'THE COMPLETE FIRST SERIES' COLLECTORS' EDITION DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD1770) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2005.
In Victorian Cardiff, the dead are walking, and creatures made of gas are on the loose. The time travellers team up with Charles Dickens to investigate Mr Sneed, the local undertaker. Can they halt the plans of the ethereal Gelth?
9TH APRIL 2005
Of the first three episodes of the revived Doctor Who, The Unquiet Dead was probably the episode that I was looking forward to the least. However, it turned out to be
the episode that most reminded me of the so-called ‘classic’ series, and ultimately the
one that I enjoyed the most. It even had my Who-sceptic fiancée on the edge of her seat. ‘Wow’ is just about all I can say!
Well that’s not strictly true; I can elaborate on that ‘wow’ just a bit. Mark Gatiss’ script is definitive proof that the old series can work exceedingly well in this new format. It put me
very much in mind of an old Philip Hinchcliffe / Robert Holmes four-parter, albeit with a lot less padding and with a lot more zest. Indeed, The Unquiet Dead is certainly blessed with the exquisite gothic touch of The League of Gentleman co-writer and star; the whole tone
is very Talons of Weng-Chiang.
The first thing that about The Unquiet Dead that impressed me was the bona fide pre-title sequence. Not only did it set up the story beautifully, serving as a wonderful hook, but it also afforded it that crucial ‘cliffhanger feel’ as the action kicked off and the howl of the music kicked in. With over half of the episodes in this series stand-alone stories, this device looks to be a great way of keeping the series’ tradition of great cliffhangers going.
Furthermore, though this episode has ‘Season 14’ written all over it, in it the lines between good and evil are not as black and white as they were back in the day. Whilst they ultimately proved to be hostile, Gatiss’ alien Gelth had our pity as, much like the Nestene and the Time Lords, they appeared to have been on the losing end of this mysterious ‘Time War’.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the Gelth were not what provided this episode with its moments of genuine horror; they were just the gimmick. Thanks to some classy writing,
the real horror came from the human element; from our own limitations. After all, when
you come right down to it, this story is about the Doctor and his relationship with Rose
and even, to a lesser extent, with the sceptical and world-weary Charles Dickens, played
here (not for the first time) by Dickens enthusiast Simon Callow (The Mystery of Charles Dickens, An Audience with Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale).
“...you've flown so far. Further than anyone. The things you've seen. The darkness. The big bad wolf-”
Gatiss picked up seamlessly where Davies had left off with the two regulars, exploring in depth Rose’s wonder and confusion about being able to visit the past (and for new viewers explaining the mechanics of time travel and about time constantly being in flux, etc) as well as sewing the seeds of attraction between the two (“You look beautiful… considering”, “I’m so glad I met you”). Wonderfully and tastefully done in my opinion; never crossing the line, and Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper play it so very well. Most importantly of all though, in this episode their relationship evolves as here Rose is proved right, and the Doctor wrong. I would assume that most of the audience was sharing Rose’s reservations about the Gelth. This will no doubt be fundamental to the dynamic of the show – it is not going to be a case of ‘the Doctor always knows best’; it looks like there will be occasions where Rose knows best and the Doctor learns from her.
I also loved how at the start of the story the Doctor was completely in awe of Dickens yet,
by the episode’s end, this had been turned on its head; the Doctor having opened Dickens eyes to the wonders of the universe, given him a new zest for life and the satisfaction of knowing that his books will last forever. And in turn, Dickens makes the Doctor realise that
a Time Lord he may be, and a very clever and experienced once at that, but there are still some things of which the Doctor knows nothing. Once again, the Doctor teaches and the Doctor learns.
“Can it be that I have the world entirely wrong?”
Callow would have stolen the show with his austere but endearing performance were it not for the character of Gwyneth, touchingly played by Eve Myles. The scenes where Gwyneth looked into Rose and saw the future were the best of the episode for me, and her inexorable demise at the end left me with a genuine lump in the throat. From watching this episode, I noted that Eccleston’s Doctor seems to share the fifth Doctor’s vulnerability – a quality that made Peter Davison’s Doctor one of the most relatable of all the Doctor’s incarnations, and produced some of the most poignant moments in the series’ initial twenty-six year run. Here it is Gwyneth, a ‘little person’ who saves the world and dies, paying the price for the Doctor’s miscalculation and his inability to solve the situation another way.
The Unquiet Dead also has a couple of lovely little touches worthy of mention. For example,
I thought it was hilarious that the Doctor seemed so pleased with himself just for changing
his jumper. After all, it is a really big deal for a Time Lord who rarely changes his clothes.
The jumper appearing to be identical to the one that he had just changed out of only added to the comedy! I think Terrance Dicks was right when he called the Doctor a “…very smelly old man” - I don’t recall ever seeing half the Doctors change their outfits on television.
“I haven't been born yet, it's impossible for me to die. Isn't it?”
I think what I admire the most about The Unquiet Dead though is how it seamlessly fuses
the comic with the macabre. My experience of Gatiss’ writing for Doctor Who in its other mediums has been that he tends to lean heavily towards the grim and the grotesque (Nightshade, St Anthony’s Fire) or in the alternative the downright hilarious (Invaders From Mars), but ne’er do the twain meet. Here, however, he nails the balance absolutely. In one scene we have ghosts and gas monsters, and in the next Rose accusing Mr Sneed’s hands of “…having a wander”!
On a final note, after the glossy CGI-fest that was The End of the World, it is lovely to see an episode set in 19th century Wales. What other show on television could take you from the end of the Earth in the far future one week, to the snowy backstreets of Cardiff the next?
“We've brought him to life, and he's more alive than he's ever been. Old Charlie Boy...”
And so The Unquiet Dead is another triumph for the new series; perhaps its greatest yet. It is touching, funny, and frightening in equal measure, set in a winter wonderland and perfectly encapsulated by Dickens’ redolent closing line to the Doctor: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or yours, for that matter Doctor.” The Last of the Time Lords - brilliant, funny, fast, and flawed. The 21st century Doctor!
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
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