Thursday, 9 April 2015

Doctor Who: Step Back in Time - The Unquiet Dead

To celebrate Doctor Who's tenth anniversary, it's time to look back at the story that started it all. Well, for this fan anyway...

'What the Shakespeare?' 

*Disclaimer: As mentioned in several previous posts, 'The Unquiet Dead' is a very important Doctor Who for me so this review shall be shamelessly personal*

I have a very vivid memory of 9th April 2005, ten years ago this very day. It was a Saturday evening and I was settled in front of the TV, happy to be finally about to catch an episode of this new sci-fi series that I had managed to miss so far. Whizz forward 45 minutes, and I was even happier - it was fair to say this Doctor Who had captured my attention. In no small part due to the episode I had chosen to watch first.

'The Unquiet Dead' is the first in the distinguished line of the so-called 'celebrity historicals', a subgenre of new Doctor Who that includes 'Vincent and the Doctor,' and last year's 'Robot of Sherwood' (sort of) - and I think it's one of the best, delivering an enjoyable snapshot of its guest star. Simon Callow plays 'ol' Charlie boy' to a T (a role he's returned to in the Whoniverse in 'The Wedding of River Song'). His Scrooge-like awakening might be swiftly-handled but it is well done, particularly the Tiny Tim-quoting final line. It might not be as deep a character study as the aforementioned Vincent but it is probably the best episode for taking a famous author on an adventure just like their own fictions.
As such, the usual stars of a Doctor Who episode - its monsters - might not be as good as many others but the Gelth deserve something for being the first controversial creation of the revived series (the visceral sound of the Gelth snapping their victim's necks is not something I think the BBC would allow now). Importantly, this episode told us that Doctor Who could still scare the Dickens out of us.

As with every Doctor Who, it's the Doctor who makes the episode and Christopher Eccleston's number Nine is at his best here. Going from cheeky and charming to commanding and stubborn in a flash - just look at the seance scene where he goes from quipping one moment ('I love a happy medium!') to outlying his alien nature, by allowing the Gelth to inhabit human corpses, the next. Also of note is the chemistry he and Billie Piper share here. Much is made of that between Tennant and Piper but the still-grieving Ninth Doctor is positively bursting with love for Rose, just as she has burgeoning feelings for him. In short, this episode has both salient parts of the show in check - the love and the monsters.

In retrospect, this was the perfect Doctor Who for me to catch first - I love a bit of Victoriana and you can't beat a good ghost story - but those interests actually came later. What struck me at the time about 'The Unquiet Dead' was just the power of the show. The time travel, the monsters, the adventure and the amazing, eccentric man at its heart. This episode isn't one you often see on best episodes lists, even on lists of the best episodes of this series, but it's always been special to me. It might not be up there with the absolute classics but it contains all the elements that make Doctor Who great. The best evidence for that is the fact that I am writing these words at all, all these years later, now a seasoned Doctor Who fan - something for which I have this episode to thank.

And so, as Charles Dickens almost observed, God bless 'The Unquiet Dead', everyone!

Ghost town - The Ninth Doctor and Rose find Victorian Cardiff swarming with spectres.

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