The Unquiet Dead

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The Doctor and Rose arrive in Cardiff, Christmas Eve 1860. The dead are walking and Charles Dickens is in town performing his one-man show.

Setting his first Doctor Who television story in Cardiff allows Mark Gatiss to use both the architecture for verisimilitude, and the Welsh accent for comic effect. Two years before Gavin and Stacey, and it’s successor Stella, Mr Sneed wouldn’t be out of place on either show. A terrific performance from Alan David, with his lines about getting ‘an exorcism on the cheap’. He even calls the cadavers ‘stiffs’ – as they do in Stella‘s undertakers.

Horror fan Gatiss has crafted a horror story for Saturday teatime, just as Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were doing in the Seventies. The trappings of Hammer Horror with a science-fiction explanation, the period setting being most reminiscent of The Talons of Weng Chiang. Zombies are probably one of the few horror staples left untapped in the Tom Baker era, and it’s perhaps inevitable the two life-long fans like Gatiss and Moffat would think along the same lines and both bring zombie-like creatures into this series.

After Clive being shot by an Auton in front of his family in Rose, Sneed’s neck being broken with a sickening crunch by a Gelth-possessed cadaver is quite shocking, and even just nine years later feels like something the show couldn’t get away with any more.

When the Doctor meets Charles Dickens he talks of being his ‘biggest fan’, listing which books he likes, before criticising ‘the American bit’ in Martin Chuzzlewit. “I thought you said you were my fan,” says Dickens. “Well, if you can’t take criticism…” replies the Doctor.

Never mind the companions, has the Doctor ever been more of an audience identification figure for the Doctor Who audience?

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By far the stand-out scene is where the characters discuss how the gaseous Gelth can be saved. The solution is to use the recently dead cadavers of humans as vessels so the aliens can escape extinction; which immediately sounds horrifying, and Rose has the same reaction as the audience. The Doctor is a pragmatist, and just sees a way of saving an entire race. He is unconcerned with abstract ideas or sentimentality. Although him asking Rose if she carries a donor card is disingenuous; there is no consent from the deceased here. It’s a great way of helping to re-establish the Doctor’s alien nature, because it’s hard to argue against his position rationally.

Like Charles Dickens, I’m not keen on mediums. This is mainly because they are disrespecting the memory of the deceased by attributing words to them that the ‘psychic’ has invented, and charging the bereaved for the privilege. The thought of an entity using the body of a loved one like vehicle is even more disturbing for the next of kin. Steven Moffat has said that you know when you’ve got a good Doctor Who story when it’s an idea that could sustain a movie franchise, and this is certainly one of those. The ongoing popularity of zombie, and science fiction, films makes you wonder why this high concept mash-up hasn’t happened.

Immediately following this scene, Rose mirrors Sarah Jane’s observation from The Pyramids of Mars that she knows the past didn’t happen this way because she’s from the future. The Doctor is unsettling and uncaring again, when he says:

“Time’s in state of flux, changing every second. Your cosy little world could be re-written like that [clicks fingers].”

This story stands up very well, one of the best Mark Gatiss scripts. He sets out what becomes his familiar stall, of period-set Doctor Who stories (or pseudo-historicals). It’s funny, gothic and ends with a big explosion.

In their excellent Feexby podcast Lawrence Sutcliffe and John Feetenby talk about how the Doctor is not at all responsible for the resolution of this story, and touch on this being a story that wouldn’t have happened if the Doctor had never turned up. There’s a case that the threat to the Earth wouldn’t have occurred without the Doctor. His contribution is to draw Charles Dickens into the mystery (he would not have visited the undertakers without the Doctor stealing his carriage), who ultimately saves the day; but the Doctor also initiates the seance, without which Gwyneth couldn’t have known to stand in the doorway and create the bridgehead for the Gelth to come through. So Gwyneth might have survived had the Doctor not been around, but surely she should have seen that coming?

I particularly like how the Doctor describes himself as ‘just a friend, passing though’ to Dickens. I’d forgotten how circumspect this Doctor is about his origins. I much prefer the Doctor acting like this, and one of the few areas the Ninth Doctor score over his successors for me. It is quickly abandoned with the Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, who can’t wait to tell people he’s a Time Lord, his home planet and his age at every opportunity.

There’s also a brief moment when the Gelth turn out to be evil, and the Doctor says, “I think it’s gone a little bit wrong.” It’s really funny, and he delivers it perfectly. Eccleston actually feels like the Doctor for that brief moment, he says the line so unselfconsciouslessly and with a lightness touch rarely to be found in the performance.

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Order Doctor Who: Series One from Amazon:

Doctor Who – The Complete BBC Series 1 Box Set [2005] [DVD]

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