Dead men tell no tales – Why I love The Unquiet Dead

Body

Image Credit: Adapted from Ben Sutherland (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: One of the soon to be possessed corpses

By Michael Goldsmith

The Unquiet Dead is a story that rarely gets much discussion. Often, when talking about the opening of Series One, fans discuss the merits and flaws of Rose, and its relationship to previous Doctor Who eras. Similarly some have cited The End of the World as the point at which they were broadly convinced by Russell T. Davies’ new vision for the show. In contrast it often feels like The Unquiet Dead is the one which people skip over whilst rushing on to debate the much more controversial Slitheen two-parter. It’s very much a case of “oh yes – and there’s the one with Charles Dickens.”

If the story does get any credit it is usually for being ‘the first celebrity historical’ – something which the show later nods to when Donna jokes incredulously about the ridiculousness of the idea of the Doctor meeting Charles Dickens at Christmas with ghosts in The Unicorn and the Wasp.  Unfortunately, I think this tendency towards systemisation and categorisation amongst fans, which I also admit to succumbing to, obscures a fundamental point about The Unquiet Dead. It hides just how much of an enjoyable story it is – regardless of its position as a story which sets the well-known template for the celebrity historical. 

Rather, I think The Unquiet Dead succeeds on its own terms in several ways. Firstly, it introduces the creep factor more effectively than arguably either of the first two stories – Mark Gatiss was clearly the perfect choice with his penchant for horror and Victoriana. The Autons are iconic touchstones for Rose, but as many fans lament, the wheelie bin somewhat underlines the camp, rather than the creep, in that story. In contrast, The End of the World relies on a ticking clock to generate tension and excitement, though again with a joyful dose of camp. In contrast, here we get our first proper attempt at the horrific, embodied in the walking corpses of the ironically named Mrs Peace and her grandson Redpath. Several moments in the story make brilliant use of this, including the deaths of both Redpath and Sneed which are surprisingly gruesome. There’s something joyous about seeing the two much loved tropes, possession and zombies, back in Doctor Who. Befitting its status as a historical, these hark back to the much-loved Hinchcliffe and Holmes eras of the show.

I’m also continually struck, every time I re-watch the story, just how fantastic some of the dialogue is – especially of that marvellous creation Mr Sneed. There are several lines which always make me chuckle and I adore him as a rather put upon man who just has a business to run. The dialogue of certain scenes is also electric, with one of the finest being that of the Doctor meeting Charles Dickens for the first time. I adore watching this comic side of the Ninth Doctor, and it’s a lovely touch of Gatiss to include some good jokes about Dickens’ works as well. Of course, it goes without saying that Simon Callow is perfect as Dickens – not only as a pretty brilliant resemblance but as someone who is known to have a love for the man and his writing.

This love is also clear in the script, and, in a very neat touch, the story also essentially steals a character arc for Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, Dickens starts the episode as someone jaded, tired and defeated, with little love for his fellow man, or indeed his family. By the end he is shouting ‘Merry Christmas and God bless us, everyone’ like a Tiny Tim tribute act. This is more than a little nod to one of Dickens’ greatest works though – it provides impetus to the plot and conflict with the Doctor. His feeling of creative sterility leads him to close his mind, so rather than being a willing companion to the Doctor, as the audience might expect, he refuses to accept events. As a Victorian novelist concerned with social conditions, it is perhaps natural that Dickens should be positioned as a sceptical voice in the story, questioning things like the Doctor’s suggestion of séance. However, Dickens wasn’t a stranger to believing in the incredulous, with Bleak House famously containing an example of spontaneous combustion which the author felt compelled to defend in a later preface. Here then, it’s not merely a case of providing a voice to disagree with the Doctor, which gives Eccleston great material, but also of suggesting that Dickens is a man whose wonder and joy at the world has gone. His adventure with the Doctor literally leaves him as a new man whose mind has been re-opened; a lovely take on how the Doctor touches lives. It’s also important not to forget that it is Dickens that saves the helpless Doctor and Rose at the end – a fitting way of integrating the character.

It is also often forgotten that The Unquiet Dead provides much-needed conflict between the Doctor and Rose. In line with his questionable decision to show Rose the destruction of Earth as a first trip, he here, quite seriously, considers allowing the Gelth to steal the corpses of a few people in order to take them to a new planet – and really, is he wrong? Although Rose reacts with revulsion and insists, as most of us would do, that the dead are sacred and deserve respect, the Doctor rightly points out that the corpses would be better used to save the living. Blinded by the fact that the Gelth invoke the Time War as the reason for their troubled state, he doesn’t suspect that it could be a ruse. Their claim to be ‘few in number,’ which the audience would be primed to suspect straight away, is totally accepted by him. All of this is wonderfully strong character development and I’m always struck by it every time I watch the episode.

The Unquiet Dead, then, is an underrated gem packed full of detail and richness. It’s an excellent reintroduction for some of Doctor Who’s staple motifs and ideas, establishing a strong formula which continues through the revived show to this day. It deserves to be considered an example of great storytelling in the first series.

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