Doctor Who is a very long running show, and one of the questions non-fans often ask is where to start. The answer varies as much as the show does, and when it comes to the “classic”1 show, most die-hard fans will pick their favourite episode starring their favourite Doctor and suggest that. However, no one in their right mind ever suggests Ghostlight. It is, however, a perfect example of what was wonderful and terrible about the Doctor Who in the 80’s.
This brilliant bit of Seventh Doctor fun is notorious for being strange, even for Doctor Who. It’s really trying to be utterly fantastic, and by doing so, falls so very short, though this isn’t the fault of the stars of the show. Sylvester McCoy (as the Doctor) and Sophie Aldred (as his companion, Ace) are always a pleasure to watch – the pair have real chemistry and though this is more obvious in the spin-off media produced years later, it’s apparent in the original. The problem with Ghostlight is that it tries to slam an entire seasons worth of clever sci-fi telly into 90 minutes of dashing around. The result is a confusing and at times terrifying mess.
Set in the Victorian era, the plot of Ghostlight revolves around them following themes; Evolution, haunted houses, childhood trauma, dealing with change, coming of age, the advantages of diversity and course, ancient abandoned alien technology. Oh, they added a bit of God in as well, just for spice. All on a budget of tuppence 2. You’ll note I haven’t explained the plot; that’s because it’s so full of surprises it’d be a crime to do so, and also because the plot is so convoluted I’d need a map, flipcharts and glove puppets to explain it all.
It’s a glorious mess. Even the greatest actors in the world couldn’t pull this nonsense off, and though McCoy and Aldred are good, they’re not that good. The sad thing about Ghostlight is that it almost works despite all this; as the show stacks mad idea upon overacting upon another mad idea and then piles on some more really bad effects and wobbly walls, you get the feeling that if the show just calmed down for a second a let you catch up, you might actually have a cracking piece of sci-fi here.
Doctor Who, at its heart, is a show in which one can tell any story. Ghostlight almost breaks this notion. It is worth ploughing through, if you have patience. Otherwise it’s worth watching just to see what classic Who can both at its simultaneous nadir and zenith.
1: Many Who fans will argue that drawing a line between the post-2005 show and the one that ended in the 80’s is bad. I don’t agree – it’s the same show, with the same ideas, but the franchise is so large that distinguishing between ‘new’ and ‘classic’ makes the whole thing easier to navigate.
2: Tuppence – Two pence. I can believe it cost that much. A lot of Doctor Who looks cheap, but at the time, the special effects where pretty good for the day. Except during the McCoy era. It looks cheap because the BBC really didn’t want to spend any money on it.