Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: Doctor Who "The Unquiet Dead"

You know, I think that even if the old Victorian gas lamps were infested with ghosts, like in this episode, the people would still trust them more than those newfangled electric lamps. They'll never catch on.

This was the first Doctor Who episode written by Mark Gatiss (who’s probably most well-known today for co-creating Sherlock with Steven Moffat). But it was loosely adapted from a Doctor Who audio play he wrote called “Phantasmagoria.”

No, not that "Phantasmagoria."
And when I say “loosely based,” I mean “they take place in the Victorian Era and have ghosts and psychics.” Quite a few things changed after the episode was written. Things were cut out; everything from a house full of fake psychics to a scene where the Doctor shows Rose a zombie-filled 2005 London to show her that time can be rewritten.

I can’t help but wonder what this episode would have been like if it were as bleak and spooky as it was allegedly originally written. But on the other hand, something a little too dark might have put off viewers. Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Who is wonderful when it gets dark, but the show was still showing viewers what they could expect from week to week. Not exactly the best time to experiment, you know?

But the final episode sets the stage for Christmas specials to come. All the notes are there. Aliens, invasions, references to classic literature, the Victorian Era… Later Christmas specials will basically mix and match the same elements.

This episode also forms the finale of a loose three-parter with “Rose” and “The End of the World.” The first episode introduced us to the mysterious Doctor, the second episode let us know what happened since the cancellation while also showing what kind of tales could be told in the future, and this episode shows what kind of stakes there are in the past, as well as giving us a quick primer in the Doctor Who rules of time travel. And now that the show has given us a template for future adventures in the past, present, or beyond, it’s free to experiment a bit. And experiment it will… but that’s a story or two for another time.

Beside the unmistakable Christmas feel, there’s an almost Lovecraftian subtext to this episode. You have a world-weary man who thinks he understands how the world works, only to discover that there are such beautiful horrors beyond humanity’s imagination. But unlike the Cthulhu mythos, there’s an underlying message of hope when he discovers that the mysteries of the universe are more amazing than he ever imagined. And instead of realizing how small and insignificant he is, he realized what a miracle it is to be alive.

Unfortunately, this episode is a little bit infamous for its alleged subtext. Lawrence Miles (creator of the ambiguously Doctor Who-related Faction Paradox) wrote a pretty critical review of the episode, saying that the invading Gelth masquerading as refugees suggested that, in a nutshell, immigrants are either trying to take advantage of Britain’s kindness or take it over from within.

And yeah, once that subtext is pointed out, it can seem obvious, but… just… no. The idea of a villain pretending to be harmless and in need of help before betraying the good guys is a classic trope. Whether it be Jafar tricking Aladdin into getting the magic lamp for him, or even the alien Warlord Eldrad tricking the Fourth Doctor into helping him reclaim his dictatorship, this is not a new idea. It just looks a little unfortunate when you frame it with interstellar “refugees” who want to take over the UK while claiming to be helpless. So maybe perhaps they should have examined the episode a bit more before they began production.

Personally, I think if Mark Gatiss had wanted to insert anti-immigration subtext, he would have been a bit more subtle. After all, what kind of stupid, racist jackass would broadcast to all the world his opinion that immigrants were evil and should be stopped at all costs?

You all knew this punch line was coming.
Rose Tyler

It’s here that Rose Tyler actually confronts the huge responsibilities with time travel. Going to the future is one thing, but when you’re in your own past, things can change. And you’re confronted with the difficult question: Should they? In the end, though, the question is neatly avoided by making the Gelth evil.

Charles Dickens (Simon Callow)
For the first time in the new series, the unspoken rule regarding famous historical figures is broken. Though there are exceptions, generally speaking, the Doctor is more likely to namedrop a historical figure than run into them. But Gatiss eventually decided that using Charles Dickens presented a great storytelling opportunity.

Simon Callow is a huge fan of Charles Dickens. Not only has he written quite a bit about Dickens, but he’s also played the writer on TV many times, in addition to his own one man show.

But he doesn't admire the man enough to rock the comb over, I guess.
When he first heard that Dickens was going to be on Doctor Who, he was disappointed, but later felt that Gatiss understood Charles Dickens and what he was going through at that time.

He was kind of a mess. Dickens had essentially become Ebeneezer Scrooge, with the main difference that in real life, the Doctor wasn’t there to help him gain a new perspective on life. But Dickens’s new outlook works very well with the other parallels to A Christmas Carol, and even on a greater scale. It’s poetic justice that Christmas would save Charles Dickens after Charles Dickens saved Christmas.

During December, you can often see the phrase “War on Christmas” used to describe a reluctance to mention the more overtly religious aspects of the holiday. But throughout history, there have been crusades against Christmas that make any contemporary “Wars on Christmas” look like minor disagreements at best.

I think we all know about the incident in ’66.
In the Victorian Era, the number one enemy of Christmas… was Christians. Specifically, the Puritans. As is well documented, the reason that Christmas is celebrated near the Winter Solstice is to make conversion to Christianity easier for the pagans. They got to keep a lot of their traditions, they just had to start praying to Jesus instead of Pan, the River God.

Well, when the Puritans came to power in English Parliament, they considered Christmas to be a pagan relic that encouraged immoral behavior, sloth, and gluttony. So Christmas was actually on its way out until a man named Charles Dickens came along. He wrote a ghost story that showed Christmas as neither a wild party, nor a time for strict piousness, but instead as a time to come together as a family and just generally be excellent to each other.

In fact, some of the things we traditionally associate with Christmas only became that way because Dickens featured them in his book. “White Christmases,” for example. England was hit by what was basically a small ice age at the time, resulting in snow on Christmas for quite a while, which Dickens immortalized.

But one of the things ol’ Charlie-boy didn't come up with was the idea of the Christmas ghost story. Those had been around for a while, being a classic winter tradition that drew on the coldness and darkness of winter. Which explains the otherwise-weird reference to “ghost story telling” in the lyrics to “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

But my point is that Charles Dickens brought the holiday back from the brink. And with the Dcotor’s help, the reverse is also true.

Mr. Sneed (Alan David)
Honestly, not much to say. And if it weren’t for the character treating zombies like a nuisance rather than a horrifying affront to God and man, then I probably wouldn’t even mention him.

Gwyneth (Eve Myles)
The character, as written, sucks.

Sorry, that was a bit blunt.

Let me explain. Gwyneth is flat, stereotypical, and rarely breaks out of her “troubled psychic” or “repressed Victorian” modes. However, Eve Myles does all she can with the character and does manage to inject some life and sweetness into her. In fact, the fact that she could wring any characterization out of the character is what would later get her the role of Gwen on the spin-off show Torchwood.

This is one of the character's two expressions. The other one looks nearly identical to this.
But in the end, Gwyneth is simply the second in a long line of women who will sacrifice themselves for the Doctor in the Revived Series, following Jabe last episode.

Monsters of the Week
The Gelth

The idea of having ghosts that are really gas creatures is pretty clever, and the idea is exploited cleverly to blow them up good in the climax. Originally, they were going to have some convoluted way of getting to Earth, but instead, the writers came up with the Cardiff Rift to explain it away. Little did they know that they had just created an integral part of Torchwood while they were at it.

I also like how they threw in some classic ghost story touches, like a séance, cold spots, and body possession. But in the same vein, I think the Gelth weren’t as unique as they could have been, drawing perhaps a bit too much on generic ghost tropes.

Unfortunately, Doctor Who ghost stories will always have an issue or two, from "Ghost Light," to "The Unquiet Dead," to "Hide," to "Under the Lake." And I think that's simply because the writers will always whip out the same old "ghosts that act just like ghosts but aren't ghosts" card.

Though the CGI for the Gelth is a little shaky at times, and the flames after the climactic explosion don’t look particularly real, the effects hold up surprisingly well for not only being a decade old, but also developed with the remainder of the budget after all the money went to “The End of the World.”

Final Thoughts
It’s the closest thing the Ninth Doctor gets to a Christmas Special. And while it does have a flaw here or there, it’s a clever and creepy story. And while it might not be as flashy as later Christmas specials, but makes up for it by being pretty darn heartwarming. It's definitely worth a watch, especially around Christmas.

Next time… ugh. I’ll be starting my look at the two-parter that helped Christopher Eccleston decide to retire from not only the role of the Doctor, but television acting in general. See you then.

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