Doctor Doctor Who Guide

‘The Unquiet Dead' is the first episode of the new Doctor Who series not written by Russell T. Davies, instead penned by League of Gentlemen star and Doctor Who fan extraordinaire Mark Gatiss. Gatiss has, in my view, a fairly good track record with Doctor Who, having written the excellent ‘Nightshade', the hugely enjoyable ‘Last of the Gaderene', ‘Phantasmagoria' and ‘Invaders from Mars', and the flawed but entertaining ‘The Roundheads'. He also wrote the dire ‘St Anthony's Fire', but mercifully that isn't relevant here, since ‘The Unquiet Dead' is really rather good.

I'm coming to the unfortunate conclusion that Doctor Who is not suited to the forty-five minute individual episode format, since it seems to suffer from the same slightness of plot that has blighted two twenty-five minute part Doctor Who episodes right back to ‘Inside the Spaceship'. Thus far, we've had a glimpse at the defeat of an alien invasion of Earth already in progress, and a whodunit with no real suspects, and the references to the Time War, which so far has been mentioned in every episode including this one, suggest that the real agenda of the season is to unfold subplots leading to an almighty climax. Which is fine, and the characterisation has been great, but I'd like a bit more plot on a week-by-week basis. I hadn't fully realised this until I watched ‘The Unquiet Dead', which fills its running time rather well. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as zombies run amok in nineteenth century Cardiff, to the climax which involves a big explosion, but it develops nicely over the course of its allotted running time. 

The BBC is famous for being good at period dramas, and Doctor Who has exploited this fact many times during the past. It works just as well here as it did back then, and Gatiss script exploits the details of the period nicely, with the Gelth hiding in the gas pipes that feed the ubiquitous gas lamps of the era. Director Euros Lyn does a fine job of the episode, making good use of the horror delivered by Gatiss' script in a way that makes me keen to find out what the younger audience members made of it all; we get zombies, ghosts, and two on-screen deaths, not to mention all the eldritch screaming. Interestingly, having kept the Steward's and Jabe's demise off camera in ‘The End of the World', here Lyn shows us Sneed's neck being snapped, and the scene is quite creepy as a Gelth immediately enters the freshly cadaverous undertaker. Perhaps what is most striking about ‘The Unquiet Dead' is that all of this makes it feel more traditional than the preceding two episodes, with Gatiss tapping into how everyone remembers the Hinchcliffe era to be. There is much that is familiar here (most notably Rose being trapped in a room with two animated corpses and screaming at the top of her lungs until the Doctor rescues her) but it all works so well. It is easy to predict where the plot is going, and it comes as no surprise whatsoever when the Gelth prove to be hostile. It also comes as no surprise when the story ends with a big fireball, something I was expecting from the moment that the Doctor realises that the Gelth are made of gas. Nevertheless, the journey is tremendous fun and the story unfolds at a cracking pace. 

Gatiss once again proves adept at handling characterisation, and continues to develop the relationship between the Doctor and Rose. There are moments that might make long time fans uncomfortable, such as when the Doctor tells the freshly changed Rose, "Blimey, you look beautiful, considering." She asks, "Considering what?" and he replies, "Considering you're human." Later he tells her, "I'm glad I met you", and she replies, "Me too", and there's a frisson to these scenes that suggest this might end with the Doctor taking Rose on the console. This is not helped by the fact that the TARDIS now seems to buck and shudder during flight, since when it first materialises in Cardiff, there is a cut to the interior, where the Doctor and Rose are lying on their backs on the floor, looking exhausted but happy. Draw your own conclusions. Eccleston is very good here, and I've got used to him in the role now, so much so that lines such as the appalling pun "I love a happy medium" and his worried "I think it's gone a little bit wrong" both just sound to me like the Doctor I know. 

This aside, ‘The Unquiet Dead' sees Rose further subjected to culture shock, as she shares a charming scene with Gwyneth in which she is stunned at the servant's wages, schooling, and reticence in discussing bottoms. This is actually a great scene, as Rose gets to reach out to another human being and talk about everyday life in a way that she probably can't with the Doctor, and it takes on a more dramatic edge as Gwyneth uses her gift of second sight to see Rose's world; she's both fascinated and terrified by the vision. Most notable however is the discussion of the Gelth following the séance. Rose is appalled by the idea of giving the dead to the Gelth, prompting the Doctor to sternly tell her, "it could save their lives." When she objects further, he tells her that it is "just like recycling" and asks her, "do you carry a donor card?" Failing to articulate exactly why she objects, she annoys him to the point where he snaps, "It's a different morality, get used to it or go home." It's the sort of reminder that the Doctor isn't human that has cropped up in the first two episodes of the series and harks back to the "Sometimes you don't seem…" "…human?" scene in ‘Pyramids of Mars', and Christopher Eccleston brings an intensity to these moments that is highly effective. But there is also plenty of wit, such as when they first arrive, and the Doctor tells Rose that he's got the time and date wrong. She doesn't care, until he tells her "It's Cardiff" and she looks disappointed. For which I can't blame her. Later, the Doctor, facing death, indignantly notes, "I've seen the fall of Troy, World War Five… I've pushed boxers at the Boston tea party. Now I'm going to die in a dungeon. In Cardiff!" This is of course part of the series' tradition of mocking the Welsh, which dates right back to ‘The Web of Fear', and which I am most impressed that Russell T. Davies and BBC Wales have decided to continue. 

The Doctor also gets to meet Charles Dickens, which is possibly the best thing about the episode. Gatiss provides some sparkling dialogue, including the great moment when Dickens' driver asks his employer, "You want me to get rid of him?" just as the Doctor tells Dickens he's a genius, and Dickens quickly reconsiders, "No, I think he can stay." Amusingly, the Doctor criticizes Dickens, prompting the rebuke, "I thought you were fan", to which the Doctor replies, "Oh well, if you can't take criticism", which is almost certainly a nod to Doctor Who fans everywhere. Speaking of which, Gatiss gives Dickens the line, "Doctor? You look more like a navvy!" which nicely sums up my reservations about the Ninth Doctor's wardrobe, as is presumably the intention. Aside from providing comic relief, however, Dickens is a superbly written character in his own right, and Simon Callow's performance is exemplary. Dickens goes through real character development as the sights he witnesses forcibly open his mind, and he goes from trying to find rational explanations and becoming depressed early on, to taking a great joy in what he's learned by the end. Callow and Eccleston work very well together, and get some great scenes. One of the best is in the funeral parlour, as Dickens plaintively asks, "Can it be that I have the world entirely wrong?" and the Doctor gently tells him, "Not wrong, there's just more to learn." In fact it is Dickens who gets to save the day, reasoning that an excess of gas will draw the Gelth out of their hosts and having the courage to return to the morgue and thus save the Doctor and Rose. His farewell scene is extremely touching, as he cheerfully announces, "This morning I thought I knew everything in the world, now I know that I'm only just starting." Poignantly, the Doctor reminds Rose that Charles Dickens died in 1870, and by this point we've got to know the character well enough that the moment is genuinely saddening. However, his obvious delight when the Doctor tells him that his books will last forever is touching. 

The two other main supporting characters also work well. Alan David is perfectly cast as Gabriel Sneed, a man who chloroforms and kidnaps Rose but is by no means a bad man, just someone striving to cope with unusual challenges. As for Eve Myles' Gwyneth, she is both well written and acted, and again we get to know her enough during the episode that her sacrifice has some emotional weight behind it. The fact that she keeps going beyond death in order to save the day is an effective touch, giving Dickens the chance to point out to the Doctor that he too has things to learn. Overall, ‘The Unquiet Dead' is very successful, and easily my favourite episode of the new series thus far.

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