“The Unquiet Dead” – Review: Redux

“How exactly are you a ‘fan’? In what way do you resemble a means of keeping oneself cool?” Charles Dickens

The Unquiet Dead

The anticipation for “The Unquiet Dead” was pretty high as it was being penned by the League Of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, who has since kept his association with the show by scribing six episodes such as the not-nearly-as-good “The Idiot’s Lantern” and the really rather watchable “Cold War”, not to mention his narration of Doctor Who Confidential’s second season and playing a few acting roles in the show, most notably, an eponymous role in “The Lazarus Effect”. TUD is also noteworthy for one of its other stars, Eve Myles, who went on to play PC Gwen Cooper in the spinoff series, Torchwood that was based on the very rift at the centre of this story (although we, and indeed she, didn’t know any of that at the time). The episode also served to keep the show in the newspaper headlines following its harrowing opening scene when the corpse of Redpath’s grandmother comes alive, kills him and heads out into the street with a blood curdling scream, which drew complaints from certain more sensitive viewers (and Mediawatch, if memory serves correctly). Of course, this mainly served to get the fans all misty-eyed about Mary Whitehouse in the good old days and re-assure us all that the show was on the right track.

In the episode, Simon Callow got the chance to play Charles Dickens and not for the first time in his career. He commented in an interview that his heart sank when he heard that Dickens was to be portrayed in a show like this, presumably fearing that it would be fairly hackneyed part but, on reading the script, he had a complete change of heart because he felt that the writing of the character was so true and honest. He was certainly a joy to watch and stole every scene he was in. And you can see what Simon Callow liked about the script. It was a good ghost story (albeit with a typical Doctor Who, alien twist) but it had a real energy to it and a pace that you generally don’t see in Victorian dramas, interspersed with some great dialogue. For example, the coach scene with Charles Dickens and the Doctor when the latter realises who is sat next to him was perfectly executed… Dickens: “I thought you were my ‘number one fan’”, Doctor: “Well, you gotta learn how to take criticism”: an exchange that works on many levels when you think about how fans of the show have been quick to criticise the very thing that they admire.

Visually, I wasn’t that impressed with the Gelth themselves but I think that is more to do with my own preferences rather than any detriment to the work of The Mill. I’ve not really spoken about special effects either under the leadership of Danny Hargreaves or the computer generated stuff that The Mill provide, but there is lovely little on-screen nugget in “The Unquiet Dead” that demonstrates a beautiful attention to detail in this still very new programme: When the TARDIS dematerialised at the end there was a little accumulation of snow on the Police Box’s panels that, as the engines kick into life, spin away in tiny vortices as Dickens watches on. That kind of attention to detail gives the visuals so much more depth than we’d ever seen before.

The episode was also a good success in the ratings: TEOTW had seen the viewers drop from the heady heights of Rose’s 10.8m, back down to a still excellent fraction under 8.0m. However, this one saw a significant rise in viewers up to about 8.9m but bums on seats is not the only statistic of import. Audience share for the 3 stories had been 45%, 38% and 38%, and Audience Appreciation had been a monumental 76, 76 and (for this episode) 80! One could write a daily blog, and I’m sure people actually do, about things that can be read into the Doctor Who ratings with their trends and changes and peaks and troughs, but despite the eye-opening numbers that Series One attracted, the fact that we can sit here over eight years later and discover that a live, Sunday night magazine whose sole purpose was only to announce the casting of a new Doctor, could still attract a shade under 7m viewers, is staggering.

I guess the main crux of events was once again the development of Rose as she learnt more lessons in her life as a time-traveller and we really start to see the strength of her character here too; happily going toe-to-toe with the Doctor when she needs to. The revelation of Billie Piper’s acting prowess over these first triumverate of episodes alone, irrespective of the heights she goes on to reach, is yet another reason, if one were needed, why Doctor Who in 2005 was a special kind of wonderful. Rose had found herself an ally in Gwyneth, Mr Sneed’s servant girl, but there was a clash of cultures (forshame) and while Rose befriended Gwyneth in a very modern manner, Gwyneth herself did not really know how to respond in kind. Her ultimate sacrifice led Rose to comment, “She saved the world. A servant girl. And no-one will ever know” and may be that was a little nod towards her own future as well.

Highlight: Simon Callow doing what Simon Callow does.

Lowlight: The Doctor doesn’t play a part in the resolution.

Talking Point: Is the Bad Wolf going to get crowbarred in at every opportunity?

Demon’s Run Rating: 14 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 9th April 2005

Marathon Status: Less than a hundred episodes to go: cause for a celebratory drink.

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