nuWho 1×03: The Unquiet Dead

Victorian England and Charles Dickens and streams of spectral light emanating from people’s mouths. This ought to be fun.

We open with an undertaker consoling a man over the loss of his grandmother. “She was so full of life,” the man says as he looks down at her. “I can’t believe she’s gone.” “Merely sleeping,” the undertaker soothes; then he leaves. Suddenly her face turns blue and wisps of light come out of it. Her eyes open wide, and she reaches up and strangles her grandson. The undertaker rushes in, rolls his eyes, yells “We’ve got another one!” and is overpowered. Grandmama busts her coffin open, rises in the approved stiff fashion, and walks into the camera, moaning and emitting blue spirits from her mouth, to finish the teaser.

Oh, how I love cheese done well.

The undertaker calls for his housekeeper, Gwyneth (sounds like Quinnah to me), to help him corral that old lady. Gwyneth tries to convince him to get the authorities involved. The undertaker assures her that he will get help, just as soon as he takes care of this little problem. I have my doubts about that. If rumors once get out that corpses you’re entrusted with come back to life, you’re sure to lose all the mother-in-law and rich uncle trade. It’s just not worth it.

Rose is tickled that they have landed in Christmastime. She muses on the impermanence of things: Christmas 1860 only happened once and then was gone forever, except for the Doctor. This pops up a few times during this episode, the flexibility of time and timelines.

The undertaker, Mr. Sneed (how’s that for a Dickensian name), urges his housekeeper to use the sight to detect Grandmama’s position, threatening to fire her if she doesn’t obey. The housekeeper says their quarry is lost and bewildered, but excited for tonight and expecting to see a great, great man all the way from London.

Now we meet Charles Dickens. He’s got curly, two-toned hair and a beard, the better for inept viewers like me to distinguish the important characters from the background. He is moody because he’s feeling alone on Christmas Eve, having apparently gotten himself into trouble with his family. (I see David Copperfield had been published by then, so I’ll believe it.)

Dickens feels old and wonders gloomily if ‘he’s thought everything he’ll ever think.’ Oh dear. Should I go ahead and check his bibliography to guess what the Doctor will inspire him to write?

The Doctor is futzing around under the control console when Rose steps out in the latest fashion. The Doctor demonstrates his alienness again by saying with surprised admiration that she looks beautiful . . . uh, for a human that is. Yeah, that’s the ticket. She does look better a few seconds later in what I guess is different light, but on first impression I’m not convinced that black and that color go together all that well in that proportion, much less on her. Maybe the black whatsit around her neck reminds him of his prom date. I wonder where Time Lords like to hold their proms.

Rose steps out into an alleyway of glistening clean, color-coordinated buildings. I’m not sure that’s how the 19th century worked, or how the 21st century works for more than a month or two.

Dickens steps out on stage to 99% warm applause and 1% sunken zombie eyes. Meanwhile, Rose manages to avoid running into horses but seems surprised when the attached cart passes in front of her. Not sure what she thought a pair of horses on a street would be doing that wouldn’t involve something behind them. The Doctor picks up a newspaper and finds that it is in fact 1869. The first of two burns on Cardiff occurs now, and they’re both good ones.

Dickens is performing A Christmas Carol from memory. He gets to the knocker suddenly having Jacob Marley’s face, at which point I guess Grandmama Redpath can’t hold her excitement in any longer and pulses blue in the face. She stands up, moans supernaturally, wisps start to come out of her mouth, and everyone screams and rushes for the exit. Hearing this perks the Doctor up, and he heads for the trouble. (Is the Ninth a thrill-seeker? Looking to make amends? Or eager to return to his old rhythm of life?)

The theatre has been mostly emptied by the time the Doctor and undertaker arrive. The blue wisp has also entirely left Grandmama, and she slumps over, a mere corpse again. Dickens thinks the Doctor caused this with some optical chicanery (which would be quite a trick with the wisp swirling all over the place), while Rose apparently thinks the undertaker and his housekeeper are picking on an old woman and hurries after them. How she thinks she has any understanding of the situation is beyond me. I would have guessed they were helping a fainted old woman out of danger.

She finds the old lady being loaded into a hearse and naturally assumes that those two have killed her, whereupon Mr. Sneed chloroforms her because, well, plot reasons. Either he’s a decisive, unscrupulous person, or this was the easiest way to tie up this scene quick and drag the protagonists to the mortuary. It feels like both to me. The Doctor comes out, deduces that that strange woman just put Rose in the hearse, and commandeers the Dickens coach for a chase. He goes fanboy on Dickens, causing Dickens to warm up to him. The conversation’s transition back to focusing on Rose feels a bit clunky to me.

The Doctor listens to a wall and determines that something is living in the mortuary’s gas pipes. Meanwhile Rose tries to fight off a couple of possessed bodies. Good to see she’s learned something since the pilot. Unfortunately that just means she hurls a vase at one of them and then hammers and shouts at the door until one grabs her. This is why RPGs are important. They teach you how important, and how easy, it is to not get cornered by shambling corpses. With the layout of that room, she should expect to keep them away indefinitely. The Doctor walks in, pulls an arm off of her face, then asks what they want. The possessors say they want help surviving, then flee the bodies for the safety of the wall candles. That’s the ghosts over and done with, then. It’s aliens now.

Obviously this is time for tea, and time for Rose to berate Sneed. You tell him what-for, Rose. The Doctor thinks the blue wisps showing up are a sign that a rift between here and elsewhere is getting bigger. Sneed relates the house’s “haunted” history, in appropriately muted lighting. The camera angles and the room itself seem to be going for a crowded, enclosed feeling. The Doctor’s amusement counteracts the effect a little, though.

Actually, between this room and Rose’s skirt and other shots, I wonder if they were going for a muted warm and neutral color scheme throughout, to contrast with the bright blue wisps. They certainly aren’t shirking on the candlelight.

Dickens wanders off, poking at lights and corpses to try to discover the “mechanism” behind what’s happening. The Doctor apologizes for telling him to shut up. Dickens gets existential. I don’t see how the reality of ghosts trivializes starving orphans, but he’s badly rattled and he’s been melancholic about his life lately, so I’m sure it’s all tangled together in his brain right now.

Rose is too astonished at 19th-century economics to notice that anti Vashti Nerada are now inhabiting her shadow, causing it to be much lighter than it was just a few seconds ago.

In a kitchen-like room, Gwyneth lights a powerful wall candle so the gas people can visit if they want to, then scolds Rose for trying to help her do her job. Rose has no idea how this works, apparently, because she accuses Sneed of working Gwyneth to death. I’ve watched the whole episode and I don’t have that impression. All Rose knows is that Sneed had her help carry the old lady off, probably help carry Rose around (and Rose isn’t exactly Donna Noble-sized), and make tea. Gwyneth looks to be in good health too. Now, Sneed is certainly domineering in his own way, but if Rose thinks Gwyneth has a bad life, well, she obviously hasn’t read Dickens. Anyway, they bond over daring deeds of school truancy. Gwyneth is taken aback at Rose’s blunt mode of speech, but Rose is trying to get her to open her life up to more than being Sneed’s housekeeper. This part may not seem entirely relevant to the main story, but it’s a chance to give Rose more of a character, so I’ll take it. That is one powerful candle that Gwyneth lit. Maybe there are more at the other end of the room, out of sight. Anyway, Gwyneth lets slip that she knows Rose’s dad is dead and a couple of other things that can’t be explained away by her thinking too much. Then she gets all future-see-y and Rose-brain-read-y and weirds Rose out, ending with a reference to the big, bad wolf.

The Doctor explains that since Gwyneth grew up on top of the rift, she’s part of it. In fact, she’s “the key.” For Gwyneth, the sight has been a curse more than a blessing. She hears voices in the night, goes to spiritualists for help, feels that what she has is not a right thing. But she’s here, and the Doctor intends to use her in a seance. Dickens wants nothing to do with this — apparently spiritual quackery is part of what he’s worked so hard against.

The seance works, and the aliens (the Gelth) tell their story. They’re nearly extinct, their planet and physical forms having been ravaged by war. The Doctor is not paying attention to his own story arc, as he doesn’t know right away that it was the Time War. They want Gwyneth brought to the rift to serve as a bridge. Ultimately, they want to use dead humans as new bodies on a more permanent basis. Rose is aghast at the idea, but the Doctor rebukes her: “Why not? Not decent, not polite? It could save their lives.” With a final cry for pity, the Gelth leave. Rose tends to Gwyneth while Dickens gives up on his disbelief.

The Doctor is clearly for trying the Gelth’s plan. But Gwyneth is exhausted, and Rose divides her time between mothering her and trying to shoot down the plan. The Doctor finally tells her, “It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home.” This Doctor is not much for diplomacy or hashing out arguments. Gwyneth gently tells Rose that she’s ready to help “the angels”, whom she regards as being sent by her mother in childhood to sing to her. Conveniently, the weakest spot is the morgue itself, so down there they go.

Rose wants to know why there weren’t any corpses walking around England in 1869. The Doctor tells her that history is easily changed. He then offers the Gelth transport to somewhere else where they can build new bodies and let the old ones once again lie in peace. Quite a reasonable solution all around. He could have mentioned this to Rose, but it would have gotten in the way of the points he was trying to make.

The main spirit turns red and fiery — it’s a devil, not an angel! There are a lot of them, and they aren’t interested in the Doctor’s deal when there are so many people on Earth they can use. Corpses begin to animate and attack the living characters as more Gelth come out of Gwyneth’s mouth. Sneed is possessed. Rose and the Doctor take refuge behind a gate and reconcile themselves to dying. The Doctor mentions three big historical events he’s been witness to, and unsurprisingly they’re all violent. Dickens comes up with a clumsily explained idea: let gas fill the house and draw the Gelth out of the bodies. Ignoring the fact that air itself is a gas, they’re perfectly capable of swimming around in open air already, and why would they come out of the bodies if they want to be in the bodies?

Anyway, it apparently works. Gwyneth can’t send them back, but she can control them enough to keep them present while she ignites the gas. Rose screams at her not to do it, but the Doctor sends her away with a promise to keep Gwyneth safe. The Doctor offers to do it himself, but she’s too dead to listen, so he leaves her to her brave end. Outside after the explosion, he has to meet Rose’s accusing eyes. He suggests that Gwyneth had been dead from the moment she got into position. Rose protests as to how that could be, but Dickens exercises his new open-mindedness. (The unspoken answer is that Gwyneth retained “scraps” of herself.) Dickens, in fact, has a new lease on life. Now that he has unlearned what he has learned, he’s freed to go home and make peace with his family, and maybe write an ending to his murder mystery that will be met with cries of foul play. And yes, that’s an actual novel that was unfinished at the time of his death.

I’m not used to this level of dissension between the Doctor and his companions. You’d think it would happen more often, realistically, so I’m glad to see it getting some play here. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but yeah. Rose’s attitude is entirely understandable. The idea of aliens surviving by using the bodies of dead humans may seem tame in a sci-fi context, and certainly the Doctor will approve of saving lives, but it’s really a very strange-to-contemporary-humans idea that goes against everyday Western ways of thinking. Possibly she would have come around to it with more time and less pressure. But how upsetting would it be to lose a loved one, bury him or her out of sight, try to move on with your life, and then suddenly the person is walking around town again — except it’s completely something else in that body, and all it does for you is constantly remind you of that person you’ll never have back again?

I think it would have been interesting — not better, but an idea for another story — to play up the candle connection with the menace more. Later monsters, the Vashta Nerada and the Weeping Angels, will play into light’s significance as a giver of life and knowledge. How creepy would it have been to invert that here, if they had had to extinguish all the lights in the house so the spooks couldn’t reach them, rather than as part of a quick finishing tactic? To sit there in pitch black, silent and blind, afraid every moment that this was a fatal mistake and any moment a flash of blue would appear in the darkness and there would be nowhere to run?

I actually looked at the wiki entry for this episode, and apparently somebody blasted this episode when it came out for having a nasty anti-immigration message. That never occurred to me while watching it. The wiki also mentions several previous incidents where the Doctor referenced Dickens, so his fanaticism here is not out of the blue.

Overall, I enjoyed this episode, but there are several little bits here and there that I feel really needed some more polishing, so I’m going to do something I don’t mean to do terribly often and give a half rating.

Rating: 2.5 chloroforming Mister Sneeds

Favorite dialogue: Dickens: “Can it be that I have the world entirely wrong?”
Doctor: “Not wrong. There’s just more to learn.”

Number of Dickens literary references I noticed: 3
Number of Shakespeare literary references I noticed: 2

This was originally posted August 15, 2014.

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