Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Unquiet Dead

Chapter The 38th, where a Christmas gift is opened before the big day.

Thanks to the power of time travel, it is Christmas during April; Christmas 1869 in Cardiff to be precise. The Doctor and Rose arrive and find, in quick succession, Charles Dickens and some blue ghosts made of gas, The Gelth, who are homeless as well as bodiless after the Time War, and seeking sanctuary on Earth. With the help of a clairvoyant parlourmaid in the local undertakers, a gateway is opened to allow the Gelth in. Though they pretended to be legitimate asylum seekers, it turns out they are aggressive invaders determined to destroy our way of life. Hmm... it was acceptable in the Noughties but you couldn't get away with it now. The Gelth turn corpses into zombies and attack. The undertaker and the parlourmaid are killed, but Charles Dickens saves the day. And so does the maid, somehow, even though she's already dead - best not to think too much about it. Reinvigorated, Dickens vows to write all about the events of that night, but history dictates he will die the following year before he can weave the 'blue elementals' into The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Last time, in a manner similar to Mission to the Unknown, I teased that there would be a Dalek adventure coming immediately. But, in a manner similar to following The Mission of the Unknown with four episodes of Trojan War dramedy, The Power of the Daleks blog post has been put off a little while longer: I managed to sneak in a festive themed selection while I was waiting for the Daleks disc to arrive. I watched this one on DVD (from the individual vanilla disc of episodes 1-3 of the 2005 series, not from the enormous mock-TARDIS box set of the whole series - the bit rate is better, and you don't have to struggle with the ridiculous packaging, which is falling apart on my copy - but, yes, I did buy both versions). Joining me were the Better Half and middle child (boy of 7).

First-time round:
The (re-)launch of Doctor Who in 2005 was a very exciting time. You'd have expected me to be sat in front of the TV minutes early waiting for each new episode to come on, breathless with excitement, ready to start the video recording; but, because of circumstances, I did not first see either of the earliest two episodes that year on their actual date of transmission; The Unquiet Dead marked the first time I'd experienced a new episode live as it was broadcast. Like a lot of people (it made the news!) I peeked at the leaked online copy of Rose three weeks before transmission; and for the second story, The End of the World, I was in New York visiting friends - a long planned visit, which I couldn't rearrange to avoid it intersecting with a Saturday when Doctor Who was being broadcast (and I did try).

We returned home late on the following Friday, a bit too jet-lagged to watch The End of the World (but I did anyway). Then, because we were still a little exhausted and because we didn't yet have kids, we were just able to spend the whole of April 9th 2005 doing nothing much in particular. I seem to remember idly watching the Grand National and a royal wedding (of Charles and Camilla) - even though I had no interest in either - before Doctor Who finally came on.

For all its period spectacle (I remember seeing the scene in the pre-series trailer where a coach and horses galloped towards the camera and thinking - ooh, expensive!),The Unquiet Dead is at heart a small, localised drama. It's only got three real characters in it beside the regulars, and the majority of the action happens in one location. This is in keeping with that first trilogy of episodes - one contemporary, one in the future, one in the past - where the stories allow room to explore what these types of show will be like. A lot of the fans likely thought the plot was too slight, but they were familiar with the overarching mechanics. For a new audience, it's important to ask out loud whether the Doctor can change the past, and whether Rose can die in Victorian times if she's lived in the future. There was a message for those longer term aficionados too; the show was saying - we can do it 'trad' too, see here: it's a little bit like Talons of Weng Chiang but with zombies. This probably explains the many little 'kisses to the past' with Easter egg lines like "On with the motley" and "Phantasmagoria" and such; or maybe Mark Gatiss just couldn't help dropping those in.

There's also room for the character and narrative arcs to build up. In the early console room conversation between the Doctor and Rose about visiting days that have been and gone, the Better Half picked up a possible subtext: is this the moment that it first occurs to Rose that she can go back to see her dead Dad? I thought TBH might be reading too much into it, but then later Gwyneth mentions Rose's father and its loudly established for the first time that he passed only many years previously; maybe she was onto something after all. The Doctor too had his moments dealing with post Time War syndrome bubbling up as petulance and, in the end, gullibility: he is blinded to the Gelth's ulterior motives because of his survivor's guilt. Plus, there's the biggest 'Bad Wolf' mention to date.

This isn't just slotted in as window dressing, it's woven into a moral dilemma subplot with conflicting outlooks from the Time Lord and his companion, and a similar clash of values between Rose and Gwyneth. This stuff, plus a pitch black darkness at the tale's heart, could be too much for kids: Gwyneth asks Sneed in such a workaday manner if he's 'dealt with' any witnesses to their ghost problem - it's become just a chore to drug and kill innocent bystanders. At one point, middle child, a somewhat sensitive boy, said "I didn't think a Christmas special would be this scary!" but he didn't want us to stop it playing. This means, I think, that they got the tone and balance of humour right, no small feat. The writer deserves kudos for this, but the director too. Euros Lyn, in his first recording block of many that he'd work on for new Who, achieves some flawless performances and great visuals: I love the way he moves the camera to reveal the Doctor framed in the doorway behind Dickens in the morgue.

Simon Callow, the go-to guy for playing Boz, makes it look effortless, and it's thanks to him in no small part that the 'celebrity historical' took hold as a series staple - this is the style of story set in the past that's built around a big guest star playing a big figure of yesteryear, and would be applied in the next few series to Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill. Though he didn't play anyone famous, or get a gig on another show because of it, Alan David's performance as Sneed is also a favourite thing in our house; The Better Half and I still - after nearly twelve years - say to one another "The Whole blummin' world can see that!" whenever we spot something comically obvious. 

Both this story and Revenge of the Cybermen feature an alien race enduring the aftermath of a war. Both contain elements that would feature in future spin-offs: Sarah Jane from the Cybermen tale would later appear in two connected shows; Eve Myles, the Cardiff rift, and Tosh - briefly glimpsed in the Next Time trailer at the end of The Unquiet Dead - would all feature in Torchwood.

Deeper Thoughts: 
The Measure of Specials. I worry unduly about lots of nerdy details. For example, I use labels to allow the many different posts on this blog to be searched and filtered, and one such label is the numbered season or series from which the story comes. To a certain extent, these 'seasons' were used as dividers by the production teams making the shows, both new and old, but mostly they are a division applied after the fact by fans. Inevitably, there are decisions to make: seasons that were broadcast with a gap in the middle (like Tom Baker's season 14 or Matt Smith's New Series 6) are generally clumped together, despite being shown as separate runs. Where to group or how to number one-off shows like Paul McGann's TV Movie or The Five Doctors or The Day of the Doctor can be considered one way or the other until the Daleks come home.

These aren't necessarily neutral judgement calls either: I have seen flaming online arguments about renumbering the new series separately from the 26 seasons of the old: one is a continuation of the other, after all, so 2005's stories are surely season 27 - to number them so there's an implied break point is seen as a political move in some corners of fandom. (I do number then differently, because I'm a bear of little brain, and find it difficult to do the maths - if someone refers to season 31 of Doctor Who, it would take me several minutes and some counting on my fingers to work out which episodes they're talking about.)

I knew that sooner or later the random wanderings of this blog would arrive at Yuletide. Since 2005 and to date, there has been a special Doctor Who episode shown on the big day, always adrift from the series broadcast before or after, usually by many months. This is a great thing, of course: this year's will be the twelfth consecutive appearance of the good Doctor on BBC1 on Christmas Day, a record-breaking feat for a non-Soap and only two shy of Only Fools and Horses' total number of non-consecutive appearances on December 25th.

But it does make it difficult to categorise. Does the Christmas Special of 2005 belong with the 2005 series, neatly linking all the stories shown in the same calendar year; or, does it belong with Series 2, which was made alongside it but shown the following year? I couldn't decide. I also considered not bothering at all and lifting out and lumping together all the Christmas shows under their own label, but that felt like a defeat. If a DVD box set plays this trick, I hate it; if I think I'm getting every episode of, say, Porridge, but I find out that I don't have the Christmas specials, I'll be pissed off (not a hypothetical example - I'm still seething; I can't be alone in this madness either: at one point, the Doctor Who 'complete series 7' was going to be released without The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe but enough people complained that it was stuck on after all). So, I have to pick a number.

Then, the story currently under examination came up for viewing, and I realised that the problem is solved: season 27 / New Series 1 / 'The Christopher Eccleston Year', or whatever you want to call it, already had its Christmas special, they just didn't show it in December. This was, after all, the advent of a festive setting in the modern version of Doctor Who. All in all, on the sly, The Unquiet Dead was very influential: as well as seeding concepts and actors for a soon to come spin-off programme, in addition to reframing past time travel for a new audience and setting the groundwork for the celebrity historical, it kick-started the Christmas Special subgenre too.

In Summary:
Quietly and unseasonably innovative.

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