‘To catch a wolf, I may have unleashed a tiger.’ This has a reputation for being complicated and impenetrable, and I think this is largely because there are two stories in parallel. One is Josiah Smith’s attempts to become a Victorian gentleman and restore the British Empire, the other is the Doctor’s decision to uncover the evil Ace once sensed in Perivale.
Like a Victorian drawing room, the Smith plot is cluttered with all kinds of exotic embellishments that don’t serve much purpose except as variations on a theme. Reverend Matthews is devolved into an ape as punishment for his criticism of Smith’s evolutionary hypotheses. Inspector Mackenzie has been frozen and put in a drawer because he was investigating the disappearance of Sir George Pritchard, whose home Smith has taken over. Sir George’s wife and daughter have been repurposed into accessories for Smith’s imagined evolution into a gentleman. His rags to riches story is literally represented by his discarded husks and Control herself – presumably the same sort of alien being Smith developed from. All of this is in the dialogue, although problematically much of it is lost in slightly rushed line readings in the middle of busy scenes.
And the bigger problem is that it’s just a sideshow (‘just part of the cargo’) to the story of the god in the cellar, the thing the Doctor is actually interested in, the thing that drove Fenn Cooper mad, that Smith fears. So while Smith is busy being randomly evil because, presumably, he’s mad and has weird alien powers (the script isn’t clear on this point), the Doctor’s busy freeing Fenn Cooper, winning Nimrod’s trust and making a deal with Control to unleash Light for ‘just one chat’. The implication is that the Doctor is doing this because it’s the best way to stop Smith, but also because he’s curious. A bit more exposition in the Doctor’s chat with Ace (“I wasn’t expecting to find an alien madman trying to change British history, now I need to find a way stop him”) would help clear this up, and provide some connective tissue to a story that can seem to lurch from one weird sequence to the next without keeping the audience clear on what is happening and why.
So, while I think it’s full of good ideas, I think the script needed work. There’s no reason for the Doctor to be quite so cagey with Ace about the Light plot, and, although Reverend Matthews is amusing, he’s one character too many. A better way into the Smith plot would have been Inspector Mackenzie’s arrival to investigate Sir George’s (or perhaps Fenn Cooper’s) disappearance, providing a backbone to that story as he asked questions, and started to uncover Smith’s plans for Queen Victoria, rather than these being left quite so oblique.
Still, for Joe Public it offers up some startling images every few minutes and some funny lines (‘Gone to see a man about a god’). I suspect there’s a level of tolerance for weird stories even if the plot is hard to follow (Warriors’ Gate is great, and Sapphire and Steel made an art of it). Things constantly happen, and most people can get the gist even if the details are lost: something nasty’s locked in the cellar, and now the Doctor has released it.
Next episode: Ghost Light – Part Three