Monday, 3 February 2014

The Unquiet Dead written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Euros Lyn

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Rose and Charles Dickens team up to take on an alien menace…

Northern Adventurer: There’s a real feeling of wanting to explore all facets of the Doctor/Rose relationship from the giddy thrill of landing somewhere that is a complete mystery to the conflict that arises from their different takes on the morality of the situation. I especially like the angle the episode takes with the Doctor being Dickens’ biggest fan because it allows Christopher Eccleston to speak passionately about something rather than overemphasising the joy of his life to the nth degree. The Doctor is as rude to Dickens here as he was to Rose in her debut episode but the difference is he finds a quiet moment to apologise for that. Within their argument we get to see what both the Doctor and Rose are made out of; he can see past the discomforting notion of bodies rising from the grave en masse to the core of the problem which is a race that is suffering and she understands the social and moral implications of the situation and acts for all intents and purposes as the mouth piece for the human race who would object strongly to this solution. Contrast this with the Eastenders back biting between them in Father’s Day (a little bile just came up just writing those words) and Gatiss shows you how to inject tension into their relationship in a very intelligent way that allows both characters to shine and without making you swallow down a mouthful of bile. Cornell take note. It was at this point that I really started to see the pattern emerging of the Doctor encouraging guest characters to wrap up the plot for him. Rose was responsible for the defeat the Nestene Consciousness, The End of the World featured Jabe burning to ashes in order to allow him to get back into the thick of the action and The Unquiet Dead sees another innocent lose their life to stop an alien menace. It fits the characters backstory perfectly, he’s afraid to get commit completely because the last time he did that Gallifrey fell. He's afraid to act because he consequences frighten him.

Chavvy Chick: The TARDIS materialising whilst being caressed by a gentle falling of snow and Rose taking her first excited footstep into history crunching down on the icy depths…it's certainly an enticing moment for the character and the show. The nature of her life with the Doctor is spilled out before her and makes her re-examine her doubts from The End of the World and take a far more positive approach to the adventures they could have. Whilst this style of optimistic pontificating on the nature of time travelling would become wearying as early as New Earth it is definitely something that they got bang on the money in the first series. I don’t think there was a single boy and girl out there who didn't want to be in Rose’s shoes at this point and that is exactly the feeling they needed to be aiming for to keep people interested. Had she been as thrilled to time travel as, say Tegan, things might have been very different. You certainly couldn't have kick started the series with the same sort of reaction to it's possibilities as Donna had in The Runaway Bride. Rose is quick to react when she thinks there’s injustice afoot and is more than capable of standing up to Mr Sneed after he drugs her and exposes her to terrible danger. The protracted scene between Rose and Gwentyh is vital to the emotional core of the episode but also the sort of slow character building exercise that was excised after the first year when the production team were asked to tart the historical stories up a bit more. It exposes Rose as the people's companion, championing the ‘little’ people (for want of a better word) and it offers a great way in to a section of the audience who might not otherwise be interested (it's basically a girl chat across the centuries). I especially liked the sexual undertones that creep into the conversation, Gwentyh declaring Rose a ‘wild thing’ because she talks about boys so freely (‘ask him out - give him a cup of tea or something…that’s a start!’). So much more amiable and charming then the constant barrage of bawdiness we are exposed to these days. News that Rose’s dad is dead works twofold because it sets up Father’s Day later in the season but also further reveals Gwentyh’s ability as a medium. The moment when Gwentyh tells Rose she can speak for herself and that she isn’t as stupid as she thinks she is makes me punch the air every time. We all need a little reminder when we are being condescending every now and again. Finalising all the great work that has been done with the two characters in the first three episodes, Rose and the Doctor take each others hands and insist that they are going to go down fighting. It’s a wonderful affirmation of their friendship and that they have a bright future together…if they make it out alive.

Mr Dickens, I Presume?: ‘This morning I thought I knew everything in the world! Now I know I’ve just started!’ One bone of contention between a friend of mine and I is our different takes on the works of Charles Dickens. I read a great many of his works during my formative years and found his use of language stylish and his plotting and creation of character up there with the greats. She on the other hands finds him an overrated hack who over dramaticises his work and over articulates his language (‘why use one word where ten will do?’). Another friend is a bit of a literature snob and considers Dickens the height of sophistication and condemns a lot of contemporary fiction as paling in comparison. It's odd because there is a general feeling of uniformity about other respected writers amongst my mates (Austen and Shakespeare to name a couple) but it is only Dickens who really provokes a really good argument. Although please don’t think that we sit around discussing literary classics all the time…more often than not the jibber jabber is shockingly lowbrow! If I was going to compile a list of historical characters for the Doctor to hook up with Dickens would be somewhere in my top ten so to say I was excited to see what this episode delivered is an understatement. For them to capitalise on the interest and the talent of Simon Callow only served to whet my appetite even further. You know with Callow involved it is going to be as authentic as possible and that he will approach the part with real dignity and stamina. It’s a star turn and one that has rarely been bettered (marrying a name to a character is a tricky business) when I think of the guest stars that have appeared in the series since. I personally think that Dickens’ work stands up on its own merits but if you want proof of his talent as a storyteller but can’t stomach the prose then check out the spellbinding BBC adaptation of Bleak House from a few years back and the version of Great Expectations that has not long been released at the cinema. I love that it is Dickens who figures out the Gelth’s Achilles Heel and becomes a vital component in the execution of the climax. Giving him the knowledge that his books last forever is a wonderful gift for the Doctor to bestow. There are few endings jollier than Charles Dickens walking the streets drunk with laughter at his new lust for life. It really makes me smile.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Mind you I’ve gotta say that American bit in Martin Chuzzlewit, what’s that about? Was that just padding or what? I mean it was rubbish, that bit.’
‘Stories going back generations. Echoes in the dark. Queer songs in the air and this feeling like a shadow passing over your soul. Mind you truth be told its been good for business. Just what people expect from a gloomy old trade like mine.’
‘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?’ 
‘Incredible! Ghosts that are not ghosts but beings from another world who can only exist in our realm by inhabiting cadavers!’ – can you imagine a line that sums up Doctor Who more than this one? And Callow plays it for all its worth.
‘What about me? I saw the fall of Troy, World War V, I pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party and now I’m going to die in a dungeon…in Cardiff!
‘I shall be subtle. At first…’

The Good:
  • I have heard complaints in the past that The Unquiet Dead offers a stylised picture postcard view of the Victorian era that completely misinterprets the period. I hate to break it to you but Doctor Who always offers a stylised version of history from the overly theatrical tone of The Aztecs, The Crusade & The Massacre to the jolly adventure romps like The Smugglers & The Highlanders right through to the colourful cliché ridden delights such as The Time Warrior, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Black Orchid. None of these stories is a particularly accurate portrayal of any of the periods that they are set in because you are making the choice re-interpret the era to suit the story that you are trying to fit in it. Any of the stories I have listed above could be massively moulded to suit a different tone and would suggest an entirely different take on the period. I just don’t think you can discuss and criticise the integrity of how a writer paints a picture of the period when they are going to do something as anachronistic as dumping a time machine and time travellers within in it. The Unquiet Dead offers a whiter than white, huddle into your jacket and cuddle up to loved ones view of the Victorian era but that is fine for the mock Dickensian romp that it is trying to tell. I don’t think it spoils the effect of the episode at all that the show chooses to Disney up its first step into history. Davies and Gatiss are trying make the idea appear fun and engaging for the fresh audience they are introducing the shows basic concepts to and it feels all part of the game plan of series one to reach out to as wider audience as possible. The Unquiet Dead might make history ‘safe’ (aside from a ravening horde of zombies) but that works within the context of the story they are telling. And besides, it looks gorgeous.
  • Structurally this is one of the tidier episodes of the New Series and a great example of squeezing a classic Doctor Who adventure into 45 minutes. In days gone by we would have enjoyed an introductory episode to the period with grumblings of something amiss leading up to the cliffhanger of Mrs Pearce waking from the dead and strangling her son. Here we cut to the chase within seconds but it's nice that Gatiss does seize upon the opportunity to indulge in a classic cliffhanger in the pre-credits sequence (the long unearthly scream as she makes her way across the courtyard and towards the camera is one of the best of its kind’). Gatiss makes Sneed light the gas lamp as the first thing we see in the episode, exposing both the nature of the threat and the method of its vanquishment before the events have even kicked off. Gwentyh being both the cause of the disaster and its solution is so neat I could write a thesis. In fact, I think I just did.
  • The gaseous Gelth might be one of the least substantial ‘monsters’ the show has coughed up physically but they represent a very different sort on a dramatic level. Inhabiting the bodies of cadavers allows for a macabre Doctor Who spin on your typical ghost story and before the end we have legions of zombies attacking en masse, The Walking Dead style. Zombies are not really my bag (I am on the fence about Shaun of the Dead) but I like how Gatiss finds an approach here that in true Doctor Who style makes logical sense (these are gaseous aliens that need to live inside people in order to actualise and corpses don’t put up a fight) but still allows for the scares like the best of the genre. There’s a rather wonderful camera angle from the point of view of a corpse as Dickens lifts the coffin lid and stares inside. The effect of the spectral figure looming over Gwentyh at the séance is absolutely gorgeous. These are the kind of effects that I have always dreamt of the show commanding. I can understand in dramatic terms why Gatiss tried to pretend that the Gelth were innocent refugees but anybody who has watched enough television will realise that things aren’t as legitimate as they appear. There’s still another fifteen minutes to go for a start and you definitely need a good twist in that time. It's almost a shame, a benevolent alien race that exploits the dead of other races is actually quite an intriguing idea. Moving down into the morgue is a stroke of genius, Euros Lyn glides across the deathly space highlighting the erect bodies lying on slabs and giving a good idea where this episode is heading. Sneed having his neck snapped and being reanimated is a great shock moment (especially since he was the lovable comedy character) but also important because it proves that the revived show isn’t going to be as neutered as some might have suspected.
  • It says something about the effectiveness of the writing that she has been given since that her first role in the series is still probably Eve Myles’ most successful in any Doctor Who related media. Had Torchwood’s Gwen turned out to be anywhere near as likable as her name sake in the past then that show could have really have been something special (given she is the POV character most of the time). Gwentyh is a victim of circumstance which makes her easy to sympathise with whereas Gwen is more often than not a victim of her own bruised character and that is far less forgivable. Myles plays the part with great restraint and doesn’t do that distracting wide eyed look that has become indicative with her style of acting (seriously, you would think that Gwen was hypnotised half her life the way she stares off camera goggle-eyed). She’s extremely good and I have to wonder if she may have been an effective companion under different circumstances. I’m not the biggest fan of the self sacrificing climax but this works a treat because of the injustice of it. Gwentyh isn’t trying to redeem herself, she’s just a nice person that was exploited and is doing the right thing to make sure that her mistake is rectified. It's an entirely selfless act from an entirely selfless character. It is rather touching and fully deserving of the pause to reflect on her actions that they give her (even if the camera raise is a little too self conscious).
  • There is a real Talons of Weng-Chiang vibe about setting the early scenes around a theatre and I love the image of the zombie old dear sitting in the audience staring out at the camera. It takes you a little while to spot her but then your eyes never leave her. It's like Where’s Wally, Victorian zombie horror style! Something about an audience being enraptured by one man standing on stage reading his own story beguiles me. The last three or four shows I saw at the theatre were spectacular displays of colours, songs and effects. Rather than considering Dickens’ recitals as a more primitive form of entertainment, it actually exposes a more sophisticated audience.
The Bad: I’m almost tempted to knock a mark of or two for setting up the basis of Torchwood in the future. But I’m not that mean. Huw Rhys is one of those actors that always delights me when he shows up because he pretty much always plays the same daft character. He has some great lines here and is very funny for the most part but the performance is a little mannered in places. Like he is trying to be funny. Plus the character as written veers between a treacherous old leech and a comedy Wesh bumpkin depending on what the script asks of him. Callow manages to be funny without any effort but Rhys is really trying. The zombie advance probably should have been scarier than it is in the climax but I often find that is the way with zombies...a lot of moaning and shuffling but not much else. Rattling some bars isn’t perhaps the best utilisation of such a terrifying monster but then we were hardly going to see corpses being disembowelled and eaten so perhaps keeping them at a distance was a good idea.

Blaidd Drwg: ‘The big bad wolf…’

Result: In recent years it has become quite fashionable to knock The Unquiet Dead but to my mind it is a great little chiller that re-invents the historical genre in the ‘celebrity character’ mould. If that seems like a fatuous thing to do to you then you should cast your mind back to a period when Doctor Who avoided the past altogether. If we have to big up a particular person (and in any case there is a great deal to celebrate in Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare and the rest) in order to be lavished with a trip into history then I think that’s a fair trade. Take a large pinch of Dickens’ own work, add some supernatural trappings, shove in a slavering zombie horde and wrap it all up with some gentle character drama and lots of funny lines and you have a handsomely written tale that captures Gatiss’ work with the League of Gentlemen better than any of his other scripts for Doctor Who to date. The Unquiet Dead reminds me so much of Doctor Who in general; you’ve got the slower, historical scene setting of Hartnell, the conceptual monsters of Troughton, the horror of Hinchcliffe and the wit and character of Williams all wrapped in 80s gloss. There’s even an element of Gatiss’ previous Doctor Who work as well with the animation of corpses explored to riveting effect in the NA Nightshade and the world of table wrapping exploited in his Big Finish audio Phantasmagoria. It's not the most demanding of adventures intellectually but there is such a feast of performance, direction and dialogue that it's easier to just go with the flow and just relax into the episode that dishes out so many treats. Any five minute segment of this story is packed full of memorable imagery, great lines and acting to knock your socks off. This is a time where Doctor Who commanded a cast that saw Christopher Eccleston and Simon Callow acting their hearts out together and that’s definitely something that should be celebrated. The Unquiet Dead is a cosy slice of teatime horror (or as cosy as something with animated cadavers, neck snapping and suicide can be) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that when it is presented this well: 8/10


Peakius Baragonius said...

That's a really good point about the audience at the theater in the "good" section! Good observation :)

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David Pirtle said...

I thought that this was a pretty run of the mill adventure, but it is elevated by the performances of Simon Callow and Eve Myles. At least a sold 7 from me.