Aired 4 – 18 October 1989
‘Ghost Light’ has garnered something of reputation for being a more cerebral or abstract adventure than is the norm for Doctor Who, some viewers and fans being turned off because it does require a greater commitment to piece together the many diverse elements into a cohesive whole. However, it also fits in perfectly with the gradual shift of the programme to put more focus on the companion as an actual person as well as to instill a sense of mystery into the character of the Doctor once more. Appropriately, then, ‘Ghost Light’ is very much a story about the inevitability of and need for change in order to ensure survival.
As with any great story, the proceedings on display act as a metaphor for even larger events, and that certainly is the case when looking at Doctor Who as a franchise at the time. Josiah, assured that the British Empire is in decline and heading for anarchy due to lack of direction from the throne, plans to murder Queen Victoria in order to place himself at the head of a society in which the establishment and status quo remain untouched. Intriguingly, there is a rather direct comparison between Josiah and the Doctor in ‘Ghost Light’ as both claim control of machines that they don’t fully understand. Yet while Josiah seeks to halt the changing progress and evolution of Control, the Doctor willingly embraces the unknown and gladly goes wherever the TARDIS may take him. This difference between the characters is certainly not a new aspect of the Doctor, but the shifting of the narrative style to incorporate Ace more fully as a true person certainly brings new aspects of the titular Time Lord to light. There’s no question that Ace would go on to become the most well-rounded of any of the classic companions, and the Doctor giving her the opportunity to directly confront a childhood fear and emotionally mature is an opportunity rarely afforded to companions on screen. Taking the focus off of the Doctor, a man who essentially remains the same underneath changing faces and quirks, and putting it instead onto the companion with a personal history related to the events at hand is a dynamic means of grounding the story while still allowing the Doctor to be an unknown quantity.
‘Ghost Light’ is perhaps most successful in its tackling of the notion of social Darwinism when compared to the actual writing and philosophies of Darwin himself. Survival of the fittest is hardly the most flattering of terms, often bringing with it unfavorable notions of exploitation or cruelty, and the serial does not shy away from how such dark conceits can hide in plain sight within a civilized society. Still, with Reverend Matthews refusing to believe Darwin’s works and Josiah Smith threatening to halt all of human advancement and evolution to maintain the British Empire as is, there is a great central debate here on a smaller level, and the differing core philosophies of Control, Light, and Survey make for an intriguing philosophical tale on a much grander level as well.
Although there is some contention about the somewhat disjointed feel of the many differing aspects of the story, the serial almost makes it feel as though this is intentional as even the mastermind Seventh Doctor protests that he can’t play that many games at once. Still, the binding forces throughout it all is the superb atmosphere created by the Victorian mansion and the BBC’s prowess with producing period settings which together maintain an uneasy air of mystery from beginning to end. While it seems as though the serial could have easily handled another episode to more fully develop its many intriguing notions, ‘Ghost Light’ is nonetheless a bold and ambitious story that refuses to settle for a more commonplace means of telling its tale.