Monday, 14 December 2009

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

“The stiffs are getting lively again.”

It’s going to be Gothic (in the proper sense). It’s going to be Christmassy. It’s therefore going to be Victorian. Why, we even get a bit of gaslight at the start. And a great looking zombie, and an undertaker who’s clearly in on it! But the most striking thing about the pre-credit sequence is that the Doctor and Rose aren’t in it, which instantly makes it feel much like the openings of old.

It’s also our first script of the new era not to be by RTD, as Mark Gatiss makes his debut. We begin pretty much as we’ve left off, though; they’ve done the future, so now they’re doing the past, namely Naples, 1860. Apparently. And, of course, they’re going backwards in time, so the vortex turns blue this time. Once again the TARDIS interior is full of action, motion and hammering as the TARDIS travels- I love that. But not as much as the Doctor’s directions to Rose about the wardrobe!

Victorian Cardiff, and it’s so weird to see Eve Myles as Gwyneth from the vantage point of now. She’s brilliant, of course, as is Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, whose every word of dialogue is something to treasure (“What the Shakespeare is going on?”). It’s Christmas Eve, and Dickens is feeling old and deflated, perhaps a little like Scrooge, of whom he’ll be reciting later tonight.

The pace may be a bit slower than the last two stories, but things still happen pretty quickly. The undertaker kidnaps Rose pretty sharpish while the Doctor instantly hitches a lift in Dickens’ cab to give chase. This is a rather amusing scene, in which the two men bond over the Doctor’s love for The Signalman.

Unfortunately this is counterpointed somewhat by a later scene in which the Doctor is startlingly rude to Dickens for his scepticism concerning the supernatural. This is simply wrong for the show, which has always presented reason as a good thing. Fortunately, this is the only lapse. It’s clear that these apparently supernatural events have shattered Dickens’ worldview, and this is something which is to be developed.

There’s also a good scene between Rose and Gwyneth, showing the clash of values. While Rose sees Gwyneth as downtrodden- and she probably is- Gwyneth doesn’t see herself as such. Sneed doesn’t actually treat her that badly in the context of the time. But the point about this scene is Gwyneth’s mindreading abilities. What’s all this about “The darkness… the big Bad Wolf”? Ah well. It’s probably nothing.

Weirdly, we get a séance (Dickens is, of course, correct about all the things that used to go on), but this is actually great because I love the way that Word just put that acute accent in “séance” just then. Anyway, the creatures that have been inhabiting the cadavers are apparently called the Gelth, and they’ve come through a rift. They’re the last of their kind, and deprived of physical substance, as the result of a Time War, which was “invisible to smaller species, but devastating to higher forms.” Is it me, or does that sound a bit familiar?

We get a bit of a debate between Rose and the Doctor about whether the Gelth should be allowed to inhabit human corpses, although if we put the ethical arguments to one side this would blatantly not be a practical solution. But this is followed by a more interesting conversation between the two of them about how their actions can in fact change the past, and thus the present- an important thing to establish.

The Gelth, unfortunately, were ever slightly dying; there are in fact billions of them, and they plan to kill every human on Earth and inhabit their corpse. Oops. Fortunately, Dickens and Gwyneth save the day with a bit of quick thinking and self-sacrifice respectively. But, of course, we can’t end on the downer of Gwyneth’s death, and so Dickens gets a nice coda.

After the brilliance of late, this is merely great in the traditional sense rather than breaking any new ground. It still scrapes a 5/5 though.

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