‘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.
After the draining Rose and The End of the World (2005), we’re presented with an awkwardly-titled ‘period drama’ piece: The Unquiet Dead. It benefits from comparatively slower pacing, and a satisfying linear plot – a pleasant change, indeed. Now traveling into Earth’s past, The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) meet a world-weary Charles Dickens (an excellent Simon Callow); and the ethereal Gelth (chillingly voiced by Zoe Thorne), engrossed in their newfound habit: body-snatching.
Although the hero-of-the-title is reduced to secondary character status again, - a suspiciously-recurring plot device… - it works. Callow’s character is the more developed – by the story’s end, he’s a changed man; psychologically reborn. He still has a promising future ahead, though we’re told it’ll be short-lived. His ‘co-star’, however, is annoying this time round. Eccleston’s dialogue is too on-the-nose, and his performance more over-the-top than previously. The Doctor – all of them - is usually the only character I completely devote my attentional resources to. I watch Doctor Who for The Doctor first and foremost. In counter-argument, we can now draw conclusions on the intriguing traits writers have enthused Doctor #9 with up to this point. He’s fallible - he was “useless” in Rose’s finale. He’s vulnerable – his troubled past manifests itself in End of the World. Here, he’s both, and with a darker, morally ambiguous side: fueled by an erroneous (optimistic?) presumption, he treads in ethically dubious water in dealings with the Gelth. Furthermore, after Gwenyth’s (Eve Myles) exit, he could – dare I say – actually be interpreted as lying to Rose’s point-blank questioning. A grey and unresolved moral dilemma: do the ends truly justify the means?
Rose’s journey continues. Again, she’s confronted by a cross-generational interpersonal culture shock in her exchanges with Gwenyth. Coyness is obviously exempt or non-existent from her semantic memory… This cathartic outburst suggests she’s relieved to be able to talk to someone her own age and gender – not demographics The Doctor encapsulates this incarnation.
Gabriel Sneed (Alan David) is well cast: an amusing individual, who isn’t essentially a bad egg. His interchangeable use of the word “stiffs” and euphemism in “the dear departed” still makes me smile!
The dialogue is lovely in places. I’ve always loved exchanges that roll pleasantly off the tongue. Mark Gatiss writes well. Good to see the precarious TARDIS on form, too.
No review of Unquiet would be complete without at least an allusion to the impressive atmosphere and special effects – cracking stuff. This is effectively a period drama; it’s a BBC production; the BBC is renowned for its period dramas. You do the deductive reasoning. Effects-wise, The Gelth are well-visualized, and this is probably the grizzliest entry to date: zombies, ghosts, bone-breaking, neck-snapping, a generally eerie atmosphere… The pre-title sequence alone sums it up, with Redpath (Huw Phys) and his ‘unquiet’ grandmother, Mrs. Peace (Jennifer Hill). Unsettling to the unhardened, I’m sure.
In honesty, I didn’t enjoy TUD on first viewing, – namely because I was unprepared for the significant reduction in pace – but repeated viewing has done this near-masterpiece justice in my eye, although The Doctor himself lets us down. Sadly, next episode will arguably ‘restore’ the status quo… ***[/5]
One of the great things I’m finding about trying to reflect upon the new (although I suppose it’s not actually “new” any more, is it?) series of “Doctor Who” after a second viewing of the episodes this summer is that my natural propensity towards objectivity isn’t compromised.
As a fan, I would always want to like the show, rather as you will your sports team to do well (even when, like mine, they invariably don’t) and to write about it in positive terms. Hey, I would try to find nice things to say about “The Creature From The Pit”, “Nightmare Of Eden” and “The Horns Of Nimon” . . .
In my profession as a journalist, I suppose (albeit subconsciously) I try to look for a more-balanced view. In doing so, though, I have reached the objective opinion that “Series One” is a great piece of television! And, when the time comes to pick the juiciest plums from the individual stories, “The Unquiet Dead” must take high order up the tree.
At this point, it’s worth making an observation about Russell T Davies’s contribution to this third episode. I’m sure Davies doesn’t need me (or anyone else) to defend him, but I have read some opinions suggesting his stories were the weakest of the series. I think the salient point to be made is that ALL the stories in the series were Davies’s vision. It was his idea to take the Doctor and Rose from the far future, and plunge them back in time the next episode. Introducing Charles Dickens and the 19th-century setting was Davies’s call, as was making the alien characters of gas.
It was a fairly-significant push in the right direction for the writer, and I believe it was a similar scenario for all the other non-Davies-penned episodes. Others contributed – greatly – but this is “Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who” even if his name isn’t listed as writer. That said, “The Unquiet Dead” author, Mark Gatiss, used the momentum from that push, and fashioned not only a terrific piece of “Doctor Who” but a great example of well-crafted TV drama in its own right.
Period costume dramas seem to be a speciality of the BBC, and this was no exception. You could almost feel the love of the costume and set designers pouring through the TV screen. To the viewer, this was 1869 on the screen. Job done. But could the script match the quality of the setting?
No doubts on that score. And, unlike the two episodes beforehand, “The Unquiet Dead” didn’t feel as if it had too much to cram into the 45-minute format. It got off to a great start with the pre-credits sequence. The Gelth-ridden old woman, eerie white light pouring from her mouth, striding towards camera was an enduring image, not just of this story, but the whole series. This was a genuinely-scary scene, and there were a few in this story – fantastic!
The pre-credit scenes (another successful break with “tradition”) have generally been of a tremendously-high standard – it’s hard to believe many casual viewers wouldn’t stick around on the basis of those first few moments, to see how the rest of the story panned out.
Simon Callow’s portrayal of Dickens was predictably brilliant, and his early interaction with The Doctor in his carriage a beautifully-written piece, expertly delivered by Callow and Christopher Eccleston – two of the finest actors around. Gatiss (and Davies) must have been thrilled to have such artists bringing the words to live.
Not to be outdone, Billie Piper’s Rose continued to bloom in a fabulous period costume, and her one-on-one scene with the ultimately-tragic Gwyneth was another example of the type of high-quality dialogue we have come to expect from this series – even just three episodes in. And Eve Myles as Gwyneth was so good, even in this exalted company, she nearly stole the show from the lot of them.
And then there was the Gelth. They may have sounded good on paper, but could have looked disastrous on screen. Cue shiver down the spine at the shimmering tin-foil aliens of “Invasion of Time”! However, another pat on the back for the visual effects team. I can’t imagine this was a simple process, but they made the Gelth into convincing ghostly images without degenerating into cartoon – a fine line which they didn’t cross.
The Doctor’s over-eager willingness to “pity” the Gelth and use Gwyneth as a “bridge” to bring them to Earth was an example of how this incarnation of the Time Lord’s judgement is more flawed than his predecessors. We come to learn in later episodes that his role in the Time War (although I hope we never find out exactly what that role was) has left him on a kind of guilt trip.
It’s also interesting to note that again, it wasn’t the Doctor who actually does the Earth-saving – Rose did the business in the first episode, and it was Gwyneth and Dickens this time. In fact, you could reasonably argue the Doctor was actually responsible for Gwyneth’s death!
An early spoiler for “Series Two” suggests that Queen Victoria will feature, and it’s good to hear these historical trips appear to have a role in the series’s future. If it’s anything like as good a journey as for “The Unquiet Dead”, we’re in for a great ride.
When ‘The Unquiet Dead’ was first broadcast, it felt good, and it felt great. In short, it felt like Series One had reached its peak already, three episodes in. Of course, this was arguably not to be and later episodes proved themselves to be just as evocative in terms of appreciation, but despites this I still think that there is a strong case to be made for hailing ‘The Unquiet Dead’ as the best of the best in Series One.
‘Doctor Who’ has the most remarkable formula, in that it can dip in the past and future with equal ease and get away with it, and here is a good example of the show doing just that. If everything looked fine and dandy in ‘The End Of The World’, then things are positively glowing throughout ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper seem to be having a whale of a time prancing around (or, perhaps, swanning off) in Victorian Cardiff, and their enjoyment adds to the undeniably joyful ambience that presides over this episode.
Visually, everything simply feels Christmassy- the snow looks crisp and cold, the ghostly blues and red of the gaseous Gelth by contrast look so stunning against the dark and brooding backdrops that the episode as a whole is a veritable treat for the eye. When they said they were bringing ‘Doctor Who’ back, and they were going to try their hardest to make sure it looked great, I bet they had this episode in mind. In terms of looking so blissfully aesthetically pleasing, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is not beaten throughout Series One.
Whilst I found Euros Lyn’s direction a little stale in ‘The End Of The World’, here it looks truly brilliant. The exterior scenes sweep in and out and about, giving Cardiff a grand and appealing guise whilst the interiors are nicely contrasted between the large and comfortable main rooms where the richer reside, and the cramped relative squalor of the servants’ whereabouts.
Just observe the difference between the grandiose wide shots of Charles Dickens’ horse and carriage trotting down Cardiff, and the cramped tight shots of the smaller and more haunting cellar in Sneed’s house. It’s visual moments like this which set scenes far better than any dialogue could ever do, and full points must go to both Euros Lyn, and the unsung hero of the New Series, the Director Of Photography: Ernie Vincze BSC.
Murray Gold’s incidental music for ‘The Unquiet Dead’ perfectly compliments the visuals and the tone of script, with the rousing music following the explosion of Sneed’s house being the highlight of it. There is arguably too much music, but when it is as good as it is here, there is little room for complaints.
Mark Gatiss’ script is thankfully every bit as impressive as the visual interpretation of his words. The dialogue literally crackles, with the interaction between the Doctor and Rose managing to perfectly capture the relationship thus far exclusively established by Russell T. Davies; their banter throughout is evocative of older Doctor-companion partnerships, whilst also managing to tie in with the new direction for such a pairing. The Doctor’s comments concerning Rose’s Victorian costume perfectly captures this, and that is merely one moment in a story full of such delights. For me, however, the stand-out moment has to be Rose’s first footstep into Victorian snow; her acting, the direction, the music, the sound effects and Gatiss’ expert handling of the situation is a real lump-in-the-throat moment. You suspend your disbelief- you believe you are there.
The plot in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is great too. Zipping along at a pace hitherto unknown to ‘Doctor Who’, the plot manages to tell the story of an alien invasion attempt, the hierarchal status of Victorian England whilst also charting the re-birth of Charles Dickens’ youth. Beginning ‘The Unquiet Dead’ with a sombre and depressive Dickens and ending it with a reinvigorated and blissfully optimistic one gives the episode as a whole the same sort of positive feel.
Gatiss writes for Dickens so well that you can see why Simon Callow seems as happy as he is to be playing the character. His writing for the other cast is superb as well. Gabriel Sneed and Gwyneth are both instantly recognisable and well-realised characters, and the pairing of the two of them works very well indeed. As well as Dickens’ story, this is Gwyneth’s also. Her journey from hapless Servant girl to Saviour of the World is both touching and natural, and never feels forced. If only all writers could pull off such feats with perfection.
Perhaps best of all is the fact that ‘The Unquiet Dead’ boasts- without a shadow of a doubt- one of the greatest openings to a ‘Doctor Who’ story ever: possessed dead body kills man by breaking his neck, knocks out an Undertaker then screams out her gaseous innards in a very real sense. Cue title sequence. Brilliant!
In all, it is hard not to see why all the fuss was generated over this episode. The acting is brilliant; the script is strong; it is visual stunning; the episode throughout is aurally pleasing too with every sound effect and musical note being perfectly placed in the overall scheme of things. When the TARDIS dematerialises at the conclusion, you can see tiny flakes of snow tumble off the windows of everybody’s best loved Police Box. It’s little moments like this- such tiny attentions to detail- which raises this high up in the pecking order of quality throughout Series One. The general consensus was correct- ‘The Unquiet Dead’ really is on par with as good as it ever got.
Was The Unquiet Dead ever going to be anything other than a massive success? A period setting that the BBC has managed flawlessly for decades, Simon Callow, and Mark Gatiss writing it; come on, it was a foregone conclusion!
One thing immediately striking about the opening of this episode is just how traditional it feels, establishing the setting and the guest characters before allowing the TARDIS to materialise. This is probably the best way to do things with the short episode format as the alternative of starting with the Doctor and Rose means that we have to take time to discover the setting at the same pace that they do, which takes time. It also gives us the sense of unknown, as an old lady's body mysteriously and terrifyingly comes back to life, as well as showcasing the brilliant period detail and flawless acting from the principal members of the guest cast. What's notable though (and I'm only saying this because I had Gatiss pegged as a comedy writer) is that while the episode is very witty it isn't actually funny; the wit is jet black and brings more of a gasp at its grotesqueness rather than a laugh. Also, the pre-titles sequence of the new series allows for a kind of mini-cliffhanger and nowhere is this used better than here, as the lady strides towards the camera streaming glowing gas from her mouth. It's almost enough to make you forget that the cliffhangers are largely missing from the series now.
The TARDIS scene after the titles shows the Doctor struggling to keep his ship from falling apart, which seems at odds with the much more controllable time machine that the new series presents. It is much more in keeping with the less predictable TARDIS of the original series, although the cynic in me says that Gatiss simply couldn't find a reason for the Doctor to actually want to go to Cardiff. Gatiss's traditionalist philosophy can also be seen from the slightly later scene where the Doctor stops Rose from going out in 21st century dress; it reminded me of Leela complaining about having to wear period clothing in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and Horror Of Fang Rock. Although far from cosy viewing (you know, what with the walking corpses and all), The Unquiet Dead feels like 'real' Doctor Who (well, my definition of 'real' anyway) and therefore of all the episodes of the new series is the most oddly comforting. But maybe that's just me.
I'm not going to beat about the bush: Simon Callow as Charles Dickens is hands down the best guest actor in the new series. I put him up there with such original series luminaries (oh man, I love that word) as Ian Hogg in Ghost Light and Simon Rouse in Kinda. It’s a bit unfair really having his first scene opposite the stage manager as, while not exactly a bad actor, Wayne Cater just cannot cope up against such foil. It's like watching someone lay siege to a castle with a rolled up newspaper. That and his sideburns make him look like a hamster. However, this scene showcases Gatiss's clear love for the period he's writing about, with naturalistic but authentically Victorian dialogue (I know these things) and it's easy to see why he was the first person Russell T. Davies contacted to write the episode set in the 19th century.
The first sight of the Gelth is magnificent, a clear homage to Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It is this kind of effect where CGI is in its element; the smooth gloss it produces is appropriate for the effect it is trying to create for once, and there's no need to create a semblance of realistic organic movement within the swirling shapes, which is where CGI tends to fall down (see Spider Man). My only real criticism is that Gatiss gave them names far too similar to the comedy monsters in Red Dwarf, but that's hardly something I can hold against the episode itself. In terms of scariness the Gelth are too familiar looking to be truly frightening (Gatiss did say that their design was based on the traditional Victorian image of a ghost), but when on the other hand they come pouring out of a corpse's mouth...
The 'fan' scene in the hansom cab is fun but inappropriate in the circumstances really since Rose has been kidnapped. Still, it could be worse, Dickens's line of "what the Shakespeare?" is clever given that the now-antiquated phrase "what the Dickens" has its origin in Shakespeare (maybe someone could tell me which play). The zombies that attack Rose gurgle like drains in true George Romero style but on the whole the sound effects on this episode are outstanding, although not having a 5.1 surround system I can't fully appreciate the swirling sound of the Gelth whipping all around the room.
After this it gets very plotty, and this is really where Gatiss shines as a writer. He is able to combine characterisation and exposition together in a single line of dialogue, making the most of the 45 minute format. The scene where Rose and Gwyneth chat to each other in the parlour enhances both their characters at the same time as advancing the plot, and is one of my favourite scenes of the new series simply because it is executed with such virtuosity. For example, we get to learn about Gwyneth's life and character and also about Rose's world and her deceased father - importantly, we also get to see how she still makes mistakes through culture shock three episodes in. Three episodes in to her time on the show, Sarah Jane Smith was mucking in with the Exxilons like the best of them. This kind of scene shows us how much better paced this episode is than Rose and The End Of The World. Almost incidentally, and as a consequence of this characterisation, we learn of the rift and Gwyneth's psychic powers that govern the rest of the episode. In writing terms then, full marks for style and efficiency. Also it is interesting to note Gwyneth's observation that "you've been thinking about him [Rose's father] more than ever”, which is a neat pointer towards the revelation of Rose's whole agenda in Father's Day and shows how the episodes all link together. Following this, the revelations about the time war expand on this plot arc that trickles gently and subtly through the series. Russell T. Davies may be seriously lacking as a writer for the programme, but as a producer he can't be faulted.
The Gelth's betrayal is extremely frightening, and I found it genuinely unexpected. The zombies come out in force giving the audience its monster fix (again, a tradition), but how they ever thought they'd get away with a PG certificate is beyond me (then again, Pyramids Of Mars and Attack Of The Cybermen got away with Us so it's swings and roundabouts really). Unfortunately the Doctor's lack of involvement in the story's resolution (a trend of the first half of the series) doesn't truly satisfy, and how the dead Gwyneth is able to move and talk could do with more of an explanation. Usually I'm not to concerned with pseudo-authentic explanations for fictional, fantastical concepts but in cases like this where it really doesn't make much sense I feel we do need something.
The 'man reborn' coda is slightly cheesy, but I'll let it go as it's nothing terrible and this is a very good episode indeed. Its strengths are in its production and particularly the writing, as I feel that Euros Lyn is a slightly bland director, continually taking the path of least resistance (although nowhere near as ham-fisted as Keith Boak). I'll leave the episode with that beautiful image in my mind of the snow staying in a police box shape as the TARDIS dematerialises, before fluttering down to the ground - did I just call Lyn bland?
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.