platt and Cartmel sound a little confused from time to time as they discuss the intricacies of the script!

One thing I hadn't grasped until now is that the name Control does not refer to any kind of control that the character has over anything, despite the fact that she manages to manipulate Josiah's husks. Rather she is an experimental control. While Josiah was permitted to venture beyond the confines of the ship, thus becoming susceptible to changing conditions, Control was restricted to a controlled environment - at least, to begin with...

This complex tale was made all the harder to follow the first time around by the fact that the dialogue was often drowned by the incidental music. Mark Ayres is at pains to point out, in the audio commentary and Light in Dark Places, that he didn't write "loud" music: the problem was in the mix. This factor is now better balanced, with the addition of an optional Dolby 5.1 surround mix. If all else fails, you can always watch the show with the subtitles on!

Whereas its sound may let it down, Ghost Light's visuals do not disappoint. Though studio-based (apart from a few brief cutaways to show the house's exterior), the production does not look cheap. This is because the BBC has a chance to do what it does best: period costume drama. The sets look magnificent, and for once they aren't lit too brightly.

The story also boasts some excellent guest performances. Ian Hogg is suitably dastardly as the villainous Josiah, Sylvia Syms is extremely creepy as housekeeper Mrs Pritchard, Carl Forgione is noble as the Neanderthal Nimrod, John Hallam swings effectively from confusion to wrath as the angelic but insane Light, Frank Windsor is amusing as the blustering police inspector Mackenzie, and Michael Cochrane is downright hilarious as the deranged explorer Redvers Fenn-Cooper. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred also give what are quite possibly their best performances. The latter's restraint is echoed in the discarding of his straw hat, which gives the Seventh Doctor a more serious appearance, even darker than usual. The performers bring meaning to the multi-layered script, in much the same way that a talented cast can bring even the most impenetrable Shakespeare play to life.

The cast is assisted by a rich script that is full of great lines, such as the Doctor's "Who was it said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?" (it was Douglas Adams, by the way, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Redvers' "Of course, if she was a real lady, I wouldn't be in her boudoir." There's another classic line, this time about Charles Darwin, among the deleted scenes.

The DVD also includes Shooting Ghosts, which comprises 19 minutes of raw studio footage, including unused takes and fluffs galore; an isolated music track; and a photo gallery.

OK, so Ghost Light takes a bit - well, a lot - of study to fully comprehend. However, I'd rather watch an imaginative story like this than something as straightforward yet dull as, say, The Space Museum, any day of the week.

Richard McGinlay

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