Doctor Who Series 1 Retrospective: The Unquiet Dead Review

Rose’s second trip in the TARDIS wonderfully demonstrates the unique range that Doctor Who possesses

Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper

After two opening episodes which felt like a massive reframing of Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead” feels far more familiar. All of Russell T Davies’ series would start with three episodes which broadcast the tremendous range available to a limitless show like Doctor Who: a contemporary story (“Rose”, “School Reunion”, “Smith and Jones” and “Partners in Crime”), a futuristic story (“The End of the World”, “New Earth”, “Gridlock” and “Planet of the Ood”) and the historical adventure (“The Unquiet Dead”, “Tooth and Claw”, “The Shakespeare Code” and “The Fires of Pompeii”). So winning is this formula, in fact, that it also crops up in Series 5, Series 7 Part 2, Series 10, Series 11 and Series 12. It’s the perfect indicator for new viewers as to what can be expected from Doctor Who, as well as providing a breezy familiarity for more seasoned fans.

Here, Davies hands over the writing reigns to Mark Gatiss for an episode dripping in Dickens-style, Victorian Gothic elements. Though not quite in touch with Doctor Who‘s original 1963 intention that so-called Historical stories would be educational for younger viewers, the Victorian setting is well achieved, with sumptuous costumes and screens awash with the warmth of fires, the vivid reds of Rose’s dress and the placid calm of the falling snow. The overall aesthetic feels comforting, as if the audience is being wrapped in a blanket.

This, of course, stands in stark contrast with the rather macabre topic matter, though it is topically in keeping that a story featuring Charles Dickens would also feature a spectral visitation of some description. The realisation of the Gelth themselves, as shapeless wafts of smoke seems ethereal and truly other worldly and matches neatly with Dickens’ own writings on ghosts. Gatiss also nicely develops Dickens’ reaction to the so-called phantasmagoria in a way that feels credible and relatable.

“The Unquiet Dead” sees The Doctor and Rose embark on their second journey, with the Doctor promising to show Rose the past. Landing slightly off course, Rose’s sight-seeing trip in nineteenth century Cardiff is cut short when they witness a reanimated corpse tormenting a performance by The Charles Dickens himself. As it transpires, an extraterrestrial race known as the Gelth have been using the corpses of Mr Sneed’s funeral parlour as vehicles to allow them to survive in the aftermath of the Time War.

Overall, the episode successfully balances its spooky and dark elements with moments of reflection and humour. Though it starts out seeming dangerous, the viewers perceptions of alien races are challenged by the idea that, instead of having ill-intent, the Gelth are merely trying to survive and are in need instead of meaning harm. Crucially, this episode also increases tension by establishing for the audience a central tenet in Doctor Who: that established history is in flux and the present day can be rewritten in an instant during the Doctor’s travels through time. Even though the more cynical viewers know that the Doctor and Rose will ultimately come out of it unharmed, it does add an extra degree of suspense to proceedings.

The Doctor and Rose are given far less to do here to propel the plot forwards than they have been given before. It feels far more like they are observers to the action instead of meaningful participants. It can be argued that they have an influence on other characters, but ultimately it’s guest characters Gwyneth and Dickens who save the day.

That isn’t to say that the Doctor and Rose are not developed. Here the audience once again see how blinkered the Doctor is concerning the Time War and the tremendous amount of guilt that he seems to harbour. His desire to aid the Gelth blinds him to their true motivation.

Meanwhile, Rose’s ability to empathise continues to be a huge strength. It allows for heart warming scenes where she relates to Gwyneth despite the century or so between their lives, finding common ground even where one might imagine there is none. This was also seen in “Rose” with her caring for Mickey and in “The End of the World” with how she related to the service worker aboard Platform One. While the Doctor sees the problems on a worldwide level, Rose’s presence makes everything more personal, and it’s through her connection to Gwyneth that Gwyneth’s sacrifice really stings. Additionally, there is some pleasant foreshadowing for Rose’s thoughts concerning her father, which will ultimately bear fruit further down the series in “Father’s Day”.

That’s not to say that Rose isn’t flawed however. She isn’t made to seem like a paragon of virtue. She is also headstrong, and frequently convinced of her own correctness. Here, Rose is shown to view herself as superior to Gwyneth, claiming that she is unable to understand the impact of her actions in the same way that Rose does. This isn’t necessarily anything which changes about Rose, either, as she demonstrates a similar arrogance towards Queen Victoria in “Tooth and Claw”, and her own mother calls her out on the way that she has changed in “Army of Ghosts”.

Ultimately, the plot of “The Unquiet Dead” possesses multiple twists and turns. Audiences are initially introduced to the concept of reanimated corpses, interpreting them as intimidating and scary, before uncovering that it is actually the Gelth, seeking refuge from a dreadful interplanetary event, only to then reveal their true intent, leaving Rose and the Doctor trapped and helpless in a cellar, surrounded by fiercely strong zombies. The episode is genuinely tense and gripping, with brilliant and well-rounded guest characters whose actions have consequences and whose losses have an impact upon the audience. While there are certainly better historical stories in Doctor Who, which delve into meatier topics on the dilemmas and quandaries of being a time traveller (such as “The Fires of Pompeii”) or even better uses of historical figures (such as Van Gogh in “Vincent and the Doctor” or Shakespeare in “The Shakespeare Code”), this beautifully demonstrates the tremendous variety on offer within Davies’ revival.

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