Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE UNQUIET DEAD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE UNQUIET DEAD

Tony joins the seance.
If the point of Series 1 of Doctor Who in the 21st century was to establish the premise of the show on firm grounds, by the time The Unquiet Dead hit screens, it was beginning to build a trail of breadcrumbs that pulled both Classic era fans and the newly interested into the adventure – and the danger – of travelling with the enigmatic stranger and his big blue box.

While grounding a new generation of fans in the companion’s story, her family and her real life on Earth, Rose had shown his mystery, and the fact that while he was brilliant, he sometimes needed help to get out of deadly situations because he was a little too trusting.

While showing us space and aliens and the shiny new effects capabilities of the 21st century show, The End of the World had given his mystery a name for a new generation – Time Lord – and had advanced the understanding of the Classic fans by blowing Gallifrey and the rest of the Time Lords out of the sky, making the Doctor supremely, newly unique in the universe, and damaged by his experiences in the last great time war.

The Unquiet Dead – like all of those early episodes – was dense with purpose. First, it was Rose Tyler’s debut trip into her relative past, an element made explicit in the script – “You’ve seen the future, let’s try the past.” That was also necessary as a way of introducing new viewers to the idea that the show wouldn’t always be dealing with threats to contemporary Earth or super-duper spacy drama. Anywhere and anywhen had always been the creed of Doctor Who – and it was going to remain so if the show succeeded in the 21st century.

It was also the first of the new series’ “celebrity historicals.” These had long been a feature of Classic Who – the first arguably being Marco Polo in the show’s first season, back in 1963 – but they were to assume a greater punch, significance, and regularity in New Who, usually dealing with some critical dilemma or moment in the celebrity’s life. In The Unquiet Dead, we meet Charles Dickens (Simon Callow), touring readings of his Christmas Carol, in Cardiff for the festive period, fearing that his imagination is exhausted, and brooding that he has been a less-than-exemplary family man.

When the dead start to walk the streets, Dickens has a hard process of acceptance to go through, as he’s focused, he says, on the hard realities of life in his writing, rather than the flim-flam and shammery of spirit shenanigans. This is quite the claim from the author of both A Christmas Carol, The Signalman, and The Bells, all of which dealt with supernatural themes, but let’s not quibble.

The walking dead all seem to start their journey from Sneed’s, the undertakers. Mr Sneed (Alan David) has been having trouble with his “stiffs” for some little time – especially since he changed from candles to the new-fangled gaslight.

And then there’s Gwyneth, the serving girl, played – and this needs saying – with a masterly combination of innocence and otherworldliness by Eve Myles. She has always had “the sight,” but it’s become stronger of late, and she’s able to help Mr Sneed track his latest walking cadaver to the theatre in which Dickens is reciting – the dead woman had been looking forward to coming to see the great writer, and sees no reason why death should necessarily change her plans for the evening.

It's through Gwyneth that we get our first real mention of the legend that will dog the series to its conclusion – the Bad Wolf. (We hear the Moxx of Balhoon mention the Bad Wolf Scenario briefly in The End of the World, but it’s fleeting and, as a first reference, meaningless when we do). When Gwyneth comes over all spooky and sees Rose’s reality in her mind, she sees “The Big Bad Wolf” and recoils fiercely. That’s enough to get us sitting up and taking notice. What the hell does THAT mean?

The dead are walking because they’re briefly inhabited by a gaseous species from the other end of the universe, the Gelth, who it turns out are collateral victims of the time war. Once creatures just as material as we are, the time war ravaged their world and their existence, so now they have only incorporeal, gaseous forms.

Their mention of the time war is crucial, because it triggers the Ninth Doctor. His war. The war for which, as the last of the Time Lords, he stands responsible. It’s a blind spot he carries, as he did in Rose with the Nestene Consciousness, and when the Gelth say they need the bodies of the human dead to inhabit, he’s all for it, seemingly because it can save lives AND perhaps assuage his conscience for what the time war did to this seemingly helpless race.

His complicity in the plan to let the Gelth inhabit corpses – and then, as he explains, export them to another planet where they can make new bodies – causes a second major clash between the Doctor and his companion. In The End of the World, Rose needs answers to feel safe with him. In The Unquiet Dead, she sets herself grimly against his superior alien authority, refusing to let him dictate what happens to the bodies of the Earth’s dead. He snaps back at her that she’s part of a different morality now, and that she can get used to it or she can go home.

It's a brutal, raw response to her immediate care and respect for the bones of the dead, but it is also both true and probably a product of his need for absolution over the fate of the Gelth. He might not have been able to save the Nestene Consciousness’ planets, but if he can put things right for the Gelth, he’ll go the extra mile to do so.

The Gelth, incidentally – like the upgraded, non-octopoidal Nestene – are an example of 21st century Doctor Who CGI. As a gaseous life form, they swirl around the place very effectively, and stand up to relatively relaxed viewing even 18 years later.

They’ve also arrived in 19th century Cardiff because of a rift in space-time – the first time we hear of such a thing, and the deployment of a detail that will go on to feed Torchwood (and Eve Myles) with story material, despite the slightly awkward detail that the rift is closed at the end of the story.

The twist in the tale – that the Gelth are not the angels they seem, and have a need for a lot of dead human bodies to inhabit – can be seen coming a light year off, but in a sense, that feels intentional, a marker of just how desperate the Ninth Doctor is for atonement, as though his continued existence is marked mostly by attempts to help those who the time war has hurt.

And again, we see the Doctor fulfilling the assessment made of him by Clive the conspiracist in Rose. Wherever he goes, death goes with him. In Rose, Clive and his family are killed, and the Doctor would have been too, without Rose. In The End of the World, Jabe of the Forest of Cheem dies specifically because she chooses to help the Doctor.

And in The Unquiet Dead, he would be helpless, tricked by his own desperate need for redemption, without the timely intervention of Charles Dickens, turning up the gas, and the sacrificial willingness of Gwyneth to atone for her own part in bringing the Gelth to Earth. Gwyneth – honest, simple, forthright Gwyneth – dies to save the world, even though the Doctor would have taken her place if he could have.

There’s a small but poignant moment at the end of the story, where Rose realises that “A serving girl in 1869” saved the world, and that no-one will ever know. While that might be part of the Doctor’s new morality, it’s also a call to both the shopgirl from 2005 and to all of us. What the Doctor traditionally does is put himself between the bullies of the universe and their potential victims. That’s a difference everybody can make – though here, it’s symbolised through Gwyneth, the humblest of humans, rather than the great and talkative Last of the Time Lords.

In fact, Rose has already done just that, against the Nestene Consciousness. It’s not too far-fetched to say that Series 1 is about people – and chiefly Rose – teaching the Doctor how to be the Doctor again, what it means, and what it looks like.

The Unquiet Dead is an uncommonly dense and purposeful story in its number 3 slot in the run. But it only feels that way when you pick it apart and analyse it. As an episode to watch, it’s pacy, creepy, fascinating, occasionally fun, and only very rarely overwritten (Dickens’ line about the Doctor being a method of keeping cool probably seemed necessary on paper, but could happily be yeeted into the sun on repeated viewing).

As a Dickens celebrity historical, it’s fairly joyous, and as an exploration of Victorian ghost stories, the Ninth Doctor’s vulnerabilities, and the need he has for a strong companion to occasionally stand up to him, The Unquiet Dead works well both within the developing arc of the series, and watched again almost two decades on.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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