New to Blu - Doctor Who: Ghost Light, The Extended Cut - Season 26 Blu-Ray Set

The classic Doctor Who blu-ray line gets its latest North American release this week, with the box set for the show's final season, season 26 with Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy. But rather than review the full box set, this review focuses on one offering that the set makes available for the first time: the long hoped-for by fans, but for a long time thought to be impossible, extended cut of the cult classic story arc Ghost Light.

But first, some background...

After three pretty rough seasons plagued by production difficulties and behind-the-scenes drama (for the story on that, check out my two-part review of the recent Season 23 box set), Doctor Who finally managed to recover and reinvent itself in its final two seasons, under the tenure of new head writer/script editor Andrew Cartmel, whose bold vision for the show was exactly the breath of fresh air that it needed. Even after the fraught, wildly uneven, and often very messy Sixth Doctor era, the directionless and sloppy season 24 - the first with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor - was arguably Doctor Who's lowest point. Despite the many problems that often dragged it down, the Sixth Doctor era still produced a handful of very good stories, including one straight-up masterpiece, Vengeance on Varos; the same can't be said for season 24. It was functionally made without a script editor, as Cartmel wasn't hired until the season was already much of the way through pre-production with its scripts essentially locked in, and that lack of any overall guiding vision during the writing process shows clearly in what feels like a totally rudderless season that is never more than just okay. Fortunately, after that low point (and all the production chaos over the couple seasons prior), producer John Nathan-Turner was at last ready to basically give his new script editor free reign to do what he felt was necessary to get the show back on track. And get it back on track Andrew Cartmel did: season 25 could not have been more different from its predecessor, and it represented both a suddenly clear statement of identity and a welcome return to a level of quality that Doctor Who hadn't consistently seen since the Peter Davison era.

The newly reimagined Seventh Doctor era richly engaged with the show's mythology, and took that mythology in bold new directions, all the while mixing surreal fantastical elements with a darker and more brooding sensibility. But crucially, not the embittered nihilistic darkness that characterized Eric Saward's disillusioned season 22, but a darkness coming from a greater sense of mystery and purpose, as the show hinted at previously unrevealed secrets from The Doctor's past, and revitalized classic enemies like the Daleks and Cybermen in its exploration of those secrets. This growth continued in the even better season 26, which ended the show very much on a high note. It wasn't supposed to be the end; Cartmel's reinvention of the show was meant to save it and usher in a new era. But the damage done both critically and commercially by the show's floundering during seasons 22 through 24 had been too great for it to come back from, and as its ratings failed to recover, it was nonetheless cancelled, even as critics and die-hard fans praised the show's improvement. Still, if Doctor Who had to end, at least it got to end on a mostly excellent season.

I say "mostly" because season 26 did have one significant flaw, stemming from the one thing that Andrew Cartmel was never very good at: editing scripts to time so the finished cuts didn’t run long. Three of the four story arcs from season 26 ran too long (as well as one from season 25) and had to be cut down pretty heavily before air, often to the detriment of the episodes themselves. In most cases the broadcast versions were still very good, and were largely well-received by fans upon broadcast. However, it was on VHS that most of them truly became enshrined as classics, with extended home-video edits allowing fans to truly see just how great these story arcs were when freed from time constraints. Such was the case with season 25's Silver Nemesis, and season 26's Battlefield and The Curse of Fenric. But the one remaining arc that ran too long and was heavily cut - season 26's Ghost Light - was never able to get its director's cut on video.

When it first aired, Ghost Light immediately became something of a cult favorite among fans because of what a tantalizingly weird and off-center story it is, but it also left a lot of viewers scratching their heads. It was received (for the most part) as a good, very unique story, but it was painfully obvious at times that a lot was cut from Ghost Light; what clearly would have been an already dense and convoluted story was made much more so by how little room to breathe the final cut had. Naturally fans hoped and assumed that it too would get a director's cut on VHS which might expand the story and help viewers to untangle its mysteries. But it was not to be: the original master with the deleted scenes was lost when the tapes were wiped and recycled for another production after the show's cancellation. Even when the DVD came out, a relatively high-quality uncut version of episode 2 had been found, but the only uncut copies of episodes 1 and 3 that had been recovered were VHS workprints with burned-in time-code, which were deemed too poor-quality a source to use for an extended cut. The deleted scenes (including the higher-quality ones for episode 2) were relegated to the special features, and while Ghost Light has retained a passionate cult following, it has always remained something of a "what should have been."

Until now. When season 26 joined the new Doctor Who blu-ray line, the team behind these ultimate editions decided that even if the extra scenes only exist in workprint form, a definitive, proper director's cut of Ghost Light is something that Whovians need. They prepared the best possible remaster, using their upscaled HD restoration of the broadcast version as the basis for the cut, and mixing in the workprint footage cleaned up as well as possible, with the time-code blurred out to make it less distracting, to complete the story. Alongside the previously available (but just as lovingly restored for blu-ray) Battlefield: Extended Special Edition and The Curse of Fenric: Extended Special Edition, the brand-new Ghost Light: Extended Workprint Edition finally completes season 26 as it was always meant to be seen, and finally gives Whovians the version of this cult classic that we have always hoped for.

Ghost Light: The Extended Workprint Edition:

As a young teenager, Ace broke in to a reportedly haunted house on a dare, and experienced something so horrifying that it still haunts her to this day. Now, as The Doctor trains her for a mysterious Time Lord initiation, he has taken her to a suspiciously similar mansion in Victorian times so that she can face her fears. But the surreal dreamscape that they encounter there is more than either of them bargained for: the servants move like clockwork mannequins, the butler is a neanderthal, there are monsters in the basement, and the house's mysterious owner, an evolutionary biologist named Josiah, seems to be not quite human... And that's to say nothing of the mysterious living light at the heart of the house. It cannot be overstated that Ghost Light is a very weird story, and a very high-concept one. It starts out as a Victorian-Gothic Old Dark House ghost story, ends as a tripped-out sci-fi tale combining philosophy and evolutionary biology with a fascinatingly strange twist, and between those two points goes through a tonal transformation that feels like a naturally-executed logical progression as it happens, but from the outside looks like a very odd shift. It does it all in just three episodes, and it is as audaciously ambitious as it is highly unusual. As out there as it is, its weirdness never feels gratuitous or weird-for-weird's-sake because it is executed with such panache and tonal dexterity.

However, it is only natural that such an unusual story arc would be highly divisive, so it's no surprise that Ghost Light falls firmly into the love-it-or-hate-it camp, with most Whovians either thinking it's a masterpiece or a messy head-scratcher. This is even more true because the broadcast version endured a cruel (though necessary; the time-slot for an episode is what it is) cutting-down of its runtime by a total of ten minutes, which is a lot when you consider that at just three episodes, that takes it from an hour and twenty-five minutes to an hour and fifteen. This significant cut to its runtime greatly harmed both the pacing and the content, making it even denser and more confusing than it already might have been, and giving it some abrupt narrative jumps that shouldn't have been there, according to the very deliberately-written script. The broadcast edit was not kind to Ghost Light, which already strained against the limits of a three-episode length (Andrew Cartmel tried and failed to get BBC to allow them four episodes instead), and the lack of proper elements to make a VHS director's cut was an equally cruel twist of fate. While the broadcast version still carried the story arc's strengths effectively enough that it developed a robust and passionate cult following, the awkwardness left by its editing didn't leave much room to convince skeptical fans who weren't sold on the story's weirdness. This long-delayed and much-anticipated extended cut, however, solves most of the broadcast version's problems, and should be able to convince those who were on the fence.

When I was a middle-school kid and first saw Ghost Light on VHS, I thought it was just as confusing as its reputation suggests. When I later re-watched it on DVD as an adult during the Matt Smith era, however, I didn't find it confusing at all; it certainly doesn't spell things out the way TV in the 1980s tended to, and it makes the viewer pay attention and infer some things, but in the faster-paced and often more narratively sophisticated age of the new series, the plot seems to do all the explaining that it really needs to. The problem with the broadcast version of Ghost Light is not that it doesn't give enough information. Indeed, the added scenes restored by this extended cut provide some additional clarification, but not as much as you might expect. The problem with the broadcast version of Ghost Light is that the pacing is WAY too tight, and leaves almost no room to breathe, which doesn't give the viewer time to stop and digest what we are learning long enough to put the pieces together. In its broadcast form, it is a story that makes sense once the episode is done and you have time to think about it, which is why the common wisdom among fans was always that it's a story that gets better upon repeat viewings. But the pacing of a story like this should give the viewer more time to soak it all in, rather than feeling like the plot is racing over you. The broadcast pacing was also destructive to the tone: a Victorian Old Dark House story should be a brooding, ominous, deliberately-paced slow-burn, but the broadcast edit left the story no time to brood. Everything that was there in the edit worked on a narrative level, and was certainly a good story; it just felt like exactly what it was, a good story cut too tightly because of the requirements of the format. A flaw that is easy enough to forgive if you're a fan, but that makes you long to see a director's cut.

Most of what we get back in this extended cut of Ghost Light falls into two categories: additional character development, especially of the various side-characters who inhabit the house, and brief extra scenes, or extensions of scenes, that slow down the pacing of the story, and turn it into the more brooding and atmospheric piece that writer Marc Platt clearly intended. Both of these things are absolutely invaluable. At a narrative level, the cuts that hurt the broadcast version the most were the ones that stripped away at character development, leaving some motivations unclear, and leaving some side-characters feeling a bit sketchy. The added scenes help quite a bit, and the large ensemble who inhabit the house now feel much more like fully-fledged people. Those who watched the deleted scenes on the old DVD will know what a difference those moments make. But watching the deleted scenes on the DVD cannot prepare you for how much the smaller added moments and scene extensions help the pacing of the story when put back in. Individually, an extra ten seconds tacked onto one scene, and twenty or thirty seconds tacked on to another may seem inconsequential, but they add up to fundamentally change the pacing and structure of the whole. The broadcast version of Ghost Light at times feels like it is racing through its plot; even with an added ten minutes it is still a fast-paced story by classic Doctor Who standards, but it now has room to breathe, and that makes all the difference. It no longer is a story that you need to think over and then revisit to find that it works better on the second viewing; the more deliberate pacing gives you time to appreciate how very clever, inspired, and intelligent its script is.

Marc Platt's screenplay is outstanding; a very clever and sophisticated sci-fi riff on the ways in which Charles Darwin's theories rocked the scientific world, and scandalized the religious world, in the Victorian age. Only so much can be said without spoiling the story's fantastic twists and turns, but suffice to say that the otherworldly life in the house mirrors the existential upheaval felt in the scientific community around this time in a delightfully clever and ironic way, with various characters acting as symbols for both schools of Victorian thought and components in a scientific experiment. That the not-quite-human Josiah is a Darwinian naturalist, who at the start of the arc is feuding with a religious scholar who staunchly believes in creationism, is a pretty perfect jumping-off point for the odd sci-fi odyssey that unfolds across the subsequent episodes. The story is richly multi-layered in a way that really rewards viewers who are willing to give the story some serious thought; this isn't just providing a cool sci-fi adventure, but is really challenging the possibilities of what Doctor Who could be. It is remarkable how much this often feels like a script from the new series, both in its multilayered qualities and in its faster pacing; it could have been remade starring Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi without changing a thing and it would not have felt out of place.

This is equally true of the episode's character arcs, which are wonderfully complex and layered as well. Before Doctor Who was cancelled, Ghost Light was actually shot to be the season 26 finale; it was later swapped with Survival because that story made a better de-facto series finale, with the help of an added-on farewell scene. As the intended final arc of the season, though, Ghost Light in many ways feels like a culmination of all that Andrew Cartmel's two seasons were trying to accomplish; redefining the arc of the show, restoring mystery to the character of The Doctor, and building towards some shadowy secrets for the future. While Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor appears on the surface to be a bit of a goofy character, Cartmel had deliberately made him progressively darker as seasons 25 and 26 went on, both in personality and in appearance. His costume got darker in color through subtle clothing swaps as his era went along, and at the beginning of this story arc he loses his comical hat and umbrella entirely, becoming a much more visually serious character. Across these two seasons he also revealed more and more of an inner darkness, both in the sense of a shadowy purpose and a deep melancholy, and both of those things are on full display here. In a fantastic monologue beginning with the wonderful, darkly comic line "I loathe bus stations; dreadful places full of lost luggage and lost souls," we get a glimpse into the tragic heart of this unexpectedly dark Time Lord, and the catalyst for the story is the mysterious purpose that he is manipulating Ace towards.

Ace is another character who started as one thing, but by this point has transformed into something else in a very powerful way. The dangerous, clever, and resourceful streetwise bad-girl was gradually revealed to be a haunted, wounded, deeply intelligent person with complex motivations of her own hidden behind the bravado, and Ghost Light sees her finally confronting some of the things about her past that her badass exterior has been a defense mechanism against. She has arguably one of the strongest arcs of any classic-series companion; the kind of complex arc that we are much more used to on the new series, with season 26 being every bit as much about her as The Doctor, and Ghost Light perhaps most of all. This episode, when viewed as the should-have-been season finale, also hints at what the future might have held. Many hints were dropped during seasons 25 and 26 that The Doctor is not exactly who we think he is, and that he has a dark, mysterious past that the show has never revealed; dangling plot threads that are at last getting some resolution in the current era of the modern series (anyone who trash-talks The Timeless Children and says that its ending "ruins the canon of the show" clearly doesn't know seasons 25 and 26, and Andrew Cartmel's master plan that was cut short). Many hints were also dropped that he saw in Ace more than just another traveling companion; that he saw in her the potential for some sort of Time Lord apprentice, and maybe even a Time Lord agent. Ghost Light sees him explicitly testing her for some sort of initiation; but the initiation to what? Since the story arc was moved up from the season finale to just the second of the season's four arcs, the answer in the new context seems to simply be an initiation to be his Time Lord apprentice, but when you stop to think that this should have actually been how the season ended - with a tease for season 27 ahead - the possibilities are tantalizing. Would season 27 have revealed some dark secrets about The Doctor's past, and seen Ace turn into an agent of the Time Lords? We'll never know, but at the very least we see those plot threads coalescing here into an outstanding story.

This extended cut of Ghost Light is everything that I possibly could have hoped for it to be; an almost-classic restored to true classic form. Even with a few minutes of VHS footage with blurred-out time-code, this is a positively definitive presentation of this cult-favorite tale. With its pacing issues solved, and with added character development making a good story even better, the potential of Marc Platt's outstanding script is finally realized on-screen. In the form in which it was previously available, Ghost Light was a very good but undeniably flawed story that I couldn't rank any higher than my third-favorite in the season, after the extended cuts of The Curse of Fenric and Battlefield. With this new cut, it has jumped up to be at least my second-favorite in the season after Fenric, and possibly even my favorite overall. Those who were on the fence, or even negative, about the broadcast version of the story are strongly encouraged to give it another chance in this new extended cut, and fans of the story will be thrilled to see it available as intended at last.


Doctor Who: Battlefield
But what of the rest of the season, and this box set, you ask? I decided to only give a full review to the extended cut of Ghost Light because that is the one brand-new cut making its debut in this box set. The set contains director's cuts of two more story arcs as well, but both of those extended cuts were previously available on DVD, and have been written about extensively. However, I will unequivocally say this: this season 26 blu-ray set is an essential purchase for any Whovian. It is a definitive release of arguably one of the classic series' best seasons. Season 26 may only have four story arcs, but all of them are excellent. Battlefield is a fantastically clever mix of reality-bending sci-fi and Arthurian myth, reuniting The Doctor with The Brigadier for one last adventure. The Curse of Fenric sees Doctor Who tackle Lovecraftian horror, with The Doctor facing off against a timeless, infinitely evil elder god clearly based on Lovecraft's Dagon, all against the backdrop of the darkest days of World War II. Survival may not have been intended as the series finale, but it's a good one all the same, with The Doctor facing The Master one last time, as well as his own inner demons.

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric
And this box set is positively stacked with extras: vintage documentaries, new documentaries, a host of new interviews with the cast, crew, and Andrew Cartmel's writing team, and multiple versions of almost every story arc in the set, with only Survival having just the one cut. In addition to the brand-new extended cut of Ghost Light, Battlefield and The Curse of Fenric are presented in not just two, but THREE versions. In addition to the original broadcast versions, both stories initially got an extended cut on VHS, and then got an even more expanded, definitive special edition cut, edited into movie format rather than four-episode serial format, on DVD. Both extended cuts are included here, plus the broadcast versions. Personally, I think the DVD-era special editions are definitive in both cases, and the closest things to true director's cuts, but it's very cool that in the interest of completeness, BBC Video included both. With all of that, this box set belongs on any fan's shelf, and deserves the highest recommendation.

- Christopher S. Jordan

Don't leave us lost in time and space - share this review!