Having demonstrated the TARDIS’ ability to fast-forward through the pages of future history, the Doctor takes Rose into the past – Cardiff, Wales, on Christmas Eve, 1869 to be precise. Before the time travelers can immerse themselves in this time period, however, they encounter something very much out of place – a sign of alien interference in Earth’s history. A recital of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens himself is brought to a halt by a walking corpse who exhales some kind of gaseous being into the theater. While the Doctor tries to make contact with the gas creature, Rose follows a local undertaker who retrieves the corpse – and winds up being kidnapped in the process. The Doctor and Charles Dickens give chase, eventually finding the undertaker’s place of business and discovering that he is doing his best to contain the alien threat with the help of a psychic girl. The Doctor suggests establishing a more firm contact with these beings, but doing so could unravel Earth’s timeline.
written by Mark Gatiss
directed by Euros Lyn
music by Murray Gold
Guest Cast: Alan David (Gabriel Sneed), Huw Rhys (Redpath), Jennifer Hill (Mrs. Peace), Eve Myles (Gwyneth), Simon Callow (Charles Dickens), Wayne Cater (Stage Manager), Meic Povey (Driver), Zoe Thorne (The Gelth)
Notes: Writer Mark Gatiss was one of the driving forces behind the popular comedy series The League Of Gentlemen, but also wrote several Doctor Who novels, starting with the New Adventures book “Nightshade” in 1992. As an actor, Gatiss has also gotten in on the Time Lord’s travels (sort of) – he took the part of an old enemy with a new disguise in the Doctor Who Unbound audio play Sympathy For The Devil in 2003, acting under the anagrammatical pseudonym of “Sam Kisgart”. With his League of Gentlement cohorts, Gatiss also provided “additional Vogon voices” for the feature film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Reviews by Philip R. Frey & Earl Green
LogBook entry by Earl Green
Earl’s Review: What starts out as a deceptively lightweight romp into history quickly turns into a creepy – but still lightweight – exercise in a historical horror story. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a historical setting in Doctor Who again, and it’s a treat to see it executed as beautifully as was done here, bringing Christmas to Cardiff in late summertime. On the other hand, as fun as it is, from a storytelling standpoint, The Unquiet Dead can’t seem to decide if it’s about Charles Dickens or the Gelth, a race of gaseous entities who can inhabit and reanimate human corpses as new host bodies. Either one would’ve been interesting on their own, but Dickens plus the Gelth seem to be trying to elbow each other out of the spotlight in 45 minutes. Simon Callow makes for a great Dickens, and it’s fun to see the Doctor completely star-struck for once, though when that admiration gives way to almost-crass condescension (Telling Charles Dickens to shut up?! Wasn’t it out-of-place enough when he said that to Rose in the first episode?), the Dickens side of things fades into the background and we deal with the more supernatural story. This is actually a case where the series’ old format of four 25-minute episodes might have given both the Dickens and Gelth angles the time and space they both needed to develop properly.
The Unquiet Dead has all the makings of a great classic Who story – a historical figure playing a part in the proceedings, a scary ghost/possession/seance story with all the hallmarks of classic “black magic” stories from the series’ past, and a great setting – but despite some sparkling dialogue, for the second episode in a row, I feel like the story’s been rushed. The Unquiet Dead leaves me a bit ambivalent as a single-episode story, but it could’ve been marvelous as a two-parter.
Philip’s Review: The Unquiet Dead sees the new Doctor Who visit a place and time that, for many, is practically synonymous with the BBC: the Victorian Era. And Christmastime, no less. Even if it is in Cardiff.
Basically, what we have here is an old-fashioned ghost story, Doctor Who style. The show has historically taken a skeptical view of ghosts, but The Unquiet Dead does its best to work them into the Doctor’s logical worldview. The plot itself is actually an interesting take and provides a unique look at how and why ghosts would manifest themselves in the way they do. For once, the 45-minute format works as well. Since the story is so straightforward, any more might seem like padding. There are more references to the ‘Time War’ that has impacted the Doctor so heavily and this begins to make the series feel more like one big thirteen-part story rather than thirteen individual episodes. Will every alien we meet be connected to or aware of this ‘Time War’? Will we get no stories that aren’t tied to it?
Rose, again, actually does very little in The Unquiet Dead. She’s there to be kidnapped, almost killed and rescued. (She seems to be good at that.) She is given the opportunity for some meaningful exchanges, but none of them have the slightest bit of impact on the story. (Also, the big “what Doctor Who is all about” speech that seemingly crops up every week this time goes to Rose.) There seems to be little left of the “Buffy-style” heroine that Russell T. Davies used to talk about.
To be honest, I thought that it would be hard for me to like the Doctor less than I already did given his behavior in The End of the World, but The Unquiet Dead does a good job of taking an unlikable person and making me loathe him. Every twist of the plot, every move that he makes is utterly wrong. His basic sense of disrespect for humanity in general (and those he is with specifically) blinds him at every turn. The most famous quote from this episode seems to be the Doctor’s “It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home.” It’s strange to see people of the Victorian Era portrayed as being generally more open to other’s ideas than the Doctor is. Besides his attitude, his basic intelligence seems to have faltered, as any novice should have been able to recognize the ghosts’ true nature, yet the Doctor fails to grasp it, leading to more deaths.
The Unquiet Dead does feature the best supporting cast so far. This is helped in no small measure by keeping the cast relatively small. Both Eve Myles as Gwyneth and Alan David as Sneed offer convincing portrayals of Victorian-era people, without cheapening them by either portraying their point-of-view as silly or imbuing them with unrealistic modern values.
And so a word about Charles Dickens, as played by Simon Callow. I am not a fan of using real historical figures in these types of stories. There’s always a sense that the writer is simply presenting the figure as they wish they had been. Callow himself has said that the portrayal is particularly good (and he has studied Dickens extensively), but it is difficult to believe that Dickens would be so cavalier about the deaths that occur, not only on their own, but by the direct result of The Doctor’s interference. He seems too darned jolly at the end. Still, Callow portrays the complex Dickens well, with the appropriate levels of humor and gravity.
The effects in The Unquiet Dead work mostly because, like Rose, there aren’t a lot of them. The ‘ghost’ effects are strong and evocative, but the walking dead are a bit cheesy. I kept expecting them to break into the refrain from “Thriller”. Other than that, it proves that no one does the Victorian Era like the BBC. From the costumes to the sets, it is utterly successful in portraying the intended time frame.
Ultimately, it’s hard to decide what to make of a story like The Unquiet Dead. If it were a standalone tale of an unknown time traveler, I suppose I’d find it easier to take and the positives would outweigh the negatives. But the Doctor was never as heartless as he has been portrayed in this series so far, nor was he as didactic and single-minded as he is portrayed here. He brooks no disagreements, even when the most inexperienced of observers could see he’s making the wrong decision. This is, no doubt, more of Davies’ attempt to make the Doctor a more dynamic, feeling character. But it doesn’t feel right to me. The Doctor should have learned the kind of life lessons Davies seems to be trying to teach him long, long ago. Episodes like The Unquiet Dead, despite the quality that is to be found in them, make me look all the more forward to the coming of the Tenth Doctor and, hopefully, a different approach.