Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead (2005) Review

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Your average season of “Doctor Who” usually kicks off with a loose trilogy of episodes set in the past, present and future to ease the audience into the show’s time travel premise. It’s a pretty simple and effective formula that has endured throughout the revival (beyond the RTD era), and I always enjoy the fun and wonder of a companion’s first few trips in the TARDIS. Of the three establishing episodes we’ve had so far in Series 1, “The Unquiet Dead” is the best one of the bunch, and arguably the first great episode of the season. It irons out a few of the wrinkles from the last two episodes: the pacing is even more laidback and slow-burning than it was in “The End Of The World“, allowing for plenty of nice character-building moments; the CGI is used sparingly and it’s always rendered well whenever it’s employed; and while the last two trips had a strong focus on the Doctor and Rose, “The Unquiet Dead” is more of an ensemble episode. An enjoyably quiet and small story centered around a company of five that gives all of it’s players their time to shine.

It’s a bit surprising that Mark Gatiss contributed one of the best episodes of the first season, since he doesn’t have the most stellar reputation among the fandom. I don’t believe Mark Gatiss is a bad writer, but I do think his track record in NuWho is pretty hit-and-miss. Mark noticeably likes to embrace all the tropes, trappings and conventions of whatever genre he’s handling when he sits down to write a Doctor Who episode: “Victory Of The Daleks” is a campy, larger-than-life parody of a World War II movie, filled with plenty of British pride about the war efforts during their darkest hour; “Night Terrors” ticks off all the right boxes of a haunted house horror story as it ambles along, tapping into a lot of childhood fears to unsettle people; “Robot Of Sherwood” tries to cram as many aspects of the Robin Hood myth into its forty-five runtime as possible, spoofing just how campy and ridiculous the legend can be in good fun; and “Cold War” feels exactly like a Cold War story, filled with plenty of hand-wringing and macho-posturing about who should actually take the first shot to spark a potential inner-species war. When the decision to embrace these tropes pays off for Mark, it can lead to some great episodes, and when it doesn’t, it can lead to some really bland, formulaic and uneventful scripts. “The Unquiet Dead” is the former outcome: it’s a clever, old-fashioned ghost story with a “Doctor Who” twist, with a pretty cool setting of a Victorian Christmas.

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The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) is in high spirits in this episode, and unlike his previous appearances where he was a bit of a Stepford Smiler, he’s grinning away sincerely throughout most of it. The Doctor and Rose are really enjoying bouncing around through time wherever they please, and the pair of them are starting to become as thick as thieves. Knowing the ultimate outcome of their friendship, I was surprised to see the show was already giving them ship-tease moments as early as the third episode. The Doctor never passes up a chance to be a cheeky sod, and it’s great to see another lighter side of Nine’s personality when he temporarily turns into a gushing fanboy over meeting Charlie Dickens. He takes it upon himself to help Charles adjust to the paranormal, and tries to curb his pricklier side so he can console the man with logic and reason; another sign that beneath his usual gruffness, Nine is a good man at heart.

As things start to get complicated and uncomfortable during the climax, the Doctor and Rose have a brief argument over the Doctor’s pragmatism: whether they should let Gwyneth risk her life for the Gelth and let the Gelth use human corpses for vessels. Rose argues that it’s perverse and immoral, and the Doctor argues she’s too hung up on human taboos to focus on saving lives. They both make good points here, and it’s a nice example of why I enjoy their dynamic. Nine and Rose argue about a lot of things in Series 1, challenging the way they both think, and it usually results in them both growing as people. In the end, the Doctor makes the wrong call and gets manipulated by the Gelth. His survivor’s guilt over the time war and the responsibility he feels for the casualties is a chink in his proverbial armor that particularly crafty enemies can use against him (this won’t be the only instance this season). The Doctor is far from infallible, and a lapse of judgment can be very deadly in his line of work.

After getting a change in perspective from the year five billion, Rose (Billie Piper) seems to have taken the last episode’s message to heart and gotten into the swing of time travel as much as the Doctor has. When they arrive in 19th century Cardiff, Rose takes a moment to marvel at how lucky they are to be able to relieve any moment in history whenever they choose, and she takes another moment to appreciate stepping foot in fresh snow from the distant past. Delightfully, Rose continues to be a fish out of water character this early in her tenure. She tries to blend in with the period and appreciate the culture, but as a headstrong 21st century lass, she’s just a bit too forward and a bit too brash to pull off being a demure Victorian noblewoman. Poor Rose has only taken two spins in the TARDIS and in both trips she gets knocked out and dragged off somewhere, though it will be a while before I get tired of watching her chew someone out the way she does Mr. Sneed.

Like she previously did with Raffalo, Rose quickly takes an interest in mousy Gwyneth and starts to befriend her, which suggests that she feels a strong affinity towards people who come from a modest, working-class background. I always like when the companions split off from the Doctor and spend some time socializing with the locals of each time period, so Rose’s scenes with Gwyneth are a highlight of this episode. Rose is quick to stand up on Gwen’s behalf and tries to keep her out of trouble, while Gwen argues that Rose is patronizing her and assuming that because she’s from the past she must be simple and ignorant, which holds more truth to it than Rose would like to admit. Significantly, when Gwen reads Rose’s mind, she implies she’s been thinking about her dead father lately; Rose also mentioned him to Cassandra in the last episode. Ever since she discovered the Doctor has a time machine, going to see Pete has been on the back of her mind. She finally broaches the idea to the Doctor in “Father’s Day“, and it doesn’t lead anywhere good.

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In most seasons of “Doctor Who”, there’s usually an episode early on where the Doctor and his friends encounter a famous figure in human history. Our first ‘celebrity historical’ is centered around Charlies Dickens, the author of “A Christmas Carol”, and he has a nice compact character arc. We’re introduced to Charles near the end of his life. He’s a bitter old man who feels like he’s hit a dead end in his personal life and his writing career, basically just going through the motions at this point for his fans while he tries to drink his problems away. He’s a dry and droll man, a bit snobbish, though not without a sense of humor. Encountering the Doctor when one of his performances gets crashed by ghosts proves to be just the break from the mundane that he needs.

Despite writing several fantasy novels, Charles does not actually believe in the supernatural, preferring the cold hard facts of reality, and he is staunchly stuck in his ways, much to the Doctor’s frustration. Over time though, he’s forced to accept that the universe is much bigger and scarier and filled with so many more possibilities than he ever thought, causing him to have something of existential crisis and fall deeper into self-loathing. During the climax, the harsh reality of the Doctor’s world threatens to overwhelm him, but he manages to use what the Doctor taught him and pull through to save the others. It ties into a noticeable theme in the Ninth Doctor’s sole season. Nine usually does most of the work solving a case, but his influence usually empowers other characters to step up and finish the job, like Rose in “Rose“, or Charlies in “The Unquiet Dead”, or Mickey in “World War Three“, or Cathica in “The Long Game“, or Pete in “Father’s Day”, or Nancy and Jack in “The Doctor Dances“, or Rose again in “The Parting Of The Ways“. By the time the TARDIS crew leave him, Charles is a changed man who’s regained his author’s imagination and vigor, and feels more alive than he has in years.

Appropriately, the Gelth have been haunting a funeral home, trying to break through a rift in time and space under Cardiff, and the undertaker Mr. Sneed has been trying to cover it all up. The episode inspires a good deal of mixed feelings about Mr. Sneed: because on the one hand, he’s very funny, and on the other hand, he’s a surprisingly shady and uncouth man who’s quick to dodge responsibility for everything that’s happening. I can’t say he deserved to be murdered though, swiftly and brutally, when the Gelth betrayed everyone, and at least he cared about Gwyneth. Mr. Sneed’s assistant and housemaid is the meek, religious young lady, Gwyneth, portrayed by a very familiar Eve Myles (who would later land herself a starring role in Doctor Who’s spin-off show, “Torchwood”). Gwyneth has a supernatural secret that she can’t explain, that’s also considered to be shameful in her time.

She grew up on a rift in time and space, like a Victorian Amy Pond, and it’s given her the gift of foresight as well as a few empathetic abilities: she can see through time with her connection to the rift. She tries to keep her powers a secret, but oftentimes she says more than she should, tipping people off that there’s something unusual about her. There are times when I think Eve Myles is a bit too stiff and wooden as Gwen, but she’s properly mystifying during her two-hander scene with Rose in the kitchen, when she starts to rattle off details about Rose’s life in the far future and name-drops a big, bad wolf. The Gelth use Gwen’s good-nature and religious upbringing to try to consume humanity, but she gets her own back by thwarting their scheme. While the Gelth have a decent sci-fi explanation for their existence, Gwen’s send-off is a properly enigmatic phenomenon. She manages to hold on and destroy the Gelth, several minutes after they had already killed her, as a ghost. This is a mystery that will never solved, and it makes the closing scenes of “The Unquiet Dead” feel rather haunting.

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The Gelth are very effective one-off villains for a small-scale episode. They’re the first example of seemingly supernatural creatures with a sci-fi explanation behind them in NuWho – a trope that will become very common in the series with witches, werewolves, vampires, sirens and zombies. They’re ghost-like aliens and they provide the spooky, tense atmosphere for much of the episode, starting with a poor Victorian nobleman being murdered by the corpse of his recently deceased grandmother in the episode’s teaser. The Gelth can possess the bodies of dead humans, but only for a short amount of time, leading to the memorable visual of glowing, moaning corpses stumbling along like tormented zombies, intent on killing more living people to make an army of bodies for the rest of the Gelth.

I like that despite appearing to be simple creatures for most of the episode, they actually prove to be both cunning and ruthless: preying on the respective weaknesses of the Doctor and Gwyneth (his guilt and her faith) to get what they want and then discarding them immediately afterwards. I find their defeat is also set up and sign-posted pretty well throughout the adventure by Mark Gatiss and Euros Lynn, with repeated shots of the main characters lighting gas lamps throughout the episode. The Gelth are creatures of pure gas, capable of traveling through gas lamps, and cannot exist for so long without a vessel, so Charles traps in the morgue by flooding the room with gas and Gwyneth destroys them by igniting it all and taking the Gelth down with her.

“Doctor Who” is very fond of the Victorian era as a destination, visiting that period in British history quite often. Apparently, the 19th century is one of the easiest periods for the BBC to recreate. I’m quite fond of the fashion from the period, so I always find it fun to see what sort of period dress the costume department whips up for the Doctor and his friends to wear during their stay. Euros Lynn continues to impress as a director, giving a small-scale production with a modest budget a sense of grandness. Some of my favorite shots from this episode include the long, held wide-shot of Mr. Redpath’s grandmother storming out of the funeral home towards the camera until we can almost see down her throat, the Gelth flying circles around Charles’ theater performance and menacing his audience, and the reanimated corpses of several people reaching towards the Doctor and Rose through bars like crazed zombies.

The visual effects range from decent to good in this episode, and they do succeed in making the Gelth zombies feel creepy and unnatural: the shimmering blueness stands in stark contrast to the otherwise grey atmosphere of the episode. Like “The Long Game” and “The Empty Child”, you won’t find any music from “The Unquiet Dead” released on the series 1 soundtrack, though there are some pleasing cues in the last act. “Doctor Who” wasn’t a big money maker for the BBC yet like it was during the heights of David Tennant and Matt Smith’s tenures, so not only were the RTD era soundtracks limited to one disc each, but the music from the first and second series were condensed into one release, omitting a lot of interesting music. It will probably never happen, but I wouldn’t mind the soundtracks for Series 1 – 4 getting an expanded re-release someday.

“The Unquiet Dead” is one of my favorite episodes from Series 1 and one of Mark Gatiss’ best contributions to the series. As a third trip in the TARDIS, it’s a pleasant success and I figure it’s the point where newcomers start to get into the swing of the series. “Doctor Who” has built up a nice bit of goodwill over the last three episodes, and it’s gonna need every bit of it for when the Doctor and Rose fight far more obnoxious gas monsters in the next two-parter.

Rating: 8/10.

Side Notes:

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* “Oi! I promised you a time machine and that’s what you’re getting. Now, you’ve seen the future, let’s have a look at the past. 1860. How does 1860 sound?” “What happened in 1860?” “I don’t know, let’s find out. Hold on, here we go!”

* “Mr. Sneed, for shame. How many more times? It’s ungodly!” “Well don’t look at me like it’s my fault!

* “Think about it, though. Christmas. 1860. It happens once, just once and it’s gone, it’s finished, it’ll never happen again. Except for you. You can go back and see days that are dead and gone a hundred thousand sunsets ago. No wonder you never stay still”. “Not a bad life” “It’s better with two”.

* Nine tells Rose she ought to change her clothes for this trip, while he forgoes dressing up entirely. Such a lazy time lord.

* “There she is, sir!” “I can see that. The whole blooming world can see that!

* “Mind you, I’ve got to say, that American bit in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, what’s that about? Was that just padding or what? I mean, it’s rubbish, that bit” “I thought you said you were my fan” “Ah, well, if you can’t take criticism”.

* “Attaboy, Charlie!” “Nobody calls me Charlie” “The ladies do“.

* “Are you alright?” Well, Rose he looks like glowing zombie ambling out of a coffin, so I reckon he’s not okay.

* “First of all you drug me, then you kidnap me, and don’t think I didn’t feel your hands having a quick wander, you dirty old man! Then you stuck me in a room full of zombies! And if that ain’t enough, you swan off and leave me to die! So come on, talk!” “It’s not my fault! It’s this house!” I’m pretty sure the house didn’t make you kidnap Rose, Mr. Sneed.

* “I saw nothing but an illusion” “Look, if you’re going to deny it, then don’t waste my time. Just shut up” And just like that, Nine made everyone in the room feel awkward.

* “You’re from London. I’ve seen London in drawings, but never like that. All those people rushing about half naked, for shame. And the noise, and the metal boxes racing past, and the birds in the sky, no, they’re metal as well. Metal birds with people in them. People are flying. And you, you’ve flown so far. Further than anyone. The things you’ve seen. The darkness, the big bad wolf”.

* “Mister Sneed, what’s the weakest part of this house? The place where most of the ghosts have been seen?” “That would be the morgue” “No chance you were going to say gazebo, is there?”

* “Give yourself to glory. Sacrifice your lives for the Gelth” “I trusted you. I pitied you!” “We don’t want your pity. We want this world and all it’s flesh” “Not while I’m alive” “Then live no more“.

* That sharp and chilling retort from the Gelth actually gets a callback a season later, from the Cybermen in “The Age Of Steel“, which I’m not entirely sure was intentional.

* “I saw the fall of Troy, World War Five. I pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party. Now I’m going to die in a dungeon – in Cardiff“. As an American, that’s one of the few bits of British humor in this show that flies right over my head: the random cheap shots at Cardiff.

Further Reading:

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