When a new television series launches there is often an episode early in the run that subsequently seems a bit odd. While the writers find their feet and the series settles into a house style, one or two approaches are often attempted that never get repeated. So for the classic run of Doctor Who we have The Edge of Destruction, and for the relaunch in 2005 we have The Unquiet Dead, which is a Christmas special in April.
The last time Doctor Who had a Christmas special on Christmas Day was 1965, so it probably seemed too much to hope that this would happen again, let alone as quickly as it did. So the series just has a Christmas special anyway, as part of the first regular run of episodes. With minimal rewriting (if any), this would actually function perfectly as an episode broadcast on Christmas Day. The Christmas theme is in the background, but the same can be said of many of the actual Christmas specials. In fact, this is far more Christmassy than several of the more recent specials, such as The Husbands of River Song, and The Return of Doctor Mysterio, now that Steven Moffatt seems to have lost interest in the idea of an actual Christmas episode.
So this is an odd precursor to A Christmas Carol (Doctor Who’s version of it), with Charles Dickens having adventures with ghosts and time travellers on Christmas Eve, and then having a Scrooge moment where he is lifted out of depression and finds a new lease of life. The obvious thing to do would have been to set this before he wrote A Christmas Carol and have Dickens inspired to write it, but Mark Gatiss’s approach is far more interesting, instead tying things in with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the end of Dickens’s life.
We are in well-worn territory for time travel sci-fi: no sooner have the time travellers set foot in the past than they have encountered a celebrity. There’s always one of those just around the corner in history, which doesn’t really happen in present day stories. It is something that the classic run of Doctor Who did much more sparingly, but the new version embraces wholeheartedly. It allows us to see a lighter side of the Doctor’s character, placing him in the role of a fanboy, which is fun for those viewers who are of course fanboys themselves.
The darker side of the Doctor’s character, post- Time War, is also explored. His survivor guilt prevents him from taking decisive action (a theme that runs through this series) and he relies on Gwyneth sacrificing herself in order to resolve the plot (which is a slightly xenophobic combination of tropes of false innocence and The Invasion of the Refugees). This series is also going out of its way to say “Look! He’s an alien!” and the way this episode does that is by having a moral clash between the Doctor and Rose. He sees nothing wrong with the idea of aliens occupying corpses, being as we don’t need them and all that. It troubles Rose. So the Doctor gives her a little mocking lecture about her silly humanness. This is another well-worn sci-fi idea, with the alien showing his intellectual superiority over the human, but I would have liked to see it taken a step further and subverted, with Rose able to fight back and justify those perfectly understandable feelings. This would have provided some balance, as the episode also sees Rose placed firmly in the wrong with her condescending assumptions about Gwyneth, for which she is rightly taken to task.
This is one of those episodes that takes on much more significance in retrospect that it seemed to hold at the time. It felt like we were just going through the logical present (Earth invasion)/future (lots of aliens)/past (celebrity historical) formula that would become a standard approach. Which we were. But this is also the start of the whole rift storyline, which becomes pivotal to several major episodes of Doctor Who and also the whole existence of Torchwood. So in retrospect it feels a lot more important than it was probably intended to, simply because it contained a pretty standard idea (Doctor Who’s version of Buffy’s Hellmouth) that happened to be a useful plot contrivance for future episodes.
I’ll leave you with some random thoughts, taken from my original review of the episode shortly after its first broadcast (explanation here).
- The Doctor’s adventure with Charles Dickens was pretty much guaranteed to be a success as soon as it was announced that Simon Callow was to play the part. He has played Dickens before in his wonderful Christmas readings, and he really understands the character. Added to that is the fact that Callow is one of our greatest thespians; he stands among a select few in British acting who are in a class of their own for historical drama.
- This time round Callow gets to portray Dickens in the twilight of his life, the year before his death, jaded and resigned to the idea that the time for original thought is behind him. The events of this episode renew his zest for life and imagination, and his final scene is one of the greatest Doctor Who has produced – the snow, the TARDIS dematerialising, that wonderful quote from A Christmas Carol – a heart-warming moment.
- Doctor Who seems particularly suited to the Victorian era, although the Doctor himself is out of place there in his ninth incarnation. This was perhaps the greatest challenge for the new series writers, to fit this most modern of Doctors into an historical landscape, where most of his previous incarnations would have been at home. The approach taken by Gatiss (and Ecclestion in his portrayal of the Doctor) is to stay true to the character, and not to change his manner in order to fit in. As a result, the Doctor comes across as more alien than in the previous episodes, particularly in contrast to Rose.
- At times the Doctor is an unsympathetic character, never more so than when telling Dickens to shut up, and Callow reacts so naturally to the insult, quietly leaving the room afterwards.
- There is a lovely moment early in the episode when Rose pauses to savour the occasion of stepping out of the TARDIS into the snow, and into the past.
- There is the first new series indication of other rooms in the TARDIS, when the Doctor directs Rose to a wardrobe. His directions are reminiscent of Romana sending Chris Parsons for milk in Shada.
- The Doctor has great taste in fiction: he says ‘The Signalman’ is the best short story ever written.
- How do the people sitting by the old woman in the theatre not notice that she looks like a dead body?
- Bad Wolf reference number 2: Gwyneth reads Rose’s mind – ‘the big bad wolf.’
- ‘I think it’s gone a little bit wrong.’ Something of an understatement. The Doctor encourages Gwyneth to make the link with the Gelth and in doing so is directly responsible for her death and that of Sneed, and is himself completely fooled by the Gelth. Only the quick-thinking Charles Dickens saves the Doctor and Rose, and prevents the Gelth from spreading outwards from the morgue to destroy the human race.
- ‘What about me…’ the Doctor is normally completely selfless but here he is concerned for his own skin – the Time War has taken its toll and he is not as heroic as we have come to expect.
- The Doctor mentions that he saw the fall of Troy, which links nicely all the way back to The Myth Makers, almost 40 years ago.
- The TARDIS dematerialisation is a beautiful special effect, with the snow floating down from its ledges.
The view from across the pond:
In 2005, Doctor Who returned to our screens. Living in the US meant we’d have to wait some time before we would be privy to them and at that they’d be cut for commercials in all the wrong ways. Necessity may be the mother of invention but Doctor Who is the father, so I was watching within a week of the original broadcast. Now to have it back after all this time, one wondered if it would live up to expectation. Like the ’96 movie, if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world and it would have just faded back into obscurity. Luckily it rose to the occasion. So after two solid stories, I had great expectations for The Unquiet Dead.
Thankfully, we would not be let down. In fact, of the original 3 episodes that marked the reboot, this was the strongest! The Gelth, the villain of the piece, are a terrifying race that could make Dr. Frankenstein blush. There’s another hint about the Time War and another reference to the Bad Wolf. And while we may have known for a long time that the TARDIS goes where it wants, we’re reminded of it when The Doctor fails to get Rose exactly where he intended. (Foreshadowing the opening of Aliens of London perhaps?) And regarding time, it didn’t escape my notice that the whole mentality of Gwyneth’s “whose fault is it” regarding the dead walking is a reminder that this is a simpler time: God still might be punishing them for some indiscretion. It is clear Gwyneth is religious when she talks about her family waiting for her in paradise. It’s very strong writing!
This is also the second hint that the Doctor and Rose are developing feelings for each other: the first was when Rose offers to be his partner at the end of episode two (“There’s me”) followed by her tease about him being a cheap date. Now, the Doctor comments on her beauty (“Blimey!”) and gets a feel for her attitude towards travelling with him. (“Not a bad life?” “Better with two.”)
Rose questions the nature of time travel which is something the viewers take for granted, but the reaction would probably be more akin to Rose’s. Her questions and comments about how it happens once, but the Doctor can go back and re-live any time is a good reminder to the audience that this is awe-inspiring! And to drive that point home is the first step Rose takes into the snow of the past; a scene with all the momentous occasion of the first footprint on the moon. This story takes place over the Christmas of 1869; it’s a heck of a gift for Rose.
Billie is perfect as Rose. It’s such an incredible moment when the Doctor and Rose are trapped but take the time to say how glad they are to know one another, just before they face their end! Eccleston channels his inner Tom Baker when the Doctor shows such excitement at things going wrong (“That’s more like it!”). And a hint of McCoy’s Doctor in the multiple times the Doctor seems to appear out of nowhere (with Charles and later when Gwyneth is talking to Rose.) But the two who steal the show are Eve Myles as Gwyneth and Simon Callow as Dickens. Myles is sublime. She brings Gwyneth to life in everything from speech to mannerisms. Simon Callow is top notch. His Charles Dickens is utterly believable and lovable. Willing to open his mind, as Gwyneth opens her heart, these two take the cake for best supporting cast, probably the whole series long!
And there’s something to be said about superb science fiction when the viewer sees others rise above their limitations. Gwyneth, a simple scullery maid, is able to prove that there really are more things in heaven and earth than even the Doctor can dream of by saving everyone after her own death. I can’t praise this scene enough! Also, her attitude with Rose when she acknowledges that Rose considers her stupid; it’s great stuff! Eve Myles is the gem that makes this episode. But if the act of doing is one way to go beyond oneself, what about the act of thinking? Simon Callow’s incredible performance as Dickens shows a man tired of life, convinced there is nothing more out there, who then meets the Doctor, a friend passing through, who broadens his mind. He learns things beyond his greatest expectations!
If Doctor Who as a series needs a sociological commentary, you have the 2 camps presented here: in action, go above and beyond; in mind, be willing to learn and accept the unbelievable. That defines the human condition and is the reason humanity will always prevail!
On a brief philosophical note, we are given another reminder that the Doctor is not like us: his morality is different (probably more practical in reality) but we are so indoctrinated into certain norms that we don’t realize it. The idea of giving our corpses over to another race to help them would be abhorrent to us, but realistically, why? The Doctor sees things differently to us. To him, it’s a question of right versus polite. Here again the writers are showing us that no matter how outwardly human, the Doctor is not one of us!
And some random humor from the episode:
- The Doctor calls Rose Barbarella.
- The Doctor playing to Dickens’s sense of self-worth in the cab and the subsequent misunderstanding about being a fan!
- Doctor: “I love a happy medium.” Rose: “I can’t believe you just said that.”
- “Down boy” when Charles asks what the Doctor and Rose are doing in some small shed.
- My personal favorite is when Dickens verbally assaults the Doctor upon their first meeting after the apparition scares off his crowd. The Doctor seemingly unaware of what is ailing Dickens, tugs his top and says simply “What’s wrong with this jumper?”
Dickens may be classic literature, but Doctor Who has firmly established itself as a classic in its own right. And it also gave Charles a Christmas to remember! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Aliens of London