Doctor Who The Unquiet Dead

So many times in my illustrious grapefruit career, I’ve wanted to say a particular piece of art is a “love it or hate it” kind of deal. And every damn time, I think about it, and it’s not true. It seems that generalisations are never accurate. I wanted to describe ‘The Unquiet Dead’ in these terms, too, but frankly, I can’t, because I thought it was… meh.1 Not bad, not good. But there are people out there who loved it and there are people out there who hated it. I’ll address that second point later.

In the new Doctor Who’s first journey to the past, the Doctor and Rose come across a bunch of spooks inhabiting a funeral parlour in Victorian Cardiff.2 Being Doctor Who, it turns out of course that they’re not spooks. I’ll give you three guesses. The plot of the story is a shade more interesting than the last two episodes. Oddly, I felt more surprised by a sudden ending to this story than I did to the last one. The reason for that, and probably also for a lot of Who fandom loving this story, is that it really does feel like ‘old school’ Doctor Who. The set up is a shade slower than previous stories, and with five minutes to go, I was really expecting that we were only half-way through an old four part story.

No one calls me Charlie. — Charles Dickens

And then it stopped, which seemed a bit abrupt. That’ll teach me to not keep an eye on the time. I may also have been fooled by the Doctor’s lack of involvement in the climax of the story. Eccleston was fantastic again in this story, but as written, Charles Dickens gets to be more the hero than the usual feller. The Doctor’s relationship with Rose advances a little more, too. There’s a strong understanding between them — the mysterious ‘Time War’ gets mentioned, and she immediately knows that that’s going to press his buttons. It’s a shade less subtle later, when he declares that he’s “so glad” he met her, and grabs her hand. But in three episodes, they’ve really become a believable partnership — it’ll be interesting to see what happens to them next week, back in Rose’s home time.3 Hopefully the Doctor will finally manage some kind of unqualified victory. Just one. To prove he can.

It is different, it’s a different morality. Get used to it, or go home. — The Doctor

You might be forgiven for thinking that the only problems with new Who are ones of plot and pacing. I’d say that’s almost true — but there’s another, teensy-weensy issue4 with the story, as Lawrence Miles pointed out in the link I mentioned earlier. While this is by no means the first story to have had duplicious aliens play the humans and the Doctor in order to stage an invasion, it’s the first time they’ve done it by playing off humanity’s good points. If you see Doctor Who as something of a morality play — and given the amount of mythologies it’s borrowed from over the years, and it’s target audience of children, it’s hard not to — then this does seem to deviate rather noticeably from the pattern. The Doctor, having made a convincing argument for the acceptance of asylum seekers, is then punished for his tolerant beliefs.

There’s been several rebuttals of this point — Lance Parkin’s is probably the best. Quite a few folk have openly claimed that there’s NO SUBTEXT to the episode, that people who see one are deluded. It may just be the arts student in me, but I was surprised that people actually thought it possible for art not to have a subtext. Even more surprised to hear people saying that if the author didn’t intend it, then it’s not there. At a time when the issue of asylum seekers is huge in both Britain and Australia, though, I don’t think it’s a reading that can be swept under the carpet. Personally — I know as a child what I took away from such shows was not so much what happened, but what the hero said. The Doctor in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ makes a stirring, challenging argument for compassion to refugees. At the end, Rose doesn’t say “You were wrong.” There seems a clear acceptance in the new Who that you have to try to do the right thing: reinforced in ‘[Rose]’.

The Unquiet Dead isn’t bad. But it feels squished. A bit of extra time could have slipped in an explanation of the old lady murdering her grandson, and perhaps dealt more interestingly with the Gelth issue. Having to strip such potentially fascinating ideas down to “We’re good, no wait, we’re evil” does make things so simplistic as to invite these kinds of readings. Just think: we could have skipped all the blathering on outside the TARDIS at the end and avoided this whole controversy. Still. At least this week, we almost had a ‘B’ plot.

Next week: Aliens crash into Big Ben in the start of the season’s first two-parter. Perhaps we’ll finally get some plot heavy Who.5

  1. I’m sure many in history have used the term “meh”, but I feel obliged to point out that I first heard it used by Matthew Cocker. He gets the meh feeling a lot more often than me.
  2. That’s in Wales, by the way.
  3. And I don’t mean 3.30pm.
  4. By teensy-weensy, I mean causing HUGE amounts of discussion, much of it thrillingly rabid.
  5. Not that I mind plot-light. The End of the World is still my favourite episode.6
  6. Would you believe, in all the hubbub, I almost forgot to mention how hot Billie Piper looked in Victorian garb. Phwoar.
4 comments posted — most recent by Tom on 21/04/05