Doctor Doctor Who Guide

‘The Unquiet Dead’ is a fun little story. Its plot is straightforward, but nicely so, and it really feels like ‘Doctor Who’ again, with its obvious nods to the horror-based stories of the Baker/Hinchcliffe years. From the lighting of the candle in its very first moments, this story is an exercise in gothic style, and an affectionate homage to the traditional British ghost stories of Christmases past. I found it extremely entertaining throughout.

But it’s not *only* a style piece – its main strength, actually, is its wonderful characterization. Gwyneth is a great character; sort of in the tradition of ‘Image of the Fendahl,’ which the script obliquely refers to (just like in that story, the haunting is caused by time rift), she’s a psychic whom the Doctor scientifically accepts as the genuine article. Her scenes with Rose are very carefully written, revealing much about both characters. The moment when she reveal she knows that Rose thinks her stupid, and Rose’s reaction, are beautifully played by both Eve Myles and Billie Piper. This is a good Rose story in general – the “Better with two” flirting at the outset is irritating, but we continue to see the new companion’s wonder at, and difficulty with, the concept of time travel (I like the way she clings to the idea that she can’t be killed before she’s been born). Piper manages some excellent comic moments as well; my favorite: “Who’s your friend?” “Charles Dickens.” “Okay . . . .”

And speaking of Dickens, the novelist makes a wonderful, almost Robert Holmes-ian Doctor Who character. I doubt I’m the only fan who thought he’d make a good companion! One always walks a thin line when dramatically treating an extremely famous public person, even one from before the era of recorded sound. But despite the obvious fun Mark Gatiss has with the character’s Victorian diction, his script keeps ‘the Great, Great Man’ very down to earth, and of course Simon Callow’s performance is as charming and meticulously considered as one would expect. (And watching him re-create one of the writer’s famous dramatic readings is an added treat.) Dickens also benefits from the plot, figuring out how to push the Gelth from the room with the lamp gas, and living up to his reputation as a Victorian freethinker by coming to embrace his new consciousness by the end of the story.

The Gelth make nice villains – a terrible menace, yes, but they’re not entirely unsympathetic, even after their true aggressive nature is revealed. And the fact that they look like the ‘Christmas Carol’ ghosts is of course a nice touch of Dickensiana on the part of Gatiss and the production designers.

In fact, if there’s any real problem with this story of all, it’s that the treatment of the Doctor is a little bit disappointing. His getting the TARDIS coordinates wrong is nothing new, but he also totally misreads the Gelth’ s motives, and tries to force Gwyneth into the ‘spirit gate’ position that ultimately kills her (although some have suggested that the Doctor invents this idea to shield Rose from knowledge of Gwyneth’s self-sacrifice, and I suppose that’s possible). More than that, he simply takes Rose’s hand and resigns himself to death when cornered by the reanimated corpses; presumably he really would have been killed if Dickens didn’t show up at the last moment to rescue him. 

But these are small problems – overall, I actually like the Ninth Doctor’s fallibility, and Christopher Eccleston certainly gives it his all here, as usual, even if he’s a bit OTT when gushing about Dickens’s work. All in all, this is simple story, but a little Christmas jewel – one of the best Ecclestons by far.

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