The Doctor and Rose take a trip to the past, and find themselves in, well, Cardiff. After meeting up with Charles Dickens, they meet a whole bunch of dead bodies who are coming back to life, which forces them into a makeshift seance in order to try and work out what’s going on and make an otherworldly connection.
Once you go to the future, you have to go to the past – it’s a standard procedure for Doctor Who by now. And by throwing in a guest character, in the form of Charles Dickens (Simon Callow, enjoying his turn), the series gets to once again give the audience some form of connection to an uncertain period in time. These connections to what we know are what allow the series to go off on a real tangent later on, and arguably are why the earlier seasons are possibly more popular with the general public than the later seasons.
There are also some subtle repetitions in this episode, creating patterns in the writing. Rose is once more put in trouble because she’s curious and kind, this time getting kidnapped. As before, the Doctor finds her stuck behind a door, with trouble coming her way. There’s a repetitious aspect to the storytelling which I’ll generously say is intended, given that two different writers are involved. It allows Rose the chance to grow and learn, so she acts differently, and her attempts at understanding the past are as tricky as her previous attempts to understand the future.
The key scene in the episode is her lengthy conversation with Gwyneth, played by Eve Myles – who’ll return to Doctor Who in a year or two as a different, modern day character. The sequence sees Rose carefully help Gwyneth to come out of her shell a little, explaining some of the strangeness which is going on whilst at the same time having a giggle over their shared experiences as young women. It really establishes Rose’s ability to empathise with people, and explains what the Doctor saw in her. It also carefully mixes in a little ignorance to Rose, who does struggle to understand Gwyneth’s life and is unable to really modulate herself around her.
That’s the heart of the episode, because aside from that – and Callow having fun – the plot itself is really quite boring, and inconsequential to things. The narrative brings interesting things out of some of the characters, like Dickens and Rose, but there’s also the strain that the CGI monsters aren’t particularly complex and the story doesn’t require the main characters in order to complete itself. The Doctor doesn’t have much to do other than react off people (which is quite nice, actually) and the whole thing ends with a bit of a contrivance. There’s not much mystery to the story, which establishes a tone but doesn’t pay off in satisfying ways from a narrative point of view.
It does let you read a fair few things into the story, though. A subtle thing going on in the episode is the Doctor establishing his relationship with the TARDIS once more. After seeking out two disturbing events in a row, this time the Doctor is looking for something sedate and calm – only for the TARDIS to find him something more traditionally crisis-driven. At the start, the Doctor is not quite in control of the TARDIS, which is business as usual, but he seems withdrawn when he finds out that not only has he piloted to the wrong time, but also to the wrong location. He doesn’t think the TARDIS trusts him yet. When he realises the TARDIS sent him here because there’s a mystery to solve, he’s delighted. The TARDIS trusts him with a mystery again!
That’s not laid out in the episode, but it’s not ruled out, and I’m going to be creating my own mind-canon as we go along with the series here. The Doctor made a change in order to become “the War Doctor” and head into battle – the TARDIS was really just pulled along and forced to witness. It’s nice to know that she trusts him now, at this point. The Doctor spends this whole season not believing in himself and hoping he’s as good as he wants to be, and this is a reminder that the Ninth Doctor is a lovely and trustworthy person at heart.
Rose, as well gets to see another one of her connections severed – after the plumber last episode, this time round she makes friends with Gwyneth, only to be scolded for condescending to her (not in a bad way, but more as a reminder that Rose is understandably out of her depth) and then to find out that the day was saved thanks only to the cost of Gwyneth’s life. This time, though, the Doctor shares in that despair, as does Dickens, creating a cross-reference in the way each of them processes what happened. While the Doctor isn’t actually active in the denouement to the mystery, he is at least there to provide a feeling of closure for Rose and Dickens, and his reaction gives us a sense of his character once more.
He’s particularly reactive in this episode, which is a fairly smart place to put him. Whether getting excited by sharing a carriage with Dickens or exploring the idea of a scientific seance, he’s engaged and watching everything around him. There are a few points where he snaps and it feels a little too harsh, but the wider context for his character explains that in hindsight, I think. It’s just nice to see him enjoying stuff, and initiating a recurring character feature in his fascination with the supernatural. Doctor Who throws in ghosts, werewolves and vampires amongst many other monsters, but the idea is that there’s always a scientific explanation for it, and there’s a way to explain even the strangest phenomenon.
Here, the explanation involves aliens, a parallel world, and gas, which is a little bit of a stretch for the series. It all gets explained away with a quick “time war” handwave, but to be fair it’d be nice to see more ramifications of the time war as the series progresses. For a huge, universe-spanning event, maybe more could be made of it, and greater ripple effects. For now, it’s in the past, and the Doctor is attempting to move on from it.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 3: The Unquiet Dead
Written by Mark Gatiss
DIrected by Euros Lyn