Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Serial 156: Ghost Light

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companions: Ace

Written by: Marc Platt
Directed by: Alan Wareing

Background & Significance: After the "disaster" that was Colin Baker, Doctor Who underwent more shifts and changes. Colin Baker was fired by the BBC, the show moved from a prime time weeknight time slot back to Saturday nights, episode lengths went from forty five minutes to twenty five minutes, the budget was slashed again, the BBC still had their sights on killing the show, and a well-known comedian at the time, a fellow named Sylvester McCoy, became the Seventh incarnation of The Doctor.

Known for his comedy, Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was, in fact, funny. But he was also dark and manipulative, growing more and more into this Chess Master as his run progressed. He is (aside from David Tennant in 2006) the ONLY Doctor to ever be selected over Tom Baker's 4th Doctor as the "fan-favorite" in Doctor Who magazine's annual "Who is your favorite Doctor" poll.

That said, he is, perhaps, one of the "forgotten" Doctors. He wasn't as fan-favorite as Tom Baker or Peter Davison (or even Patrick Troughton), nor was he infamously reviled (a la Colin Baker). He's a Doctor like Jon Pertwee or Paul McGann who just sorta... fades into the background among the more openly popular Doctors.

But he is rather deftly incredible (especially, as we shall see, next week...) and a remarkably captivating Doctor, charismatic and incredibly specific. Far, for me, from forgettable.

Today's serial, "Ghost Light", comes from Sylvester McCoy's final season, when The Doctor has become the skilled tactician and chess master. It is also notable in that it was the final serial ever filmed in the classic Doctor Who era (although it was not, in fact, the last broadcast). Other than that, nothing special about it. No Daleks, Master, Cybermen, etc. Just a Doctor Who story.

As it was the last, and the budget had been progressively slashed more and more as time had gone on, the serial is told in three parts, even though it was written to be four (because the final budget only allowed them to do three). What you're left with, then, is a disjointed work that feels like it's missing entire sections or scenes, so I'll explain it as best I can, but if it feels disjointed, and you're left going "Huh?" that's why.

Also, apologies for the screencaps. The way they shot this was really, really dark (which goes with the whole Light thing that comes into play later) so it makes the screencaps look muddy. I did my best, but... yeah... At some point I just can't do no more. So keep that in mind and bear with me in places, cuz it might get a little bit rough.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

We open in the Victorian era, in a house where there is a Matron-in-black (Mrs. Pritchard) and a maid. Also, haunty organ music. They are bringing something food, and the lighting is low. They put the food into a slot at the bottom of the door and something SNATCHES it. They recoil in fear.

Upstairs, a grandfather clock stands showing us the time. The housekeeping staff let in a visitor, the Reverend Earnest Matthews. He is mutton-chop-tacular. He arrives in a flurry of black traveling cloak and with large, sweeping importance. He's apparently from Oxford, this house is called "Gabriel Chase", and he's looking for one Josiah Samuel Smith.

And mutton chops. Did I mention those, yet?

Ace and the The Doctor arrive in the TARDIS. And here, to me, is when I fall in love with the two of them, what with Ace and her snarky comments and calling The Doctor "Professor", which is just... so endearing and so charming. And The Doctor, who is just so... loving towards her, but not in a "they want to hit it off" sort of way. It's just so.... It's a great relationship. And she's so observant, and he's so watchful and smart.

And then he got on the rocking horse.

That's just classy.

Ace asks if the house is haunted, saying she told The Doctor she doesn't like Haunted Houses. He pretends not to remember, and when he asks her why, she says she's only been in one, and that one was enough.

Elsewhere in the manor, the housekeeping staff departs in a hurry just before the tolling of the grandfather clock at six. When it does, doors slide open, and, like robots, a series of maids walk out of sealed closet doors. It's spooky, watching the people who have been standing in there, silent all day, in single file lines, march out at the tolling of the clock.

The maids begin walking through their house, going about their evening business as The Doctor and Ace step out of the nursery. More banter-play (seriously, it's great), and they find a snuff box with the initials "R.F.C." (It's like RAB, from Harry Potter, but not as important or cool). They kneel to examine it, but are confronted by a hunter.

Some introductions, and the man begins talking about scary atrocities in this house. He says he's been looking for a man named Redvers Fenn-Cooper, and proposes that the snuff box belonged to him. After a swipe at Ace's "scant clothing" (it is, after all, the 19th Century), he departs, Ace and The Doctor follow him, mystery afoot.

In the main hall, the maids stand on the stairway as Mrs. Pritchard arrives. She takes verbal abuse from a rather impatient Reverend Matthews. Gwendoline, Josiah Samuel Smith's ward, appears, and stems his anger, saying Smith shouldn't be too much longer.

The Doctor, Ace, and the hunter enter a room. The Hunter explains that Josiah Samuel Smith invited Fenn-Cooper to the house, and Fenn-Cooper hasn't been seen since. Ace asks if they can leave, starting to feel scared. And that's when the Hunter pulls a gun on The Doctor and Ace.

Downstairs, in the room we started in, the room with the snatched food tray, a butler who looks like a caveman looks at the door into which the food went. He calls the creature "poor, silent, brute", but when he leaves, a face appears at the peep hole, hoarsely whispering "Not silent now!"

Back in the study, the Hunter gets closer to The Doctor and Ace, talking about Fenn-Cooper's past. He can't remember much, though. And when The Doctor asks him what he does remember, the Hunter talks of a bright light with radiant wings that burned through his eyes and got into his mind. There's a struggle and Ace gets away, but The Doctor is still in the Hunter's sights. At the last second, he jumps away, peeling back curtains behind him, revealing a window, where suddenly--

The Hunter finds Redvers Fenn-Cooper.

And for those who can't keep up, that means The Hunger IS Redvers Fenn-Cooper.

The Doctor theorizes that Fenn-Cooper saw something too big he couldn't handle. "A light", as he calls it, and the thing fried his mind. He tells Ace to go find help, but as he does--

Mrs. Pritchard enters with a maid (or two, they're not important so whatever) and the Caveman-Butler and escorts the stunned Fenn-Cooper away without so much as two words to The Doctor. Fenn-Cooper is hauled away, screaming that he doesn't want to go where they're taking him. Ace protests, but the Caveman-Butler (who introduces himself as Nimrod) insists that this is all quite routine and invites the two of them to dinner. The Doctor heartily accepts.

Reverend Matthews STILL has ridiculous sideburns

Nimrod brings them before the Reverend Matthews who mistakes The Doctor for Josiah Samuel Smith. Nimrod attempts to interrupt, but The Doctor silences him by subtly giving him "a fang of a cave bear," which Nimrod accepts with amazing wonder. Nimrod leaves, and The Doctor sends off Gwendoline and Ace that his Companion might wear some proper garments.

Now alone, Reverend Matthews confronts The Doctor about his heretic theories, but no sooner can The Doctor get a word in, than a man enters the room. With a wave of his hand, he dims the light. The Doctor instantly deduces this man is Josiah Samuel Smith. Matthews confronts him, but Smith points to a collection of Moths on the wall. He points to them as proof of evolution, which, this being Victorian England, Matthews heartily protests.

The arrival of Josiah Samuel Smith

Upstairs, in a small, completely dark room, Redvers Fenn-Cooper sits in a straight jacket, his snuff box on the floor a few feet away. Slowly, the snuff box opens, flooding the room with light. He screams in agony, suffering.

Ace, dressed in a fine tuxedo, races to the source, only to be blocked out by the Matron-in-Black. The Doctor arrives shortly after, accompanied by Josiah Samuel Smith and Nimrod, who opens the door. Smith recoils at the sight of the light and The Doctor attempts to get in to speak to Fenn-Cooper, but The Matron-in-Black hauls both him and Ace away.

They return to the drawing room, where Nimrod assures The Doctor that Fenn-Cooper is being made comfortable. He leaves and heads downstairs to the room with the person behind the door and raises the curtain, revealing the room to be, actually --

A Spaceship.

He kneels before the display at the front, but is knocked out by an unseen presence.

The Doctor, Ace, Reverend Matthews, and Josiah Samuel Smith all sit down for dinner. Matthews continues to demand an explanation for Smith's theories about evolution. Before he can answer, he's called away as the telephone rings. Smith excuses himself and picks up the phone, only to hear no answer. He gets mad and yells, but all that comes back are two words from a hoarse voice.

"I escaped."

He sets down the receiver in horror. The Doctor confronts him, but is beckoned away by the calls of Ace, who stands on the steps, terrified. She tells him that the Reverend Matthews told her the house was Gabriel Chase, and the city they are in is Perivale, the small London suburb where Ace grew up. She yells that the last time she saw the house it was burning to the ground in 1983, 100 years after when they are now.

She runs off, he chases after her, meeting her in a study. They give some exposition about her history with the house, how when she was thirteen she climbed the wall for a dare, sensed something, got terrified, and burned the house to the ground. The Doctor begs her to remember what it was she'd sensed.

And this scene is just... greatness. The chemistry and relationship between these two is incredible. The Doctor is pushing Ace in a way she doesn't want to be pushed, making her face a childhood fear, and showing her what was going on in this house that she so despised. McCoy, as The Doctor, plays his hand so well, being humourous and manipulative, striving to test his Companion's already strengthy resolve.

Elsewhere, Reverend Matthews confronts Josiah Samuel Smith, once again, about Smith's theories. Smith distracts him while Mrs. Pritchard chloroforms a handkerchief and incapacitates the poor Mutton-Chopped Man.

The Doctor presses Ace for more information, begging her to tell him what she saw. They are interrupted by Josiah Samuel Smith, whose entrance pulls Ace out of the moment and allows her to run away. She sprints downstairs and finds a lift, which she jumps in and takes it downstairs, full of resolve.

She runs away, giving The Doctor and Smith a moment alone. The Doctor subtly calls Smith an alien, but he claims "I'm as human as you" (irony!) and speaks of an enemy. Reluctantly, The Doctor agrees to help.

Once Ace is downstairs, Mrs. Pritchard seals off the elevator, trapping Ace in the basement. With no other options, Ace heads down the corridor and into the spaceship. She finds the unconscious Nimrod, but no sooner is she to him, than the voice behind the door calls out to her, analyzing how scared she is.

Still scared, Ace turns, only to find these.

With no other exits, Ace backs away from the fearsome creatures, who approach her all slow and ominous-like, shouting "Rutkin! Rutkin!".

And that's how Part 1 ends, with you thinking that you are now watching a creature feature. (You're not.)

Part 2:

The Doctor oversees Gwendoline rummaging through drawers filled with collected specimens of moths and assorted other things that fit into the drawers of dressers... Including some police inspector.

Who buh what?

Gwendoline talks about how the man was going to go to Java, because that's where Josiah Samuel Smith sent her father after Smith saw what was in the cellar. Very peculiar things, this.

In the cellar, Ace is being carted by the weird animal husk things to the door containing the creepy voice. It looks dire, but then, Nimrod appears, locking the door, and waving a lantern in front of the husks. Shocked and terrified, they recoil. Ace grabs a broom, ready to beat any husk that grubby paws her again. The voice behind the door begs them to open it, and one of the husks happily obliges. Nimrod's not scared though. So long as he has that lantern and the light they're fine.

And then the light goes out and one of the husks swats the lantern down, breaking it. Ace and Nimrod start to fight about what to do next. Ace wants to break the giant light, but Nimrod warns that "'The Sleeping One in the Temple of Light' must not be awoken."

That can't be good...

They struggle, and that light thing breaks, issuing steam out into the room. Nimrod stares in transfixed reverence at the now-pulsating light.

Upstairs, The Doctor searches frantically for Ace, but is held up by Josiah Samuel Smith and his army of maids. They detain him, but are soon distracted by the wailing of an alarm that coincides with the breaking of the light.

The Doctor gets the drop on Smith and holds him at gunpoint. He leverages the others into giving him access to the lift, which they do, riding it to the bottom. The Doctor rejoins with Ace. She wants to leave, but he wishes to stay and investigate.

And so he does. He's most interested in that hibernation chamber (apparently the glowy thing is a hibernation chamber), and Smith begs The Doctor not to touch it, apparently afraid about... everything...

The Doctor begins to figure out more of this puzzle. He theorizes that the husks that attacked Ace are castoffs of Smith's, and that Smith wasn't the owner of the spaceship, he was just the cargo.

Smith withdraws a pistol hidden in the spaceship and holds it on The Doctor and Ace. He tells them to put the crystals that control the hibernation chamber back into their slots, but The Doctor and Ace (such a team!) manage to trick him into getting in the way of the steam exhausts.

The light in the hibernation chamber goes out, and the creepy door starts to open. The Doctor (hauling Nimrod), Ace, and Smith make a run for the elevator, and barely make it inside and slam the door shut before the creature behind the door manages to catch up to them.

Its hand gets in the elevator, and it begs for mercy, calling itself Control. Smith manages to shut out the hand, and they head upstairs. Strangely enough, he collapses, getting noticeably weaker. The Doctor says "he's evolving" but it's unclear what EXACTLY that means.

They arrive upstairs. The maids draw guns. No really. It's awesome.

That's a possible sequel to this episode: "Return of the Gun Maids"

First light approaches, and an ailing Smith is taken upstairs. Mrs. Pritchard and the Gun Maids all retire to wherever it is they retire to. The Doctor makes note that Smith is turning into a husk and Mrs. Pritchard and the Gun Maids won't return till night fall. The Doctor and Ace haul the still unconscious Nimrod into the sitting room, a very confused Gwendoline on their heels.

In another room in the house, just at daybreak, a very gross looking Josiah Samuel Smith sits with a pistol in hand, firing shots at an image of Queen Victoria's face, which wakes up the nearby Reverend Matthews. Finally! He gets to confront Smith about his views on evolution.

Also, Josiah Samuel Smith looks grosstastic.

Matthews, refusing to believe in evolution (seriously, the only reason I know why this is a big deal in Victorian England is cuz I took a class on it. Was this really common knowledge back in 1989?) starts eating a banana, and then starts turning into... well... you guess...

Gwendoline arrives, and "Sends Reverend Matthews to Java" (which is a euphemism for "hazing by silly costume"..... but seriously, it's not) by chloroforming his face.

Exhausted, Ace passes out and The Doctor wakes up the Constable he found at the top of the episode.

Several hours later, Ace awakens in a nice comfy bed. A member of the day staff catches her up to date, serving her what looks like a delicious Victorian breakfast.

[Fun fact: Victorian breakfasts are 17% more awesome than "Modern Breakfasts" but 32% not as cool as a Medieval breakfast, where they slaughter the pig and fry it up right in front of you. That's the only way it should be...]

She informs Ace that it's five o'clock, one hour until sundown. Ace panics and starts preparing for the night's festivities. And this is a really neat way to jump through the entire day, because the next we see The Doctor, he's running around making sure everything's in order.

The Doctor attempts to wake up the unconscious Nimrod. The Constable, Inspector Mackenzee enters, remarking on Nimrod's unusual appearance. He calls him "Some strange foreigner", and when The Doctor corrects him and says "Neanderthal", The Inspector says "That explains why he looks like he's got Gypsy Blood in him... Lazy workers..."

Wow... that's kinda racist.

Ace enters, looking dapper in some Victorian dress.The Doctor explains that Mackenzee has been missing since 1881, and has been in this house for two years. They manage to awaken Nimrod, who warns that "Light will return again."

Control, having managed to climb up the elevator shaft hears the words, and locks herself in the elevator, waiting. The Doctor, having noticed this, drops some loud, cryptic information clues about what he wants Control to do.

The Doctor recaps some info dumpage about this weird creature. Smith and Control fear it, Redvers Fenn-Cooper went insane when he saw it, and Nimrod worships it. He vows to stay behind, figuring out the mystery despite Ace's protests.

Nimrod visits Redvers Fenn-Cooper, who's in a straitjacket (except not really). Nimrod elects to cut him free with a knife, but Fenn-Cooper reveals he's already free (that's the 'not really' part).

Downstairs, Control plans to let the creature that's in hibernation out. And she does.

Ace and Inspector Mackenzee investigate the house and discover a dead husk of Josiah Samuel Smith as well as a Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline, both of whom are sitting in state, in the room. They also uncover the Reverend Matthews who now looks like this:


The following occurs after the Youtube, which is posted below. But basically, what happens is this...

The evening shifts into motion. Like clockwork, the maids exit that room from earlier and Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline awaken, taking Ace hostage. Josiah Samuel Smith reveals himself. Fully evolved, making him--

A Proper Victorian Gentleman

He no longer fears the light and heads downstairs, making the Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline drag Ace behind.

And here's the first youtube. This shows The Doctor at what I consider to be his most elegant in this serial or possibly ever. You can tell he's in control of the situation, even though we find out in just a bit that he has no idea what's going to happen. I find this as McCoy at his best. Again, he is the grand chess master, orchestrating all the elements and putting them into play.

And that's how Part Two ends. It's an extremely badass ending if I may be so indulgent. I had planned to wait between episodes by perhaps a day, but that ending just made me need to know what was going to happen next. Even if it did involve the reveal of Control, who is just really silly.

Part 3:

We'll start off this part where part two left off, with the appearance of Light. I'd explain it, but it's much more fun to youtube stuff like this, stuff where The Doctor's on his form and you get to see a Gun Maid in action and hear Light's ridiculously silly voice.

I don't know how The Doctor knows all that stuff, though. About the survey and whatever. 's all rather confusing. But it is fun, especially the part where The Doctor says, "Light travels at the speed of thought."

Also, for those of you who are confused, Light was leading a cataloging and survey mission where he was cataloging all of the species of Earth along with Control and his surveyor (Josiah Samuel Smith), but then something happened and he was tricked into hibernation by Smith (I guess) and then was now awoken to find that all his work is useless because of evolution and change coming to species and stuff....

Anyways. Back to the story: Josiah Samuel Smith retreats upstairs with Nimrod (which is still a highly offensive name), Gwendoline, Lady Pritchard, and Redvers Fenn-Cooper and reminds them all of his plan: to assassinate Queen Victoria.

Control wanders around the house, slowly coming out of her silly rag garb, this time revealing golden hair. She eats bugs, and shares a moment with Fenn-Cooper about plants. He's like a goof. He totally wants her (but only when she looks like a deranged Hobo, I'm sure. He's crazy. He's into that sorta thing probably).

They head into a bedroom and Control starts to dress like a lady, looking less and less like the Hobo and more and more like the civilized person.

Light begins to absorb information around him, watching monitor screens. He assumes that he's not on Earth and, to support his conclusion, SUCKS A MAID'S BRAIN DRY.

That's so dark. [/ironic statement]

Ace and the Doctor stalk around the house, looking for Control. Ace remarks that the house seems to be coming alive, and the Doctor, again, asks her what happened in the house 100 years later. He doesn't push it, though, and offers her the TARDIS key, saying she can wait for him there if she wants to.

She calls it the "coward's way out."

(Did I mention I love them?)

She separates from him and begins to see the house come alive for real. She has flashes of some crazy thing and collapses, allowing Gwendoline, for some reason, to attempt to take her hostage.

While this is happening, The Doctor finds Control and Redvers Fenn-Cooper. He attempts to persuade Control to help him, but she'll have none of that. So she jumps out the window. For no reason. The Doctor gets mad, saying "Even I can't play this many games at once."

Ace and Gwendoline, struggling, fall into a side room, unnoticed by the passing Doctor and Redvers. As the ladies struggle, Control climbs through the window and disrupts the fight, escaping back into the house. Ace uses the situation to escape from Gwendoline, at least getting a running head start.

Elsewhere in the house, Nimrod finds and speaks to Light. He makes references to Neanderthals being good because "They knew when to stop evolving" and is horrified at the microbes in the air, which evolve as he speaks. He vows to stop evolution.

Ace finds Control, who talks about not evolving and hating freeness. The Companion manages to free Control from that thought by having her beat Josiah at his own game: by turning Control into a Victorian gentlewoman. Then Gwendoline shows up and tries to kill Ace, but that fails when The Doctor arrives and stops her. He shows Gwendoline a locket he finds on the floor and then takes the rest of everyone downstairs to a lovely dinner scene.

At the lovely dinner scene, The Doctor shows the locket to Lady Pritchard, who realizes that Gwendoline is her daughter and runs off to be with her.

.... Okay.... that was... strange but totally necessary, I guess...

And then Light shows up, gets mad that they've changed, and turns them to stone. Nimrod gets really sad because they never did anything to Light, and then Light declares that he's decided Earth's future, and he leaves.

Back at dinner, Ace wants to eat soup, but The Doctor tells her not to, instead confronting Josiah Samuel Smith about his plot to assassinate the Queen. He reveals that he was planning to use Redvers as an in (cuz apparently The Queen enjoys daintily rugged hunters), but Redvers gives up his life as Redvers in order to be with Control, who is a proper lady now.

So.... does he like Hobos or Proper Ladies? I really hope it's Hobos. They could use the edge.

Control lights the piece of paper with the plan for killing Queen Victoria on fire, much to Josiah's horror. He tries to save it, but he's too late.

And then comes the endgame. In a Youtube. It's a solid ending, I think. Sylvester McCoy could do parlour mysteries for the rest of his life and I would be okay with it. Also, see if you can figure out why Ace was right to have not eaten the soup.

Now that Light has been defeated, The Doctor, Nimrod, Ace, Redvers Fenn-Cooper, and Control all race downstairs to try and stop it. They're followed by Josiah Samuel Smith, who grabs and holds Ace at gunpoint. In a moment of badassery, Control destroys Smith's husks and chains him down, vowing to look after him for all eternity.

Contented, and with a spaceship that is primed to take off, Nimrod, Redvers Fenn-Cooper, and Control all decide to head off to explore the cosmos. Ace and The Doctor let them go, and wrap up with a few choice words.

The Doctor asks Ace if there are any regrets. She says yes. She wishes she'd blown the house up instead. The Doctor can only call that "Wicked."

But what about The Doctor?: I love Sylvester McCoy. I know that I tend to say that about a lot of these Doctors (and really, we only have one left to talk about), but I really, really do.

It's interesting watching him move and act. He's very entertaining, but also insanely thought-provoking. So much of this story was about acting on assumed or unknown information and he pulls it off masterfully, orchestrating and scheming and stuff like that.

Not only that, but his relationship with Ace is nothing short of fantastic. It's rare that there's a Companion I like as much as I like Ace, and it's rare that the relationship is as wonderfully charming and wonderful as their relationship is here. He's totally a mentor to her (which is most interesting, considering where they wanted to take her character, but more on that perhaps later) and I buy every second of it, as opposed to someone like Tegan or Adric who are annoying and Peri who just doesn't really matter.

McCoy is coming out of this as easily one of my favorite Doctors. It just saddens me that he wasn't able to be around for longer, because what there is of him is just greatness and I loves it.

Next Time!: The 8th Doctor! A Flamboyantly Dressed Master! Single-tear Companions! Horrible subtext! Asian Gang Bangers in San Francisco! And tons of other crazy %&$@ that makes ABSOLUTELY no sense! (but I will try to...) "Doctor Who: The Movie" (from 1996)! Coming next Tuesday!


  1. I'm sad that Sylvester McCoy as the 7th Doctor and Ace had such a short run. The background story about Ace was starting to become interesting. It seems unfinished. It's too bad they canceled the show.

  2. Also thank you for explaining Ghost Light. I never understood the show until now.

  3. "It just saddens me that he wasn't able to be around for longer, because what there is of him is just greatness and I loves it."

    McCoy planned to stay around for just one more season, and tentative plans were in place to write Ace out at the end of the second serial in Season 27. So the 7th Doctor/Ace story was 80% near completion, which makes it very sad they didn't get to wrap up the first "modern" companion's story.