DOCTOR WHO (2005) series 1, episode 3
"THE UNQUIET DEAD"
WRITER: MARK GATISS
DIRECTOR: EUROS LYN
AIR DATE: April 9 2005
Travelling in the TARDIS, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) arrive in Cardiff on Christmas Eve in 1869. At a funeral parlour close by, a strange blue gas seeps into the corpse of the recently deceased Mrs. Peace (Jennifer Hill), bringing her back to life. The undead woman rises up out of her coffin, kills her grieving grandson (Huw Rhys) and heads off into the cold night, face aglow with blue vapours. Funeral director Gabriel Sneed (Alan David) and his servant Gwyneth (Eve Myles) set off in pursuit. Through psychic ability, Gwyneth senses that the corpse has gone to a local theatre. As Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) recites A Christmas Carol on stage, blue vapours stream out of Mrs. Peace causing the audience to panic and flee. The Doctor and Rose arrive to investigate the commotion, while Sneed and Gwyneth use the bedlam to recover the corpse. Rose follows them outside where Sneed knocks her out and kidnaps her. Meanwhile, Dickens accuses the Doctor of trickery and “phantasmagoria”, but when the Doctor claims to be his biggest fan, Dickens offers to help.
At the funeral parlour, Rose wakes up to find herself prey to the newly reanimated corpses of Mrs. Peace and her grandson. The Doctor and Dickens arrive in the nick of time and save her. On discovering that Gwyneth is clairvoyant, the Doctor persuades her to hold a séance and contact the 'dead'. As blue vapours fill the room, those gathered around the table discover that the gas holds the remains of an alien race known as the Gelth, whose bodily existence was wiped out by the Time War. They plead with the Doctor to save their species by letting them come through a rift located in the funeral parlour basement, so that they might live in human corpses. The Doctor agrees to let the Gelth temporarily occupy a few cadavers while he finds a longer-term solution, and Gwyneth agrees to act as a bridge across the rift.
returns from the dead
Gwyneth stands under an arch in the basement and opens the rift. As she makes the link, the Gelth cast off their angelic disguise to reveal their true demonic nature and appearance. An army of Gelth spill through the rift, possessing dead bodies lying in the basement. Sneed is strangled to death and his corpse too is possessed. Dickens runs out of the house, while the Doctor and Rose are trapped in a part of the basement. Outside, Dickens realises that the Gelth are still weak and affected by gas. He runs back to the basement where he turns the gas on full, causing the Gelth to be drawn out of the corpses. Gwyneth, unable to step out from under the arch, takes out some matches with a view to blowing up the Gelth along with herself. The Doctor realises that Gwyneth died the moment she stepped under the arch and that they must now leave her. They flee the house as it explodes behind them. The Doctor and Rose return to the TARDIS and say their goodbyes to Dickens who then winds his way happily through the streets of Cardiff, greeting everyone he passes and shouting, "God bless us, everyone!".
Nine years ago I would have only given this episode three and a half stars, putting it on a level with series opener "Rose". But time has been kind to this episode, and it holds up a lot better after repeated viewing than the much less interesting series opener. First, this is easily Mark Gatiss’ finest Doctor Who script, alongside the Matt Smith-starring "The Crimson Horror". Gatiss is a genius when working with historical material, especially 19th century-period material, delighting in all things gothic. His love of Dickens is clearly on display here, as is his strong command of the English language befitting a story involving Dickens. Spirited words crackle throughout this episode, especially when emanating from the mouth of Simon Callow, who quite frankly acts everyone else off the screen here. Callow’s performance is both powerful and nuanced. As Charles Dickens, he mixes charisma with vulnerability, expertly portraying a man whose security in a conventional worldview evaporates in the face of the unimaginable. His increasing alarm at the disclosures about the alien Gelth is a joy to witness, and his crumbling confidence as the Doctor pummels him with the truth is downright mesmerising. This is simply great acting.
The Doctor and Charles Dickens
As if that weren’t enough brilliance, the double act of Sneed played by Alan David and Gwyneth played by Eve Myles (later to play Gwen Cooper in Torchwood) is also a high watershed of acting. Sneed’s observation that "the stiffs are getting lively again", uttered in a great sing-song Welsh accent, is a hoot. His comedy turn, made all the more funny by the fact that he plays it straight, is balanced by a more sober piece by Myles, who plays the clairvoyant Gwyneth with an impressive mixture of innocence and perceptiveness, reflecting the contrast between the simpler time she lives in and the acuity that comes from having second sight. Along with Callow, she delivers many of the best lines in the episode, the highlight of which is her compelling reproach of Rose for possessing a modern but condescending point of view: "You would say that, miss, because that's very clear inside your head, that you think I'm stupid." That has to be one of my favourite Doctor Who lines ever.
channels the Gelth
Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper, not to be outdone by the stellar performances of the three main supporting actors, also turn in great performances. I particularly loved the feisty argument between the pair concerning the morality of the Gelth inhabiting human cadavers, with Rose on the one hand taking an emotive and reverential stance over the issue, and the Doctor on the other hand hilariously taking a logical and pragmatic stance, failing to see any problem with recycling dead bodies. Clever moments like these serve to remind us that the Doctor is not human.
As for the story, it is a good but not great one, being overshadowed by the luminous acting on display. The plight of the Gelth is intriguing enough, and manages to successfully draw us to consider the ethical dilemma so wonderfully captured in the heated argument between the Doctor and Rose. I also liked the design of the angelic Gelth which had an almost childlike quality that resonated with their stirring plea to the Doctor to “pity the Gelth”. The fact that this beatific appearance turns out to be a devious ploy (something that viewers are likely to suspect all along, even on first viewing), makes their eventual unmasking all the more effective. By and large, they make good adversaries for a one-off occasion, but lack the impact and staying power of the likes of the Weeping Angels.
Overall then, this episode is a triumph of acting over spectacle. Having this particular quality makes it highly re-watchable, however, and I found myself enjoying it more than ever when I watched it again recently. Like a vintage wine (not that I’ve tasted any), it grows in standing over time. Highly recommended viewing.