The Unquiet Dead *****

Walking corpses, gaseous aliens and Charles Dickens... Mark Gatiss’s debut episode is an absolute scream

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Unquiet Dead *****

Story 159 

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

Storyline
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 

Production
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. 

Cast

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

Crew

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.

The cast is small but impeccable, from sitcom specialist Alan David (I remember him in Eric Chappell’s The Squirrels) and of course enunciator extraordinaire Simon Callow, to Eve Myles – so striking as the empathetic Gwyneth that Russell T gave her a leading role in Torchwood. 

A few quibbles. The spectral swirlings are all a bit Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially when the beatific “angel” turns demonic. And perhaps we should allow the Doctor one lapse in not recognising Charlie Boy – he usually spots a historical figure at 100 paces. But Rose Tyler reveals superhuman powers already: despite the wind whipping around the wintry streets of Cardiff, the bare-shouldered Rose doesn’t shiver once!

I remember when I first saw The Unquiet Dead I thought it was tied up too neatly. Would I get used to the new, 45-minute, cliffhangerless stories? In some ways I still haven’t. But there is depth and complication. Some of the Doctor’s dismissals of Earth concerns are shocking, and it’s a taste of things to come. As he says to Rose, his new best friend, remember, “It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home.”

An assured debut from Gatiss, then. It’s playful, chilling and poignant in all the right places, and one of the frisson-filled high spots in a superlative first season back.

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