Thousands of years ago, an alien expedition arrived on Earth to catalogue all life. Afterwards, having collected a number of samples, including a being known as Nimrod (Carl Forgione), the leader who was called Light, (John Hallem) went to sleep. By 1881, Josiah Smith (Ian Hogg) was in control. He kept Light in hibernation and imprisoned another creature called Control (Sharon Duce) on the ship, now in the cellar of a huge house. Smith was evolving into a Victorian gentleman by this time. By 1883, he was able to cast off his old husks like an insect and appear as a full-fledged human. He captured the explorer Redvers Fenn-Cooper (Michael Cochrane) and brainwashed him. Fenn-Cooper was known to Queen Victoria, and Smith made plans to assassinate her and (somehow) take control of the British Empire.
The TARDIS arrives at the house, which is called Gabriel Chase. Ace had visited the house a hundred years in the future, in 1983. In fact, she will burn it down as a young delinquent girl because she feels the presence of evil. What they find is an Old Dark House complete with the Doctor Who versions of some standard characters: A man not what he seems to be, another who saw something in the cellar that caused him to lose his sanity, a butler who looks like a Neanderthal, a stern housekeeper and her pretty but unusual niece, a creature locked in the basement and, because it is Doctor Who, a stone spaceship. The Doctor is intrigued. He meets Control, now fully human, and makes a deal. They release Light from his long hibernation, who is unhappy with all the changes that have gone on.
Smith tries to keep his plan functioning but is losing his control over events. Control tries to evolve into a lady, Ace tries to understand, and the Doctor tries to solve the mysteries and set everything right. He convinces Light it is useless to oppose evolution, and Light disappears into the house. Control is freed from Smith’s brainwashing. Control, Fenn-Cooper, and Nimrod set out in their ship to explore the universe.
Ghost Light was the last Doctor Who story filmed, though it wasn’t the last to be broadcast. Originally, it was supposed to take place on Gallifrey, but it was felt the story revealed too much about the Doctor’s origins. References to British literature abound: Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, John Galsworthy, Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, The Elephant Man, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Allan Quatermain in King Soloman’s Mines, and even Douglas Adams and the Beatles. The Doctor tries to train Ace to act like a proper Victorian Lady, including elocution lessons. At one point, he calls her Eliza, referencing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. Redvers claims to have discovered a place in the jungle where dinosaurs roam, and the Doctor thinks this was the origin of The Lost World. A man named Matthews begins to turn into a monkey when Josiah offers him a banana.
Emma Thompson was considered for the role of Control, Michael Caine for Smith, Frank Finlay for Fenn-Cooper. Sylvia Sims was wonderful as the housekeeper Mrs. Pritchard. The story was praised for its sinister atmosphere and the Victorian sets. But it was called a shambles, incoherent, and almost incomprehensible. The cast was confused by the storyline and so was the director. Sylvester McCoy said, “It was well done, but God knows what it meant.” Probably, Andrew Cartmel’s script was responsible for this. But despite that, it is remembered with affection, called flawless and beautiful, the script a delightful mix of humour and the macabre. The story is very much about the Doctor and Ace. The consensus seems to be that it requires more than one viewing to understand what is happening, but the effort is rewarding.
Or you could just watch it. The Old Dark House sub-genre is a bit mad anyway, or at least most of the characters are a bit mad. Everyone has a deep, dark secret and a hidden agenda, and no-one is what they seem to be. Well, this is the Doctor Who version. Most of the characters are alien to start with, including the Doctor, and they all have an alien agenda. Most of them have lived way too long and are living in borrowed bodies. It’s no wonder they’re stark raving mad. The Doctor waltzes in like a Time Lord Columbo and sizes everyone up. In the end, he’s got all the answers.