...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day 2995: DOCTOR WHO: The Unquiet Dead


We could have done this one last week too, you know! Daddy has got DOCTOR WOO on my iPhant, so at conference, late at night, we were able to snuggle round the telephone and watch tiny little Dr Who and tiny little Rose and tiny little Mr Dickens…

But then we got our copy from the Doctor Woo DVD files so we watched it again this week too. Honestly, with all this watching Doctor Woo all the time we are starting to look like BBC3's target audience. BBC4 will get JEALOUS!

Of course, they never expected to do Christmas, so this is the ninth Doctor's Christmas special, three months late.

And for all that it's dressed up with pseudo-scientific explanations, this is very much a ghost story, in the traditions of the BBC's MR James adaptations and, dare I say it, Dickens himself. Now, admittedly, I was less impressed by writer Mark Gatiss's "Crooked House" pretentions over Christmas 2008 than certain Grauniad previewers – who gave him pick of the day three days running – but earlier work such as New Adventure "Nightshade" and "The League of Gentlemen's Christmas Special" show that it's certainly a genre in which he can excel.

Ironically, though, the most "ghostly" sequence has nothing at all to do with the plot, because it's this week's "Bad Wolf" reference, the point at which people started to go "aye, aye, there may be something to this", expressed as Gwyneth's disturbing premonition. It's an incredibly effective scene and unusually long for what is no more than two people standing and talking. And then the Doctor pops up at the end and makes you jump!

The episode also looks very different. After the warm colour palette of "The End of the World", Euros Lyn, who directed both episodes and will go on to be a behind-the-camera star of 21st Century Who, choose to emphasise the ghostliness with lots of blues and even green lighting in the TARDIS console room, and contrast it with vibrant living reds in the theatre, say, or Sneed's parlour. Notice also the way that the morgue feels like it's in the depths of the Earth so cold is the light, and the purple feet of one corpse just add to it. And then the Gelth Ambassador turns from ethereal blue to infernal flame… The whole piece comes across as a visual fanfare.

And opening with a whopping great close up of the gas being lit is great visual clue too.

Being as it's Euros, TARDIS travel is much choppier, with the Doctor and Rose ending up flat on their backs, though laughing about it. He does the same thing again in "Tooth and Claw", though shows them actually falling over that time, so it's much less, er, post-coital. However, the Mill's special effects of the TARDIS in the time tunnel are, rather marvellously, done so as to show the Police Box looping the loop just before we cut back to the Doctor and Rose on the floor. So obviously that's what they're doing down there.

This is, incidentally, the point at which we should realise that the time tunnel is colour coded: red for forwards in time, blue for backwards. This is a lovely touch and very nearly right. But, unfortunately, backwards.

Travelling forwards in time is effectively slowing yourself down relative to everyone else – one second for you equals a hundred years for the rest of the universe. The effect would compress or shorten the wavelengths of light waves as you perceive them reaching the TARDIS because more of the waves have time to arrive (from their point of view) in the time (from yours). Because more waves have time to arrive, this shortens the distance between the waves, i.e. the wavelength, turning red into blue.

I think this works in "real" physics too. If you actually wanted to travel into the future (faster than you would anyway), one way would be to take advantage of relativity. Travelling close to (though never faster than) the speed of light has the time dilation effect known as the twin paradox where the rest of the Universe ages more than you do because of the way that time and space bend. At the same time length contraction foreshortens all the wavelengths, blue-shifting all the light.

Travelling backwards in time would, of course, have some very peculiar effects, but assuming you still can experience visible light then in all likelihood it would also be blue-shifted as you go backwards because it's not the direction but the temporal velocity that would affect the colour. You would want to be going backwards at a rate faster than one second per second so, again, more light waves have "time" to reach you than "normal", and getting more waves means a shorter wavelength which is the same as bluer light.

To get redder light you would have to be travelling through time "faster" than normal, that is to say you be in "Blink of an Eye" accelerated territory.

Having said all that, the TARDIS travels though an engineered dimension called the Vortex so for all I know it comes with built-in traffic signals courtesy of the "Fairy-Lights of Rassilon".

There's also a tiny blooper in the opening TARDIS scene, incidentally, but it comes so soon in the episode that it gets me every time.

"Hold that one down," says the Doctor.

"I'm holding this one down," replies Rose.

"Then hold them both down," snaps the Doctor.

What Billie should have said was: "I'm holding this one down".

(i.e. the way she says it, it sounds like her reply is "I am holding down the button you want me to" rather than "I can't because I'm holding a different button down".)

Think of it as the grain of sand in the oyster though, because Billie's performance is so lovely in this episode it's hard to criticise. The perfect delivery of her first step into the past; the wild-child sauciness of her conversation with Gwyneth; her delivery of the word "gazebo". It's easy to forget just how good Billie was as Rose in these opening episodes and how much of the series' subsequent success hung on that. As the (ghastly phrase) audience identification figure, she is the one who draws us into this series, convinces us that this story is going somewhere and binds us to it.

"The Unquiet Dead" is also the first episode with a genuine "guest star", in the person of Mr Simon Callow as, of course, Charles Dickens. Obviously everyone wants to be a guest star in Who now, but then it was a big thing to get an actual "name" and the press made a lot of it. It's a lovely understated performance, all soft regrets and blustering insistence on his certainties, only becoming hootingly Dickensian when Dickens is on stage "in character" as it were. The moment in his carriage where the Doctor, on finally realising who he is, goes all fanboy and he is flattered into assisting this stranger is both hilarious and charming. And the way that, as the evening goes on, he gets gradually more drunk as his way of coping with each new revelation is a nice and also credible touch.

That's not to say that you should overlook Alan David as the ungodly Mr Sneed, whose black sense of humour– "the stiffs are getting lively" or "maybe the bishop will do us an exorcism on the cheap" – carries much of the early part of the episode. He's one of those characters with a modern sensibility dropped into a past era so as to comment on the conventions of the time. He's also really good fun, and if you watch his scenes with Chris Eccleston, you can see that the Doctor really enjoys his company too, even though he has effectively just tried to murder Rose.

One thing that strikes you about the first (television) series of Doctor Who this millennium is the distinctive voice of each of the other writers. This is clearly before Doctor Who mutates into "Russell T Davies Doctor Who", and it's much the better for it. The writers who are chosen to contribute are all steeped in the lore of the series, but also with their own TV credentials and the cohunes to stick their ground.

Now in his big book of Doctor Who, "How I Did It!", Russell asserts that he could have claimed a co-writer credit on many of the "non-Russell" stories, and "The Unquiet Dead" in particular. And yet the story is so distinctly un-Russell that you have to say Mark deserves his name in lights this week. There's a much darker humour, just enough of a whiff of Royston Vasey to be enjoyable without being overpowering. There's an interest in Dickens as a person, not just as a celebrity (I'm looking at you, "The Shakespeare Code" and "The Unicorn and the Wasp"). There's an interest in the mechanics of Time Travel, without it being in the geeky Steven Moffat way, with the Doctor explaining both that time can be flexible, rewritten, and that Rose is wrong in the (surprisingly common) misconception that she can't die just because she's time-travelled to before she was born. There's an obvious love for the story implicit in Doctor Who continuity. Throwaway references to "The Myth Makers" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" rub shoulders with directions to the TARDIS wardrobe that could come from "The Invasion of Time" or "Shada". And, of course, there's a very trad Doctor Who explanation for "the sight", casually slipped in alongside the "ghosts are aliens" malarkey, which sets up a whole lot of future continuity too. Russell, it has to be said, probably wouldn't bother with an explanation at all… which is fine as far as it goes but just look at the storytelling opportunities – not to mention career for Eve Myles – that have arisen out of that explanation.

All of which means that the creator credit for Torchwood really goes to… well, Nigel Kneale, actually, because if the whole "rift" idea is chloroformed and stuffed into a hearse from "Image of the Fendahl", then Chris Boucher was himself just lifting his explanations of ghosts and psychic phenomena and hitching a lift in the dead body of Kneale's earlier "The Stone Tape".

Alex has pointed out another way in which it is different, though, and that is in its attitude to strangers. A theme that runs though the first season – through Rose's mixed-race relationship with Mickey; to the way that her DNA mixes with the Dalek's to make it morally "better"; to Captain Jack's "dancing"; to Margaret Slitheen "going native" in Cardiff – it's implicit that mingling is good. The Doctor expressly notices that something is wrong with the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire because it's just humans and no mixing with aliens.

In this episode, offering to share the planet with aliens turns out very, very badly.

This, of course, would be the point where Lawrence Miles infamously went off the deep end. To be fair to him, the Gelth do claim to be seeking asylum; their claim is bogus. This makes them entirely literally "bogus asylum seekers" in the ugly headline hate-figure tag especially current at the time.

But to be fair to Mark Gatiss too, this is Doctor Who so the Gelth have almost got to turn out to be monsters or there's no dramatic last act. In fact, aliens are invading Earth all the time in this series, but they usually go for brute force or some over-complicated scheme to try and seize the planet. Or, in "The Sontaran Stratagem" both. It's rare – and therefore more original and interesting – for them to lie to get their way.

And the whole moral debate – the Doctor comparing giving the Gelth dead human bodies to recycling – would be much less interesting without that lie.

What's interesting too, is that no one is entirely proved right in this story. The Doctor admits it's all gone a bit wrong when the Gelth betray him, but Rose also gets taken down a peg or two when Gwyneth tells her it's clear in her mind that she thinks the maid is stupid.

Besides, the Gelth are, obviously, "Gas" mixed with "Stealth". And "angels" that "descend" are demons.

How much of the Gelth's story is true? It looks very likely that the answer is none of it. Through Gwyneth, they can read the Doctor's mind – we see that she can read his mind in the moment when she offers him tea "with three sugars, just how you like it" – and the whole of that extended "Bad Wolf" scene helps to set this up. They've told Gwyneth that they are angels. They tell the Doctor that they are victims of the Time War – you know, that Time War that he's feeling god-rendingly guilty about. Neither claim is any more credible. They are just pushing exactly the buttons that they know will play upon the sympathies of whomever they are talking to.

Which means we don't actually learn more about the Time War.

What we have is a piece where characters have different facets to them and actually develop, even though a lot of them still end up dead; where the plot is actually as important as the people in it, rather than just being a shop window for Russell's trademark character-shtick; where there's an actual science-y fiction-y explanation rather than "it's aliens/the future so we can do whatever we want". In short, one accidental political lapse aside, it's close to a perfect episode of Doctor Who.

In summary: when the TARDIS dematerialises there is a CGI swirl of displaced snow that had gathered on its Police Box exterior. Never mind thousands of flying Daleks or the Devil, that should be the definitive effect of new Doctor Who.

God bless us every one.

Next time: Harriet Jones, Flydale North… nope, no idea who you are. Time for the first really controversial episode. Farting aliens take over the government of Britain and restage "Pigs in Space". BONG! It's "Aliens of London"


1 comment:

Andrew Hickey said...

Nice write-up. I sometimes forget how good some of the Eccleston stuff was (primarily this and Dalek) because the subsequent series were so godawful I've taken to thinking of the new series as a totally different thing from Proper Doctor Who.

I never read the Miles piece, but in general I think Miles has a more intelligent take on the programme than the vast majority of fandom. What that says about me (given his reputation and acknowledged mental health problems) I don't want to think...