Christmas Special Review – Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss

Cardiff, Christmas 1869 and undertaker Gabriel Sneed is having problems with the dead rising.  Fortunately, the Doctor and his companion, Rose Tyler, have arrived… as has a certain well renowned author by the name of Charles Dickens.

But what does these resurrections have to do with an alien race who travel through the gas pipes?  And are they as innocent and defenseless as they claim?

You thought that I was going to review an episode like “The Christmas Invasion” or “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe”… no way.  If I’m going to do a review, I’m going to go for the REAL first Christmas Special following Doctor Who’s return in 2005, albeit a Christmas special that was shown in April.

Mark Gattis’s story may seem like an episode that simply uses the Christmas time period to shoe horn Dickens in as the Doctor’s first encounter with a notable historic figure in the programme’s new incarnation and mix it with a zombie story, but it also deals with the main theme of Dickens’s own “A Christmas Carol” of the personal reclamation of a single man, in the case of “The Unquiet Dead” Dickens himself – a man worn down by circumstance and age.

Putting Christopher Eccleston’s of the ninth incarnation of the Doctor into context of the series, gone is the happy-go-lucky adventurer who we travelled with up until 1996 when Paul McGann set course for new adventures that we’d never get to witness.  Eccleston’s Doctor is a warrior wrapped up in survivor’s guilt (for reasons that would only become clear as the programme developed under Russell T. Davies’s stewardship).  The Doctor’s guilt, along with his alien morality where he doesn’t see a problem in the Gelth using dead people as hosts, is the catalyst for him basically being hoodwinked into being an unwitting accomplice for their invasion plans.

Another great aspect of Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor that is firmly on display here is that he is a Doctor of extremes in temperaments – on the one hand he is having a laugh and a joke whilst calling Dickens “Charlie” and being a fanboy when he meets his literary idol, whilst on the other, he dismisses Dickens’s lack of vision at anything that defies 19th century conventional wisdom and threatening to return Rose to her own time.

At this stage, the character of Rose is still getting her feet wet as a companion to the Doctor and Billie Piper conveys this perfectly.  Rose’s initial joy at the magic of time travel leads to some lovely dialogue between Piper and Eccleston including Rose’s reaction to the fact that a specific Christmas Day lasts only once whilst the Doctor can see days over and over again, if he wished, and the fact that Rose wants to be the first to step into the past.

Piper also sets the template for the companions who follow her by being unafraid to challenge the Doctor’s beliefs.  She feels and vocalises that the Gelth using the dead as vehicles is morally wrong plus she uses her humanity to challenge the Doctor’s plan to use Gwyneth as a gateway for the Gelth to cross the rift.

Speaking of the rift, this is the first mention of the temporal rift which would figure largely in “Boom Town”, “Utopia” and, most notably, the first three series of “Torchwood”.  So it’s fitting that Eve Myles, one of Torchwood’s key cast members, makes her debut in the Whoniverse in this story.  Her portrayal of Gwyneth initially wrong foots the viewer by leading them to believe that she’s a simple maid who has the “sight”.  Instead, her contact with Rose opens her up to new ideas whilst making her confident enough to challenge Rose’s prejuidice at her lack of ability to know her own mind.  This makes her death late on in the story all the more tragic as it’s case of a life being snuffed out just as she was fulfilling her potential.

Alan David’s character of Gabriel Sneed has all the feeling of coming straight out of a Dickens book. A comic grotesque who turns a blind eye to the dead becoming animated again, so it could be seen as karma that he ends up joining the ranks of the Gelth by virtue of a broken neck by the end of the episode.

But I think Ms Myles and Mr David will surely yield the guest star laurels willingly to Simon Callow who uses his scholarly knowledge of Dickens alongside Gattis’s script to give depth to the character’s journey.  At the start of the story, Dickens is morose and lacking in the vigour during the Festive season with hints that it is due to the punishing schedule of readings along with the real Dickens’s separation from his wife and his alleged relationship with actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.  He is also steadfast in his belief that he believes in some form of higher power which leads to his willingness to debunk the Gelth and their origins whilst later quoting Hamlet to explain that there could be some other force at work beyond the comprehension of mortal men.  The adventure that Dickens undertakes in this story is reminiscent not only of the transition that Scrooge makes in “A Christmas Carol” but also that of Vincent in “Vincent And The Doctor”.

You may ask why I make the comparison between Dickens and Vincent.  Well, both characters gain a new purpose by the end of their adventuring which is bittersweet considering their fates shortly after their respective stories – Dickens through his untimely death following a stroke in 1870 and Vincent through his committing suicide a year after his adventure.

But this is not a day to be morose.  Give this story a try for an offbeat look at Christmas and the way that it can restore one’s faith in human nature, and in the words of Charlie Dickens at the end of the episode, “God bless us, everyone!”

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