Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

By Eddie Robson on 29 April 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Probably the biggest problem with this episode is that a large portion of the audience is liable to insist that ‘Doctor Who’ be like this every week. The adoption of a pulpy Victorian Gothic style is most associated with the early Tom Baker stories, although it pops up in many eras of the programme (‘The Evil of the Daleks’, ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’, ‘Ghost Light’). It’s not surprising that ‘Who’ is so potent in this setting when you consider the BBC’s ongoing affinity for re-creating the period and the production of so much enduring fantastic fiction in that era (as in fiction dealing with the fantastic, as opposed to fiction that’s really brilliant).

Accordingly, the ‘Doctor Who’ revival has got its first pop at the style in early – and yes, whilst you’re watching it does temporarily convince you that the show should always be like this. Then you come to your senses and realise that without the ability to freewheel between planets and times ‘Doctor Who’ wouldn’t be half the show that it is. Or, indeed, half as expensive as it’s turned out to be now that it’s not being shot on two sets in Television Centre any more, but that’s by the by.

But ‘The Unquiet Dead’ hits all the right notes. Writer Mark Gatiss (the tall one from ‘The League of Gentlemen’) gives the piece just the right feel by meeting the conventions of Victorian fantastic fiction half-way: the antagonists appear to be ghosts and fit Victorian preconceptions of what a ghost would be like, but they turn out to be gaseous aliens. Hence, the episode feels as if the Doctor has wandered into a Victorian ghost story and explained it in his own terms, which is precisely the right way to go about this sort of thing.

At the same time, the episode pulls out one of the oldest tricks in the Big Book of Tricks to Make ‘Doctor Who’ Work: the deployment of a distinguished older actor to give the whole thing a bit of weight. This can be traced back to the show’s first year, when George Colouris (who was one of the Mercury Players and had a substantial role in ‘Citizen Kane’, for Christ’s sake) was wheeled in to oppose the rubbery Alien Voord in ‘The Keys of Marinus’.

In ‘The Unquiet Dead’ we have one of the most ambitious pieces of guest casting ‘Doctor Who’ has ever seen. The episode features Charles Dickens as a character, and Simon Callow has played Dickens so many times that any other actor is likely to look wrong in the role: so they just asked Callow. And it’s not just stunt casting, because the story deals with Dickens at a particular moment in his life – just prior to his death, in fact – and Callow’s extensive knowledge of Dickens allows him to be quite precise in his characterisation.

I have few criticisms of the episode – it flows very well and has some great moments of comedy without breaking the tension – but, as with last week’s ‘The End of the World’, the denouement feels a little rushed. Although I’m a keen supporter of the 45-minute format, as this is clearly the most viable format for ‘Doctor Who’ today, I feel that these early scripts haven’t quite got the pacing right: in this case, the plot reversals seemed to go by in the blink of an eye and there was barely time to absorb what had happened.

I don’t feel that this is an inevitable consequence of the format and I do think it can be rectified as the series finds its feet (which it’s done very quickly: all the episodes have been good and ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is probably the best thus far). However, it’ll be interesting to see how next week’s episode – part one of the new series’ first two-part story – paces itself, and how the audience responds to it. I assume you’ll be there?

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By Eddie Robson

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