Doctor Doctor Who Guide

So after an adventure in the present day and a trip to the far future, we finally get our first episode of the new series to be set in what has always been one of the most fruitful areas for Doctor Whoscriptwriters' imaginations – the past. Perhaps surprisingly, given how well the series always seems to work in the time period, this is only the fourth time that the TARDIS had landed in Victorian times in the TV series proper. While it's certainly no Talons of Weng-Chiang, it is a damn good episode, and easily carries on the high standard set out in the first two episodes.

The setting, I have to say, looks marvellous. It has become something of a cliché to say that the BBC is good at creating historical settings in its drama programmes, but it's true. That fine tradition of costume dramas serves the production team well here as they create a perfectly convincing 1860s Cardiff – well, as convincing as it can be given that none of us have ever been to that time and place to be able to compare it! Euros Lyn's fine direction shows off the mocked-up Victorian streets to their fullest, and even though this was obviously done on a tight series budget rather than that of a film or lavish Sunday night Andrew Davies serial, it never feels small or enclosed or anything less than epic. I think the snow probably helps to add a great deal to the atmosphere, of course, but throughout Lyn's direction is never less than accomplished, and it's a shame this is his final episode of the season. I hope he returns next year.

What is nicely small and contained this week, however, is the guest cast – there are only three roles of any great significance, those being Alan David as Sneed, Eve Myles as Gwyneth and of course Simon Callow in the role he was apparently born to play, Charles Dickens. All three are superb – David bringing just the right balance of comedy and the macabre to his unfortunate undertaker; Myles having a lovely combination of innocence, spirituality and instinctive intelligence; and Callow… Well, what can I possibly say about Callow that hasn't already been said? The transformation of Dickens from world-weary author despairing of the state of his life and career to reinvigorated adventurer with a lust for life is one of the highlights of the episode, and the ending as he strides off with a, of course, "God bless us, every one!" is delightful. It makes it all the more bittersweet and sad that the Doctor, Rose and of course we in the audience know that sadly he'll be dead within the year, but at least he got this life-affirming glimpse at the greater picture of the universe before he went.

Much of the excellent of the guest cast comes from the script they've been served up with from Mark Gatiss, who provides an interesting contrast to the first two episodes as of course he's the first writer apart from Davies whose work we've seen in the new series. The script is a delight – full of lovely one-liners from all of the characters, with Sneed being particularly well-served. His knowledge and love of Dickens and his work also shines through, and even if having him say "What the Shakespeare is going on?" may be historically dodgy – the expression ‘what the dickens?' apparently pre-dates the author by some centuries – I don't think anybody cares, as it's the line of the episode for me.

There's plenty of good material for the Doctor and Rose as well, with Rose's delight and wonder at finding herself in a history she has only read about or seen on television being particularly well-conveyed. Once again, however, one of the highlights for me are the little hints and suggestions about the wider picture of the season we keep getting. Rose's reaction to discovering that they're in Cardiff was intriguing, and I'm sure there's going to be some sort of link between her and Cardiff picked up on later in the season, judging by it. The Gelth's mention of the ‘Time War' is the third episode in a row when what is presumably the same conflict has been mentioned, and the Doctor's look when the war is mentioned does indeed suggest that this was the conflict which destroyed his home planet. I love this sense of mythology building, and I hope we continue to get these teasing suggestions throughout the rest of the season. Gwyneth seeing a ‘big bad wolf!' in Rose's mind also picks up on what seems to be another on-going theme, so there's plenty to keep those who follow all of the episodes interested without ever threatening to alienate more casual viewers, which is surely how good episodic drama series should work.

The Gelth's involvement in the Time War provides a nice explanation for why the Doctor is to quick to trust them and wants to help them. This seems to be a more battle-scarred Doctor than we've seen before, still reeling perhaps from the loss of his planet and his people, and eager to help a race who seem to be in the same situation as himself, lost and alone, and suffering from the effects of the same conflict. Of course it turns out that he is too quick to trust them which leads to the drama of the episode's conclusion, as the Gelth flood through into our world and only Charles Dickens can save the day.

I must admit I did find it a bit disappointing that the Doctor simply seems to give up when faced with the crowd of Gelth-possessed bodies, being more keen on mourning the fact that he's going to die in Cardiff of all places than actually trying to do something about it. It would be nice if the Doctor could be a little more pro-active at saving the day, but as the episode ends so well I think I can forgive it this, as long as it doesn't happen too often.

Poor Gwyneth dies, and with another sense of mystery – if she was dead in that archway, how was she speaking and seeming alive those last five minutes? It's left unexplained, apart from a Shakespearean quote from Dickens of course, but her death is very affecting, particularly as she'd been so likeable. The scene where she points out that Rose thinks she's stupid just because she's from a different time highlights what I think many of us subconsciously end up thinking about people who lived in generations prior to ours.

The nice little coda to the episode, of Dickens asking the Doctor about the future and seeing the TARDIS dematerialise, is structurally unnecessary perhaps, but I wouldn't get rid of it for the world. It was a little uneasy when I first heard Dickens was going to appear in this episode as Doctor Who often works better in the shadow of actual history and real people rather than confronting them head on, but his appearance worked perfectly and the ending to the episode is one of the best we've had in the whole series I think. The new series seems to be developing a habit of nice little coda endings if the past two episodes are anything to go by, and that's not something I think I'll complain about as it all adds wonderfully to the characterisations.

In short then, another terrific piece of all-round entertainment, and another example of this new series failing to put a foot wrong so far.

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