Doctor Who – Ghost Light

Doctor Who story 157 – Ghost Light

The Doctor and Ace are threatened by a hunter.
Mount his head on the wall with all the other action figures in the collection.

I feel like I’m in a bit of an interpretive rut. I’m seeing virtually everything in the McCoy era as a commentary of the past, a refutation of what came before. This seems too similar to how I read the Colin Baker era, full of stories interacting with the past, trying to determine what is successful Doctor Who, and the most successful expression of that was the Saward-penned “Revelation of the Daleks,” a Doctor Who story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely sidelined. Sawardian Doctor Who rejects the Doctor.

But in the McCoy or Cartmel era, the tension is found between burning the house to the ground and constructing a phoenix from the ashes of Doctor Who. Which brings us to Marc Platt’s “Ghost Light,” a story about a supposedly haunted house that Ace burned to the ground in the 1980s. On some level, the story starts out clumsily because the Doctor is bringing Ace to this pivotal location, a place that has horrified her for much of her life. Only we have just heard about it now, in episode one. Granted, based on some small amount of passive research, I believe “Ghost Light” aired out of the originally planned order. “Curse of Fenric” was supposed to set up this story, but “Fenric” was moved to later in the season. Thus, we are unexpectedly thrust into Ace’s nightmare with no warning or set up.

But that aside, “Ghost Light” takes the haunted house trappings which would not be unfamiliar in the Hinchcliff/Holmes era, merges them with elements of Darwinism, and ultimately reveals an alien/mystic force, Light, that collects life-forms. Light was also worshipped by the Neanderthal tribe from which Nimrod the butler originated.

Okay, so these are some strange, disparate elements combined into a strange and slightly-less-than-surreal-than-Warriors-Gate-story. This story has been divisive, people loving it or hating it, and as a self-proclaimed-Marc-Platt-fan, I am determined to like it. Thus, I go to my fallback position that the story is about crafting a new vision of Doctor Who. The gothic haunted house is destroyed in the end (symbolic destruction of the Hinchcliff/Holmes vision of the show) while paying tribute to the show’s origins, which is signposted with discussions of Darwinian evolution (human origins being equated with Doctor Who’s origins) and a Light-worshipping Neanderthal (Tribe of Gum worshipping Orb aka the sun). The Darwinian evolution elements also thematically argue for the evolution of Doctor Who as a constantly changing television show. This evolution is held back by Light, a collector of life-forms, monsters and characters, who desires to preserve things in a static state, the fan who’s impressions of Doctor Who were defined once long ago and left unchanging. Everything in “Ghost Light” screams of change and evolution. In the end, the Doctor and Ace speak of destruction of the house. Burning it down isn’t good enough; it should have been blown up.

And there we have it: the only way to continue Doctor Who is to destroy it. Change requires death of the previous form, which in this case was everything built up by the JNT/Saward version of the show. Interesting that the JNT/Cartmel argument is to destroy it.

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who – Ghost Light

  1. Wow, that was a really unique, insightful interpretation of “Ghost Light.” I have never read anything along these lines before. Interesting that this was the very last serial filmed before Doctor Who was cancelled… literally destroying it. This, of course, seemed for a long time like the final end of Doctor Who. But giving the series a rest from television for the next decade and a half, while allowing it to experiment with other formulas in the novels and Big Finish audio plays, eventually led to it being successfully reborn in 2005. So, yes, what you wrote does make sense!

    • Thanks for the comment! “Ghost Light” has so much depth to it and I debated watching it over and over again. Midterms were upon me, however. It has been very hard to approach these last few stories as they were intended: part of a continuing story. We all know that season 26 was the end, which lends so much weight to how they can be interpreted. But regardless of whether the show continued or not, change and evolution are all over the place in season 26. And I just started listening to Big Finish’s “Thin Ice” from the Lost Stories range, and change has been mentioned there as well. Since this is so oft repeated in the McCoy era, I decided to run with it.

      And I have more to say on the idea of experimenting with new forms and new types of stories in my reflections on the classic series as a whole.

      • Having read your review & analysis, I’m considering sitting down and re-watching my DVD of Ghost Light. It’ll be interesting to re-examine it with your commentary on both the story and the Sylvester McCoy / Andrew Cartmell era as a whole, to see what sort of different perspective & viewing experience it brings.

        And I am looking forward to your posts on the Big Finish “Lost Stories” featuring McCoy.

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