Friday, November 22, 2013

A Doctor a Week: Christopher Eccleston: The Unquiet Dead

Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question. 

The TARDIS is a machine that can travel in time and space, so it’s odd that this series of reviews has not focussed on many historically minded episodes so far. So it seemed a good idea to focus on the ninth Doctor’s first trip into the past with The Unquiet Dead, a story that also featured a character drawn from real life; author, Charles Dickens. Who had traditionally not used real life characters, preferring instead to intimate the Doctor’s meetings with them. (Madame Nostradamus was “a witty little knitter,” according to the fourth who also seemed to have run ins with a whole host of historical figures). The actor, Simon Callow, was approached to play the part but held out until he was sure that Dickens was done justice. And certainly the script gives us an interesting look at Dickens as he was at the end of his life, slowly losing his energy, becoming a more sombre individual that one might expect.

This was Eccleston’s third story as the Doctor. The episodes were no longer multi part, and each adventure now lasted forty five minutes (with the rare two parter). As such there was an economy of storytelling required that had never been there in the old series. It was taking a bit of getting used to. The series opener, Rose, was a little underdeveloped and rushed, while The End of The World was a little uneven in tone, trying to squeeze in too much in too little time. But the Unquiet Dead was the first time the new series established itself and its own tone. There is a gothic atmosphere to proceedings that works wonderfully. The scenes where Dickens reads his work and is interrupted by what appear to be ghosts in the audience are unsettlingly well done, and Simon Callow’s performance is absolutely brilliant. There’s a lot of dark humour too. Eccleston is generally considered a very serious Doctor, but he plays the role with a massive sense of humour, too. His outright enthusiasm at meeting Dickens is marvellous to behold and plays brilliantly alongside his frustrations at humanity’s inability to accept worlds beyond their own.

This episode also sets up the idea that the Doctor is part of a wider continuing universe. There has always been a kind of continuity in Who, but more often its of the 1066 And All That variety: what you can remember. In the show’s hey-day, there was little possibility of retreats so the writers could rely on half remembered bits of information to advance their story. By the time Who returned in 2005, we were used to getting regular releases on video, and shows were often repeated on a regular schedule. So an ongoing “arc” for any character was a must. And with Eccleston that arc was his guilt over the “Time War”, an event that wiped his own people and the Daleks out of history almost completely.

Any war has collateral damage; innocents caught in the crossfire. And the Time War were no exceptions. So when the Doctor and Dickens encounter ghosts reanimating corpses in Victorian Cardiff, it transpires that these spooks are the non-corporeal forms of aliens known as the Gelf who only want a new home after theirs was destroyed in the war. Naturally by the end of the episode it transpires they have more sinister plans (which lead to a few complaints that the episode was heavily right wing and a thinly veiled allegory for asylum seekers. Nonsense, I think. Something that Who - especially modern Who - can rarely be accused of is being right wing).

The production values in Ecclestone’s era (with notable exceptions, including the pilot episode, Rose) are excellent. Victorian Cardiff (even with paper snow) looks amazing. Its all a bit storybook,  but then Who gave up any pretence at historical realism sometime in the sixties, so its quite all right that the whole thing doesn’t ring with grimy accuracy. There are some odd tonal moments - its easy to see that the earlier scripts were a lot darker, and some of this darkness might have rounded out some of the characters - particularly the head of the funeral home, who comes across as this odd mix of creepy quirks but otherwise jolly behaviour; you don’t quite believe he could so casually lock Rose in a room with corpses about to come to life - but the episode races by at such an enjoyable clip you don’t really mind while you’re watching. But if it had taken some of the darkness inherent in, say, the Sixth Doctor’s Revelation of the Daleks, we could have had a spectacular episode.

Also worth noting is Billie Piper’s performance as Rose; the young London woman who has decided to accompany the Doctor and who has finally started to return him to his old self after the trauma of the Time War. Piper was a controversial choice, especially for anyone in the UK. She was known mostly as a fluffy teenage songstress and the (much) younger wife of ginger radio DJ Chris Evans. But even in the tonally odd pilot episode Rose, she proved to a nation that she was capable of a convincing performance and in the Unquiet Dead she rises even more above the usual role of “the companion” as it was traditionally seen to give us a well rounded portrait of someone whose universe has been well and truly expanded and who is capable of approaching these strange and fantastic new situations with an acceptance and a wide eyed joy. But beneath it all, she is still capable of being frightened, and those scenes where she realises that she and the Doctor could die in a cellar hundreds of years before she was born are played very well indeed.

The Unquiet Dead isn’t the eighth Doctor’s finest hours (that’s the season finale), but it is the point where the new show finally established itself as being back for good.


- Callow only agreed to do the show if they got Dickens right. And they did. Its amazing to see the contrast of the man off stage with the sheer power of his performance. Dickens was like many actors; a man not complete when he was not in the midst of his own fictions. I don’t know how true that really is, but it certainly feels real here.

- The decision to have Eccleston in normal clothes re-establishes the series quietly. If they’d gone OTT instantly, I think it could have killed any hope of the series being around for a long time. His performance works wonders too. Its a pity he only had the one season, although we still have to wonder what it was behind the scenes that made his decision to leave so soon.

- At this point, the Time War is vastly intriguing. By the time we get to David Tennant’s swan song, however, it will have become mildly irritating and the final explanations a little bit of a let down.

- The episode could have done with more breathing room. Its a crux of the forty-five minute format, and I do think that the UK writers have far more difficulty with it than Americans who have it down to a fine art.

- the glory of the TARDIS set is breathtaking when you think about the old roundels and plastic walls. This feels truly alien. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Eccleston works as well. He seems quite human and then turns on you with this very alien look; this sense that he has seen and understood things you can only dream of.

- Dickens seems to understand the phrase “test drive” despite it not being in use during his time. Ahh, well, its the usual timey-wimey Who dramatic license, then... (pick pick pick...)

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