Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Doctor Who: "The Unquiet Dead"

"On and on I go, same old show.  I'm like a ghost, condemned to repeat myself through all eternity."  - Charles Dickens (as played by Simon Callow)

Premiered April 9, 2005

For those interested in the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey aspects of such things, this is the third episode of the 2005 re-boot of Doctor Who. 

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his companion, Rose (Billie Piper) take their first journey back in time together, traveling to Cardiff, Wales on Christmas Eve 1869.  Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) is in town to perform a dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol before a packed house of spectators.

One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong ... 
Dickens is in a melancholy mood, feeling estranged from his family and as if his joy in living is wearing thin.

Strange happenings are afoot at a local funeral parlor, where corpses seem to be coming to life and are wandering around Cardiff, creating more corpses in their wake.  The undertaker, Gabriel Sneed (Alan David), wants to cover up the fact that the reanimated dead seem to be emanating from his establishment on the grounds that people knowing about it would be bad for business.

Sneed's maidservant Gwyneth (Eve Myles) wants to get help for their zombiefied corpse problem, but Sneed insists on taking care of it himself.   Gwyneth has clairvoyant abilities, about which she feels somewhat ambivalent, and Sneed has been using her skills to track down the wandering corpses.   The wandering corpse in question at this juncture belongs to an elderly woman who has just strangled her grandson as he leaned over her coffin to pay his last respects.

Gwyneth focuses on the old woman's last desire, which was to see Mr. Dickens' reading, so she and Sneed wind up at the reading around the same time as the Doctor and Rose.

All heck breaks loose as something ghostlike, gaseous and loud hisses forth from the reanimated old woman, who is seated in the middle of the audience at the reading.

The Doctor is (naturally) fascinated.  The audience is scared out of its wits.  Mr. Dickens is perplexed and thinks this must be some kind of a trick.   Rose is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She gets chloroformed by Mr. Sneed and dragged back to the funeral parlor.

The Doctor enlists Charles Dickens' aid (and carriage) to go rescue Rose.

Solving the mystery of the "Unquiet Dead" will require a seance and considerable courage.

Will everyone survive the experience?   Will Charles Dickens locate his Christmas spirit and zest for living?

RigbyMel says:

Full disclosure,  Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors and Doctor Who is one of my favorite tv series, the combination of the two is somewhat hard to resist where I am concerned.

I quite like the characterization of Charles Dickens by Simon Callow in this episode.

Dickens doesn't often appear as a character in tv or film, but it is worth noting that he has been played by Simon Callow on several different occasions other than this episode.  (Callow has also written extensively about Dickens and performed a one man show as Dickens, so one thinks he might have a pretty good handle on how to play him.)

Dickens was a clever chap and although he is definitely confused by and skeptical about the bizarre situation in which he finds himself (who wouldn't be?)  He manages to deal with it fairly well and actually helps to save the day when the Doctor and Rose get trapped.

The Doctor:  "I saw the Fall of Troy!  World War Five! I pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party!  Now I'm gonna die in a dungeon ... in Cardiff!" 
This episode early in the re-boot of the series harks back to the educational aspects of Doctor Who that have always been present on the show.  Meeting historical figures is a favorite trope and Dickens' state of mind at the beginning of the episode tallies well with his actual biography.

There are bits of Ebenezer Scrooge evident in the world-weary Dickens we encounter at the beginning of the episode and also some fun parallels with Dickens' idealism as a writer and the Doctor's desire to save the world (literally) again and again.

After Mr. Dickens' encounter with some Christmas "spirits" and the Doctor, he is ready to reconcile with his family and "keep Christmas in his heart."  We even get a "God bless us, every one!" by the end of the episode.  

Speaking as a history geek, I also really love the interplay between the Victorian characters, the Doctor and Rose.  Gwyneth and Rose have a nice moment together in the scullery talking about boys and being a bit weirded out by their different approaches to proper deportment.   The Doctor manages to completely confuse Dickens when he says he is Dickens' "number one fan."  Dickens asks how the Doctor is like a device used for cooling oneself.    Shades of Christmas Past meeting Christmas Yet To Come, perhaps?

I would also like to point out that Gwyneth is a classic Dickensian orphan character in a heroic vein!

I do have a minor complaint about the ending seeming overly rushed, but don't want to go into detail as it might spoil the episode for those who have not seen it.

That being said, this is a wonderfully creepy and fun episode of Doctor Who and one of many great episodes of the series with Christmas themes and settings.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and a half Candy Canes.

J.A. Morris says:

Like my co-blogger,I'm a huge Dickens fan, and Christopher Eccleston is my favorite Doctor.  Since this was the third episode of the Doctor Who revival, it played a big role in making me a devoted fan of the series.  With annual Christmas specials, the Doctor has become as much a part of Christmas as Rudolph and Charlie Brown.  But this was the first of his holiday-themed adventures and it first aired as a regular episode (in April).

In addition to the main plot, "The Unquiet Dead" marks an important evolution for Rose. She confronts the Doctor at one point when he wants to allow the Gelth to inhabit dead bodies.  Rose thinks it's indecent, the Doctor points out that they are dealing in a different morality with different values. She must get used to it if she wants to be his travelling companion.  However, Rose's concerns are justified in this instance.

One note about the cast:
Gwyneth is portrayed by Eve Myles, who later played Gwen Cooper on the series Torchwood, a spinoff of Doctor Who.  The series' creative team has said that Gwyneth and Gwen are "related" due to "Spacial Genetic Multiplicity."

"The Unquiet Dead" is one of my favorite episodes of the series and I enjoy watching it every Christmas season.  I highly recommend it to fans of Dickens and any Whovians who may not have discovered the series prior to the David Tennant or Matt Smith eras.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 Candy Canes!