Doctor Who - The Unquiet Dead
It was with some excitement that I first sat down to watch long-time fan and comedy writer Mark Gatiss' contribution to the first new series of Doctor Who. I wasn't disappointed, but does the episode still inspire the same excitement in me more than a year after broadcast?
Gatiss chose to take his lead from stories such as 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', giving us a spooky Victorian yarn rather than attempting to impress his image of the future on us. In 'The Unquiet Dead', the Doctor and Rose pay their first visit of the new series to the past, with the Doctor taking a wrong turn from his intended course of 1860 Naples on Christmas Eve, and actually landing in Cardiff on Christmas Eve 1869. This Christmas is turning out to be a busy one for Sneed and Co undertakers, with Mr Sneed and his assistant Gwenyth having to chase their clients around Cardiff well after their demise. Rose and the Doctor encounter the latest victim of this bizarre life after death at a reading Charles Dickens is giving in the city. Dickens is shown to be weary of life and questions whether he really has anything more to write about. His separation from his family during this most family-focused of seasons is symbolic of his malaise, as he questions whether life has any true meaning any more.
Naturally, Rose and the Doctor soon get stuck into the drama of Dickens' only zombie fan, with Rose's inquistiveness earning her a trip to Sneed and Co courtesy of cholroform, administered by Mr Sneed with the disgust of Gwenyth, who is appalled at the whole affair. Dickens gets involved due to the Doctor commandering his coach in hot pursuit of Sneed and overcoming Dickens' understandable objections by praising him to the hilt. They arrive at Sneed and manage to save Rose from being attacked by two of Sneed's clients, and after making Sneed confirm his suspecions, the Doctor quickly explains that the spirits inhabiting the dead bodies are coming from a rift in time and space. The same idea of such a rift is also explored in 'Boom Town' later in the series. The spirits only exist in a gaseous form, and the gas emitted from a decomposing corpse makes it a perfect host. This is too much for Dickens, who refuses to believe what is going on, despite the evidence in front of his eyes, and cannot reconcile it with what he knows of the world; which he believes is everything.
Although the deeply religious Gwenyth is appalled at the goings-on, Rose's attempts to bond with her reveal that she isn't a simpleton, as she reveals through referring to Rose's dead father and talking of modern-day London that she is a psychic. Although she doesn't fully understand these powers and has always been told to repress them, she startles Rose by mentioning a big Bad Wolf. The Doctor appears and connects Gwenyth's powers with her having grown up over the rift. He gets her to lead a seance, where the sprits, called the Gelth, plead with the Doctor to let the few survivors of their race through, as their physical forms were destroyed in The Time War. Rose and the Doctor have their first fight over morality, as Rose's horror at the dead being used as hosts for the Gelth is used by the Doctor to lecture her on different ideas of morality, and whether it is wrong for the useless bodies of the dead to be used to help the Gelth live. Gwenyth, having heard the voices of the Gelth all her life, believes that they are angels, and volunteers to help them through the rift. Although Rose tries to persuade her that she doesn't have to do this, Gwenyth reminds her that she isn't the simple girl Rose thinks she is, and that, although she may be different, she knows her own mind in her time. A frightened Rose asks the Doctor whether this is doomed to failure, given that the dead are not walking the earth in her time. The Doctor brings the reality of the series crashing down around her by telling her that time is not fixed, and that the future can change in an instant. This means that everything that the Doctor and Rose do are crucial to the future of the universe; a lesson Rose doesn't learn until 'Father's Day'.
Unfortunately for the Doctor, his attempt to hold up what he sees as his morality backfires when the Gelth turn out to have been lying. As soon as they gain access through Gwenyth, it becomes apparent that there are far more of the Gelth than they have been admitting, and that they are not so interested in simple survival than in killing the entire human race using the dead bodies they inhabit as deadly zombies, with their victims providing more hosts for them to perpetuate their plan. Mr Sneed soon becomes their latest unfortunate victim. Trapped behind a gate, the Doctor has to dash Rose's hopes that she can't die before she is even born, telling her that time is not a straight line and apologising for putting her in this situation. Showing the kind of vunerable Doctor that Peter Davidson did so well, he curses a possible death in the unglamorous setting of a Cardiff mortuary, but is saved by the unlikely figure of Dickens, who realises that the Gelth, being gaseous creatures, can be drawn out and rendered vunerable by causing the gas lighting in the house to leak as much gas as possible. With the Gelth no longer an immediate threat, Dickens releases the Doctor and Rose, and the Doctor stays behind to save Gwenyth. However, she tells the Doctor that she can only hold the Gelth, not take them back, and he realises that there is nothing he can do to save her if their plan to ignite the gas can work. Gwenyth gives him enough time to escape before lighting the match, leaving him to explain to Rose that he thinks Gwenyth was dead as soon as she stepped into the arch of the mortuary to receive the Gelth. Gatiss leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the Doctor was actually lying to Rose, or whether it was possible for him to have that conversation with Gwenyth after her death.
Dickens is a changed man by the end of the episode, telling Rose that "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.", and is determined to make amends with his family, reinvigorated with new ideas. Back in the Tardis, the Doctor explains to Rose that Dickens will not be able to make good on his intentions, as he'll be dead in a week. Dickens is delighted by the disappearance of the Tardis, not least because the Doctor tells him his books will live forever, and proves his literatural immortality by striding down the street proclaiming "God bless us, everyone!"
So, does it still hit the spot? Well, yes. Despite the intense naivety of the Doctor in believing the intentions of the Gelth to be benign (let's face it, he's had a great deal of experience in these things), and the apparant readiness to pretend that he hasn't just let someone Rose cares about sacrifice themselves for the future of the Earth, it's still a ripping good yarn. It's also a very useful episode in terms of series continuity, as it introduces the idea of a time and space rift in Cardiff, sustains the Bad Wolf story arc established in 'The End of the World' and firmly establishes the idea that Doctor Who is not a cartoon; if the Doctor and Rose fail, they will not reappear as if nothing has happened, because they are literally fighting for the future of the universe at real personal danger to themselves. This is all achieved against the backdrop of a beautifully re-created Victorian Cardiff, with a magnificent performance from Simon Callow, who makes a very convincing Dickens, and a strong supporting cast, especially Eve Myles as Gwenyth. All in all, it's a classy early-season episode of which Gatiss and the whole production team can be proud.