21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Unquiet Dead

If there's one season that the Doctor likes, it's got to be Christmas. Ever since the show was brought back in 2005, it seems like he's always landing in some festive utopia where Noddy Holder shrieks his innards out, or where brass bands fart along to 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'.

Given that I'm a modern-day Scrooge, this is baffling. The Doctor's only done the Easter landing once. He seems to give Pancake Day a miss, and more to the point, he blanks Halloween and Bonfire Night, two bonafide opportunities to meet scary monsters. Seems that only robot Santas and killer Christmas trees will do. Plus vengeful gas creatures, as witnessed in the second Christmas episode of Doctor Who called The Unquiet Dead.

For those who are new to this Doctor Who lark, I should point out that this isn't a Christmas special, since it originally went out in April. After 1965's Feast Of Steven instalment of The Daleks' Master Plan, Doctor Who decided to turn to that tried and tested setting of Victorian Britain for festive inspiration.

Makes sense – for one thing, Doctor Who's always won great acclaim with period drama of this age – The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Horror Of Fang Rock and Ghost Light are cases in point. A reason for this is that the BBC always hit the nail on the head with these sorts of dramas. The classic Sunday night serials (as helmed by Uncle Terrance and Barry Letts) were phenomenally successful in their time, as were the billions of period dramas produced in the 1990s and early 2000s, all of which seemed to feature Alison Steadman shrieking loudly in a frilly pinafore.

The Unquiet Dead carries on this tradition with sumptuous production values. It's a visual treat with authentic designs, costumes and little touches like period newspapers and ornaments. The whole thing looks like one of those Christmas cards depicting a snowy Victorian street full of toffs and toffettes gathering round a Christmas tree in the middle of a town square.

Maybe the only complaint with this is that it's too clean. Talons and Horror, while taking a romantic view of the era to a point, also looked at the grimy side of the coin. Talons included toothless beggars, prostitutes and nunchuck-waving gangs, while Horror featured a small gang of unsympathetic poshos, who seemed to think that their money and status could somehow make them immune from the green tentacles of the Rutan.

By contrast, there's nothing like that in The Unquiet Dead. Take the character of huge-sideburned undertaker Gabriel Sneed. In theory, he's a seedy piece of work, whether he's ignoring walking corpses (in the name of money of course) or being a bit of a dirty old perv (Rose yells at him for putting his hands where he shouldn't, and god alone knows what's going on between him and Gwyneth).

However, Sneed is more of a comedy oaf rather than a grimy character study. Alan David's performance as Sneed is perfectly acceptable, but it's played more for laughs than gritty realism. Same goes for the whole of the story – everything has that innocent chocolate box feel to it. Which is fine – at the end of the day, you're trying to pack in as many plot strands as you can into 45 minutes. Gritty portrayals can't really enter the equation, since there's not enough time, and besides which, today's PC rules are stricter.

The Unquiet Dead does, however, offer plenty of interesting character studies. Two of the guest characters are particularly well catered for: Gwyneth, and of course, Charles Dickens. This story kick starts the tradition of the Doctor meeting a famous figure from the past, who somehow becomes entwined in the evil machinations of an alien force. Dickens is one of the most successful historical celebrities, and he's given quite a bit of subtle depth.

When we first meet him, Dickens is at an all-time low ebb. As he says himself, he has been rather clumsy with family matters. We don't really dwell on this estrangement, but the first scene with Dickens sets the scene. A man who's tired with his lot (“On and on I go, the same old show”) and seems to be trapped in a 'what does it all mean' mid-life crisis (“I'm like a ghost – condemned to repeat myself for all eternity”). He's also stuck in his ways, initially refusing to acknowledge the Gelth invasion as fact, and passing this off as some phantasmagoria.

However, during the course of the story, we see him become a changed man, embracing the spirit of adventure and even helping to save the day, when he realises that the Gelth are affected by gas – he extinguishes the gas lights and turns the gas up to maximum. By the end of the story, he's discovered a brand new zest for life, planning to make amends with his family, and altering the ending of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. The last shot of the story features Dickens laughing and shouting “God bless us, everyone!” While he dies the next year, it does highlight one important character trait of the Doctor. He manages to bring out the best in people that he meets, whether it's Dickens, Mickey, Cathica or the occupants of Satellite Five. Initially these characters are either wallowing in their own stupidity, cowardice or sadness, but when they meet the Doctor, they recognise their failings, take them on the chin and then look through the Time Lord's eyes at the world.

As Rose later says, people who meet the Doctor make a stand and refuse to say no, whether they're battling with monsters or their own demons. Charles Dickens is one of the most successful examples of this idea, thanks to both skilled writing from Mark Gatiss and a superlative performance from Simon Callow, an inspired bit of casting that proved that Doctor Who still had pulling power when it came to asking famous actors and actresses to appear in the series.

Another well-defined character is Gwyneth, initially an unassuming slip of a girl, who's been blessed – or cursed (however you look at it) with the second sight. She's given a surprising amount of background and depth, especially in the unusually long two-hander between her and Rose. She's initially portrayed as a bit of a simple innocent, apparently happy with her lot, her paltry pay and the thankless job of working for Sneed. However, things get a bit more mysterious when she sees into Rose's mind.

It's interesting in that the viewer isn't meant to sympathise with Rose's modern views. In fact, Gwyneth shows them up for what they are: “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!” There's something in Gwyneth's tone of voice that suggests that all this progress has led to a polluted, greedy, brash society, which in a way is far more backward than the comparatively innocent age that the wide-eyed servant lives in.

Rose's status as a 21st century gal also leads to her making pre-conceived opinions about Gwyneth. She takes it upon herself to make decisions for her, such as when she protests that she can't make the link with the Gelth. At which point Gwyneth says: “That's very clear inside your head miss, that you think I'm stupid”. Rose splutters in protest, but Gwyneth's second sight gives her an insight into how Rose thinks that because she's from the future, she knows better. Again, excellent scripting, which makes her final sacrifice quite touching. Eve Myles delivers a strong performance, even though she pulls that constant wide-eyed expression of someone who's just sat on a very loud whoopee cushion.

Gwyneth's sacrifice is another example of how someone else saves the day apart from the Doctor. We've already seen this in Rose and The End Of The World, but what's interesting about the portrayal of the Doctor in this story is that he's much more gullible than normal. Given that the Gelth are so obviously bad guys, it's surprising that the Doctor takes their request for help at face value.

It's possibly a feeling of guilt, given that we get another reference to the mysterious Time War (surely from this point, given the amount of future references to this, the Doctor should always say “Let's do The Time War again”). This battle-scarred Doctor, who's seen countless races destroyed by the conflict, is so eager to give aliens the benefit of the doubt to the point where he's blinded to the possibility that they may have hostile intentions.

Not only is he more abrasive than usual (he effectively tells Dickens to bog off at one point after the spluttering scribe has refused to acknowledge the presence of aliens, not to mention his angry rebuke to Rose who quite rightly is more cautious of the Gelth), the Doctor's also a bit more helpless than usual. Apart from giving the Gelth safe passage (and causing more needless death), he manages to get himself locked in a dungeon. At which point he laments his own carelessness by recounting his past triumphs including seeing the fall of Troy and World War Five. My rubbish hearing meant that I thought he initially also said that he pushed boxes of The Boston Tea Party – conjuring up images of the Doctor on a Salford market stall in 1976, trying to flog scratched copies of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band classic.

But this story is where he's slowly starting to fall for Rose's charms. During the dungeon scene, he grabs hold of her hand and whispers “I'm so glad I met you!” in her lughole. And all this after he's admired her change of clothing, saying that she looks beautiful – for a human being, of course. Well, this is the 21st century, so times change – and indeed, Rose does bring out the best in the Doctor. She challenges him and gives as good as she gets, but also appeals to his compassionate side. Since this incarnation has been mentally scarred by the ordeal of the Time War, this must come as something of a blessed relief.

Still, all this lurve stuff is still to come. In the meantime, why not savour the delights of this little masterpiece? Mark Gatiss' script is both well-constructed, and manages to pack an awful lot into its short timeframe. The characters are well rounded, both main and guest, and what's more, Gatiss knows how to scare kids. The previous two adventures had been a little wussy when glossing over the deaths of Clive, the Steward and Jabe (although Cassandra's gloriously brutal 'death' redressed the balance a bit), but The Unquiet Dead offers an army of ghostly zombies, who aren't averse to snapping necks like twigs. The death of Sneed is quite graphic – I like the way in which we cut quickly from this to Sneed's glassy-eyed corpse rising from the ground, and joining the ranks of the Gelth. The possessed corpses are highly memorable, and probably quite unsettling for the kids – especially the pre-credits teaser in which we zoom into Mrs Peace's screaming face.

There's also a lot of good humour on display here, especially the banter between the Doctor and Dickens. That scene in the carriage in which the Doctor proclaims himself to be a fan results in lots of fast and furious one-liners which work brilliantly (“In what way do you resemble a means of keeping oneself cool?” asks a baffled Dickens). This is probably Gatiss' most accomplished script to date, managing an equal balance of excitement, funny lines and scares for the kids.

The Unquiet Dead carries on the quality trend of the season, with a story that makes the most of its limited 45 minutes. It looks marvellous with more well-realised direction from Euros Lyn (who proves to be just as adept at making period drama as well as futuristic sci-fi capers), and takes you back in time to a crisp Victorian Christmas. Maybe they should have saved this one for a future Christmas special, but it's still a good example of the strength of the new revival's début season.

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