Doctor Doctor Who Guide

It's a tradition in Doctor Who that, while futuristic episodes cost the Earth and look appalling (because everything has to be made from scratch), so historical ones are dirt cheap and glorious, because the Beeb has been making Victoriana since before Victoria, and can do Period Drama with its eyes shut. So after the budget-bursting End of the World, the most expensive Dr Who story ever made, what better way to mend the purse-strings than a good old-fashioned dollop of Dickensian mimsy? The answer should be obvious, at least to anyone following the spectacular trends of the series: a dollop of Dickensian mimsy with ruinously expensive CGI ghosts!

Enter The Unquiet Dead - a frightening tale behind the scenes as much as on them. As the first story in the new season not to be penned by series-creator Russell T Davies, fear was rife that the scripts wouldn't meet the high quality of what had gone before. Rumours abounded that League of Gentlemen founder Mark Gatiss would overdose on humour to the detriment of plot. Worries wafted around that the poe-faced historical setting would turn off viewers expecting a science fiction series.

In the event, as usual, fears were unfounded, rumours baseless, and worries... not a worry. Mark Gatiss was a Dr Who fan long before he was a surreally sinister sketch writer, and delivers a punchy, powerfully plotted story, with if anything more of a strait-laced and traditional approach than Russell T's breakneck paciness. After Rose and The End of the World, in fact, this feels almost shockingly slow to start with, a real slice of nostalgic, period Who, replete with Victorian mannerisms, dodgy skullduggery and ill-advised sideburns. For the first time the Doctor is given a chance to actually think, deducing what's going on and developing plans rather than leaping to a conclusion from a standing start, and the plot itself manages to feel surprisingly multilayered for what is still only 45 minutes.

Endearingly set in Cardiff as a nod to the city that hosted the season's location filming (and even more endearingly actually shot in Swansea because Cardiff has the wrong sort of cobbles), The End of the World has the same glossy, big-budget look viewers have come to expect from this series. While the exterior work perhaps feel slightly cramped, due to the small number of appropriate locations available, interiors are lavish and convincing, while the wardrobe, props and make-up department does sterling work recreating victorian aesthetics. What really sets this apart from stock period drama, however, is of course the special effects, here realised as a combination of genuinely creepy make-up effects and cgi ghostliness. The latter in particular is extremely effective - cgi being an, ahem, perfect medium, for ghosts, who aren't supposed to feel exactly real in the first place and so can afford the slight unreality that still inevitably goes hand in hand with computer graphics. There are perhaps moments that could have done with some more work - the ghosts' visual development throughout the story, for instance, could have been more obvious, and a central plot-revelation effect near the end could have been handled with much more subtlety, for instance by being omitted entirely - but these really are quibbles. Just compare this to the terrifying, er, blinking pixels, of The Awakening and see what 20 years of technology can do for art.

It almost goes without saying now that the performances are rock solid, Christopher and Billie pulling off their effortless chemistry, and Simon Callow veritably wallowing in the chance to play Charles Dickens as an actual character rather than a cipher. Much of this is due to the strong, balanced script, with ongoing hints at a plot arc running under the series continuing to intrigue, while the incidental music, so heavily criticised in Rose, here seems genuinely to lift rather than distract from the drama. All in all, a terrific episode, at once tremendously different to what has gone before, and utterly in tune with it. It would be hard to deny at this stage that the show has the width and the depth to sustain many more than its 13 episodes... And that, judging by the stunning 'Next week' trailer, things can only get better.

Oh, and the Doctor finally comes out in favour of carrying donor cards. As the proud owner of three kidneys and a second-hand liver, I can only applaud.

Filters: Series 1/27 Ninth Doctor Television