‘Can we go now Professor; the whole place gives me the creeps?’ Famously, the last Old Testament Doctor Who serial was originally conceived as Lungbarrow, the story that would introduce the Doctor’s family and reveal the existence of pre-Hartnell iterations in the form of the Other, a notion curiously resurrected in 1997 long after the New Adventures had lost interest in it. In a lapse of misjudgement, John Nathan-Turner nixed the idea, and so Marc Platt repurposed his story as Ghost Light and made it about exploring Ace’s dark past rather than the Doctor’s.
It’s a smart move: the companions have far more potential for character development than the Doctor. I’m less sold on the way it’s done: here, the Doctor just seems cruel, forcing Ace to face her fears on his terms rather than her own, dressing it up as ‘a surprise’ like he’s enjoying watching her squirm. I suppose we’re supposed to be fascinated rather than disgusted by Ace’s horrified realisation that the Doctor has decided to push her into the middle of her worst nightmare, and thrill to his description of confronting ‘a universe of our own terrors.’ At least he gave her a choice at the Psychic Circus. But robbed of the pay-off to this initiative test (the Doctor was meant to be setting Ace up to join the Time Lord Academy), it means half of Season 26 is the Doctor being unaccountably awful to his friend. Yuck.
Parking the distasteful premise, there’s a lot of very good, very sinister material here, realised brilliantly through Nick Somerville’s designs and Alan Wareing’s direction. Gabriel Chase really feels like a mouldy Victorian mansion, packed with stuffed, dead things and barely lit. It’s a pity the videotape looks so smeary: Pertwee rescue jobs aside, this is the ropiest-looking colour story. The sound, too, seems muffled, and several of McCoy’s lines are a bit lost.
Sinister maids hidden in cupboards, taxidermy eyes watching everything that’s going on in the house, a lost explorer discovering a radioactive snuffbox, a dissolute host recoiling from light, a Neanderthal servant, another spaceship buried at the end of an underground tunnel for the second time in a fortnight: it’s like a mix of Hinchcliffe horror tropes with Kinda’s tricksy colonial imagery. I really like the Doctor and Ace bamboozling Reverend Matthews, Ace convincing Gwendoline to drag up, and Platt’s dialogue (‘perhaps she’ll evolve into a young lady’). Wareing was great at building atmosphere in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but exceeds even that in Ghost Light. It’s one of the best opening episodes.
Next episode: Ghost Light – Part Two