Series 1 – Episode 3
“We want to stand tall, to feel the sunlight, to live again. We need a physical form and your dead are abandoned, they go to waste. Give them to us!” – the Gelth
The Doctor takes Rose back in time to 1869 Cardiff, where people are being menaced by reanimated corpses and creatures made of gas. An initially sceptical Charles Dickens – on tour with a one-man show – joins the time travellers when they investigate the terrifying events, which are centred on a funeral parlour belonging to Gabriel Sneed. The psychic maid, Gwyneth, agrees to channel the gaseous race, called the Gelth, whose plans for corporeal existence are more extensive than the Doctor realised….
First UK transmission
Saturday 9 April 2005
Locations: September 2004 at New Theatre, Cardiff; Swansea Marina; Beaufort Arms Court, Church Street and St Mary’s Street, Monmouth. September, October 2004 at Headlands School, Penarth.
Studio: September, October 2004 at Unit Q2, Newport.
Doctor Who – Christopher Eccleston
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Charles Dickens – Simon Callow
Gabriel Sneed – Alan David
Redpath – Huw Rhys
Mrs Peace – Jennifer Hill
Gwyneth – Eve Myles
Stage manager – Wayne Cater
Driver – Meic Povey
The Gelth – Zoe Thorne
Writer – Mark Gatiss
Director – Euros Lyn
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young
RT review by Mark Braxton
Mark Gatiss’s phantasmagoric melange of ghost story, hero-worship and gallows humour by the casket introduces yet another flurry of firsts. It’s the first story set in Cardiff, the first of the new run to be written by someone other than the showrunner, and the first historical adventure since 1989. In many ways the initial story idea by Russell T Davies was a perfect fit for the League of Gentlemen’s Gatiss, with his love of Who and horror, Victoriana and tar-black gagsmithery.
A pre-production change of tone from a grim frightfest to more of a romp allowed Gatiss to revel in the comic possibilities: “The stiffs are getting lively again!”; “Get the hearse ready; we’re going bodysnatching!”; “It’s not my fault if the dead won’t stay dead!”
Which isn’t to say that The Unquiet Dead is a string of off-colour gags. Rather, Gatiss’s debut is a sparkling script, as crisp and inviting as a winter wonderland. Indeed, the magic of that one foot in the past is beautifully realised, as Rose’s booted footfall crumps in the Victorian snow, to some suitably wondrous twinkling from composer Murray Gold.
Added to the sinister spirituals and the Doctor and Rose’s blossoming friendship is a questing, reflective Charles Dickens. Gatiss is never heavy-handed in his character portrait, offloading his fandom onto the Doctor (“You’re brilliant, you are!”) and offering a persuasive snapshot of the novelist in the twilight of his career. “Now you tell me that the real world is a realm of spectres and jack o’lanterns. In which case… have I wasted my brief span here, Doctor? Has it all been for nothing?”
The situation is key to the story’s success. Doctor Who’s take on Six Feet Under could be a morbid misstep but for the lightness of touch, and for the palace-of-varieties subplot. The theatre setting, with its dreams and escapism, is inherently good for Doctor Who. Gatiss knew how well it worked in the 1977 story The Talons of Weng-Chiang and he homages that classic here.
There’s more than a little of Talons’ fêted writer Robert Holmes in some of his dialogue, too. Exhibit A, as uttered by Dickens: “The lure of the limelight… as potent as a pipe. On with the motley!” Today’s trend is for writers to graft modern manners and turns of phrase onto historical characters, but to me that’s just lazy; Gatiss’s use of language is delicious and appropriate to the period.
There’s a bounty of superb scenes, most of them in the first half-hour – Dickens girding his loins before curtain-up, the ghastly sight of old Mrs Peace vomiting Gelth, Rose and Gwyneth girl-bonding – but it was one grace note that made my son laugh the loudest. It’s when the Doctor’s curiosity is suddenly pricked by the sound of a scream: “That’s more like it!” It may seem a small thing, but get the Doctor right and you’re always halfway to a good story.