The Good: Good character development for the Doctor, Annoyingly important for Doctor Who continuity
The Bad: Too much of Billie Piper’s performance hinges on her just sitting in frame with her mouth open aghast, Somewhat ridiculous plot,
The Basics: “The Unquiet Dead” is a bit sillier than the preceding Doctor Who episodes and it would not be worth watching . . . if it did not seed well some of the subsequent episodes.
In every television show that starts off well, there comes a time when the series inevitably stumbles. No show does perfect episodes all through and with (the reboot of) Doctor Who, the first significant stumble is the show’s third episode, “The Unquiet Dead.” “The Unquiet Dead” is essentially a cheesy, super-cheesy, horror premise episode and it might be all one needs to reinforce the negative presumptions one has about Doctor Who. Doctor Who, in its modern reincarnation, had to struggle with the image viewers had of Doctor Who as a campy, low-budget, science fiction show beloved by a fringe core of fans farther from the mainstream than Trekkers. But the first two episodes of the reboot – “Rose” (reviewed here!) and “The End Of The World” (reviewed here!) – were anything but cheesy, which helped to completely redefine the audience for the program (and bring it to American audiences successfully).
“The Unquiet Dead” is oftentimes too silly to feel like it is the same program as the episodes that preceded it. When the episode tries to develop the guest character Gwyneth, the show stops dead for a prolonged scene of girl talk between her and Rose Tyler. The scene becomes significant, but so much of the screentime in the scene is silly and, for lack of a better term, ridiculously girlish. Rose Tyler comes across like a twelve year-old girl as opposed to a mature young woman. Picking up where “The End Of The World” left off (but managing not to allude to anything from that episode!), “The Unquiet Dead” is a ghost story that seeds several important elements for the rest of the season without being inherently good on its own.
Opening in a funeral home in 1860’s Cardiff, an undertaker allows Mr. Redpath to visit his dead grandmother, Mrs. Peace. Unfortunately, the corpse revives (with a blue glow) and kills Redpath. The undertaker Gabriel Sneed and Gwyneth (who has psychic abilities) go searching for the resurrected corpse as The Doctor and Rose head back to 1869 Cardiff (on Christmas). Charles Dickens, visiting Cardiff for a live presentation of A Christmas Carol sees the corpse of Mrs. Peace in the audience. Shocked, the screams of the audience bring the Doctor and Rose. The Doctor realizes the “ghosts” that are inhabiting Mrs. Peace are made of gas.
While Rose learns about Gwyneth’s mindreading and psychic abilities, the Doctor plans an exorcism. The dead manifest as the gaseous creatures through Gwyneth and the Doctor realizes that they are aliens known as the Gelth. Accompanied by a dumbfounded Charles Dickens, a guilt-stricken Doctor (who learned that the Time War was what cost the Gelth their physical form), argues that the Gelth should be allowed to use the corpses of humans to save their dying race. Cardiff stands on an interdimensional rift and by putting Gwyneth atop the rift allows the Gelth in their gaseous form to come through to Earth. But once through, they betray the Doctor; their survival comes with the need to create more human corpses! With that realization, The Doctor, Rose, and Dickens work to thwart the zombie horde and save Earth in the 1800s!
“The Unquiet Dead” is packed with ridiculousness. The concepts of the rift in Cardiff, the consequences of the Time War, and even the idea of ghosts essentially being gaseous aliens, are cool. But those ideas are diluted by bits that are unspeakably bad. Rose Tyler wonders how she can possibly die in 1869 if she hasn’t been born yet (this is insanely simple temporal mechanics!) and The Doctor commits Doctor Who to a complete write-off of sensible continuity when he declares that time is entirely in flux. That statement, used to explain to Rose how her insistence that history never recorded the dead walking around in 1869 or thereafter to put a damper on The Doctor’s plan to save the Gelth, eliminates the idea that time cannot be fundamentally changed by The Doctor’s trips through time.
The devil being in the details, “The Unquiet Dead” also fails because the conceits of Doctor Who are not used at all consistently. During the séance, The Doctor translates for the Gelth while Rose seems to need his interpretations of their language. But in “The End Of The World,” the TARDIS’s translation matrix flawlessly translated half a dozen alien languages for Rose. That translation matrix is inside both The Doctor and Rose, so whatever The Doctor comprehends linguistically, Rose ought to be able to as well.
“The Unquiet Dead” continues the flirtatious banter between The Doctor and Rose Tyler and that is fun to watch. Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston have amazing on-screen chemistry and when they hold hands there is a palpable energy between them. Thematically and on the character front, “The Unquiet Dead” serves to illustrate well the profound depth of The Doctor’s guilt over his role in ending the Great Time War. Realizing that he essentially destroyed the Gelth, he instantly leaps to their defense and advocates for their use of the human corpses. Obviously, this comes with severe consequences, but The Doctor’s heart is in the right place.
On par with The Doctor’s arc through his blind guilt over the ripples the Time War had, is the emotional journey of Charles Dickens. Dickens is characterized initially as crabby and withdrawn; “The Unquiet Dead” is about reviving the historical persona and breathing new life into him (and, presumably, his career). While The Doctor’s personal version of the Prime Directive is challenged in the contrasting ways he deals with the Gelth and Dickens, the episode is more problematic in that (this early in the series) it devotes so much time to a one-appearance character as opposed to the main cast. Dickens’s character arc is predictable and it’s hard to care about given that by the end of the episode, the viewer knows that Dickens will be (in one fashion or another) left behind.
The performances in “The Unquiet Dead” are generally, good, though Billie Piper’s reaction shots are disturbingly vacant. Piper is too smart an actress to effectively sell some of Rose’s dumb lines that she is forced to deliver with somewhat vacant amazement. Still, in the moments that call for The Doctor and Rose to be flirtatious, Piper and Eccleston rise to the challenge. Guest stars Eve Myles (Gwyneth) and Simon Callow (Dickens) are wonderful in their roles (it’s easy to see how Myles got Torchwood from this appearance!), but neither has so much presence that the viewer believes for a moment they will appear beyond the episode.
Ultimately, the first fall for Doctor Who is not huge. “The Unquiet Dead” introduces too many important elements to the larger plotline of the first season to be completely written off and foreshadowing things like Rose’s recent obsession about her dead father begin to draw her character with greater realism. But each time I watch “The Unquiet Dead,” I feel like the relevant information could have been brought into the series in a much more entertaining and clever way than through a b-rate (or c-rate) horror story.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sole season with the Ninth Doctor here!
For other works with Simon Callow, please visit my reviews of:
The Phantom Of The Opera
Shakespeare In Love
A Room With A View
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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