Sunday, 30 March 2014

'The Unquiet Dead'

‘What the Shakespeare is going on here..?’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Can the Doctor and Rose inspire Charles Dickens to cheer himself up, plus foil an invasion of disembodied bodysnatchers all in one night?

Best moment for Old School Who?
Surprisingly, Twentieth Century Doctor Who rarely visited the Victorian era but when it did it was great. ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’ is one of the all-time classics, and its influence is felt here and there in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – not least in the theatre scenes and the mordant wit of the early scenes at the undertaker’s.

Best new thing?
The Doctor thinks he has a plan. Why shouldn’t he help these aliens to achieve their objective, and survive on Earth by inhabiting human corpses? It’s simple recycling. If Rose doesn’t like the idea, then she’d better think again about travelling with him. But he’s wrong. He’s got it completely wrong. If things went his way, Earth would be overrun by the Gelth. It’s brave, humble Gwyneth who actually saves the day. One of the distinctive features of early New Who is the decentring of the Doctor: the recasting of our hero as less of an all-knowing superman.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
The scale and spectacle of everything is much grander than it ever was in Twentieth Century Who. We see a whole old-time-music-hall audience decked out in their finery, we have horses and carriages and fake snow. It feels like a proper BBC costume drama, with a bit of lavishness and all the attention to detail you’d expect.

Also, the telling of a story that feels old-school allows us to appreciate the differences – that everything is a whole lot more dynamic, and we aren’t stuck inside studio sets all the time. But we do feel a lack of a proper villain, prancing and gloating and taunting the Doctor. That’s two out of three episodes already without a solid adversary… and that’s something Old Who rarely chanced.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
It has to be Simon Callow as Dickens and his journey from moping about in his dressing room, feeling he had nothing new to learn from life – to his practically skipping about in the final frames, dizzied by what he’s experienced.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
Rose’s scene in the scullery with Gwyneth comes too soon after her bonding with the plumber in episode two. Some of the same notes are hit here, and it feels a bit obvious to find her chiming in with another supposedly low-class character.

The astounding story arc stuff is to do with Gwyneth actually calling the Time War by name, and the Gelth explaining how only the higher species were aware of something disastrous and cosmic going on. Suddenly Doctor Who’s monsters and villains are talking about the same universe out there, and galactic goings-on beyond our ken. This is real continuity and mythos-building, and it’s exciting. Also, ‘Bad Wolf’ is mentioned outright by Gwyneth in connection with Rose. All the clues are here, building up, episode by episode.

This was the first episode I was conscious of ending too soon. The climax in the morgue comes much too quickly. I’d love a few more characters – policemen, landladies, reporters and Welsh chapter of a Limehouse Chinese tong, perhaps. It’s a story that cries out for more time and a few nighttime stakeouts in graveyards and a bit more slowly-developing creepiness. For me, we learn much too quickly about the Gelth and what they pretend to want, and what they actually want. Really, episode three was the beginning of my feeling that the stories weren’t getting enough time before we were zooming off elsewhere.

Where was I?
I loved that fact of its bookishness. I loved that we were going back into old-school Who territory and seeing a bit more of the Victorian era. It was literary and macabre, and the Doctor and Rose being so irreverent and slangy and – at times – silly, was a breath of fresh air.

Singlemost fabulous thing
I think it has to be Dickens’ rapport with the Doctor, who he first disdainfully describes as looking like ‘a navvy.’ And, of course, that’s exactly what this Doctor would seem like to a Victorian Gent. Many of the previous Doctors would swan up to Dickens in their frock coats and cravats and he’d be much more respectful. And so would the Doctor, but there’s no reverence here – there’s fannishness, as the Doctor burbles on in the back of the cab to an astonished and flattered novelist. ‘Do the death of Little Nell! That cracks me up every time!’

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