I have ended up, it seems, watching Season 26 out of order with some friends who I am lending Doctor Who DVDs to.
Halfway through, and it's much better than I remembered.
The general consensus is that Season 26 is a definite and consistent upturn in quality with Ghostlight and Fenric being excellent, Survival being good and Battlefield letting the side down. Being a Battlefield sympathiser (like many McCoy stories it was simply made about twenty years too early) means that I usually like Season 26 anyway, but preferred Season 25 mainly for being a bit more fun and not quite as relentlessly (and self-consciously) dark.
I might have to change my mind on that. We'll see how Survival and Battlefield go.
Fenric is brilliant, with a level of complexity that pays off and meshes together on so many levels that any of its faults can be forgiven. Plus, I've since decided that all that crap Ace spouts in her attempts at seduction were actually planted into the show by a young Steve Moffat, and is going to have a huge pay-off sometime around 2014. It certainly deserves its classic status.
Ghostlight is thought of as 'the confusing one'. Considering you could fit the exposition from Season 26 inside a thimble, this doesn't necessarily bode well. However my friends, bright intelligent young men that they are, managed to follow Ghostlight with only a couple of questions, and not the ones you might expect ('What's going on?', 'What's he doing that for?', 'Do Ace and Gwendoline kiss at any point?' etc. etc.). While I hastily try to remember what they did actually ask, here's a brief summary of my opinion of Ghostlight.
It's really, really funny.
Like Fenric, there are so many ideas flying around, tied together using Ace as a narrative lynchpin, that it's easy to forgive the complexities when you're presented with so much richness. Like Warriors' Gate there's a strong undercurrent of black comedy (McCoy gives his funniest performance here, IMO) that ties in with Marc Platt's fondness for the gothic and fairy tale. The first few times I read the story I hadn't much idea what everything meant but I was enjoying it anyway. The cliffhanger to part one, for example, is something that freaks me out a little due to the combination of strange images and eerie noises, but I'm still not entirely sure why Control is saying 'Ratkin'. I daresay the information is online somewhere.
While Ghostlight isn't quite as complicated as Fenric its shorter running time makes it feel denser, but also benefits the story by maintaining a constant pace. It's more fun than Fenric, but is a much smaller scale of story. The relationship between Ace and the Doctor is more dubious here. He has no evil from the dawn of time to blame for manipulating Ace into these situations, and it seems to be dramatic license that he doesn't just tell her where they're going and why. There's also the much maligned 'White kids firebombed it', line, which is overplayed rather than underplayed by Sophie Aldred. I dunno, I just don't mind it that much.
Set in one house, a house that is made to look creepy by the actors and direction rather than set design (the set is a very solid period house). The supporting cast is universally excellent too, and there's a minimum of practical effects to go wrong, so they don't. Hooray.
I dunno what else there is to say about Ghostlight. It's a fun runaround, and a dark fairy tale, with a wealth of references to Victorian history, literature and science. Even if it's hard to follow at times at least it carries you along for the ride. It's different to Fenric, no epic struggle of Good versus Evil here, the focus is oddly small despite the presence of angels, evolution and nightmares from Ace's childhood. Instead, it's something fairly rare in Doctor Who:
Ghostlight is a romp with depth.