THE UNQUIET DEAD – 9th April
Written by Mark Gatiss
Review and Commetary by Andrew Panero
Having visited the distant future the Doctor pilots the TARDIS to Cardiff in Christmas 1869 (he had originally intended to land in Naples in 1860, but the TARDIS got it wrong). There he and Rose find Charles Dickens and an army of gaseous creatures called the Gelth, who are hitching rides in the bodies of the recently dead.
The Gelth are doing this because their bodies were destroyed in the ‘Time War’ (a war that went unnoticed by lower forms of life but was lethal to the higher species). They have focussed on Sneed’s Undertakers in Cardiff, as this is a place where a rift in the fabric of space-time has occurred.
Sneed’s young assistant, Gwyneth (Eve Myles) has developed certain telepathic abilities because she has grown up over the rift. The Doctor persuades her to act as a bridge to this world in order to save the Gelth. Rose objects to this on moral grounds but is curtly dismissed by the Doctor. To him saving another species is more important than human sensibilities about the dead. He asks Sneed (Alan David) where the most haunted room in the house is; unsurprisingly this turns out to be the mortuary.
Once they are there the Gelth again appear to them and indicate that the rift is located under an archway in the crypt. Rose once more remonstrates with the Doctor about using Gwyneth as a bridge, stating that the Gelth couldn’t have succeeded because the dead weren’t walking around in 1869; once more the Doctor dismisses her objections stating that her ‘cosy little world’ could be changed easily. Her objections are also because of her concern for Gwyneth, who believes the Gelth are angels sent by her dead parents to look after her. When it turns out that the Gelth’s intentions are more sinister than they told the Doctor, he pleads with Gwyneth to close the bridge, but by this time it is too late. Rose and the Doctor face certain death at the hands of a crowd of re-animated zombies.
Interestingly it is Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens who saves the day, for as he flees the scene pursued by the Gelth he notices that they are drawn into a gas streetlight. Because the creatures are gaseous they are drawn towards concentrations of gas (by osmosis?). Delighted he runs down to tale the Doctor who is pinned behind an iron grating with Rose. Putting out the gas lamps and turning up the gas draws the Gelth out of their human vessels, allowing Rose and the Doctor to escape. But Gwyneth is still trapped under the archway, unable to send the Gelth back to their own world. The Doctor realises that she is already dead and that the only thing keeping her up is the presence of the gas creatures. However she still has enough consciousness to tale the Doctor to get out as she reaches into her smock for a box of matches. The Doctor runs from the building as it is ripped apart by a huge explosion, sealing the Gelth off from our world.
This story comes across as having not only the strongest script this season but also the best performances from the cast. This goes for the supporting actors, particularly Eve Myles and Simon Callow, as well as the regular cast. I liked the way in which the story focussed on a small group of people from different backgrounds, forced together by extraordinary circumstances. Charles Dickens comes across as more ‘Doctorish’ than the Doctor in this story- it is he who sticks to his rationalism right to the end, using his observations of the Gelth to work out their weaknesses. The interactions between Gwyneth and Rose are also very well drawn, with the gulf between 19th and 21st Century sensibilities placed in a human context.
How about the Doctor himself? His lack of judgement about the Gelth seems extraordinary at first, which is why it is necessary to read the subtext. As Rose pointedly tells him to not use Gwyneth to ‘fight his battles’ we realise that the time war the Gelth referred to probably destroyed Gallifrey as well. Perhaps it is this that clouds his judgement, if so it would be consistent with portrayals of the Doctor both past and present. I like this in a Doctor Who story; making him fallible helps to get away from the idea that it is always down to him to save the day. Here his own arrogance and meddling nearly lead to the Earth being destroyed- thank God for Charles Dickens!
The main theme of the series-i.e. the relationship between the Doctor and Rose also continued to develop, with glimpses of Rose really defying the Doctor for the first time. This is a rare event in Doctor Who; one has to go back to the days of Patrick Troughton and his relationship to Jamie to really see something as significantly defiant as this. Perhaps the relationship between Ian Chesterton and the First Doctor in the early days was more fraught. But unlike these two previous Doctors there is also the sexual chemistry, unstated but unmistakably there, which plays around under the surface.
Next week sees the first two parter of this season; it will be interesting to see how this works out in this new format. From what I can see it looks like another corker.