Doctor Who: Ghost Light

The Doctor Who episode “Ghost Light” is the penultimate episode from the classic series. For those interested in the intersection of religion and Doctor Who, the episode is full of food for thought and discussion. Early in the episode we are treated to a visit to a house by one Rev. Ernest Matthews, Dean of Morthouse College, Oxford. He is there to talk to the master of the house, one Josiah Smith, about his “mumbo jumbo theories,” which unsurprisingly turn out to be a reference to evolution. At various points during the episode, Matthews refers to “Darwinian claptrap” and says that he considers Smith’s views “blasphemous” because they dispute man’s dominance over nature.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has brought Ace here, and we begin to get the sense that the Doctor is offering a variation on regression therapy to his companion for her psychological well being. He previously took her to a place where she encountered her mother – whom she hates – as a baby – whom she had come to love without realizing who she was. In this episode, the house turns out to be Gabriel Chase, a house that Ace would later burn down in her own time, sensing a lingering evil presence there.

The house turns out to have an alien spacecraft beneath it, and Smith is but one of several alien beings that were part of the crew, each with a very different role.

Within that basement there is a place that Nimrod – Smith’s servant, and a Neanderthal! – views as a temple, and he worships the light that dwells there. (Ace echoes the Biblical phrase “Let there be light” in connection with this, and later in the episode, when asked where Nimrod is, the Doctor replies by saying “He’s gone to see a man about a god”).

Rev. Matthews ironically gets turned into an ape by Smith while he is in the process of disputing evolution. But his objection turns out to have a greater significance, one that is explored symbolically throughout the episode. Matthews says that man has been the same ever since he stood in the Garden of Eden. The light-being, simply referred to as “Light,” which Ace considers to obviously be an angel, is also a part of the crew. His role was to catalog all the organisms on the planet. But having been locked away, evolution had occurred and he realized that his work was now obsolete. Rather than try to keep apace with evolutionary change, Light plans to make life cease to change. No more change, no more evolution, no more updates to his catalog – and obviously no more life. But, as the Doctor points out, “All is change, all if movement.”

The episode thus adopts a strict stance against anti-evolutionism. The desire to have all things neatly wrapped up is the attitude of religious fundamentalism – here represented not only by the Rev. Matthews but also by Light as god/angel. And that desire is evaluated as being inherently opposed not merely to evolution but to life more generally. Because life is evolution – life is change by definition.

And so the relatively subtle symbolism works quite powerfully, I think. If you’ve seen this episode, did you pick up on its symbolism immediately, or only after time and reflection? And how do you compare the treatment of such philosophical matters in the latter days of the classic show with the treatment in the revived series of our time?

  • Just Sayin’

    No doubt Tee has now decided never to watch it.