Sunday, 28 October 2012

Who You Gonna Call?

Doctor Who
The Unquiet Dead
Series One, Episode Three

A man stands sullenly over his grandmother's body.  The cadaver awakes, throttles him.  The mortician returns, and unsurprised, says "Oh no.  We've got another one!"  But he can't hold the dead woman down  she smashes out of her coffin, lurches towards us in the street, her ghostly moan breaking into a scream, until finally that familiar sting, and... dum de-dum, dum de-dum, dum de-dum, DUM de-dum!  Without question, this is one of my favourite openings ever, equal parts Doctor Who and Ghostbusters.  I remember just how I felt watching it for the first time in 2005: like it was the '70s, and Doctor Who was at its gothic best again.  Ohh, love it.

"Go get her, Ray!"
The rest of the episode's pretty good, too.  Continuing to explore what Doctor Who can do, i.e. taking us to the past as well as the future, it gives us a rollicking good time in Victorian Cardiff.  (On that score, it's nice to have monsters turn up somewhere other than London.  Although Rose's puzzlement that she should wind up in historical Wales, as opposed to anywhere else, is hilariously put across by Billie Piper.)  You've got to wonder if Russell T Davies kicked himself that he didn't think of doing Christmas + Charles Dickens + Ghosts for the first Christmas Special.  Still, they weren't expecting to ever make one of those.

And did I say Dickens?  Good, because Simon Callow is superb as our first Doctor Who-style historical personage.  It's admittedly pretty obvious fan service, having our heroes meet someone famous (and dead) and tell them how great they are, but well, you would, wouldn't you?  Besides which, Charlie Boy is put to rather good use.  His renowned scepticism is a good foil for an apparent ghost story; his initial disenchantment with life and eventual rediscovery of his imagination are a good reason to include him; and the ultimate revelation that there's nothing the Doctor or Rose can do to prevent his death makes it a poignant trip.  It's not the sort of thing you can keep doing and still expect to have impact – though that didn't stop the Doctor Who gang from having at it over and over again – but this first time, it works.

The episode's grisly sense of humour also works a treat, courtesy of League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss.  Take Sneed, the slippery mortician, who goes from "She's not dead, sir, merely sleeping!" to calling dead people "stiffs" depending on who's listening.  Even the Doctor's only too happy to make crass jokes in amongst the tragedy – a Happy Medium?  Yikes.  This Doctor's sense of humour is his question-mark pullover – and more importantly, to suggest that Rose is the one with the maladjusted morality.  When it's suggested that the gaseous Gelth be allowed to inhabit humanity's corpses, he's got no objection, and snaps at Rose for suggesting otherwise.  "Get used to it, or go home."  Brr.  This Doctor refuses to be an easy fit, or to see the smaller picture; as long as he seems utterly alien but still fundamentally compassionate in the process, I'm all for it.  (And he's not that bad: he's willing to take Gwyneth's place at the end, and gives her a little kiss when he realises he can't save her.)

And Rose is in the wrong.  Not just about the corpses – who, yeah, aren't exactly going to good use – but about the people she meets being "stupid" because they're not from her present.  It's a sobering moment when Sneed's servant Gwyneth says "Things might be different where you're from, but here and now, I know my own mind."  We do think of people from the past like that, and the Doctor's got every reason to think of Rose like that, but he doesn't.  It's a point well worth making, even if it makes Rose continue to sound like a self-important little madam.  (Unfortunately, on that score, I still can't stand her and I'm not sure why I should feel otherwise.)

The plight of the Gelth is an intriguing one, and stirs up seemingly the Doctor's last word on changing history:  "Time's in flux, changing every second.  Your cosy little world could be rewritten like that.  Nothing is safe, remember that.  Nothing."  I suspect that'll come back to bite Doctor Who in the soft parts sooner rather than later.  It turns out he's planning to take them somewhere else after they put on the corpse costumes, but it's still an exciting excuse for, well, anything to happen in a story set in the past.  Otherwise you'd just sit there saying, well, there weren't any flying saucers in King Arthur's time, so why pretend?

Those darn foreigners, taking our jobs and our women!
Funnily enough, the excuse isn't needed, as the Gelth turn out to be after more than a mode of transport, meaning the Doctor (with Gwyneth as noble-sacrifice proxy) can intercede.  All that's pretty obvious given their Night Of The Living Dead antics, but oh well.  It's a disappointing outcome, making it black-and-white simple like that.  How much more complex and interesting would it be if the Gelth weren't just your bog standard invade-everything monster army?  Besides which, they're dying, and they're made of gas; is now really the time to get all megalomaniacal?  Seal the deal, Gelth, seal the deal...  (Then again, they've been zombifying and murdering since before the episode started, and the Doctor et al just selectively forget that bit, so perhaps they have good reason to think they'll get away with it.  What is with that, by the way?  We all saw the murdery stuff, right?  Not exactly a cultural misunderstanding, is it?  So why assume that just because they say "Pity the Gelth" they're all sweetness and light?)

Eccleston and Piper are both on brilliant form, and the (small) guest cast are more than a match.  Eve Myles is particularly good as the servant girl with a mysterious gift; her fate is nicely handled, being at the same time a noble sacrifice, no particular sacrifice anyway (as she's already dead) and a nicely spooky enigma.  Also good, the effects: the swirly blue Gelth look all purdy, the zombies look terrifying, and that's a nice mix.  The TARDIS gets to dematerialise in the snow, which looks absolutely beautiful.  The CGI flames in that blown-up building look a bit arse, but hey, nobody's perfect.

The Unquiet Dead is a neat, creepy, morally eyebrow-raising episode for the most part.  It doesn't follow through on all the good stuff, and some of it doesn't add up, but it's close enough to what I loved about Robert Holmes-era Who to make me all tingly.  If I could pop back in time and meet Holmes, I've got a pretty good idea what I'd say to him.

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