The new Doctor Who continues to explore its range and test the old series’ strengths. One of those strengths was period drama, especially Victorian drama. Among the best Doctor Who stories, Talons of Weng Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock, Evil of the Daleks and Ghostlight all have Victorian or Edwardian settings. There’s something about the gaslight that fits with Doctor Who; likely it’s the gothic appearance fitting in with the old series’ gothic pacing.
So it was only a matter of time for the new series to take a step back to Victorian England. The Unquiet Dead is a direct attempt to win over some of the series’ old fans while continuing to build a new fan base. Does the gaslight setting fit with Doctor Who’s new breakneck pace? Mostly.
After taking Rose to the end of the world, the Doctor decides to go back in time to Naples, Christmas 1860. His unreliable TARDIS instead plants them in 1869 (“that’s okay,” says Rose), and not in Naples (“that’s okay,” says Rose) but in Cardiff (which, for some reason, is not okay, but it’s good for a moment of humour). A depressed Charles Dickens (Simon Callow), near the end of his life, is giving a half-hearted reading of A Christmas Carol when a very real spectre shows up in the audience and makes everybody clear out (in a surprisingly orderly fashion). Of course the Doctor and Rose investigate, and immediately get in trouble.
A local undertaker named Mr. Sneed (Alan David) and his psychic servant girl Gwyneth (Eve Myles) are at the root of the problem. Gaseous spirits are reanimating his corpses and running them amok through Cardiff. When Sneed kidnaps Rose because she knows too much, the Doctor and Dickens chase them down to the funeral home, where the Doctor realizes that the “spirits” are actually alien manifestations from a localized time rift, and the skeptical Dickens gets his mind thoroughly blown.
The Unquiet Dead is the first episode of the new series not written by Russell T. Davies. Mark Gatiss gives us some good characterizations from Dickens and Gwyneth and some great interplay between the TARDIS crew (who are still having too much fun for their own good), but aspects of the script do not hold together. For instance, what the heck is Mr. Sneed’s motivation? He seems consumed with trying to keep the spectral manifestations out of the public eye — and he goes about this by cloroforming Rose when she gets too inquisitive. Just how is that going to help him keep the secret? What are his reasons, other than just moving the plot along? I’ll forgive him because he may not be thinking rationally after dealing with the manifestations for three months, but only just.
Likewise, Dickens is well written and well played, but is basically thrown into the situation by authorial fiat. The Doctor and Rose don’t even set out to take in one of his performances, which would have been sufficient explanation for me as to why he’s there. The debate between faith in the otherworld and Dickens’ rational skepticism is well played, but feels tacked on.
Making up for these flaws is the acting. There isn’t a poor performance in the lot (though I had to chuckle at just how orderly the theatre cleared out when the spectre manifested itself among the audience. People just sort of looked at the cadaver, went “oh, dear. We’re in a Doctor Who episode; everybody head for the exits in an orderly fashion”, and that was that), and Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper both find themselves at the top of a heap of talent.
Pay close attention to the facial expressions of the Doctor and Rose in this episode. Eccleston and Piper do a fantastic job in conveying a range of thoughts and emotions, not by what they say, but what they don’t say. When the Time Wars get mention (again), Rose looks over at the Doctor as if to say “that again. This is your doing, isn’t it?”, while the Doctor looks very contrite and guilty. This moment allows me to forgive the Doctor for falling too easily for the aliens’ ploy. They played him; they played on his guilt and he fell for it.
Another moment of great facial expression comes from Rose near the climax when the Doctor escapes from the burning funeral home, and Gwyneth doesn’t. It is a great mixture of sadness and accusation. The Doctor’s expression when he’s about to send the alien spectres away, telling Gwyneth to get out and save herself, is also great. You knew, for a moment there before he realized that Gwyneth was dead already, that he was about to take the matches and blow up the house himself.
Gwyneth and Rose get an excellent scene together where we get a good idea of the depth of Gwyneth’s abilities. The way she’s able to read Rose’s mind is creepily presented, and sets up a number of elements that should be followed later this season — including the death of Rose’s father, and just who the “big bad wolf” is in Rose’s mind.
I also should compliment the director, Euros Lyn, who gives us some genuine scares with a few small details and a minimum of gore. The old chestnut of a corpse opening its eyes is predictable, but the subtle way that the eyes of the corpses have been altered makes these moments creepy. I also, thanks to Mark Gatiss’ writing and Lyn’s directing, fell for the plot twist, coming around just as Lyn intended, with a deepening sense of dread that something which looked so right was going completely wrong. The alternately angelic and demonic appearance of the alien Geith were effective, and I liked the suggestion of angel wings around Gwyneth at the very end.
The Unquiet Dead builds up the new series’ continuity while sending back feelers to the old. The explanation for Gwyneth’s psychic abilities and the spectral manifestations is lifted directly from the original series’ Image of the Fendahl. And to Mark Gatiss’ credit, the links to the original series are designed in such a way that old fans can appreciate them, while new viewers can skip over them entirely and appreciate the show on its own merits.
I would call The Unquiet Dead a success, even though it had flaws that The End of the World didn’t have. And I still mourn the loss of the gothic pace of the old series. Too much happens too fast in The Unquiet Dead, such that I don’t have time to savour the richness of the script and the depth of the characters. And I’m not the only person to notice this.
By the old series’ format, the first three episodes of the new series have been two-parters. I believe they’ve all had four-parts worth of plot crammed into them. A lot of plot developments and character decisions end up as coincidence and authorial fiat as a result, covered up only by the effective direction and the fact the author doesn’t give us too much time to think things through. But I suspect that Russell T. Davies has made a judgement call: to focus on the series’ balance of horror and humour rather than a slow, suspenseful pace as the link to the original series that makes the new series Doctor Who. And though this makes the new series feel less like Doctor Who for me, I think he’s right that the new format is key to winning the program a new audience.
I can’t step away without mentioning the ending, however, which singlehandedly justifies Dickens’ inclusion in the script. At once sad and heartwarming, Simon Callow punches up the closing moments with echoes of Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. The lines he uses are predictable, but only because nothing else could possibly have fit.
The Unquiet Dead marks the first test of the new Doctor Who over whether writers other than producer Russell T. Davies could maintain the quality and the feel of the show, and whatever qualms I have, I believe it succeeds. So far this show has made us laugh, taken our breath away and, now, scared the pants off us. One wonders what the show will do to us next.