New Series Review #3 – The Unquiet Dead

“The Time War raged invisible to smaller species, but devastating to higher forms. Our bodies wasted away… we’re trapped in this gaseous state…”

Doctor Who is littered with classic stories set in the most wonderful eras of Earth history – just look at The Curse of Fenric and Black Orchid – but if there is one period which gets the typical Doctor Who fan goosebumped-a-plenty, it’s the Victorian age. The Talons of Weng Chiang has traditionally been the archetypal “Doctor Who meets alien in historic setting” story but is that about to change following tonight’s episode?

Mark Gatiss’ episode on the face of things is beautifully crafted, both in terms of plotting and in the success of the production design team and director Euros Lyn in creating the Victorian-era Cardiff (although the Doctor intended Naples in 1860). The snowbound Victoriana, horse-drawn carts and Billie Piper dressed in a beautiful period costume work perfectly, and the atmosphere, suitably for a story set at Christmas, is chilling. Add to that the wonderful Simon Callow in his most austere performance as Charles Dickens to date, plus the mysterious Gelth, and you’ve got a fantastic “romp”…

Mr Sneed, an undertaker and his maid Gwyneth have for some while been experiencing the loss of corpses due to reanimation. We see such as occasion in the pre-credits sequence, and it is quite reasonably the best pre-credit sequence of any show ever (and to be fair, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had a good share of those). Eventually it becomes apparent that the dead walk due to the possession of entities known as the Gelth, who are travelling through a space-time rift to Cardiff in 1869. They require bodies to exist corporeally – and it seems Gwyneth has a major part to play…

It would be best to mention at this point the key part that the character of Gwyneth (superbly played by Eve Myles) plays in this story. Her importance is best referred to in her relationship with Rose, who develops a liking for the servant as the girl reveals her ability to read minds and communicate with the ethereal Gelth. It would also be an opportune time to confirm that Billie Piper continues to impress as Rose, able to be sparky and commanding in one moment and sensitive and moving in the next.

Simon Callow is perfect as Charles Dickens, a part he has been deemed “born to play” by many. While that may be a small slight on his talents, it is by no means unfair to suggest that he by far and away the best character actor to appear in a guesting role in Doctor Who. Many may claim he is a perfect Doctor – I would say he is the perfect actor, so utterly convincing in every part he portrays. Tonight, he portrayed to us the sad later years of Dickens’ life and there wasn’t a single scene he appeared in that he did not command. Of particular note is the first scene in the coach with the Doctor, and the departure scene where the Doctor and Rose bid Dickens farewell; the Doctor tells the great writer that his books will go on “forever”…

Victorian Cardiff may on the face of it be more difficult to evoke than Victorian Naples – a quick visit to Port Merion could surely solve that quandary – but thankfully the Doctor Who production team found a wonderful part of Swansea to double as Victorian Cardiff (the location being the butt of many jokes – who would want to die in Cardiff after all that travelling anyway?). As reported in the Press some months ago, a vast amount of work has gone into creating a perfect Christmas atmosphere – snow, low lights, street-side urchins – and we as viewers get the opportunity to travel to Cardiff in 1869. The transportation is instant and amazing.

As the Doctor, Rose, Sneed, Gwyneth and Dickens gather in a Séance, we learn more about the War which the Doctor has spoken about in the previous two episodes. The Gelth are effectively refugees from the destruction caused – but are their intentions good? And what of the Doctor? What war has happened that is so terrible it could destroy the Time Lords themselves? Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor is giving nothing away… I suggest we won’t get any more real clues until we meet the Dalek in 3 weeks time…

On the whole, Mark Gatiss has written the best episode yet of Doctor Who 2005 – and we’re only 3 parts into it! As mentioned earlier, Gatiss describes the story as a “romp”. That is the greatest tragedy about this episode; massively understated by its author, it beautifully characterizes the latter life of Charles Dickens, questions the possibility of dying before your own birth and is the closest Doctor Who can ever get to repeating the wonder of The Talons of Weng Chiang without actually copying it.

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