Doctor Who Recaps, Season One, Episode Three: The Unquiet Dead
When this episode first aired, I was straight-up banned from watching it. As a child with a dangerously vivid imagination, driven to weeks of sleepless horror by episodes of Grisly Tales for Gruesome Kids, I totally, in retrospect, understand why my mother didn’t let me watch it when it first came out. At the time, however, I was furious, and vividly remember acquiring the scariest, most lurid details of The Unquiet Dead from my classmates in the playground, piecing together the story and filling in the blanks in my head until it became an untinkably horrible bastion of nightmares far worse than anything the episode actually produces. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I actually saw the third episode of season one, and even now it holds a special kind of midnight-movie horror to it-I still feel slightly nefarious, like I did reading Goosebumps under my covers by torchlight after I was meant to be in bed, watching this episode that I was so totally banned from seeing at the time.Well, that, and the fact that this is the first bonafide classic episode of New Who.
This episode is one of the best ghost stories Doctor Who ever pulled off, because they’re usually so intent on going “IT’S NOT GHOSTS, BUT A SPACE EXPLORER MOVING IN SLOW MOTION/ALIENS/INSERT MOFFAT-IAN PLOT TWIST HERE” in later episodes. But this episode, revolving around a mysterious series of re-animations taking place in a Welsh funeral home, is just a straight, Dickensian ghost story- which is appropriate, because Mr Dickens himself crops up to join Rose and the Doctor for the first of many a Victorian adventure (Look, they have to get as much wear as they can out of those costumes, alright? That’s why they shot a whole episode on the abandoned BBC Robin Hood set).
This episode, for those counting, is the first appearance of Gwen, who would later (well, an ancestor of Gwen’s, whatever, Russel T Davies don’t need no continuity and wanted to wring a bit more from Eva Myles’ contract) take on a lead role in Torchwood, television’s B-movie. And she’s a pleasure in this episode, playing a maid at the funeral home who’s psychic skills are exploited by her employers to find the corpses who’ve wandered off through the city, fulfilling the last engagements they had arranged in life. One of these corpses winds up turning up at a Charles Dickens’ (played by a genuinely brilliant Simon Callow) reading, and Rose gets snatched by the proprietors of the home after she sees too much, and the story launches into a rollicking, scary, good-humoured romp that revealed just how well New Who dealt with it’s history.
As someone with a degree in history (an accidental one, but who’s counting), these episodes are usually my favourite Whoscapades (Stop trying to make Whoscapades happen, Lou). You can take these episodes on purely a surface level and enjoy the zombie-ghost action, but there’s plenty in there for those who happen know a bit more about the time period, with clever and affecting nods to things like Dickens’ tumultuous personal life and his disdain towards the occult. But either way, it’s great fun to see the Doctor turning into a swooning fanboy when he ends up in Dickens’ carriage, trying to remember the name of that scary short story he once read (side note: here’s a really good adaptation of that short story on Youtube, if you’re looking to scare yourself shitless later tonight, because it’s Sunday and that’s what you should be doing). There’s a fun earnestness to this episode, which is written by God-amongst-men Mark Gatiss, which is packed full of excellent puns (“I do love a happy medium”) and sassy Rose quips.
This is also the first episode where we meet the truly fallible Doctor. Without giving too much away, he fucks it; despite Rose’s protests, explaining it away as a different morality, he encourages Gwen to sacrifice herself to allow the ghosts into our reality. And it turns out that their motivations were not as pure as he had thought. The Doctor here is desperately trying to fulfill the role of the hero he had been unable to during the Time War, but instead ends up killing an innocent woman in the process in an ending that makes someone other than the Doctor the hero. Things turn out as well as they could, but the Doctor wasn’t the one who made it happen, and that’s an interesting concept to throw into the mix at this early stage of the series. He admits he can’t save Rose, when the two of them are cornered by Welsh zombies (the WORST kind of zombies. Don’t ask me how I know) in a slightly shocking scene that underlines the lack of control the Doctor really has. The episode ends on a melancholy third act, as Dickens leaves the Doctor and Rose, suddenly full of new ideas for his writing and set on reconciling with his estranged family, only for the Doctor to reveal that he dies only weeks later. It’s a bittersweet ending to a lively, fun episode, and one that leaves a very different taste in the mouth that the bad-guys-get-their-due of the first two outings. If you haven’t seen New Who, or believe you have no reason to, this is the place to start to convince yourself- it’s far more than the kid-centric sci-fi ramblings than the show often gets characterised as, especially in it’s earlier seasons, and if you’ve got any fondness for horror, alt-history, or Christopher Eccleston getting compared to a navvie, then this is for you.
Join us next week for the first Slitheen two-parter, and my desperate attempts to justify why I’m apparently the only person who doesn’t think it’s utter shite. As ever, enjoy a different take on this episode over at Red Whine.