Doctor Who #713: The Unquiet Dead

"Now, don't antagonise her. I love a happy medium."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.9 2005.

Charles Dickens helps the Doctor defeat gaslight ghosts animating corpses in 1869 Cardiff. First appearance of the Rift that will be such an important element of Torchwood.

REVIEW: After the future, the past. Some eras of the show definitely neglected this type of setting, treating the TARDIS as a spaceship more than a time machine. I'm glad RTD introduces it into the show's DNA in the first three stories. Not a so-called "pure historical" (and I do miss those), Davies establishes what will become the standard in New Who - the "celebrity historical" in which the Doctor teams up with a famous historical figure, usually a writer, in an adventure reminiscent of that writer's fiction. This time it's Dickens and ghosts on Christmas, and they've got Mark Gattis writing it, whose style of writing is best described as obsessed with cramming as many relevant references to his source material as possible. He'd shown this technique before, in his Doctor Who novels, and since, most notably in Sherlock. So plenty of references to Dickens' books, of course, but other ghost stories too, including Ghostbusters. And as with RTD's vision of the future, the past has SCALE, with some gorgeous crane shots of Victorian Cardiff under snow.

Rose's first visit to History is given its proper weight - not something that can be said of many companions - with a nice visit to the TARDIS wardrobe, her insistence on setting foot outside first, and her footprint left in the snow. She won't be put off by the Doctor's slight navigation error, though see Theories for why she might be so delighted. Some of her existential questions, while in character based on The End of the World, are a little strange (can you die before you were born, and so on), but seem to be acting as a primer on time travel for the uninitiated sitting at home. One of the more interesting themes Gatiss touches on is Rose's modern outlook clashing with the values of any given setting. In the previous episode, she was judgmental of Cassandra and felt a touch of xenophobia towards the alien aliens. In The Unquiet Dead, she's shocks Dickens with a kiss on the cheek and Gwyneth (Eve Myles) with talk of "bums" (and patronizes her), and is revolted by the idea of saving the Gelth by giving them human corpses to inhabit. If the Doctor wasn't so guilt-ridden about the Time War having divested the Gelth of their physical bodies in the first place, he might have questioned their motives more, but he's quick to shut Rose down. They make up by the end and share a hand-holding and a smile.

The Bad Wolf shows up, of course. Gwyneth sees it inside Rose in what I consider the stand-out scene of the episode. But the more important pattern creeping up is that the Doctor inspires people to be heroes, but isn't actually the agent of the episodes' resolutions. Rose saved the day in the first, Jabe gave her life in the second, and here, Gwyneth is the heroic sacrificial lamb, able to destroy the Gelth after Dickens saves the Doctor and Rose by putting the gas zombies out of action. Watch for it. This happens again and again throughout the ninth Doctor's run. And this is very much Dickens' story. He starts out tired, jaded and cynical, refusing a worldview that includes ghosts and aliens. The Doctor's role is to share his enthusiasm, make the author feel relevant, and ultimately inspire him to heroics. Simon Callow has written extensively about Dickens and played him in a one-man show and several films, so it's no surprise he inhabits the character so completely, and makes him a touching, funny, and somewhat tragic figure. Trying to compare his performance to the last celebrity writer to appear in the series, H.G. Wells in Timelash, is an absurd enterprise.

THEORIES: Each episode to date has fit into a larger puzzle, but I'm not talking about the Bad Wolf. Rather, it's Rose's hidden agenda I'm most interested in. In "Rose", she accepts the Doctor's invitation when he mentions the TARDIS travels in time. In The End of the World, she learns to trust the Doctor and almost lets slip what she actually wants. In The Unquiet Dead, there's finally mention of her dead father (via Gwyneth's second sight), and everything starts to point in that direction. Rose's delight at being in the past. Dialog referring to bringing the people of history back from the dead through the act of time travel. The Doctor saying history most definitely CAN be rewritten. The more she learns, the more it seems possible. We're heading for Father's Day (episode 7) and the Doctor doesn't realize Rose is assessing, learning the rules, and ultimately manipulating events to get herself there.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Had this been reprised as a Christmas special as was originally planned, I think it would have done a fine job. It's Gatiss' best New Who effort and both Simon Callow and Eve Myles are wonderfully sympathetic.


CiB said...

"Davies establishes what will become the standard in New Who - the "celebrity historical" in which the Doctor teams up with a famous historical figure, usually a writer, in an adventure reminiscent of that writer's fiction."

Didn't Glen McCoy establish this format when he wrote Timelash?

Siskoid said...

The format was really invented in Marco Polo, if we want to get technical. I'm not saying The Unquiet Dead invented it, only that it set the pattern for stories set in the past throughout the New Who era. It was the (badly-executed) premise of Timelash, sure, but from Unquiet Dead, it becomes one of Who's go-to subgenres.

snell said...

There is a contingent out there who feels that this story is irredeemably racist and xenophobic, as believe feel Gattis "explicitly, deliberately equates aliens with foreigners, and then
says "all aliens are evil, they may look nice but they're out to
swarm your country in their billions?"

I can't see it, but maybe it's a perspective very much tied to British politic/culture at the time: "The Unquiet
Dead" is a story, made at a point in time when the big electoral
issue is whether the British should put up with foreigners at all or treat them like scrounging gypsies, about a bunch of REFUGEES - about a bunch of ASYLUM-SEEKERS - who ask the Doctor for his help and then turn out to be EVIL ALIENS WHO JUST WANT TO SWARM YOUR COUNTRY NYHAH HAH HAAAAAH WE WILL RAPE YOUR WOMEN AND DEFILE YOUR CORPSES."

Siskoid said...

I've read the original essay on the subject and the resulting discussion, and I just didn't want to get into it. It just doesn't impact the way I look at The Unquiet Dead as a story, for one thing, and for another, I just don't believe Mark Gatiss' impetus was political. At most, it's an accidentally unfortunate message that's been read into his script.

You'll note that RTD's aliens are almost universally here to invade and destroy. This isn't Pertwee's Britain where peace was possible if only UNIT would have kept their guns holstered.

LiamKav said...

And then from that we get to Moffat-era who were the aliens aren't actually trying to kill us and it's all a big misunderstanding.

Both approaches are fine, but there were some points in the Matt Smith run (season 6, I think) where I was dying for some monsters to just be monsters.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, the pendulum often swings to extremes.

At least Series 5 has lots of true monsters (Prisoner Zero, Vampires, Daleks, Angels, etc.)

S said...

Kind of harsh on Prisoner Zero there - he was Amy's roommate for a decade and didn't seem to be harming anybody in that time

Siskoid said...

Let's print out some Free Zero! t-shirts.


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