Doctor Who

Saturday, April 9, 2005 by

There are moments during each episode of the new series of Doctor Who when you know the programme makers are having the time of their lives. In “The Unquiet Dead”, its just after the Doctor and Rose have managed to land the TARDIS together and they’re simple lying on the floor in a heap laughing their heads off. At no point during the 27 odd years of the classic series would you expect to see that kind of familiarity and it exemplifies the brilliance of what this new show is doing – although there is danger and death, there is also tremendous fun.

It was the episode I was particularly looking forward to. I’ve been a great fan of Mark Gatiss’ previous work writing Doctor Who during the wilderness years on audio, in novels and on fan produced spin-off series. It was almost like an amazing double life, by day a quarter of The League of Gentlemen, at night beavering away getting Orson Wells to help the eighth Doctor save the world in the audio “Invaders from Mars” or creating the best third Doctor story we never saw in the novel The Last of the Gaderine. Working on the new series, like many of his colleagues, was a chance of a lifetime and put a stamp on why he’d helped keep the idea of the programme alive.

But there was also the prospect of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. Having played Dickens in the theatre, for the thespian to decide that Doctor Who would be the perfect time to put his impression of the man on screen, was, during the gestation period for the show, one of the casting milestones which increased the feeling that this was going to be something special, that finally there was going to be something good to watch on Saturday nights.

But it was also the tricky third episode. By the third episode of any series the formula is explained, the scenario demonstrated and the characters introduced. Depending on the type of show, it’s here we find out if the formula is flexible enough not to become repetitive, the scenario is intriguing enough to for us to want to carry on watching, and if the characters are solid enough to hold our interest.

“The Unquiet Dead” managed to succeed in all three.

It’s not unexpected that the TARDIS would land in the past this time out, having already been to the present and far future. But rather than picking something fairly generic instead its very specific. They might have landed the ship, but as usual it’s gone off course. Instead of Naples in 1860 as the Time Lord had promised his companion, its 1869 in Cardiff, when Dickens is in town during a theatre tour. What would be the point of following up a major historical event like the end of the world with The Battle of Hastings? It’s this contrast which perfectly demonstrates the flexibility of the show, the ability to tell stories large and small. Instead of inadvertently starting The Great Fire of London, The Doctor’s at an undertaker’s trying to work out how the dead are walking again.

This is also a chance to again evoke the past of the series. A love letter to those older “gothic” episodes produced by Philip Hinchcliffe during the 1970s and predominantly written by Robert Holmes; much like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, the supernatural appearing in amongst frock cloaks turning out to be alien invaders, the concepts of horror masking a science fiction core. Like those serials, the period detail is great, especially in the theatre where the ghosts first show themselves. The atmosphere is all there. And again, the special effects don’t disgrace themselves, with the villains being a computer generated character for the third week running. Gone are the days of a man in a giant rat costume trying to look menacing in a sewer.

It’s the revealingly contemporary core which runs through the episode that lifts it from being a mere copy of the past. These ghosts are aliens, the Gelth, using the dead human bodies to live in normal time again, refugees from a “time war”, something, by the look on the Doctor’s face, he knows everything about. Might this be what caused the destruction of his home world as mentioned in last week’s episode? Here’s where we come across the big difference to the classic series – a story arc is developing here the like of which only occurred on special occasions such as “The Key to Time” season in the past, but viewers of shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be entirely comfortable with. Importantly, it’s not about going off and finding a MacGuffin, its about the Doctor’s character and what he’s not telling us regarding what happened to him since last he was on our screens.

Plot is taking a back seat to characterization. Which is fine and stops much of the pointless running around which used to go on. But it does have the effect of creating the feeling of some parts of the story, in particular the Doctor’s discovery of the problem he needs to overcome ,have been edited out. Here it happened at the séance, with very little evidence, the Doctor had decided there was a rift in time through which these aliens were coming through. Frankly on first viewing I missed where this came from. I suppose if you’ve been on any job long enough you can see the signs really quickly.

In the previous couple of episodes, writer Russell T Davies and actor Christopher Eccleston’s interpretation of the Doctor has been different to say the least. In “Rose” he was manic, in “The End of the World” commanding yet soulful. Here he mixed the two with something else. Vulnerability. In Gatiss’ script, the Doctor became prone to a certain naïveté and makes some fundamental mistakes dealing with the situation at hand. Although the job is done in the end, he very much relies on the help of humanity. He also misunderstands the morality they cling to, in particular our attitude to the dead. “Don’t you carry a donor card?”

Much has been said about what a surprise Billie Piper has been, but the comic timing she displayed here was just perfect; for example when she finds out where the TARDIS has ended up. “I don’t care.” “I don’t care.” “Oh.”. But the creepy moment when we and Rose find out that there is more to Gwyneth, the maid, than meets the eye is entirely played on her face and its to the credit of director Euros Lyn that he lets her carry it. Rose is very far from the every-companion of the past, although she’s still asking questions and running off and getting captured, she’s also discovering much more, and at times the Doctor is asking her what to do.

What’s particularly gratifying is that all of the guest cast is taking the work very seriously. There was a tendency in the past to play everything massively “nothing in the world can stop me now!” and so forth. But here we find real people in extraordinary circumstances. Eve Myles’ work as Gwyneth was no different to what might be expected from any BBC costume drama. It’s very rare that family entertainment has this quality.

In addition, you can absolutely see why Callow wanted to play this Dickens. Unlike the generic historical figures who have appeared in this and other series and are presented as a pastiche of what the public know, Dickens was from a particular time in his life when he felt his age grip and his performance lecture tours were taking a toll on his health. As he sat in the dressing room of the theatre at the beginning contemplating what he had become and how he wondered if his imagination had deserted him, it could have been a scene from a bio-pic of the author (except this visit to Cardiff is a fiction – he never went there). He has his own story during the episode, as the magic the Doctor reveals to him allows him to understand that actually he does still have the capacity for new ideas and ends up saving the day. Powerful stuff.

A show going from strength to strength. Although the ratings were down last week, it seemed to be because of the nicer weather (every show was lower across the board). With this story I’m sure that a core audience will start developing and its going to be rather large. By episode four you’ll be talking about consolidation, and next week is the big invasion story. It’s called “Aliens of London” for goodness sake. If it can continue to be exciting but also increase the mystery of what happened and is happening with the Doctor I’m going to be very, very happy.


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