You know I’d completely forgotten this story was set at Christmas until last year, when I was preparing this marathon (that ended up getting delayed until now) and saw it pop up in a search I did to “make sure I hadn’t forgotten one”. It’s nice because reviewing a Ninth Doctor TV story is always going to be a rare thing, and Christmas Specials are sort of a classic thing post 2005, so it’s nice he got one. Anyway, ghosts and Charles Dickens? Sounds good to me! Let’s take a look…
The dead are roaming the streets of Cardiff in 1869 when the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler arrive, just in time for Christmas. Teaming up with Charles Dickens, the TARDIS team encounter the Gelth, creatures sucked through the Cardiff Rift from the other end of the universe, their home lost, and a new home is on their wishlist…
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
I like how The Doctor gets Rose to change to period accurate clothes but he still keeps the leather jacket…
Although I’m normally rolling my eyes at Victorian London, this was before the location was overplayed, and is Victorian Cardiff, so… it doesn’t count? Well, either way, having a gothic, ghost story during this time period works well. The formless Gelth (voiced by Zoe Thorne) travel through the gasworks and start possessing corpses, walking around the town, which obviously freaks out the locals and annoys the undertaker Gabriel Sneed (Alan David), who oddly takes it in his stride and just tries to cover up the incidents. The Doctor and Rose arrive in the middle of the chaos and eventually follow the trail of the walking corpse back to Sneed, though Rose is actually kidnapped and left in a room with a second travelling undead before being rescued by the unlikely combination of The Doctor and Charles Dickins…
Going straight for a pseudo-historical featuring Charles Dickins was an interesting move, but works well, especially as Simon Callow does a good job, and scenes of The Doctor being thrilled to meet him adds a nice, more Doctor-ish layer to the usually more sarcastic and harsh Doctor. Speaking of which, I love that after they all do a séance where everyone finds out that the Gelth were made formless and homeless after the time war The Doctor is quick to come round to the idea of allowing them to possess the bodies of the dead, referring to it being “like recycling”. Rose is outraged but the Time Lord doesn’t back down and is all for Sneed’s maid, Gwyneth (Eve Myles), to open up a rift and let the Gelth in. Charles Dickens, for the record, is having none of it and legs it, which you can’t really blame him for…
Gwyneth lets the Gelth in, but they turn out to have bad intentions for the whole of humanity and begin to corner The Doctor and Rose in the cellar. The Doctor apologises to Rose for seemingly taking her back into the past only for her to die (something she thinks is surely impossible, before being told how time works in the Doctor Who world… most of the time), but luckily Dickens arrives having figured out that adding more and more gas into the room with dissipate them, giving everyone time to escape. Well, I say everyone, Gwyneth stays behind, though to be fair The Doctor confirms she was actually dead the moment the Gelth arrived through her. She lights a match for good measure, destroying the gaseous creatures for good in a flaming inferno. The Doctor and Rose depart, with “one last surprise” for Dickens as he sees the TARDIS dematerialise. It’s a good bit fun, overall.
“Pity us, pity the Gelth!” “No. Sod off.”
While it’s clearly aimed for an enjoyable “romp”, the acting is still a little over-the-top for my liking. It’s trying to get the balance of comedy and drama but leans too hard to comedy to properly get across what is a scary concept. It reminds me of the Ninth Doctor two parter “Aliens in London / World War 3”, which has a great bodysnatcher plot but is ruined by excessive farting (weird sentence to write!) This isn’t anywhere near as bad as that, but it does fail to do justice to a creepy idea and some characters just come off an unbelievable, particularly Sneed treat his corpses standing up and walking away as a bit of nuisance. Again, if this was pure comedy it’d be fine, but it’s at odds with the ending of Gwyneth’s sacrifice.
“So is this a good time to tell you I can regenerate from death, but you can’t?”
The Time Rift that the Gelth use to communicate and eventually cross over to this world returns in the (then) modern times in the Ninth Doctor story “Boom Town”, and many times in the Torchwood spin-off series. Speaking of Torchwood, Eve Myles plays Gwen Cooper in that series, and when it crossed back over with the main story in “The Stole Earth / Journey’s End” The Doctor tells Rose that they look alike due to Gwyneth’s face being “imprinted” into the time rift and eventually writing itself onto Gwen. Completely needless reference to reusing the same actress, but hey-ho. Why not?
Another major one is the Eighth Doctor comic “The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack”, which sees flame creatures break into Victorian London via the gasworks… so, it is indeed another case of Russell T. Davies loving the Eight Doctor DWM comics and it bleeding into his run on the main show!
There are a lot of references to Charles Dickens across all incarnations of The Doctor, so I’m not going to list them all out! The major ones would be the Sixth Doctor meeting The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist while in the Land of Fiction in the audio story “Legend of the Cybermen”, and Simon Callow returning to the role for a cameo in “The Wedding of River Song”, when an alternate timeline is created where “all of time exists at once”.
As they view literal walking corpses, it’s easy to spot who has had more experience in this field…
The Unquiet Dead is a fun 45 minutes. It won’t wow you and it doesn’t have a major effect on anything, it’s just a harmless pseudo-historical “romp” (I hate that word, but sometimes it just works as a description) It’s also not very Christmassy beyond “Dickens style Victorian story in the snow”, which to be fair is quite festive, but not compared to some of the later actual Christmas specials… which I’ll begin covering next!