Doctor Doctor Who Guide

I may have been critical of the previous episode, The End of the World, not because it was such a terrible story - it wasn't, and it does contain several stand-out moments - but because I felt it lacked dramatic impact (even if, as Adric would say, it tried so hard). Creepy, macabre and suspensful stories have always been my favourite in Dr Who and I feel no shame in admitting that the much-lauded Phillip Hinchcliffe era with Tom Baker is my favourite in all the series (in addition to a healthy smattering of other good stories, of course). So, how does The Unquiet Dead stand up against predecessors such as these, and indeed against the previous two installments from Russell T Davies?

In short, it stands up very well. Clearly it is a story more directly comparable to the old classics. This by no means confers immediate status - in fact, it can make it even easier to pick out "faults" - but The Unquiet Dead manages to succeed in its own right, regardless.

It helps to have a script tailored more to the 45 minute format, one that actually seems to fit this time (the first two being uncomfortably tight squeezes). This is achieved because we are now used to the two regulars, the setting is less exotic - more quickly idenitifiable - and the guest cast is kept to a minimum, eschewing the plethora of superfluous characters so evident in TEotW. All this even allows the pace, previously so frantic, to settle down - as it had to for a story set mostly within an old funeral parlour.

Our three main human guest stars all perform well (acting has been a real plus for this new series so far). Simon Callow makes a memorable Charles Dickens, but I would like to specially mention Eve Myles as Gwynneth, who seemlessly conveyed a charming combination of innocence, modesty, intelligence and beauty.

The Gelth were suitably Whovian villians. Nice to see them turn nasty on everyone at the end, highlighting the need to temper goodwill with caution. I also enjoyed the Doctor and Rose disagreeing on some important issues - not just a minor spat over his reluctance to reveal his origins - with the Doctor promoting a broader if unsentimental morality perfectly in keeping with his scientific and alien background. Some people are complaining that this Doctor lacks compassion, but the Doctor has often shown to us a slightly darker side of himself when the stakes are high, most evident perhaps in the early William Hartnell years, also in Tom Baker (take another look at Pyramids of Mars). Even Jon Pertwee could be abrasive. I like to see the Doctor operating at a slightly different level than most of us; that's what makes him so different from most TV heroes, and the more writers/producers try to humanise him, the less interesting he becomes.

It did faze me initially when Charles Dickens saved the day instead of the Doctor. Yet a significant part of this story was focusing on this man, by all parameters enlightened, intelligent and reasoning, wrestling with concepts far outside his usual sphere, and finally coming to grips with them. For such an important historical figure such as Charles Dickens not to have anything constructive to add would have rendered his inclusion an unnecessary curiosity and forfeited his character arc. There is also precedent for the Doctor playing a more subordinate role (we have to go back a bit, but right up to Tenth Planet it was often Ian or Ben solving problems and swinging into action. I haven't heard too many complaints about The Crusades, and the Doctor did precious little in that fine story compared to his later incarnations).

Amongst all this, the running subplot of a Time War is slowly gathering momentum. It sounds most intriguing. Not having read any of the New Adventures books, I have no idea what it bodes. Let's hope it's played out effectively, as big ideas can be two-edged swords.

Next week, our first two-parter, with a preview that certainly whets the appetite. For now, we seem to have a series in good hands, with two fine regulars performing effortlessly off each other, enthusiastic writing and decent technical specs.

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