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24 September 2014

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Ghost Light

Production Code: 7Q

First Transmitted

1 - 04/10/1989 19:35

2 - 11/10/1989 19:35

3 - 18/10/1989 19:35


The Doctor brings Ace to Gabriel Chase, an old house that she once burnt down in her home town of Perivale. The year is 1883 and the house is presided over by Josiah Samuel Smith, who turns out to be the evolved form of an alien brought to Earth in a stone spaceship that is now in the basement. Others present include the explorer Redvers Fenn-Cooper, who has been driven mad by what he has seen there, and Nimrod, Smith's Neanderthal manservant.

Smith intends to use Fenn-Cooper's unwitting help in a plot to kill Queen Victoria and restore the British Empire to its former glory. His plans are hampered by Control, a female alien whose life-cycle is in balance with his own. Ace inadvertently causes the release of the spaceship's true owner - a powerful alien being known as Light.

Light originally came to Earth to compile a catalogue of its species but, on discovering that his catalogue has now been made obsolete by evolution, he decides to destroy all life on the planet. He disintegrates when the Doctor convinces him that evolution is irresistible and that he himself is constantly changing.

Control has meanwhile evolved into a lady and Smith has reverted to an earlier, primitive form. They leave in the spaceship, along with Nimrod and Fenn-Cooper, heading for new adventures.

Episode Endings

Ace, panicked by her memories of the house, hurries downstairs. She sees an open lift and enters it. Mrs Pritchard, the housekeeper, sends the lift down. In the basement, Ace finds the stone spaceship. A curtain pulls back to reveal two monstrous husks, which lurch towards her. Ace backs away in alarm, while Control hisses 'Ratkin' at her from a cell.

With everyone assembled, the Doctor calls for the lift's current occupant to exit. There is a flash of blinding light and all but the Doctor and Ace shield their eyes.

Light disperses, but the Doctor comments that the house will remember. Ace has only one regret: she wishes she'd blown up the house rather than burning it down.


Condensed Victoriana.

Its themes derive from Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Arthur Conan Doyle (Fenn Cooper mentions the author laughing at tales of giant lizards).

Joseph Conrad ('Light... Burning bright in the heart of the interior').

George Bernard Shaw (Control wanting to be 'ladylike', and Ace being called 'Eliza' by the Doctor).

Robert Louis Stevenson ('Which is the Jekyll, and which is the Hyde?').

Bram Stoker (Ace's reference to Dracula, and Control eating a cockroach).

John Galsworthy ('I'm a man of property').

Lewis Carroll (the Doctor's speech to Light about bandersnatches and slithy toves).

The Water Babies.

Punch cartoons of apes in suits.

Perhaps even Mary Shelley ('I wanted to see how it worked, so I dismantled it,' says Light of an armless human).

The Doctor quotes the Beatles ('It's been a hard day's night') and the works of Douglas Adams ('Who was it said earthmen never invite their ancestors to dinner?').

In addition, Control's mannerisms and speech patterns are indebted to King Lear.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House.

Arthur Hughes' 'The Annunciation'.

Poltergeist III (Light).

The Dark Angel.

The Tempest (Caliban/Nimrod).


Sapphire and Steel.


The Avengers.

Jane Eyre.

King Solomon's Mines.


The Turn of the Screw.

Dialogue Triumphs

Ace : "Is this an asylum with the patients in charge?"

Gwendoline : "Sir, I think Mr Matthews is confused."

The Doctor : "Never mind. I'll have him completely bewildered by the time I'm finished."

Ace : "It's true isn't it. This is the house I told you about."

The Doctor : "You were thirteen. You climbed over the wall for a dare."

Ace : "That's your surprise isn't it? Bringing me back here."

The Doctor : "Remind me what it was that you sensed when you entered this deserted house. An aura of intense evil?"

Ace : "Don't you have things you hate?"

The Doctor : "I can't stand burnt toast. I loath bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls."

Ace : "I told you I never wanted to come back here again."

The Doctor : "And then there's unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty."

Ace : "Too right."

The Doctor : "We all have a universe of our own terrors to face."

Ace : "I face mine on my own terms."


In 1983, when Ace was 13, she climbed over the wall of the ruins of Gabriel Chase, and was terrified by the aura of evil within. At first she claims that she did this for a dare, and only later does she say that this happened after the flat of her best friend, Manisha, was fire bombed by racists.

Ace burnt the house down, and seems to have been put on probation. Ghost Light is the only Doctor Who story to feature the word 'knackered'.


Gabriel Chase, Perivale village, 1883



The Doctor says that he knows a nice little Indian restaurant near the Khyber Pass.


An excellent cast assembles for this story, including distinguished stage and screen actress Sylvia Syms.

A genuine period song is utilised, the highly appropriate 'That's the Way to the Zoo'.

There is a location-recorded establishing shot of Gabriel Chase, which was committed to tape during work on Survival.

The very last Doctor Who scene to be recorded by the BBC as part of the ongoing series was one in which Mrs Pritchard and her daughter Gwendoline are turned to stone.


When the Doctor tests Redvers for radiation a cameraman's reflection can be seen in the door of the open cabinet that Redvers is looking into.

Why does Josiah think that killing the Queen will mean that he takes over the Empire?

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy

Ace - Sophie Aldred

Control - Sharon Duce

Gwendoline - Katharine Schlesinger On the closing credits of Parts One and Two Katharine Schlesinger's first name is misspelt 'Katherine'. (This has been corrected on the version of the story released on BBC video)

Inspector Mackenzie - Frank Windsor

Josiah - Ian Hogg

Light - John Hallam

Mrs Grose - Brenda Kempner

Mrs Pritchard - Sylvia Syms

Nimrod - Carl Forgione

Redvers Fenn-Cooper - Michael Cochrane

Reverend Ernest Matthews - John Nettleton


Director - Alan Wareing

Assistant Floor Manager - Stephen Garwood

Costumes - Ken Trew

Designer - Nick Somerville

Incidental Music - Mark Ayres

Make-Up - Joan Stribling

Producer - John Nathan-Turner

Production Assistant - Valerie Whiston

Production Associate - June Collins

Script Editor - Andrew Cartmel

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Henry Barber

Studio Sound - Scott Talbott

Studio Sound - Keith Bowden

Stunt Arranger - Paul Heasman

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Keff McCulloch

Visual Effects - Malcolm James

Writer - Marc Platt

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

The Independent called this the best Doctor Who story in a decade. However, in order to appreciate fully what's going on it is probably necessary to watch Ghost Light two or three times. Ghost Light is a superb example of Andrew Cartmel's vision for Doctor Who. The design is flawless, the direction is beautiful, and the script is a heady mix of the humorous and the macabre (especially when Inspector Mackenzie, the 'cream of Scotland Yard', is turned into primordial soup).

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

Newcomer Marc Platt, only the second self-confessed Doctor Who fan to have had one of his own stories accepted for production (the first, Andrew Smith, having been responsible for season eighteen's Full Circle), came up with arguably the most densely-written, multi-layered and challenging set of scripts that the series ever had. Even some of those who worked on the story later confessed that they had not entirely grasped what it was all about, and most reviewers have admitted to greater or lesser degrees of confusion.

'Maybe Doctor Who shouldn't give you the explanations on a plate,' commented Craig Hinton in DWB No. 77, dated May 1990. 'In all forms of drama it is more satisfying to infer than to have it rammed down your throat. And indeed, Ghost Light started off as an intellectual jigsaw puzzle that allowed the viewer to piece together the clues, one that would lead to a climax which would have been the final assembly, as the picture became clear.

'Somewhere - and I doubt that it was Platt's script - some of the vital information went missing. The result was a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box, and with some pieces absent. Without this, the climax vanished, to be replaced by a less than fulfilling denouement that clarified nothing.'

Closer examination of the story, however, shows that all the supposedly 'missing pieces' are in fact present - if rather difficult to spot. This had been pointed out by Julian Knott in DWB No. 72, dated December 1989: 'A script as well-balanced as it was well-packed into three episodes (with no discernible padding) deserves much praise. After a couple of viewings it becomes apparent that there is hardly a word wasted, and that many key words and phrases have been picked to convey a very specific meaning (such as the Doctor's remark that Ace's change of clothes into [those of] a "Victorian gentleman" is a "metamorphosis"). Every action has a reason, every occurrence an explanation. Even the standard defuse-the-bomb/stop-the-countdown "firestorm program" sequence at the end made enough sense in context, and succeeded in rounding the story off nicely. Even if some things are not made clear at the time they occur, then they are explained, or can be explained, at a later stage.'

Ghost Light is Doctor Who for the video age; a story that can be truly appreciated only after multiple viewings, as the subtleties and nuances contained within are legion.

'I found Ghost Light thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end...,' wrote Peter Darrington in the November 1989 edition of Celestial Farmyard. 'The whole production came across as a real piece of good BBC drama, of a standard Doctor Who has not managed to [reach] for a good few years.' Knott was similarly lavish in his praise: 'Like only its most eminent of predecessors, Ghost Light is a Doctor Who masterpiece. Not only was it Sylvester McCoy's best Doctor Who story to date, it is one of the finest stories for many years.'

The story contains a number of fascinating and well-written characters, but there is one who stands head and shoulders above the rest: Ace. Ghost Light is very much Ace's story, proving that Doctor Who's format is flexible enough to allow the companion character to be accorded as much time and attention as the Doctor himself. This approach was to typify and empower the series of original novels that started to be released once the television series had been effectively cancelled, and Ghost Light can be seen in many ways as the forerunner and inspiration for those works.

The way the Doctor is depicted in this story, and to a certain extent in season twenty-six generally, has been rather more controversial. 'We are shown one of the most spiteful sides of the Doctor's character in the series' history,' asserted Hinton. 'Learning that Ace is afraid of an old house in Perivale, [he] takes it upon himself to arrange her catharsis. How magnanimous of him. The poor girl is scared witless during the course of the Doctor's "psychoanalysis", while he merrily plots and manipulates... Not quite the philanthropic traveller of old, is he?' Maybe not, but he is developing as a character, and learning to understand his travelling companion a little better into the bargain.

'For the last three weeks I have been enthralled, confused and disturbed by Ghost Light,' wrote Gareth Preston in the winter 1989 edition of TARDIS. 'One again [Doctor Who] has demonstrated its flexibility and imagination with a highly original suspense story, laced with pithy comments on Victorian society... I really enjoyed it.'

Its undeniably complexity notwithstanding, it is difficult to fault Ghost Light. It provides an excellent illustration of the very positive way in which the series was developing under John Nathan-Turner's increasingly mature stewardship, with the inspired Andrew Cartmel as script editor, an imaginative and understanding team of writers working alongside him and a Doctor and companion partnership rich with possibilities. That this should turn out to be the final story produced as part of the ongoing series is very ironic. After a period in the mid-eighties when the BBC seemed almost to have lost the knack of making good Doctor Who, they had rediscovered it with a vengeance - only to throw it all away again.

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This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

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