Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 326
"The Unquiet Dead" is a story which has had a good deal of critical acclaim, which certainly it deserves for its production values, characterisation, humour and development of the series' emerging themes. Nonetheless, there are a few aspects which could benefit from more development.
First off, the production values continue their upward trend. The effects are good, with the old lady being (as many people have said) genuinely terrifying, and the story is impressively lit, particularly as compared to the often-unimaginative lighting of the original series. The regulars do their usual excellent job of acting and, of the one-off cast, Simon Callow clearly enjoys his role as Charles Dickens and Eve Myles as Gwyneth also deserving particular mention. In characterisation terms, it is plain that both the writer and the actor know a lot about Dickens and enjoy writing for him, and the portrait of the Welsh is thankfully free of stereotypes: Gwyneth and Sneed could be transplanted seamlessly to Ireland, Scotland or Alice Springs, and the characters would still read (albeit without the BBC Wales digs about Cardiff being the back of beyond). There is a lot of entertaining humour, with the Doctor's conversation with Dickens being a particular gem.
The story also picks up on themes established in the first two episodes. The idea that there is more going on in the world than most people realise is brought to the fore again, but this time as it applies to Dickens, highlighting that it isn't just uneducated people from council estates who can be blind to the true nature of the world and that to think you know everything is to deceive yourself. Rose's reaction to the animated corpse of Mr Redpath - "you're kidding me, yeah?"- parallels her initial disbelief at the sight of the walking department-store dummies, but she is now experienced enough that she quickly accepts the fact that she is dealing with a zombie rather than remaining sceptical. It is increasingly clear that the Doctor's primary motivation throughout the series is his post-traumatic stress disorder, and possibly survivor's guilt, from the "Time War". In the first episode, it drives him to try to save the Earth and still give the Nestene Consciousness a chance; in the second, it causes him to fly into a murderous rage against Cassandra; in "Dead", it causes him to believe the Gelth's story without more than a cursory inquiry into whether they are telling the truth. At the same time, he seems to have begun to reflect more on the nature of his actions; not only does he admit he's wrong, and expresses guilt over bringing Rose into it, but he tries to sacrifice himself in Gwyneth's place at the climax of the story. Only when he realises she's dead does he allow her to strike the match (suggesting also that he has developed something of a death wish, as this is the second time he has risked his life in this way). We thus see themes from the earlier stories developed and expanded upon.
Thematically, the story also follows along familiar paedagogic lines of being wary of the wolf in sheep's clothing, and not trusting blindly simply because someone/something seems innocent and pitiable. While this in and of itself isn't a problem, Lawrence Miles has recently pointed out in a review that the way it is presented - in which a group of alien refugees (an exchange between Sneed and the Doctor, aimed at clarifying the situation for Sneed, also brings out the fact that the word "alien" can mean "foreigner"), fleeing the aftermath of a war and requesting assistance, turn out to be evil demons bent on killing everyone on Earth - is uncomfortably reminiscent of Little England fears about asylum-seekers coming in to the country on bogus stories and swamping the system (according to a recent ITN news item, about 60% of British people believe most refugees get the same or better benefits to native Britons, when in fact they receive on average 30% less). While this is something of an extreme reading, and, considering the general liberal-atheist background of the man guiding the series, Russell T. Davies, unlikely to have been a conscious theme, the fact that the story can be read in that way strikes a problematic note.
The story also rests partly on two incidents which might seem to be plot conveniences, although there are possible explanations within the narrative. In the first place, when Mr Redpath is strangled by his grandmother's corpse, it seems odd that Sneed and Gwyneth would promptly lay him out in a coffin rather than trying to cover up the murder and ensure that the body is found as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. However, this could be a way of temporarily hiding the body until the pair have an opportunity to dispose of it more thoroughly (a laid-out corpse, after all, hardly stands out in an undertaker's). Gwyneth's reaction to the murder - a simple "that's awful, sir" - also makes little sense in and of itself, but taken as an indication that the pair have successfully dealt with a number of similar situations to the point where it is becoming routine, makes sense in a blackly comic way (albeit begging the question of why no one has noticed, in a city the size of Victorian Cardiff). In the second case, when the Doctor and Rose rush into the theatre and Rose sees Sneed and Gwyneth manhandling the old lady out of the seat, she immediately shouts at them and goes after them, begging the question of why she assumes that they intend harm, and are not simply helping an old woman who has taken a funny turn with all the excitement. This can be explained as Rose picking up on their body language, but that possibility is left unexplored. Another point which makes rather little sense as presented is that the Gelth plan to kill all humanity and take over their corpses; however, there is no indication as to whether they have thought through what to do when the supply of corpses runs out and the extant ones begin to decay.
A number of things which might seem to be plot conveniences, however, do in fact relate to the characterisation of Sneed and Gwyneth: in particular, Sneed's seemingly irrational behaviour in fact appears to stem from him being a very nasty character indeed. He carries chloroform, which makes little sense as something to use against reanimated corpses, but it could be useful as a means of silencing accidental witnesses to the events, and Rose is kidnapped because she has seen the hearse and can identify them. He locks Rose, as she later points out, in a room with two dead bodies whom he knows are likely to rise again and kill her-- strange behaviour, unless he is hoping that they will relieve him of the necessity of doing it himself. His morgue seems unusually well-stocked, when one considers that nineteenth-century undertakers were usually at pains to get the corpses buried as soon as possible, making one wonder if Rose is perhaps not the first person he has disposed of. This also explains why neither Sneed nor Gwyneth point out the Gelth's homicidal tendencies to the Doctor when he talks about helping them; Sneed is trying to protect his business, and Gwyneth both takes her cues from Sneed and is eager to see the Gelth as angels, not murderers. Sneed thus comes across as a man who would kill to protect his business, and Gwyneth as a girl for whom the boundaries of right and wrong are set by the male authority figure with whom she is associated, firmly under her employer's thumb until the Doctor and Dickens turn up. Unfortunately, one part of the story which cannot be rationalised in this way is the Doctor's explanation for Gwyneth's psychic powers being due to her growing up on the time rift, as in "Image of the Fendahl" (and paralleling Quatermass and the Pit) . Unless the rift is very large indeed (in which case, one wonders why do we not hear of more reports of psychics in the vicinity), she only came to the house when she was twelve, and she indicates at one point in the story that she was manifesting psychic powers long before then.
More so than the first two, this story clearly references earlier Doctor Who serials. "The Curse of Fenric" also features the Doctor's companion having a culture clash over sexual mores with a local friend; "Revelation of the Daleks" has the funeral-parlour theme (and particularly Sneed's line about "the stiffs… the dear departed") and "Talons of Weng Chiang" disturbances in a nineteenth-century theatre; "Ghost Light" features a sinister man and girl in a haunted house and explores the contradiction between Victorian rationality and spiritualism. Elsewhere in film and telefantasy, the idea of zombies which retain vague recollections of their former lives is the premise of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead; strong parallels also exist with the second Sapphire and Steel story (featuring a séance, and a sequence which is very similar to Dickens apologising to the Doctor and fleeing), and any of the horror/fantasy stories which feature séances and/or ESP as a channel for alien possession (e.g. UFO's "The Cat with Ten Lives" and "ESP"). There are also links with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, principally the episode "Earshot", in which Buffy temporarily becomes psychic, and in that Gwyneth is referred to as a "key." Barbarella, Gatiss' Big Finish audio Phantasmagoria, Blake's 7: Sarcophagus and Oscar Wilde's famous remark about being unable to read about the death of Little Nell without laughing are all referenced in dialogue, and the sequence where the innocent blue Gelth transforms into a demon recalls Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain sequence. There are also obvious parallels with A Christmas Carol, from Dickens' Scroogelike change of heart over his family, to the Gelth coming out of the door-knocker, to the Doctor taking Rose to the past and future to broaden her horizons before, evidently, returning her to the present next week.
The key antecedent for this story is, however, "Image of the Fendahl". As well as the connection regarding the psychic abilities of people who grow up on time rifts, the idea of horrible things emerging through such rifts, and a young woman being used as a medium for an alien being, there is a parallel between Staehl's suicide (and the Doctor acknowledging the honour in his action) and the dead Gwyneth's lighting the match to prevent the Gelth coming through. This fact throws up an interesting suggestion with regard to the motivations of the Gelth. In "Image", the Fendahl seems to take its cues on appearance from Thea Ransome, and as such it is possible that the Gelth's appearance first as pitiable angels, and then as sinister demons, is in fact a reflection of Gwyneth's own stated ambivalence about her psychic powers. She wants to see herself as good, but fears that, because she has this ability, she is inherently evil; we also know that the Gelth inhabiting the corpses tend to take aspects of their behaviour from their host's minds (which could lend a potentially even more sinister cast to the old lady's murder of her grandson). The Gelth do refer to the War, which Gwyneth should not know about, but by that point in the story she has already studied Rose's mind (and possibly even the Doctor's), and gleaned information about where they come from and what they have done (which, if she is capable of that, suggests she must know about Sneed's murderous tendencies, which indicates that, as she is complicit with his behaviour, she may indeed have a demonic side, or at the very least feel guilt and shame for her part in it; "why is this happening to us?" she asks rhetorically at one point). The Gelth's motivations thus may not be as straightforward as they appear, as it is unclear quite how much is coming from them, and how much from Gwyneth.
As a result, "The Unquiet Dead", like "The End of the World", provides a case for longer stories. As before, there are interesting aspects of character and motivation which are not fleshed out, which could do with further exploration. In this case, however, even considering its development of the series' themes, the story might also work better as a stand-alone, without having to be fitted into an "arc." it is the Gelth's connection to the War which brings out the unfortunate connection with refugees, and also, without the War plot, the ambiguity over whether the Gelth's motivations are genuine or stemming from Gwyneth's personal conflict could arguably have been better explained. Next fortnight's two-part story will make for an interesting case.
On a lighter note, after two deaths on Saturday nights, we at least have a royal wedding instead this week. Whether this tradition of surprise historical events taking place on Saturdays can be maintained for another ten weeks, however, is anyone's guess.