1.3 – “The Unquiet Dead”

DW Series 1 - The Unquiet Dead

The Doctor and Rose team-up with a Victorian maid to defeat alien ghost things. Also, some dead white guy who happened to be in town that week pops his nose in and gets a futile epiphany for his trouble.

“The Unquiet Dead” is the first New Who story to be set in the past and the first written by someone other than Russell T. Davies. I think this unfairly burdened Mark Gatiss with a reputation for someone who can only write in pastiche. This episode is as important as “Rose” for the success of the 2005 series and provided a blueprint for how Doctor Who could do historicals with reasonable success.

We start with a cold open. It is perhaps in retrospect obvious that the perfect use of the cold open in Doctor Who is for the old early-story cutaway to the situation that The Doctor is about to wander into. It does this effectively, setting up the mood, the danger and with a tiny one-liner the fact that the possession of bodies by spirits unknown has been going on for some time. This is as deft a scene-setting as anything to have come from the pen of RTD. The opening titles then provide a barrier and we rejoin the story again, through the eyes of The Doctor and Rose.

The Doctor and Rose play tourist for a little while before they encounter the ghost story which, as far as undertaker Gabriel Sneed (Alan David) and Gwyneth (Eve Myles) are concerned, is well into its second act already. The possessed corpse (Jennifer Hill) is off to see a performance by our star attraction Charles Dickens (Simon Callow), this being her living intent, an intriguing idea that just gets dropped. Things go badly wrong, natch, and Dickens gets dragged into our ghost story, teaming up with The Doctor in a scene of nearly unalloyed delight, marred only by Eccleston’s terrible line reading of “My friend. She’s only nineteen. It’s my fault. She’s in my care, and now she’s in danger.”

It’s at this point that it starts to become clear that the episode does not know what it’s about. Is it about Dickens or Gwyneth? But neither character is given enough time; we only really get one “getting to know you” scene with either of them. Dickens is too big a personality and merely to be a supporting character in someone’s else story: he has a definite arc of his own regarding his change of heart regarding the supernatural. Dicken’s rationalism is related by him not demonstrated, and his revelation that there are things unknown to science is facile: this was a time of great scientific discovery, not one in which they believed they knew all the answers.

Gwyneth, though, is the real story motor here, the way she believes in the Gelth and her reaction at her betrayal is the core. Gwyneth dies, in the end. The Doctor promises Rose that he won’t leave the building without her. Of course, he does. He explains to Rose that Gwyneth was dead the moment she entered the rift. Well, of course she was, she’s a young female guest character in an episode of the first series of Doctor Who. To be perfectly honest, she was dead the moment she appeared on screen. None of this stops “The Unquiet Dead” being a well-executed piece of fun, though. It never fucks up (apart from with the accidental xenophobia-endorsing subtext), it just fails to reach a state of excellence.

The first celebrity historical is a bit flawed, but nice moments and a good sense of pace make it an eminently watchable 6/10.

Written and edited by Abigail Brady


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