The Unquiet Dead
|Production Code||Series One Episode Three|
|Dates||April 9, 2005|
With Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Euros Lyn.
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young.
|Synopsis: Something is bringing the dead to life in Victorian Wales.|
Blue Gas by Andrew Feryok 14/4/05
The new series does it again with the third episode: The Unquiet Dead. Having seen what the series can do in a modern day and futuristic setting, the creators now have an opporunity to show how they recreate the past! The Victorian period has always been a strong story telling location for the series, so it is not surprising that they chose to make this their first trip into the past. And the use of ghosts and walking dead fit perfectly with the atmosphere of the story.
I am beginning to get used to the elements of the show now, particularly when it comes to the Doctor and Rose. Rose is turning out to be a very likeable companion and certainly gives the Doctor a run for his money when she starts arguing with his latest plan. If only he had listened to her! I'm still finding it hard to put Christopher Ecceleston's take on the Doctor into words. He seems to be a wide-eyed, giggling child and then a dark, brooding outcast. He seems to combine Tom Baker with Davision and McCoy. But I am certainly beginning to warm to his Doctor. Pity he is planning to leave at the end of the season!
A word about the opening titles. Well, more in the Doctor's words: "Fantastic!" The jazzy theme hits the right note of adventure coupled with the exciting image of the TARDIS being buffeted about as it blasts it's way through the chaos of the time tunnel. And the way it explodes onto the screen after a "What the heck" prelude moment is perfect.
The use of Charles Dickens in this story is also nice. Although it is a little risky to have the Doctor actually meet an historical figure, Dickens works wonderfully here. He seems to be a combination of Litefoot and Jago from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. He has the pompous self-importance of Jago, and the courageous heroism of Litefoot. One of my favorite scenes of the episode is when the Doctor steals both Dickens AND his carriage and while in hot pursuit of the villains, proceeds to explain to Dickens how he is such a huge fan of his. Usually, if the Doctor meets an historical figure, they have already met and are good friends. Here, we see what it is like for the Doctor to make friends for the first time with an historical figure! The use of Christmas Carol imagery throughout the episode is also nicely done.
The villains of the story are intriguing. Beings that can travel along gas lines, and inhabit the body of the dead. The scene in the morgue where they kill one of the characters and then immediately take over his newly dead corpse is chilling and really makes this nemesis scary. And the fact that the Doctor blunders everything and is saved by other characters is rather surprising. Are we going back to a more fallible Doctor like Davison?
There are other great scenes from this story. The cliffhanger intro to the story with the woman coming to life in her coffin and strangling her mourning son is shocking and sends this story off running at high speed. There is also a nice scene with Rose when she first steps from the TARDIS and makes her first step into the past mirroring the first step on the moon. She also gets a great scene later on when she talks with the maid in the cellar about boys and dating, and showcasing the differences in values between the time periods.
Overall, another winner for the series. Although this and The End of the World have both outdone what Rose had started, things are looking good for the series. If they can keep up this quality, this series could last almost as long as the old series! 9/10
Another alien invasion, but this time on a grander scale! An alien spacecraft smashes through Big Ben and crash lands in the Thames. Soldiers are running frantically everywhere! I wonder if UNIT will make an appearance here? I doubt it, but here's hoping. It's also going to be the series' first two-part story. If they maintain the quality of the last three, it should be a winner as well!
Doctor Who Beats Royal Wedding Shocker by Antony Tomlinson 16/4/04
Well, I never thought I'd see the day. An episode of Doctor Who gets higher audience figures on the BBC than the future King's wedding (on the same day). How things have changed. I doubt that last time Prince Charles got married, back in 1981, more viewers tuned in to watch Warriors' Gate (or whatever was on that week) than to see the happy couple being joined (I certainly have better memories of Princess Diana's dress than that lion thing). What a brilliant result (that said, the British Royal Family are currently enduring something of a "Season 24" - pratfalling and tacky celebrity guests included).
Well, in some ways that's a review enough for me. I must admit that I've now become addicted to the ratings game, since we've been doing so well. All that "forget how many people watched it, was it an intelligent piece of science fiction drama?" stuff I used to spout was merely self-deception to make up for our bad results. Still, I guess I'd better keep up the pretence.
So, was this story any good? As a straightforward third episode in an ongoing Saturday night TV series, it was pretty terrific. After hitting viewers with alien invasions one week, blue people and exploding planets the next, the series has now completely changed the atmosphere with a heady mix of horror and sumptuous period design - it makes you think: there really has been nothing on TV, ever, like Doctor Who.
I was a bit scared that Mark Gatiss might screw things up though. He's always been good at creating strong atmospheres and doling out self-knowing, ironic humour. However, he has had more trouble sticking these bits of brilliance together into coherent stories (unsurprising, given his main credit as a writer on League of Gentlemen - a series that is effectively a macabre sketch show).
Indeed, there are clear problems with this tale. For one, the Doctor is completely useless in this story - he does nothing but bring about the deaths of two people and fill the world with zombies - Charles Dickens eventually has to save the day. I think it's a bit early for the Ninth Doctor to "do a Davison" and start screwing things up to show that he's not perfect, though. He hasn't been fully established as our hero yet.
Also, the plot explanations that are offered after the seance scene are pretty rushed. Any casual viewer who put the kettle on or quickly went to the toilet during the two or three breathless sentences in which the Doctor explains about "rifts", "aliens", and the osmotic effect of a gas leak will have been left rather confused (in fact I've seen it twice, and I'm still not quite sure why Dickens's plan is supposed to have worked. Maybe my physics isn't good enough).
Another problem is that Gatiss clearly can't do "emotional" in the way that Russell T. Davies can. The little, touching asides in The End of the World brought a lump to my throat. But all the stuff between Rose and the servant girl, the Doctor and Dickens and Rose and the Doctor (who seem to be getting a little too close for my liking) made me want to throttle someone ("I'm so glad I met you Rose." Yeugh).
But, qualms aside, this production had so much humour (the scene with the Doctor telling Dickens he's "a fan" is a classic), the acting is so great (especially Simon Callow's), the designs are so dark and gorgeous, and the zombies so much scary fun, that none of the above really matters that much. This really is everything we could have hoped for. And while we Big Finish fans may be rather used to stories just like this (Phantasmagoria, Winter for the Adept, The Chimes of Midnight) we must remember how fresh this must all seem to casual viewers. No wonder Doctor Who beat the Prince.
Furthermore, the episode next week looks absolutely amazing (forget Daleks trundling past Big Ben's clocktower. Let's blow the thing up). I also have to say that Davies is doing a great job in getting me excited about the hinted at, long-running plotlines ahead (in the way that only Desperate Housewives, and the Storm Warning - Neverland series of audios has managed before). I'm already biting my nails, desperate to find out what this "time war" is? And what it has got to do with the Doctor's homeworld. And what the "big, bad wolf" is. I can't wait.
Pretty City, Pretty Good by Mike Morris 20/4/05
If anything is a testament to the characters and ongoing tone of the programme that Russell T. Davies has created, it's The Unquiet Dead. If you remove the Doctor and Rose from the equation, The Unquiet Dead is a slight, predictable story that's damaged by a sanitised production. But the presence of these two elevates this to a likeable and occasionally beautiful tale, albeit one that suffers from its truncated length and could have been much better.
There are two overwhelmingly negative elements to this story, one of which I'll discuss later on. But first, for the production.
It's awful. Absolutely awful. It's hideous, prettified, cod-Victorian rubbish that sabotages Mark Gatiss's script.
If there's one thing that puzzled me in the run-up to this story, it was the sheer slavering joy that was going to be a story set in the Victorian era. The reason given for something approaching fetishism is that Doctor Who always recreates this era well. Well... yeah, but most of that knowledge is almost thirty years old. Since Horror of Fang Rock, Doctor Who has returned to Victorian climes twice; Mark of the Rani, which was lumbered with unremitting cliches and truly appalling accents, and Ghost Light, which wasn't the Victorian era as such - rather, it was set in a creepy madhouse, and was about the Victorian era. Imagine a story populated by characters like Mrs Grose? Sheesh.
This makes The Mark of the Rani look like gritty realism - well, at least it had a bit of dirt in it. Equating this to a representation of Victorian times is rather like saying a round of golf is the same as a three-day cross-country hike. Everything's been prettified, tidied up. Just look at the first shot when Rose steps out onto the oh-so-virginal snow - that street is beautiful. It shouldn't be. The people on those streets would be thin, malnourished shivering waifs, not rosy-cheeked types wrapped up snug and warm. Where are the street-urchins, thieving to stop themselves starving to death? Where's the horseshit? Where's the rubbish, the grime, and the slopped out content of chamber pots? Well?
If there's one thing that infuriates me, it's sanitising the truth, making things pretty for prettiness' sake. It's like a mild version of The Happiness Patrol, except everything's painted "moonlight" instead of pink. It's so unreal, so uninvolving - I want to see a story set in a real place, with nastiness and darkness.
And if all that isn't bad enough, it's happened to the characters as well. I suspect that Gatiss' script was a lot darker than what originally made it to screen. Look at the character of Sneed. He's called a dirty old man, and Rose notes that he works Gwyneth to death. He's been - it's implied - killing people to keep his secret quiet, and is so tight that he's trying to get an exorcism on the cheap. There's also a subtle implication that he's getting, shall we say, something more than cleaning from Gwyneth. This guy should be nasty, disgusting, a spittle-soaked miser that reeks of dust. Instead, what do we get? A bald bloke with comedy sideburns and a crap Welsh accent. And that's just not good enough, not by any stretch of the imagination. I might mention that also running on BBC at the moment is the drama Fingersmith, and while that's a silly bit of hokum with the seemingly obligatory scenes where two girls lez it up with each other, comparing the look of that story to this one is a frightening experience. The Unquiet Dead may feature Charles Dickens, but it seems like Euros Lyn (who did sterling work on The End of the World) hasn't read a Dickens story in his life. Hasn't even seen a TV adaptation of one.
As for Dickens himself, he suffers from the ho-ho-ho tone of the whole thing quite badly. Simon Callow's comments on the scripts suggest that initially, Dickens' porrtayal had far more teeth - an alcoholic shadow of his former self, bored, run out of ideas, and waiting to die. Not a million miles, it could be said, from Martin Bannister in Deadline. But it's just not pushed enough. Callow (a simply wonderful actor) does his best to give this character a dark side (the drunken acting after the seance), but Dickens looks and sounds like a stereotyped Victorian and he's far too healthy. When Dickens declares "I saw nothing but an illusion," there were so many ways that line could have been meaningful. It could have sounded tired, or beaten, or desperate. But it sounds like... nothing. It sounds like Dickens is being stupid. It's not giving us anything to hang on to. So you're left wondering why Dickens was included at all, why it couldn't have been anybody else. We don't learn anything about him, or get any new insights into who he was. I'm not a fan of Doctor Who dabbling with real characters for the sake of it - yeah, Richard the Lionheart in The Crusades is lovely, but George Stephenson in The Mark of the Rani is crap and gratuitous. Sadly, so is Dickens in this, even if he does get some good lines.
But this is entertaining, in spite of all that. The script gets a little long-winded in places, as in that "air-cooling device" joke, but it's generally sharp and funny. The Doctor's "happy medium" joke is hilarious, and the interplay between him and Rose is a treat ("go out there dressed like that and you'll start a riot, Barbarella"!) The script makes a lot of jokes at Cardiff's expense - and quite right too, I say. The set-pieces are wonderfully put together, and while it's a little overlong, the final scene is lovely. The pre-title sequence is a ripping opening - how could any channel-hopper flick past that and not watch the rest of the story? The notion of these creatures being made of gas and hiding in the walls is both frightening and wonderful, and the story expertly builds up suspense around the time rift. More stuff on the war, too; the Gelth's mention of it appears to push the Doctor into action, quite possibly through guilt, and the Doctor's statement that "Time is in flux, your cosy little world could be rewritten like that" would appear to suggest that Gallifrey has been unmade, in line with the EDA's again.
Both leads are on top of their game here, not least Eccleston who's so at home in the role that it's tragic to think we won't get more of him (but brilliant that we got any of him at all). His sheer joy at the first sight of the Gelth is wonderful. And something I'm starting to notice about that grin of his - he almost always grins at other people, and hardly ever when he's on his own. The relationship between him and Rose is becoming increasingly affectionate, not least when he turns to her and says "I'm so glad I met you," or at the start where Rose says these journeys are "better with two." Positively flirty; fanboys will be hiding behind the sofa. And yet, such is the distant and different nature of this Doctor, it seems pleasingly implausible. C'mon, what are you really thinking?
The plot, though, is slight. They're aliens! They're made of gas! That's it! Or that's almost it. There's a final jolt at the end, which is difficult to discuss without a spoiler (although it's bloody predictable anyway), but here goes.
Anyone who likes flicking around newsgroups will probably be aware of Lawrence Miles' furious review of this story. It must be said that he's got a point. Given the political climate in Britain right now, the ending - Lawrence Miles thinks - is just indefensibly thoughtless.
And yet... well, when I read this I thought he was right, and I was concerned that I just couldn't make myself get as worked up as him. My own reaction to the ending was how disappointingly obvious and routine it was. There were so many better ways to do this. Imagine, for example, if Sneed had suddenly got frightened about the sheer number of evil spirits being let into his world, attacked them, and turned them hostile (in a way, given that a stranger is allowing a bunch of bodysnatching spirits into his house, it's surprising that a man like Sneed doesn't do this). It's not that this would be politically more acceptable; it's that it would be a better, more affecting, more emotionally-charged finale.
And this, I reckon, is why I can't make myself believe that kids will be running into the loving arms of the BNP after watching The Unquiet Dead. At the end of the day, it's a story, innit? That's not me trying to be facetious; yes, television affects how we think, and yes, a series in this tone wouldn't be the programme that remains my moral touchstone. But this is a single instance, and not one we haven't seen those before. Look at The Claws of Axos, where nice homeless aliens come and ask if they can stay for a while, offering (essentially) to work for us in return, but it's all lies and they're nasty creatures which have come to devour and destroy everything. Doctor Who is, ultimately, a fantasy show, and while the morality is important in the context of the programme, it's got to be very overt to spread beyond it. The average person won't make the leap from Gelth to immigrants. It's just not obvious enough.
But as I said, the politically more tolerable message would be the more dramatically satisfying one, and that's the nub of the matter. Doctor Who's finely-judged morality is what makes the programme interesting. The Doctor doesn't blow things up, and that's not because he's spreading a pacifist message, it's because it's boring. Doctor Who's morality is what stops the programme being boring, what makes the solutions and the monsters diverting. Doctor Who's morality is why it's entertaining, fundamentally.
And that's the point; the ending is disappointing and unimaginative. And kids are smart. Something we forget. Kids will know that this element wasn't a good element, wasn't something to learn from. And what makes The Unquiet Dead a good story is that the really wonderful scenes in it, the ones that kids would take with them, are kicking in the opposite direction.
That Rose - Gwyneth scene, for example. After a rather forced scene where they talk about boys, Rose tries to impose her own values on Gwyneth ("Maybe being wild's not such a bad thing"); but it's turned on its head. Gwyneth's description of our universe depicts it as a horrible place, a sex-driven world enslaved to horrors, where people rush about like termites. This isn't a question of us looking down at the past, but our own society being questioned.
And then there's that scene - "It's a different morality, get used to it or go home." The Doctor's reaction to Rose's perfectly-formed customs is so contemptuous, so brusque, and rubbishes them in an instant. It's deprived of punch, of course, by the ending, but the force of this argument carries a damn sight more force.
And then, just afterwards, is a moment even better. "That's written very clearly in your mind, miss, that you think I'm stupid," says Gwyneth (who's beautifully played) to Rose. And it's said softly and humbly, but what Rose is being confronted with is this; how dare you speak for me? How dare you think you're better than me? How dare you assume that you're smarter and more developed, and that I can't make my own decisions? Seeing her (and by extension, our; because as a viewer, I was thinking about Gwyneth in much the same way Rose was) worldview confronted and rejected is great. And there's nothing more Who-ish than that.
The little things are so noticeable in this series, which is so utterly unlike anything else on-screen right now. The zombie scenes may be standard horror fare, but when the Doctor comes face to face with them, what does he do? He talks to them. He tries to understand them. And he finds out what they're up to. That's so beautiful and so different; Buffy would have just fly-kicked their heads off and made a joke about moisturising.
And that's the sort of thing that's making this series work. Even a routine tale like this, one with so many things wrong. It's still holding my attention. It's still my must-see show.
This is the least satisfying story of the season so far (although it's probably more re-watchable than Rose), but that doesn't mean it's not good stuff. Because it's more overtly "classic Doctor Who", it does seem much more cut-down than The End of the World. And the pacing is out at times - some scenes go on too long, particularly when you consider how little room the rest of the story has to breathe (and how opaque some of the time-rift stuff is, particularly since most of this story's viewers won't remember Image of the Fendahl). And yes, I think the ending is disappointing and has an unpleasant subtext. But the story's smart, it's got good set-pieces, and is has some beautiful moments. Oh, and it's really quite scary in spots.
Ah, people are complaining to the BBC about Doctor Who again. If nothing else, isn't that reassuring?
Spook-tastic! by Joe Ford 1/5/05
Another fine episode and from a production point of view one of the most atmospheric pieces of television ever filmed. The gorgeous location work, chilling and subtle effects and beautiful lighting combine to make this is an absolute treasure on the eyes.
Any doubts that others writers than RTD could pull of his unique style of Doctor Who are quashed with this glorious historical episode. You have everything that the first two episodes had, the fantastic production, the witty lines, the mentions of the "War", the engaging narrative but this episode has the bonus of being the closest to what we fans recognise as Doctor Who. Rose clearly borrowed wholesale from Spearhead from Space and various other Doctor Who stories and was truly Doctor Who but its modern day setting gave it a new edge. The Unquiet Dead has to compete with gems such as Talons of Weng-Chiang and Curse of Fenric as Doctor Who has always had a great track record when popping back to the past, historical re-enactments being the BBC's greatest triumph in my eyes. To Mark Gatiss' credit he has delivered a smashing story, expertly squeezed into fourty-five minutes without squandering his location or period or any depth a historical can offer. This is everything Mark of the Rani should have been and half the length at that.
It is shocking just how out of place Christopher Eccleston's Doctor is in the Victorian era considering how perfect his previous selves have fitted it. It is another layer to this intriguing new Doctor that marks him out as something very different to what we are used to. My friend Matt is having troubles with his accent, this very northern-sounding Doctor proving a bit too normal to be totally believable but I am finding his portrayal more and more interesting every week. Gone is the grinning loon from Rose as Eccleston grows into the role and discovers what the show is capable of and he is replaced by a far more balanced character, one who is capable of growing very angry suddenly (these sudden bursts are shocking and accentuate the fact that this is an alien we are dealing with), who can turn on the charm ("You're brilliant, you are!"), make quick decisions (as he does here with the future of the Gelth) and remain very humane ("I'm so glad I met you"). He dashes about Victorian Cardiff (the location itself involved in a number of brilliantly time jokes at its expense), every inch the hero right up to the touching climax.
I hope Rob Shearman was not too pissed off at Gatiss stealing wholesale his idea of the "little person" saving the world from Chimes of Midnight? It is so important that the new series is concentrating on characterisation over special effects. Oh you can have as much spectacle as you want and you can fill the screen with as many pretty pictures as you want but if there is no story to follow or characters to care about you will lose your audience as soon as the eye candy wears off (and trust me that high can lose its novelty very quickly... ever seen The Phantom Menace?). Wisely, Gatiss populates his episode sparsely and takes each of them on a journey, which climaxes in very different ways (murder, suicide and life affirming glee!) but which satisfies in each case.
Whilst Dickens is clearly the centrepiece for the episode I found Gwyneth even more interesting because it was somebody I knew nothing about. Cute references aside, we all know Dickens story (and his stories...) so it is easy to predict just where his character is going (as touching as that was) but Gwyneth surprised me a lot. In one superb scene she looks into Rose's mind and has a frightening look at the future and the tone of the scene shifts several times. First, it's hilarious girl chat that highlights the difference in culture between the two women which is then deepened when Gwyneth spots the cars and planes and noise of the future and then it gets REALLY scary as the Doctor reveals her part to play in this crisis. A great scene. Her relationship with Rose takes on real depth when it becomes clear that she is vital to the climax and Rose's firm admonishment to the Doctor ("She's not going to fight your battle!") shows you how close they have become in such a short time. It was Rose's reaction to her death that affected me the most, as she starts to learn the responsibility of time travel and the fact that you cannot save everybody.
If Rose's relationship with her spotlights Gwyneth it is the Doctor's slack-jawed reaction to Dickens that reminds you meeting this man is an EVENT. And what a disappointment he is. At first. Simon Callow plays up his scepticism to such an extent he would make Dana Scully proud and yet retains the dignity and good humour of the character. You really want to shake the man and tell him this is really happening and to pull himself together! But his vital role in the climax redeems him totally and his final line and little swagger just make the episode. The Doctor's invasion of Dickens' life is given real weight and Rose is afforded a look at just how their adventures can change peoples lives for the good (Dickens) and the bad (Gwyneth). What I loved about Callow's performance was the humour he injected into it, his immediate turn around in opinion about the Doctor's character when he starts raving about his books is hilarious and his drunken speech summing up the truth about the Gelth similarly chucklesome. And his line when he is surrounded by zombies at the climax must rank as one of the best lines in the series yet. Having such a big name gives the episode real weight but it is the performance that counts and Callow does a predictably wonderful job.
It's Christmas! The TARDIS landing at Christmas! Dontcha just love it when Rose steps in the snow as if to confirm all this magic is real. The Beeb have pulled of a real Victorian Christmas with fantastic detail and I was clapping so loud when I first saw the TARDIS land I woke the dog up! There is something wonderfully atmospheric about a ghost story at Christmas it is real shame it couldn't have been shown then (maybe they'll repeat the episode over the festive season... I'd watch it!) and my advice is to tape it and watch it again with all the lights off when it's dark. Brrr... it takes a whole new level of creepiness...
Was it too scary? I doubt it, kids are used to so much nastiness on telly these days but this mix of spookiness and the fantastical might catch those of the more faint hearted. The pre-credits sequence was excellent for grabbing the attention and preparing us for the episode ahead but my personal favourite scare came at the end when the corpses started springing up en masse... it was like something out of Shaun of the Dead except it looked really stylish! The theme of the dead rising is always a winner and I am more interested in hearing what the adults thought because I fairly certain the idea of corpse possession would affect them more.
This was an excellent spooky fantasy, which probably would just be pipped by The End of the World if it wasn't for that gorgeous production which pushes it into a league of its own.
A Review by Rob Matthews 10/5/05
And with the scratchy sound of a box being ticked off on a checklist comes Mark Gatiss' contribution to the new series; a bit of faintly pastichey ghoulish Victoriana. Who'da thunk it.
Enjoyable episode, this, though given that new Who has thus far been characterised by its sheer enjoyability, that's not really saying much that's specific to the episode.
Actually, I've found it quite difficult thus far to come up with anything to actually say about this new series other than that it's bloody brilliant. There haven't even been any reviews I seriously disagree with enough to prompt a response, since what negative criticism there is in the online fan hangouts has been so trivial and smallminded as to be simply not worth the bother. Why bother writing a long-winded defence of the use of Britney Spears' Toxic in one of the episodes when you can just tut and think 'Oh get a life, you sad fart'. And that's genuinely the level of criticism fandom has sunk to with this series, just a bunch of tedious asinine nitpicks each based on a central complaint that the show is daring to act like it's not 1975 anymore; the situation is such that I can even name the one fan reviewer who's made proper, intelligent complaints about the current series. That's you, Jonathan Hili.
'Sides from that... well, there's been some commentary from Lawrence Miles of course, but to my mind he's less a 'fan reviewer' than some form of capricious prose demigod. It amazes me, though, that those pesky 'general audiences', who used to be the ones who didn't get the show, now seem to appreciate far better than the fans just how good it is. I mean, my dad, for God's sake, who's never liked Doctor Who or watched a whole 'classic series' story right through, now thinks it's brilliant. The Guardian Guide, the most snide and hateful weekend supplement in the free world, referred to The Unquiet Dead as the best thing that's been on televison for ages - and believe me, from that petulant publication praise like this is something akin to a biblical miracle.
Luckily, though, there's something I can latch onto there. Unquiet Dead's not really that good, not looked at in the context of the episodes around it. Actually, it's not even as good as Doctor Who's last televised venture into Victorian times, and in production terms that was only three serials back ... yeah, 'enjoyable' almost goes without saying, but it's still probably the weakest of what we've seen so far (that's as of episode 7, context-seekers!) Still, Mark Gatiss can rest easy beneath his Jon Perwee duvet cover; I'm sure there'll be a majority swathe of fandom who, come the end of the season, will be holding it up as the second best episode, you know, after the one with the Dalek in. Those '1975' people I mentioned.
The thing I first noted about the story on my initial viewing was that it showed up the limitations of the self-contained 45-minute story a lot more than had been the case with The End of the World. What would once, in - yes, I'm going to say it - the Hinchcliffe years have been an atmospheric first episode building suspensefully up to the horrifying moment when a corpse sits up in its coffin is here reduced to a slick pre-titles sequence that's too stylised to be genuinely scary. And then when the Doctor and Rose arrive in Victorian Cardiff, no sooner do they walk down the street than they're up to their necks in a flock of squealing ghouls with Charles Dickens hanging on to their coat tails. This in actuality is the sort of ludicrous coincidence Doctor Who always relied on - think the Doctor and Leela just happening to get embroiled in that scuffle with the Black Scorpion gang, which led them straight to the police station, which got them involved with Professor Litefoot, who just happened to own Magnus Greel's time machine without knowing what it was ... that's all pretty unlikely, but because it happens over the course of several scenes and episodes, we don't really notice it. Whereas here the compressed running time makes the huge unlikelihood of the Doctor and Rose fortunately being on hand stick out like a sore thumb.
The seance scene, too, seems like the sort of thing that would have benefitted from more of build up, and which - you can't help thinking - would have consumed almost a whole episode of a 'classic' Who serial. The fast pacing, which had seemed appropriate the previous episode in the year Five billion, felt a good deal less believable in a tale set in the nineteenth century. I guess it's because the narrative forms of that time were so long-winded, and it's customary, when recreating this period in drama, to recreate the manner in which stories were told back then, for verisimilitude.
I was left wondering if Mark Gatiss' original script was a good deal longer and darker than this one. What there is of it here tends to make you suspect that that's the case. Indeed, as Mike Morris already pointed out - and to be honest you could just add a 'ditto' from me to most of this fella's remarks on the current series -, some of what is there in the script as it stands feels like it's been either sugar-coated or just plain smothered by the production; Sneed, for example, seems to be written in the manner of a Dickens character - and from my admittedly limited no-further-than-A-level (oh, and a piece by George Orwell) experience of Dickens, that would typically mean a character whose physical attributes and personality traits fortuitously correspond with the sound of his name, like Scrooge or Gradgrind. 'Sneed' sounds like and rearranges 'needs' and implies, to my mind, a pinched, scrawny mean little man. Instead he's grossly miscast as some loveable sideburned old tub of butterscotch. And Charles Dickens looks like the Ghost Light episode 3 rosy-hued Josiah Samuel Smith when the script suggests he should look like the dusty spluttery episode 1 version. The Victorian streets sparkle like the set of some cheap Christmas Carol telemovie. And in my least favourite pretzel-like twisting of a scripted line, Rose's 'You dirty old man' comes across to the audience not as the presumably intended 'ugh, that lecherous old bugger', but instead as 'awww, isn't she feisty?' The chocolate-box production is nowhere near as evocative or threatening as that of the obvious comparison serial, Talons of blahdyblah - given that the most noticeable difference between old Who and new is the quality of the production values, it's interesting to note that in one sense they're actually poorer than they were thirty years ago. I rather dismissively said in my review of The End of the World that it's 'fashionable' to diss CGI, but come to think of it I can understand the objection in some ways; Mike Morris - a man who incidentally I wouldn't accuse of saying anything just because it's 'fashionable'! - once remarked to me in a discussion of the Star Wars prequels that CGI looks simply too real, too crisp and perfect and in-focus. I think I can see his point; it appears to me - as an utterly untechnically-minded observer, mind you - that because computer effects are still so platonically perfect in appearance, the rest of the production has to be scrubbed up and glossified just to fit in with them, rather than vice versa.
But as I say, we just wouldn't have this TV series at all without them. Got to take the rough with the smooth. Or rather, take the smooth when you'd secretly prefer the rough.
I'm also wondering, though, if the Beeb isn't presenting a deliberately British Tourist Boardy view of the UK for international markets. Thinking back to the use of the London Eye in Rose, for example. And Charles Dickens seems a very obvious, establishment choice of 'guest star'.
Anyway, as I say the production has been covered already, so I don't need to go over it too much. However, it's interesting to note further to Mike Morris' discussion (Jesus, I'm really piggybacking here!) that the episode did in any case, sparkle or not, snag a few complaints from fretful parents for being 'too scary'. So it could very well be argued that without the lacquer of glossy production, the story couldn't have been made for its 7pm timeslot at all.
To take the most pertinent example of neutralised scariness: whereas it would have been really chilling for the story to simply show corpses getting and wandering off of their own accord, the story as made takes pains to first show them being infused with a big cloud glowing blue gas. This not only provides an advance warning of what's going to happen, but also suggests an explanation somewhere down the line. Which is fine by me, because very young kids would be too scared by a stark, overtly horror movie-ish approach.
Still, given that scripting and production seem to have gone very much hand-in-hand in each of the RTD episodes so far, the clash evidenced in this episode points to an interesting phenomenon. For a few years, there were only ever two names that came up in discussions of the possibility of a new Who TV series - one was a chap who contributed to a deeply twisted cult comedy show and wrote the odd cranky letter about DW to the Radio Times, the other a writer who's only DW qualification seemed to be that he'd intercut shots of some bloke watching Pyramids of Mars into a scene of underage rimming. One ultimately got the gig, the other didn't.
Well, The Unquiet Dead represents a little mediated snapshot, glimpsed through an RTD-shaped window, of what a Gatiss-Who series might have been like. Darker, probably post-watershed, not that original but a bit more literately inclined (expecting people to get the 'ending of Edwin Drood' joke is a bold gamble, and the script still has the Doctor explain it just to be one the safe side) ... but 'safe', old-fashioned, fanboyish, niche.
And a bit dodgy. You know, that ending. I must say the reading Lawrence Miles made did occur to me on my first viewing too, though I didn't respond to it anything like as violently - I was more disappointed that after a promising start ('That's right, it's a different morality. Get used to it or piss off!' - I paraphrase, but not much), the plotting had simply taken a turn toward the dull and hackneyed. Still, when you look at the scripts Russell T Davies has been giving us - and when you stop bloody focusing on pseudo-farting and stuff -, you see a very savvy writer who's very aware of the world this new series is being broadcast to. Mike (ahem) someone-or-other made that point about 'allegory' as regards Aliens of London/World War Three, pointing out that he wasn't necessarily that keen on it as a storytelling form, because it's didactic and smartarsed. But he made this point - 'what this story does is tap into contemporary events and fears, and use them to infuse the story with precedence and direction' - that could really apply to all of the episodes RTD has given us up to and including The Long Game anyway. He's not writing 'allegory', but the texture of his work is - well, I can't think of a more suitable phrase than the one I just used - savvy. Social-political commentary isn't something his scripts are 'doing', not an end result they're aiming for - rather it's an innate condition of the position they're coming from. I don't think Gatiss has that sensibility; one gets the impression from his work in general that his primary reference points are other fictions rather than the world at large. And though the ideological misstep he makes here with the end 'twist' is more careless than heinous - there's no particular reason to extrapolate a single instance into a broad 'moral of the story', and there's a more overt, almost cloyingly so, 'Have an open mind' moral here anyway -, I've certainly been left convinced that Gatiss-Who would have been too old-fashioned, too parochial too involuted. Too much for fans, and old boring ones at that.
Course, it seems the best non-RTD writers on the new series can do is a kind of pared-down version of the schtick we fans have seen 'em do already; just as Gatiss' inclination towards the seedy, dusty and sinister has been polished up to fit more easily into the series Rusty is making, so too was Robert Shearman stripped of much of his individuality and scathing sense of humour for the Dalek episode, merely grafting bits of the excellent Jubilee onto an action piece (leaving me satisfied as a fan of the TV series, but disappointed as a fan of the writer). Rusty's obviously tight control of the project may lead in the long run to a JNT-style backlash from fandom - who, let's face it, have an appetite for ungrateful backlash even at the best of times -, but I think certainly for the moment the Reign of Rusty over contributing writers is more a good thing than a bad one. There's a consistency between something dodgy the Doctor did at the end of The End of the World and something dodgy he does at the end of this story, and because Rose saw how cold he could be back then, it's clear that she - rightly- suspects he's not telling the whole truth about what happens here. And earlier in the episode there's a surprisingly lengthy shared scene between Rose and Gwyneth which seems designed to complement the one between Rose and the plumber in the previous episode. Rusty's Who is a series that could more accurately (though a good more horribly!) be called The Doctor and Rose, so I think what's most important is that bits like these fit in with their neighbouring episodes; Okay, the 'I'm so glad I met you' bit is a good deal clumsier than the easy rapport we saw developing in End of the World (and which has worked wickedly well played off against Adam in The Long Game), but it's not objectionable.
Indeed, I think the biggest objection I could make to The Unquiet Dead is that it's a merely very good episode of a completely superb series.
It's a hard life being a fan reviewer these days!
Mmm... Zombies by Adrian Loder 3/6/05
Having travelled forward in time for its second story, the new adventures of Doctor Who head to the past for its third, in The Unquiet Dead. My feelings about this episode are conflicted, in that as a piece of television, evaluated without the expectations I have for Doctor Who, it was excellent. However, as a longtime fan of Doctor Who it is impossible for me to not be making inner comments, criticisms and comparisons to the past.
In this episode we have the continued growth of a running theme where the Ninth Doctor is just as often portrayed as a bloke with a time machine and a lot of knowledge, as he is as a genuine hero and rescuer of those in danger. In this story the Doctor's knowledge of the true nature of the supernatural is put on display, but he's completely mistaken about this particular manifestation, imperils everyone's lives and then has to be saved by someone else. It isn't that this sort of thing has never happened before, but in the past, with longer stories, this could be worked into a story and still have the Doctor redeem himself later. In these 45-minute stories there's no time for any such thing.
On the bright side, however, an interesting story with a suitably dramatic (though unoriginal) twist, with a wonderful guest performance as a famous author near the end of his life. He probably comes out looking the best in the story and is one of the bright spots in it. We also have a suitably humorous parting, one of those incredulous "But where are you going? That's just a big blue box!" situations that can be so amusing.
One other point of contention in this story is that it seems to confirm that a rising body count is here to stay in Doctor Who. Sure, people have died before, and the Doctor has also failed to save people in need, but none of these stories have truly had happy outcomes . It almost feels a bit like Lawrence Miles taking the Eighth Doctor to task in Interference, like someone in charge is trying to make a point, or somehow demystify the Doctor. Sorry, I rather liked him mystified, myself.
This review has been more negative than the story really warrants in a thorough overview, however; nothing spectacular, but it was good TV and everyone had at least some good moments. A bit disappointing is all: 7/10.
Gatiss Saves the Day! by Ron Mallett 1/7/05
This Saturday night saw the first Australian transmission of The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss (best known as a comic actor in such shows as The League of Gentlemen). This was the first time since the show returned that it felt like we were actually watching Doctor Who.
The story is set in Cardiff during Christmas 1869. Dickens is on a tour and is caught up in an adventure with the Doctor and the uncomfortably dressed Billie Piper. Bodies have been coming to life at a local undertaker's house. Furthermore the maid is psychic having grown up around a rift that exists in the mortuary. Beings from elsewhere known as the Gelf are searching for a way into Earth. They are composed of gas and travel about in the pipes of the house. They can exist in the gas-filled bodies of the dead for sometime.
To cut a short story even shorter, The Doctor encourages the maid to act as a bridge for the alien beings - who turn out to be evil. They are promptly wiped in a gas explosion set off by the animated corpse of the maid. During the course of the adventure the almost unbelievably sceptical Dickens rediscovers an enthusiasm for life and his writing - although the Doctor informs Rose that he dies the next year.
Well there are certain elements that we have seen before in science fiction. The Star Trek story, Time's Arrow, featured a burnt out, bitter Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain) who gets to visit the Enterprise during the course of that time travelling adventure and is lifted from his despair over the human condition and the fate of mankind. In a similar way, Charles Dickens is redeemed by his experiences. Being a Victorian gentleman at the nadir of his career it is believable that he might fear that he knew everything. What I don't find convincing is the way in which such an intelligent man cannot accept the evidence of his own eyes (i.e. the apparition in the theatre and the initial animation of two corpses at the undertaker's house). This seems to be a pattern in the new series that precious time is spent having the central characters sufficiently convinced that something extraordinary is going on. Billie Piper's Rose exemplified this in the pilot episode Rose - although in her case it is just a fraction more believable.
Eccleston continues to stamp his mark on the character. His interaction with Dickens in the coach was quite humorous and one could be sure we were actually listening to the words of Mark Gatiss and not his nibs. Simon Callow gave a very fine performance as Dickens but didn't really appear old enough to be the burnt out Dickens - still he gave a very good interpretation of a weary hack. From the rest of the supporting cast, Eve Myles gave a lovely performance as Gwyneth the Maid. Her scene with Rose where she looks into her mind (such as it is) is a very convincing moment. Meanwhile, Billie Piper is an embarrassment and inadvertently gave the best performance of an animated corpse of the lot.
While the direction and incidental music are once again of a very high standard, there are some indications of interference with the script in order to inject elements of the larger "game plan". The reference to the fact that time is in flux and that history could be rewritten in an instant during the climax of the story seemed to be planted and therefore artificial and out of place. So much for the web of time... perhaps that went with the Time Lords? There seemed to be an inference that the Gelth suffered some catastrophe in the Time War that destroyed the Nestenes and Gallifrey. Still there is more than enough of Gatiss in the story to make it the best written so far - he has an obvious love of the show and it is more than just a notch in his belt to him. I think the story was rather more than a little influenced by the classic The Talons of Weng-Chiang but it could only ever have been a third of the worth of that story given its brevity.
The three shows I have seen so far seems to point to some central problems with the new series. Why Cardiff? Well it is produced by BBC Wales... I suppose it's cheaper. And it looks as though Wales is going to be a consistent feature in the show. The fact that the crew have trouble standing up when the TARDIS is in flight is going to get very boring very fast. It's just immature slapstick. And once again the story seemed rushed. When the 45 minute format was pioneered in Season 22, they were all at least two part stories... I just can't understand the reasoning behind wanting to feature nine different stories in a single season. My suspicion is that the three two parters will seem much more rounded.
Grandmas and Zombies and Characters, Oh My! by David Massingham 24/10/05
The third episode of the latest season of Doctor Who sees the TARDIS landing in Cardiff 1869, right in the thick of a ghost-ridden Christmas Carol (is there any other kind?). The result is the most "traditional" 2005 Who so far, and also the best.
The stand-out scene of the entire story is certainly the first - a sensational atmospheric set piece, in which an elderly lady rises from the dead. It truly is an iconic moment, the sort of scene you can imagine inflicted many a sleepless night on children everywhere. The unearthly scream that echoes off into the title sequence is simply chilling, setting the mood for the story perfectly.
Although The Unquiet Dead never quite regains the lofty heights achieved in this teaser, it nonetheless remains a strong adventure, one which revels in its pure Doctor Who-i-ness. It features some lovely characters, creepy if somewhat unoriginal monsters, and a simple but effective plot. Its forty-five minute format is well used, but it was fast becoming clear by this point in the season that Doctor Who really does work better on a bigger canvas, allowing for more in depth stories.
For example, take the plot. It is basic (ghosts taking over the bodies of the dead), yet it is ably covered, and has a spark of originality to it in the use of gas in the storyline. However, it is the character development and interaction that gets most of the attention. Much of the narrative revolves around Charles Dickens' belief system, his attitude towards the fantastic and the unexplained. Seeing the man change his mindset over the course of the story is a joy to behold, the sort of subtle character development that makes good television so wonderful to watch.
In fact, The Unquiet Dead is in many ways one of the most successful stories of the 2005 season when it comes to character development and emotional exploration. Unlike later entries with their rather heavy-handed, unsubtle approaches (I'll review those stories soon...), The Unquiet Dead tackles its characters in a much more believable and entertaining way. Gwyneth's relationship with Rose is really quite lovely; seeing the bond form between the servant and the modern day teenager acts as a clever way to showcase the differences between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. We have some nice ideas gently pushed in our direction in regards to modern notions of what is prim and proper - see the conversation about Rose's "wild" nature. But again, these themes and ideas are not rammed down our throats (I hate being pandered to); rather, they are there to be taken on board if we wish it.
Rose and the Doctor's dynamic is again addressed. The Doctor's take on right and wrong is intriguing, particularly when contrasted to Rose's. "What? Not proper? Not polite? It could save their lives!" is a really biting line in a scene which shows Rose reacting with her heart and the Doctor reacting from his need to help a race he believes to be in peril. It is difficult to argue that either viewpoint is wrong as such, but it is again another interesting argument (admittedly pertaining to a rather fantastic situation), and gets us thinking that little bit more, thus dragging us into the drama.
For all this lovely character work, though, it must be said that Doctor Who is, for me, about the ambitious plots and ideas. The ideas are in this one, certainly, but I like to see a bigger story being told. This is not the fault of The Unquiet Dead itself or of writer Mark Gatiss, rather is a problem with the forty-five minute structure. As I have said in other reviews, I recognise that this structure is important in making the series more accessible to Joe Public, but I really do think that the show loses a little something as a result.
One other thing that rubs me the wrong way about the new series, and is bubbling under the surface in The Unquiet Dead, is the romantic angle. It is a very minor thing in this story, but I really don't see the point of throwing in a romantic relationship just for the hell of it, especially when it isn't what the show is about - it's about wonder and excitement and adventure. However, there are times when there is a deliberate attempt on the part of the programme makers to make us want the Doctor and Rose to get together. I don't watch this show for romance. It literally bores me. I'm happy to go watch Buffy for that sort of thing - Joss Whedon made it clear that romance was a fixture of the Buffyverse in the very first episode; meanwhile, Doctor Who was perfectly successful for twenty something years without traveling down the romantic path, aside from the Doc and Romana holding hands in City of Death, and a brief peck on the cheek in Terminus. I am far more interested in seeing exciting adventures in time and space.
I honestly don't see the point of cheesy dialogue like "I am sooo glad I met you" or "better with two". As I said, it is a minor point here, but it isn't so much in other stories. I know I sound like I'm moaning over nothing... in this particular instance it is simply a case of my own personal likes and dislikes coming into play, though I think it must be said that later on this season there are genuine problems that arise from this approach (again, more on that later...).
But this is a minor niggle in The Unquiet Dead. This is a damn strong entry into the Who universe, an entertaining and spooky ride in the nineteenth century. I haven't even mentioned that the cast are all superb, Murray Gold's music is actually quite good (maybe Rose was just a blip?), and Euros Lyn again proves himself as a good director (especially after Keith Boak's awful turn earlier). This story doesn't really have a huge re-watch value for some reason, but nonetheless I think that it is pretty hard to argue that this is not a successful adventure.
8.5 out of 10
A Review by Finn Clark 22/3/06
The Unquiet Dead may have problems, but I'm fond of it. On first broadcast I felt it was almost the best episode yet. Its story is weightier than Rose and The End of the World, which a critic could perhaps describe as characters in search of a plot. The Unquiet Dead is also something that the Eccleston series desperately needed as soon as possible... a scary episode. Okay, it's hardly terrifying, but some killer zombies are just what the Doctor ordered. It's hard to overestimate the importance of fear in the British public's memories of Doctor Who.
In particular I like The Unquiet Dead for its characters. Certain fans have attacked the new series for being "character-based", as if the classic series spent 26 years trying to be a Schwarzenegger movie. More precisely what's new is the unprecedented emotional focus on the Doctor and Rose, although I think it's also likely that those fans are confused and that their real complaints concern plotting. Let's shatter one fan myth right now... Russell T. Davies's new series stories are arguably less character-based than those of the other writers. He gives strong roles to the regulars, yes, but how many of his stories really do much with a non-returning character? If you discount returning characters , who can you even remember from a Russell T. Davies episode? There's Cassandra from The End of the World, Simon Pegg's Editor and, um... no, that's about it. Even then, the stories aren't about them.
 - although that's a horrible qualification.
On the other hand, the guest writers' stories were built around their casts. Dalek is about its Dalek. Father's Day is about Rose's father. Steven Moffat's two-parter is about Nancy and her brother. However The Unquiet Dead gives us three important characters, even if a lacklustre performance from Alan David sabotages one of them and effectively reduces the count to two.
In a sense, it's not unfair to draw a distinction between one-off characters and the regulars. There's more freedom with the former. The TARDIS crew's story arc is planned out, probably to the end of the season and beyond. On the other hand, one-off characters can get a complete, satisfying story within a single episode. The Unquiet Dead is a perfect example. Dickens and Gwyneth have emotional journeys, make important decisions and save the day. One dies. The other is redeemed. It's an actor's piece and those two actors step up to the plate and deliver.
Incidentally, The Unquiet Dead is the only story with no regulars but Eccleston and Piper. Half of the season starred Adam or Captain Jack Harkness, then another half had Mickey and/or Jackie Tyler. Even in The End of the World, Rose phones home. Eric Saward and JNT discovered the hard way that there wasn't room for four regulars in the TARDIS and I still think there's something in that... although if you regard Dickens as a one-story companion, here it's arguably a TARDIS crew of Eccleston, Piper and Callow.
One's attitude towards Dickens may be coloured by, well, one's attitude towards Dickens! Personally I'm a Dickens fanboy, possibly because I wasn't forced to read his books at school. That aside though, Simon Callow gives a proper performance in a role with some meat for him to sink his teeth into. As a footnote, let me observe that Callow delivers the kind of verbose theatrical dialogue that's been tripping up Doctor Who guest stars for decades, making it sound so natural for the character that you hardly even notice it.
Then there's Gwyneth (Eve Myles), who gets one of my favourite lines of the season... "You would say that miss, 'cos that's very clear inside your head: that you think I'm stupid." Until then, we'd mentally written off the character as a sweet but dumb maid (happy with her poor lot, ill-educated, religious to the point where Rose thinks she's practically deluded, etc.)... and then in one line Gatiss directly challenges what we were all thinking. Compare the heroic sacrifices in End of the World and Unquiet Dead. The former's was offscreen and almost throwaway, only gaining significance through the Doctor's reaction afterwards, but the latter gave its actress a strong scene to play.
I think Alan David fails as Gabriel Sneed the undertaker, though. You could have so much fun with that part... Sneed does staggeringly dodgy things and says things like "it's good for business". To all intents and purposes the man's a murderer. Gwyneth asks if he "took care" of an inconvenient customer, while later he locks Rose in to die at the hands of walking corpses. A corpse breaking Sneed's neck should have been richly deserved irony... but instead he's been played so blandly that you hardly notice.
Hmmm. I seem to have started criticising. Time for the big ones.
Big Problem #1: whatever happened to Mark Gatiss? I'm no fan of his novels, but he built his name on delicious black comedy with The League of Gentlemen. Why did he play this so safe? The Unquiet Dead isn't completely without jokes, but they're Dickens-fanboy puns or postmodern comments from Rose. If you hadn't read Gatiss's BBC books, you'd never guess that this was him. The rest of his TV work has such fun being sadistic that in contrast this looks bland.
Ironically given Dickens's presence, this story isn't Dickensian. On the contrary it's oddly straight-faced, never letting its hair down or revelling in its characters' quirks. In fact of all the Doctor Who TV stories set in Victorian England, this one:
In fairness The Unquiet Dead is portraying a drabber world. Talons of Weng-Chiang was a luscious grab-bag of Victorian cliche. Ghost Light was a haunted house. The Unquiet Dead is set in a Cardiff morgue. Nevertheless compare these theatre scenes with their equivalents in Talons... the latter were vibrant, practically reeking of greasepaint. In contrast The Unquiet Dead seems more interested in showing how much they spent on hiring extras.
It's not a new series thing, though. The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances look gorgeous.
Becoming positive again, there are little things I like about The Unquiet Dead. Is this the first gaseous life form we've seen in the TV series? I liked that and on rewatching I even realised that despite appearances everything makes perfect sense! The Gelth are gas creatures, so they breathe and eat gas. They possess corpses because they need the gases produced during decomposition, so flooding the atmosphere with gas sucks them back out again. "They eat gas". That was all anyone had to say. Personally I think the pseudo-science behind this story is pretty nifty.
I liked the Dickens fanboy aspect, especially the Doctor's gushing in the coach. These are genuinely literate jokes, stealing from the likes of Oscar Wilde. I also liked the development of the Time War backstory, which after only three stories had already provoked my imagination more than a gazillion BBC Books on a similar subject. We also get the season's spookiest Bad Wolf reference.
Incidentally the new series is doing something unknown since Hartnell's era, except oddly in Season 22. Colin Baker met George Stephenson and H.G. Wells, but unless you count the Rani's kidnappees in Time and the Rani then I don't think we've seen the Doctor meet a real historical figure since The Gunfighters. (The King's Demons comes close, though.) What's more I hear that the 10th Doctor is set to meet another historical personage, so this clearly isn't just a flash in the pan.
Overall I really like this story. It's disappointing in some major ways, but I appreciate Gwyneth and Charles Dickens. It surprised me when other fans didn't like it as much as I did on first viewing and a rewatch didn't substantially change my opinion. For his next script I'd like to see Mark Gatiss unfurl his wings a bit, though.
A Review by Brian May 15/3/10
The Unquiet Dead gets my vote as the most enjoyable romp of the 2005 series. It's a thoroughly entertaining and undemanding ride. Not only is it written in the spirit of the classic series, but thanks to Mark Gatiss, with novels and audio credits to his name, there are strong echoes of Doctor Who's progression during the non-TV interim. It's easy to imagine this starting off as a Big Finish, along the lines of his excellent Phantasmagoria. But then it would have been twice as long, and I can't really imagine it sustaining such a duration. As it is, the episode is a good example of 45 minutes as a standard running time (which The End of the World was not). The story is a lovely little pseudo-historical that maintains a well-realised atmosphere, the right amount of suspense and some genuinely creepy moments. While it has its high-budget-effects-oriented action scenes, there's also a strong character focus. For instance, Gwyneth talking about her visions of the twentieth century is far more frightening than the zombie rampage at the climax. Indeed, the scene when everyone is seated round having tea is quite remarkable for the new series; it's one of the longest talking sequences I can recall from recent years, and is all the better for it.
Christopher Eccleston is just fantastic, going from strength to strength. His ninth Doctor is a veritable dynamo; reacting to a scream with "That's more like it!" sums him up to a tee. Billie Piper continues her strong run as Rose, dispelling once and for all any initial worries of celebrity stunt-casting, and Eve Myles gives a very sympathetic performance as Gwyneth, emphasising the young girl's tragic circumstances. But Simon Callow is the star of The Unquiet Dead. If scene-stealing were a crime, he'd be guilty of grand larceny! He pilfers every second of screen time he occupies, never once resorting to overacting or scenery chewing. He's a delight to watch. Every scene between Callow and Eccleston is a joy, as their interplay is electrifying. The Doctor telling the author he's his biggest fan is hilarious; the Time Lord becomes pedantic fanboy (Martin Chuzzlewit being padded) in a sly, unsubtle nod to the fan critic, i.e. us. But it's very funny and not at all unfounded. Such postmodern winks became tiresome very quickly during 1990s fiction, but that's not the case here. Perhaps the excitement and freshness of new, on-screen Who validates it this time around? I'm not exactly sure. Or perhaps it's just genuinely funny?
There's lots of smashing dialogue. Fans either love or hate "What the Shakespeare is going on?" For the record, I adore it! Gatiss's nod to his aforementioned Phantasmagoria passes my fanwank test: those in the know will understand the reference; the rest aren't any worse off and would simply appreciate a good line. I can also empathise with the Doctor's despair at the thought of dying in Cardiff. Don't get me wrong, I've been there myself and it's a lovely city, but not epitaph inspiring! I also like the continued emphasis on the Doctor as an alien, especially the examination of his "different morality". For example, how he condones the recycling of corpses for the Gelth. For when you look at it, it's a very logical, environmentally conscious thing to do!
Overall this is an enjoyable story. There's very little to complain about; I felt that Dickens's final word on Christmas is rather twee, but that's about it. The closing scenes are nicely done; the knowledge the writer will die the following year is very sad, even when you reality check yourself and remember that of course the real Charles Dickens died over a century ago. But yes, Callow is that good; so too Eccleston and Piper in their reactions. Doctor Who's revival is coming along very nicely, thank you very much. 8.5/10
It's a different morality, get used to it! by Evan Weston 28/3/13
The Unquiet Dead is not an easy story to review. That's not to say it's not an easy story to watch - it actually goes down really smoothly. The setting is immersive, the performances are pretty good overall, the villains are at least intriguing... so why is this such a difficult story to talk about?
Well, I don't really like it that much. And I'm not sure why.
I mentioned the setting. If you thought The End of the World was convincing, wait until you get a piece of 1869 Cardiff. I understand that it's a way easier environment to convey than its predecessor and the BBC has a particularly deep closet for period pieces, but its absolutely terrific nonetheless. The undertaker's house is appropriately creepy, and fits the time period nicely. The costumes look great, especially the one Rose drags out from the TARDIS wardrobe. Even the "ghosts" help out the uneasy Victorian feel.
The performances are also solid. For once, Billie Piper isn't the standout; that would be Simon Callow channeling, well, Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. Callow is absolutely perfect for the part, and is in fact a Dickens enthusiast, so you can imagine how much fun he had playing his favorite author. His arc is really wonderful and, though he's a bit superfluous to the actual plot, Dickens is the most endearing character in the story. Certainly more endearing than Eve Myles' Gwyneth, who isn't quite actively annoying but never garners much in the way of sympathy either. Alan David turns in a decent performance as Sneed, the nasty undertaker.
Christopher Eccleston gets very little to do in this episode, and yet he's still very good. His two best scenes show off his impressive range. You totally buy that Eccleston the actor loves Charles Dickens during the "number one fan" speech, which is at turns hilarious and adorable. And yet, he displays extreme regret and disappointment when he's about to be killed alongside Rose. So much loss of life falls on his shoulders throughout this run, and its touching to see Eccleston feel so defeated. His "I'm so glad I've met you" to Rose was impossibly charming, and my favorite moment of the episode.
The villains? While not nearly as top-notch as Cassandra and her spiders from The End of the World, the Gelth are an interesting foe. I didn't realize until I re-watched the episode that when the Gelth enter a living body, it dies and can't come back (Sneed and Gwyneth both meet this fate); that's pretty creepy. And though it's fairly obvious that they're going to end up being evil at the end, there's a moment where the Gelth feel like a decent Steven Moffat villain, not all bad but just misunderstood. Of course, this is Davies-era Who, so forget that.
So I love the setting, I love Simon Callow, and I like the Gelth - so what's the rub? Why don't I really like The Unquiet Dead? The answer probably lies in Mark Gatiss' script. Not the specific writing itself, as there are some really crackling one-liners ("Nobody calls me Charlie"), but the overall story. It's just... kind of boring. I'm sorry, but it is. Doctor and Rose go to 1869, dead people are walking, turns out there are gas creatures, said creatures end up being evil, a house blows up. Everyone goes home happy, except the dead people, who are dead. There just isn't much here in the way of imagination, and that's what Who does best. Everything here seems fairly derivative, and I think the story could use more in the way of originality. Maybe that's a personal thing, I don't know.
Regardless of how I feel towards it, The Unquiet Dead is technically sound. Great production design, one of the better historical acting jobs the show has seen from Simon Callow, and a nice creepy feel. It still ends up being one of the weaker stories of Series 1, which is a shame. There's a feeling that more could be mined from this story.
"The letter or the spirit" by Thomas Cookson 16/2/17
At the time it seemed conclusive. RTD had gotten well and truly outdone by his own guest writer.
This was certainly better television than the preceding two episodes and closer to the Who revival we all wanted. Namely one that picked up where The Talons of Weng-Chiang left off.
However, the cult of Russell was already manifesting here, ready to praise New Who not for its merits, but how many Classic aspects neurotic fanboys still felt absurdly ashamed about, and which RTD threw under the bus to destroy the show's potential nerdish stigma and pander to the philistine zeitgeist.
Even here, in Victoriana, Eccleston wasn't allowed to don the Doctor's traditional Edwardian attire for fear audiences who shopped at Top Shop wouldn't relate to him anymore. DWM couldn't resist claiming this was a better version of Talons without the rat.
Resetting Doctor Who to year zero and even nuking Gallifrey I was fine with. But this approach pandered to a very fannish, negative sense of perpetual dissatisfaction and shame. Which is antithetical to Classic Who's open-minded wonder. But exasperated fan shame toward Classic Who birthed a tendency to declare anyone 'sad' for not thinking RTD's Who the only Doctor Who we needed now.
Perhaps this fannish anxiety about the show's public stigma had grown in the Wilderness years because we'd missed the boat on a 90's Doctor Who revival, which might have actually had the same nostalgic appeal as Thunderbirds reruns. Back when the lingering recession meant people had a more frugal, recycling mindset and looked back to happier times and the jazzy upbeat shows we once made.
By 1999, we ran out of excuses for Season 7's repeat run getting disastrous ratings. People had become more affluent, aspirational and hedonistic, like a cheap carbon copy of American culture. Less inclined to take patriotic pride in our old classics or even take the remastered best of Classic Who seriously when The Matrix clearly had better effects and faster pacing.
Perhaps this shocked fans, and RTD himself, into realising the show had drastically lost its modern interest. Fandom became more apologetic about Classic Who. Praising that over the 'better', more popular new series, or suggesting it deserved another repeat run for curious new fans, became unfashionably laughable.
Ironically, the fans who might appreciate Eccleston's Doctor weren't the 'casuals' but the hardcore ones who'd been reading the EDA's and saw echoes of that Doctor in Eccleston's more thuggish, nihilistic portrayal, even in Eccleston's most obnoxiously inane moments of performance when not having a strong script to react against.
As far as I'm concerned, The Unquiet Dead was one of the few Eccleston episodes where the quality genuinely lay, and it helps that Eccleston's performed previously in Thomas Hardy's Jude and perhaps respects this story's similar historical territory.
It's teaser opener is brilliant, taking a quiet moment before having the frail grandmother's corpse turn into a deadly, uncontainable force of nature, overpowering all others. With the sense of equilibrium shattered, this was clearly going to be an unpredictable 45 minutes indeed.
I like Rose's chat about Christmas being perpetually revisitable, but with the story later emphasising Rose's distrust of the Doctor, it'd be nice to see more echoes here of her lingering discomfort about witnessing Cassandra's death.
Charles Dickens gets a lovely introductory scene that nicely assumes the audience's patience, allowing for quieter moments and chances to savour the setting properly. Perhaps this was before RTD became more controlling and interfering and demanding everything be faster and made more exciting to prevent viewers switching over.
We get a real sense of Dickens' long-lived life and accumulated personal demons, his fearing getting old and rigid and not so open to new ideas. Which reflects nicely the Victorian setting and its repressive ingrained views. I love how this makes the past come authentically alive and how Callow inhabits the life of a man before our time.
I loved his performance reading of A Christmas Carol to an enthralled audience, hanging on every word, recreating the days when audiences waited patiently to savour their entertainment. Callow's performance captures the careful delicacy of Dickens' atmospheric prose.
The interruption by the Gelth is what really drew me in to the question of how the Doctor is ever going to contain these ethereal flying spectres who can fly beyond his reach and possess anyone. Rose being chloroformed and abducted, then awakening trapped in a room with two zombies, was the icing on the cake that really kept me on my toes at how so much more was already happening here than in the previous two stories combined. Just as we think the Doctor will open the door in time, the zombies are already grabbing her.
I also really like the premise of Dickens, at the end of his life, coming to discover the cusp of the wider universe beyond. Initially, he's obtuse and dismissive of what appears to be high fantasy illusionist nonsense. There's an idealist notion here of Dickens as the social realist writer who wanted to bring harsh truths and real injustices to everyone's attention, and there's a poignance to his despair at the thought he might not only have the world wrong, but be too late in his life to learn everything about the universe anew.
There's a nice female bonding moment between Rose and Gwyneth as they share dishwashing duties, and Rose gets the measure of the maid's inferiority complex and exploited vulnerability. The moment Gwyneth starts reading her mind is still riveting, and harkens nicely back to Enlightenment.
It also nicely turns Rose's modern notions on their head. She thinks Gwyneth would be happier in her more secular, liberated time, living as a freer woman, encouraged to be more rebellious, sexually confident and value and think for herself more. This was pertinent at the time when the media was making the British youth more aware and incensed over other cultures' horrific, spirit-crushing oppression of women, particularly in Islamic communities. To the point I'm surprised it didn't drive us all to years of despair to imagine. It certainly did to me.
But I guess that goes both ways as when Gwyneth sees Rose's time in her mind, it remains still an unappealing, alienating, threatening culture to her. The point being that you can't simply change someone's cultural beliefs or just assume your culture is better than one that emphasises more conservative modesty and dignity. Which is a little sad, considering how RTD and his fans were reinvoking the 'virginal' fan stereotype to dismiss and belittle his critics for having apparently lived a less 'cool', less hedonistic lifestyle.
Perhaps in The End of Time, RTD intended Rassilon's plan to have his people transcend physical form as a callback to the Gelth. The bluff setup of the Gelth as misunderstood innocents is actually well done, as they appear in an enchanting light show. We've already suspected the worst of their intent, but once we learn they're a dying species calling for help we've been moved past that suspicion phase. It instantly gives the Doctor call to trust and pity them and do what he can to save them.
Some have tried to claim his misjudgement and misplaced sympathies are no different to Davison's in Warriors of the Deep, as if to give the latter validity as supposedly more clever and sophisticated than we think.
I can't spot any moment of realisation or catharsis in Davison whilst he's gassing the Sea Devil footsoldiers yet determinedly saving their twisted warmongering leader who led them all to their deaths. But Paul Cornell's anti-Pertwee backlash seemingly instructed fans to try preferring Warriors of the Deep's desecration of Malcolm Hulke's classics, just for Pertwee's absence.
Only years after has it struck me that Rose's horror at the Gelth's plan is down to her thinking of her dead father. In Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor was equally horrified at Davros' use of corpses to cure galactic famine.
However, all the deaths he saw in the Time War have changed him. Now survival and the preservation of life is too important to him, whatever the cost, whatever measures need taking. Having lost his own people, he must've borne a chip on his shoulder about plentiful options for survival that were squandered, hence why he has no patience for Rose's reactionary views based on trite politeness over the value of life.
Mike Morris has griped at why such challenging moments like this disappeared after Eccleston left. He cited Partners in Crime for how comparatively conservative the Doctor and the show had become by then, although that's not the best example of comparison since the Adipose were using live humans with clear procedural risks of death, and surely any law the Doctor should hold sacrosanct is medical ethics.
Honestly, it's more modern feminism than conservatism that happened to the show. RTD always had an agenda to turn the series into chick-flick material. Hence the greater emphasis on destiny and pandering to the horoscope-reading demographic. Chick flicks are about affirming female faults and quirks as being always cute and somehow never as malignant as man's faults. It's key to why from hereon the female companion is apparently never wrong again, and the Doctor's always somehow on the cusp of being dangerous and needing correcting.
A show that downplays female malignancy (and wouldn't dare do otherwise) likewise pretends people overall aren't so bad or evil if we get them in touch with their feminine side. Hence New Who villains being so weak.
But soon hundreds of Gelth swarm the room, turning demonic, killing Sneed to possess his cadaver, suggesting they intend the same for the rest of mankind.
I can possibly understand where Lawrence Miles is coming from when he saw a fear-mongering anti-immigration message here, because I felt somewhat the same way about The Apocalypse Element's second cliffhanger. But his repeated snooty assertions that the story was only preferred by fans for its traditional Victorian setting and darker lighting, over RTD's oversaturated, cartoonish vision, were dirt-stupid.
It's not stylistics that make this good, but full-blooded characters with history. How the story inhabits its setting and hones the season's journey of human history and where we're going. I'd say it's optimistic in ways bitter Lawrence could never appreciate.
However, I do think the story's sold short by its restrictive runtime that doesn't allow this hurricane predicament to spread. I think the story's missing something from the omitting of a planned scene where the Doctor takes Rose to an alternate 2005 where the Gelth zombies have conquered all.
Instead, they hide behind some gates, which really does neuter the drama and put the threat on hold for apparently as long as the writer needs to pen a touching moment between them. Suddenly this story becomes all too stagey, and the Doctor's realisation of impending doom doesn't convince me. He's been in worse scrapes than this, and I still just don't get his sudden moronic snobbery about Cardiff.
But Dickens' plan to bravely re-enter danger and turn up the gas is intelligent and redeems his previous cowardice. Gwyneth's sacrifice is very hard-hitting, from having known her as a real person and how fragile she seems at the end. A glimpse of hope that her essence has survived just before it's snuffed out by her death. Was it her last vestiges of consciousness or a Gelth exposed to her conscience? Rose's line "She saved the world and no-one even noticed" is especially poignant.
Despite the downer, Dickens' upbeat goodbye does work without jarring. It's clearly been a life-affirming, refreshing experience for him. It's also touching when he bravely asks about the future appreciation of his work, and the Doctor tells him what he wants to hear. I even loved the snow sprinkles falling from the Tardis windowsills as a visually magic moment. It was a nice icing on a mis-scheduled Christmas special that was better than any of the proper ones. Overall, a delicately rich story indeed.
The Christmas Invasion by Jason A. Miller 14/4/21
I vividly remember the first time I watched The Unquiet Dead. I was in the middle of wedding planning and paused my watching of the file download twice, in order to call my best man and another member of my wedding party. Thanks to the interruptions, I watched the first half of the episode in my old Brooklyn apartment, and the second in the new Manhattan apartment I'd just moved into with my future wife, scant weeks before the wedding.
I guess it doesn't speak well of the episode that I can remember more about what I was doing when I first watched it in 2005 than what I thought about it at the time.
Well, that's not entirely true. I remember learning of Charles Dickens' short-story "The Signalman" from this episode and read a PDF of that story the same night as Unquiet Dead originally aired. So that was something positive. Other than that, this is an episode about which I've thought very little in the intervening 14 years.
But what I could not have known at the time was how much The Unquiet Dead was going to prefigure the rest of the Russell T. Davies era. There is a lot here that is more remarkable in hindsight than it was on premiere night. This is the first Christmas episode; going forward, there would be annual Christmas specials for the next 13 years. This one has all the frothy trappings of an Xmas special: big celebrity guest spot, fairly slight story, and umpteen mentions of Xmas, followed by one character's avowal to become a better person starting that very day. It's just that it aired in April, not December, almost as if RTD didn't yet realize that he could actually have Xmas Day as part of his on-air schedule.
And that's not all, of course. None of us knew that Eve Myles was going to go on and anchor Torchwood (or, indeed, that there would even be a Torchwood), dealing with the same time rift in Cardiff introduced in this story. None of us knew that Gwyneth's reference to the big bad wolf -- the second straight episode to feature the "bad wolf" phrase -- was an intentional part of the season-long thread. It's surprising in retrospect that Mark Gatiss was the writer of this episode, not Russell T. Davies.
Apart from all that, though, The Unquiet Dead is a bit jarring to watch today. This is an episode with a very slanted moral stance. Sneed kidnaps Rose with chloroform, but within a few more minutes is treated well by the rest of the cast, until he's killed towards the end. The Doctor uncritically accepts the Gelth's story as true -- that's his PTSD from the Time War, he's completely guilt-wracked and chooses to believe that they're victims, as he believes himself to be a victim. Past Doctors were rarely duped so readily, nor would future Doctors be fooled like that. And, along the same lines, the Doctor pushing Gwyneth into agreeing to act as a channel for the Gelth through the rift, winds up killing the poor girl. After he announces to Rose that Gwyneth died immediately, even though she was speaking and in fact committing a noble self-sacrifice after that moment of her supposed death (our second noble self-sacrifice by the lead female guest star in as many episodes), I was left to wonder if the Doctor was actually telling the truth, there. Did he actually lose his nerve, let her commit suicide in his place, and lie about the precise timing of her death?
So the hero here isn't actually saving many lives. And it's Charles Dickens who figures out how to dispatch the bad guys (and isn't even offered a lift in the TARDIS as consolation prize thereafter...).
Simon Callow is riveting, though, as this episode's main guest star, and, in fact, actual hero. Gatiss writes for him very cleverly, threading in multiple Dickens quotes, and both he and director Euros Lyn stage a nice moment where Dickens sees the ghostly Gelth wraiths emerging through a doorknocker -- the same way Dickens had described Scrooge seeing Jacob Marley's ghost earlier in the episode. Dicken's renewed love for life at the end of the story consciously echoes A Christmas Carol (the actual one, not the later Doctor Who episode of the same name). Dickens asking "What the Shakespeare?!" after a strange occurrence is still laugh-out-loud funny.
I enjoyed watching The Unquiet Dead again, for the first time since before Torchwood premiered, for the first time since the Xmas specials became an annual tradition (and then went away). However, it was a strange episode, with a lot of Davies' ideas seemingly grafted over Gatiss's script. The Xmas setting was a nice touch, and how clever that Rose doesn't care that the TARDIS got the year wrong or the locale wrong... until she learns that they're in Cardiff. Callow makes a fine guest star, and Gatiss does well with the Dickens references. But the 9th Doctor is, for the second week in a row, a severely flawed hero. Eccleston does a great job lurking in the background of scenes before bursting in and taking over (such as when Dickens is inspecting the corpses for wires or when Gwyneth is reading Rose's mind), but his Doctor is a completely useless hero. We know, looking back, that Rose is going to help change all that and that the 9th Doctor will eventually be "fantastic" but... it is hard to imagine that the series survived these episodes and went on to run for as long as it eventually has. Because, Eccleston notwithstanding, this early 9th Doctor is not somebody that most of us would want to be stuck with, in the present, the future, or the past ...