The Great 'Doctor Who' Rewatch: The Unquiet Dead

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Let's visit Cardiff in the 1860s! (Photo: BBC)
Previously, on Doctor Who:  Rose and the Doctor take their first trip together and travel five billion years into the future to watch the literal end of the world, Rose meets her first aliens who actually look like aliens, has her first near death experience and we learn a bit about why the Doctor looks so sad all the time.

This week, we’re going back to the past to meet Charles Dickens, watch Nine turn into the world’s biggest fanboy, meet yet another interesting secondary character who sacrifices themselves for the Doctor, and witness Rose’s first real lesson in feminism. Click through and come chat with me and feel free to leave your favorite moments, funny lines, video clips or whatever floats your boat in the comments. 

Welcome to Olden Times. They are Way Creepy. Our episode opens at some point clearly in the past – at least long enough ago that all the lighting fixtures in this particular house have to be lit by actual fire. (They’re gas lamps, actually, and this is a plot point, otherwise I’d never ruin an attempt at wit like that.) It turns out we’re in a funeral parlor and Mr. Snead the funeral director is comforting a young gentleman whose grandmother has died.  Suddenly the presumed deceased grandmother starts glowing blue, wakes up and begins choking her grandson. Mr. Snead rushes back into the room, wearing a classic “not this again” expression and tries to pry dead woman off the younger man. Unfortunately, he gets overpowered by Zombie Granny, who busts out of her coffin and heads out into a snow-filled street that appears to be Victorian. Man, don’t you just hate it when that happens.

Meanwhile, back in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Rose are struggling with the control panel, for some reason, because it’s not like he has been flying this thing for hundreds of years or anything. (There is a joke about men and directions to be made here, probably, but I’m really too nice to make it right out.) Nine tells Rose that since she’s seen the future (last week), now he’s going to take her to see the past. They pick 1860 virtually at random, because they don’t know what happened then and are going to find out. (Gee, I wonder where they will end up? Such tension!)

Mr. Snead’s House of Zombies is Awkward. Mr. Snead frustratingly shouts at his housemaid Gwyneth for not being around to help him out with the whole Zombie Granny situation. He tells her that they have to get the hearse out because “the stiffs are getting lively again” and they have to go fetch her. Gwyneth says that they can’t just keep letting the dead wander around town like this because it’s just not of the Lord. Mr. Snead says that what’s happening is not his fault but Gwyneth argues that something terrible is happening in their house and they know it, and they ought to get some help to deal with it.  Though I suppose it’s not like they can just call Victorian Ghostbusters, can they?

Right on cue, this is when the TARDIS vworp vworps its way into an alley down the road. Rose is busy having a small existential crisis about the fact that they’ve arrived at Christmas in 1860 and the Doctor has the power to see something like that, something that is only supposed to have happened once and been gone forever. (Rose waxes philosophical a lot in these first few episodes.) She says of course that’s why the Doctor never stays still, when he can do all that instead. Nine admits it’s not a bad life, really, and Rose says it’s better with two and they’re super adorable for another minute (again).  Rose excitedly bounces toward the door, eager to explore the past, but the Doctor tells her that she can’t go out dressed all modern like that and sends her off to the TARDIS wardrobe (because of course it has one) to change.

Rose returns in full-on Victorian fancy dress, gets an actual compliment from the Doctor on her appearance and races outside to take in her first view of history. They don’t devote a tremendous amount of time to this, but there is a lovely moment when Rose first exits the TARDIS and puts her foot on the ground that conveys the sort of wonder and grandeur of this experience for her. The two of them link arms and head off to explore.

Victorian Zombie Hunting:  Mr. Snead and Gwyneth are out zombie hunting. They’re having no luck, so Mr. Snead tells the maid that she’s going to have to be the one to find the old lady. Gwyneth does not look pleased at this, but Mr. Snead says that if she doesn’t use her special “sight” to help them whether she wants to or not, she’ll be sacked. He must be the most wonderful man to work for.

Though she’s clearly reluctant, Gwyneth uses her psychic mojo to find the dead grandmother, who is feeling lost and alone, but apparently also quite excited, because before she unfortunately became a walking corpse, she’d been planning to see him, “a great great man” who’d come all the way from London.  

Fandom Trivia Time. This episode was written by Mark Gatiss, whom many of you may know from his work in Sherlock, where he is both co-creator and the guy who plays Mycroft Holmes. Mr. Snead’s maid Gwyneth might also be familiar to a lot of you – she‘s Eve Myles who played Gwen on the somewhat more adult Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood. Gwen actually pops up in a later episode of Who for about five minutes (in Series 4’s Journey’s End) and there’s a running gag about whether or not she’s from an old Cardiff family or anything, because obviously it’s the same actress.

What’s Up, Charles Dickens? It turns out that the Zombie Granny’s “great, great man” is Charles Dickens, who is about to do a speaking engagement at a local theater. He’s sort of depressed and sad backstage, moping about how his life is almost over and he’s determined to repeat things forever and has no imagination anymore because he’s just seen everything and it’s so difficult and blah blah blah. Cry me a river, Charles Dickens.

Mr. Dickens goes onstage and gets lots of applause and also there’s a dead woman in the audience that no one seems to be noticing. Mr. Dickens starts doing a reading of A Christmas Carol, while outside the Doctor realizes that his calculations were a bit off and they’re in 1869, not 1860 – and in Cardiff, not Naples. For such an old guy, the Doctor really does have a bit of a problem with directions. Rose doesn’t care – she’s just over the moon excited to be in the past at all.

Meanwhile, at one of the earliest examples of how A Christmas Carol is going to become totally overdone over the years, Mr. Dickens is still talking about Scrooge and Marley’s ghost when Zombie Granny suddenly glowing blue again in the audience and moaning. Weird blue swirly smoke starts coming out of her mouth and whirling round the room. People start screaming and running away. The Doctor and Rose hear the screams coming from the theater and the Doctor gets the biggest grin on his face and races off to find the ruckus.  Mr. Snead and Gwyneth come pushing into the theater just as the Doctor and Rose arrive. Zombie Granny turns back into just regular Dead Granny as soon as the blue smoke has dissipated and the funeral parlor duo attempt to drag the body off without anyone noticing.

Rose notices, however, and runs after them, thinking that they’re injuring or kidnapping someone from the crowd. Gwyneth tries to fake Rose out by saying that the old woman has brain fever, but Rose doesn’t believe her and discovers it’s actually a corpse they’re smuggling off in the hearse. Rose wants to know what they’ve done to the woman, but never gets an answer because Mr. Snead comes up behind her and chloroforms her. Gwyneth is shocked, but Mr. Snead just stuffs Rose in the hearse along with the body.

The Doctor and Mr. Dickens. While Rose is busy being kidnapped, the Doctor is getting shouted at by Charles Dickens. The author believes that Nine is somehow responsible for the apparitions in the theater, and wants to question him about how he did it, but the Doctor’s not paying any attention.  He realizes that the weird blue smoke is some kind of gas as they watch it retreat back into one of the theater lamps.

The Doctor makes it out into the street just in time to see Rose being stuffed into the hearse and driven off. He commanders the nearest carriage and tells them to follow them as quickly as possible. Dickens is still trailing behind him and says he can’t go anywhere because that’s actually his carriage the Doctor is trying to take. Nine tells him to get in then and off they go in pursuit. During the carriage chase, the Doctor learns that this man is in fact, the famous Charles Dickens and has a proper geekout about meeting him. He tells him that he’s brilliant, praises all his novels and short stories and claims to be his biggest fan. Dickens has no idea what this phrasing even means, but is clearly eating up the flattery with a spoon. He tells his driver that the Doctor can stay and that they should be swift in their pursuit of the fleeing hearse. He’s powerfully intrigued by Nine’s story of his kidnapped friend and his face lights up at the thought of something exciting happening to him again at last. He is sooooo into it.

More Danger and Dead People. Meanwhile, the Inept Funeral Parlor Duo have arrived home, with an unconscious Rose and no idea what to do with her. They drag her into a viewing room and lock the door, while Mr. Snead tries to think of what to do next. Moments later, an angry knock sounds at the door and Mr. Snead tells Gwyneth that no matter who it is she has to get rid of them.

Of course it’s the Doctor and Dickens at the front door (and doesn’t that sound like it ought to be some sort of mystery/sleuthing show all on its own?), who very forcefully demand to see Gwyneth’s boss. Dickens has become a completely different person from his previously mopey, downtrodden self and is suddenly totally assertive and super involved in this search for Rose. Gwyneth does her best to keep them out, but no one listens to her at all (this seems to be a trend for her, poor dear) and pushes indoors. She tries to tell them her boss isn’t at home, but her cover is totally blown when the gaslamps all start flaring up without warning and they hear Rose screaming from another room in the house.

Rose is screaming because she’s woken up in a strange room and both the dead grandmother and the dead grandson have reanimated and are shuffling threateningly toward her, zombie-style. Near death experiences, apparently totally par for the course when travelling with the Doctor. Nine bursts in just as Rose is being manhandled by the dead people and saves the day. They say hello to each other and Rose asks who is new friend is. The Doctor grins goofily and says he’s Charles Dickens. Rose pauses with the absolute best expression on her face and then just says “Okay,” very slowly, trying to take in that this is just the kind of thing that happens in her life now.

The Doctor asks the zombie folks what they want – and they actually reply to him. A strange sort of disembodied voice asks him to help them because they’re dying. They ask him to open something called the Rift and then the blue gas flies out of the zombies and the bodies go back to being dead.

So…What’s Going on Here? Rose takes a moment to unload on Mr. Snead for kidnapping her and locking her in a room with zombies to die, while the Doctor looks on from the corner kind of proudly. Mr. Snead says none of this is fault, it’s the house. He says it’s always had a reputation for being haunted and now it’s been having this whole walking undead problem for the past three months.

The Doctor asks about the gas problems, but Mr. Snead says that that particular phenomenon is new. Nine explains that that means that whatever it is is getting stronger, and that that the Rift is getting wider, enough to let things sneak through. He says that the Rift is a weak point in time and space that connects the house with somewhere else.

Gwyneth appears to hand the Doctor some tea, telling him that she’s made it with two sugars just the way he likes it. He looks skeptically at her for a second. Meanwhile, Charles has wandered off to explore the rest of the house and pauses to listen to some of the noises coming out of a gaslamp. He says it’s impossible and then goes to investigate the dead bodies that have been walking. The Doctor finds him and tells him he has a brilliant mind and should start believing that what’s happening is real. The corpses are perfect homes for the gas creatures/aliens/things because when the human body starts to decompose, it fills with gas, which would allow the creatures to sort of use them like vehicles to get around. Charles basically starts having a breakdown about the fact that this means that his entire world view – his rejection of the fantastical – is wrong.

Rose and Gwyneth, BFFs. Gwyneth finds Rose trying to help her clean up. She says Rose ought not to do that, because it’s not her place. Rose says it’s fine, because it’s obvious that Snead works her to death. Rose then gets a little feminist lesson when she learns that Gwyneth only makes eight pounds a year and went to school one day a week as a girl. Rose seems stunned by this, but the two of them bond about hating math. Then they talk about Gwyneth’s crush on the local butcher’s boy who comes round sometimes and the fact that both her parents died from the flu. She says it’s okay, because they’re all waiting for her in paradise and maybe Rose’s father is waiting for her as well. Rose is confused because she never told Gywnith that her father had died.

Gwyneth says she just has too much time to herself down in the kitchens. She then gets really weird, talking about how she can tell that Rose is from somewhere far away and that she’s seen drawings of London, but never like that, never full of people and with metal birds flying all around. Gwyneth suddenly realizes what she’s saying and starts apologizing profusely, saying that her mother had always told her to hide the sight and never let others know. The Doctor – appearing out of nowhere – asks if her ability has been getting stronger lately. Gwyneth says yes, and looks like she’s ready for someone to beat her. Nine says it’s because she grew up on top of the Rift and has become part of it. He then declares that they’re going to have a séance in order to try and communicate with the gas creature things.

Seances and Things. Gwyneth suddenly becomes all authoritative on how séances should be held. Charles Dickens is sooooo not into this séance idea and launches into a rant about how this stuff is all fake and he can’t be part of such mummery. Nine tells him to sit down and keep an open mind.  Gwyneth is a moderately successful medium for someone who has never done it before, as creepy ghost noises kick in and blue fog swirls through the room almost as soon as she starts. Because you knew this was coming, the creepy blue gas basically possesses Gwyneth, using her as a link so they can materialize in the room.

The blue gas – now in a vaguely humanoid shape – tells the table that they are the Gelth, and they are to be pitied, because they are dying. They tell Nine that the girl must be taken to the Rift and that she must be used to make a bridge to allow them to cross over. The Gelth tell the Doctor that they are almost extinct as a result of the Time War that raged through the universe and destroyed their physical bodies. Nine gets his typical “Uh oh, someone is talking about Gallifrey” angsty face on, and looks upset in that vague way he has. The Gelth explain that they need a physical form and want the humans to give them the bodies of their dead, because they’re being wasted just being buried or whatever. (Um. Ew.) The Doctor for some reason doesn’t see an immense problem with this solution, but luckily Rose does. The Gelth repeat their plea for help and then vanish.

Charles Dickens is basically sitting at the table with a “MIND BLOWN” sign over his head at this point.

The Doctor and Rose Have a Spat. Gwyneth comes back around after her whole possession ordeal, talking about how its alright, that the angels need her to help them, etc. etc. Nine pipes up that that’s true, they do need her and Gwyneth’s the only one that can save them. Rose, who is not entirely fond of this line of persuasion, tells the Doctor to leave her alone for a while.  Everyone has an existential crisis for a minute about aliens and death. 

Rose says the Doctor can’t just let the Gelth run around inside the bodies of dead people. Nine insists that he can do exactly that because it’s like recycling. Rose passionately argues that they can’t, because those bodies were once living people and they should respect that. The Doctor is a total jerk to Rose, insisting that he operates by a different kind of morality and that she’s got to get used to it or just go home. Nine is totally obsessed with the idea of saving the Gelth, ostensibly because they’re the last of their species, but obviously it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that they said the secret phrase “Time War,” and that’s like the key to activating every guilt/angst/rage button he has all at once.  Rose and the Doctor are still at odds when Gwyneth pipes up that she ought to get a say in this whole thing, and that she wants to help “the angels” no matter what, because she seems to think that they’re somehow holy beings who may or may not have been sent by her mother to keep her company after she died.

Opening the Rift, or: Thus Begins Our Long and Tortured Relationship with the Rules of Time Travel.  The Doctor says that in order to open the Rift they have to do it in the weakest part of the house, which naturally is in the morgue. (Where else would it be??!) Rose tries one last time – she says she knows that the Gelth don’t succeed at whatever they’re trying to do, because she knows for a fact corpses weren’t walking about in 1869, because that’s not history. The Doctor says time is always in flux changing every second and Rose’s world could be rewritten like that. This is a plot point/thematic argument to which we will return again and again in this “reboot” series – and that is dealt with repeatedly in classic Who as well. Can time be rewritten? And if so, how much? If not, what can’t be changed? We’ll be coming back to this topic, particularly as regards Steven Moffat’s episodes later on.  Anyway, suddenly the Gelth come swirling into the morgue, saving us from an existential debate about the meaning of time travel (at least for now).

The Gelth immediately start praising the Doctor for his awesomeness in helping them. Nine tries to backtrack a bit, saying that after the Gelth are transferred into some corpses for transport, he’ll take them somewhere else where they can build proper bodies (and presumably not have to bodysnatch to do so). Gwyneth sets herself up under the room’s archway and Rose makes one last ditch attempt to convince her that she doesn’t have to do any of this, but Gwyneth is adamant. Gwyneth is so excited to help them and they make a bridge between the two worlds.

Don’t Trust Disembodied Blue Gas Aliens. Just Saying. Once Gwyneth turns herself into a Rift-bridge, blue, swirly Gelth start pouring into the room. Like, a lot of them. Way more than we were originally led to believe still existed. The Gelth leader crows that the bridge is open and that now, they can descend. This is basically a classic example of why you should not trust gaseous blue aliens who play on your emotional weaknesses to get you to do things for them, because nine times out of ten they actually will start glowing with fire and sprouting fangs and trying to kill everyone.

Turns out, that the Gelth are not a ragtag group of Time War survivors but rather something like a parasite race that numbers in the billions and who all want corpses to get around again. All the bodies in the morgue start animating while Mr. Snead starts yelling at Gwyneth to close the Rift, but she can’t hear him. Mr. Snead then gets killed by a zombie and possessed by a Gelth and that’s about the point at which the Doctor finally admits that maybe things have gone a “little bit wrong.”

The Doctor backs Rose into a cell and locks them in as the Gelth zombies shuffle toward them. Charles Dickens runs away up the stairs, claiming that he basically wants none of whatever this madness is. The Doctor says that he’d pitied the Gelth and wanted to help them. The Gelth Zombies laugh and say that they don’t have time for his feelings, they want this world and all the bodies in it for themselves.  The Doctor’s all bring it, zombies, and they pretty much laugh at him and promise to kill the human race.

Rose starts to panic a bit, asking the Doctor to tell her that she can’t die in this cell in a roomful of zombies because technically she hasn’t even been born yet. The Doctor says he’s sorry, and actually looks like he means it. He explains, kind of mournfully, that time isn’t a straight line, that it’s completely possible for her to be born in the 20th century and die in the 19th and it’s all his fault because he brought here there. Rose says it’s okay because she’d wanted to come with him. The Doctor also takes a minute to lament that he too – someone who has seen the fall of Troy and all manner of other amazing historical moments – is about to be eaten by zombies in a dungeon in Cardiff, of all places. (Personal note: Cardiff is actually quite a lovely city, just saying.)

Charles Dickens to the Rescue! Charles Dickens runs into the street, followed by streams of blue gas. Whilst watching the Gelth swirl around – and one get sucked into a lamppost – he has a sudden epiphany about the gas and how it could be used to defeat the aliens. He returns to the funeral parlor and starts running around turning up the gas in all the lamps.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Rose and the Doctor promise each other that they’re going to go down fighting together. Then they stare at each other for a minute, clasp hands and the Doctor tells Rose that he’s so glad he met her. Of course, Charles Dickens shows up at precisely this moment to ruin their heart to heart, shouting about turning up the gas. He says that if they turn down the flames in all the lamps and turn up the gas, it will fill the room and draw the Gelth out of the human bodies they’re currently occupying. Charles is all sorts of excited when the Doctor confirms that he thinks his plan is brilliant and should work. Which, of course it does.

The Doctor and Rose get out of their cage and try to save Gwyneth, who is still suspended in the doorway being a Rift bridge. The two of them try to convince her to send the Gelth back through the Rift, but Gwyneth says they’re too strong for her, that she can’t close the gate between worlds. She pauses and then says that however, she can hold them in the house and tells the Doctor, Rose and Charles Dickens to run, brandishing a book of matches.  Rose starts screaming, but the Doctor forces her out, promising not to leave Gwyneth while she’s still in danger. He then offers to take the matches from her, but her lack of response makes him realize that she’s actually already dead. The Doctor looks very sad, and says he’s sorry, and thanks Gwyneth for what she’s about to do. Gwyneth lights a match and joins a long line of secondary characters on Doctor Who during the Russell T. Davies era who are smart and interesting and awesome in their own right and who you will get attached to, only to watch them die. It’s a compliment really, that Davies does make you care so much about people beyond the main characters, but it’s also kind of exhausting. Bye, Gwyneth. We’ll see some great relative of yours on Torchwood.

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio. The Doctor makes it out of the funeral parlor just as the building explodes. He runs straight into Rose, who is very unhappy when she realizes that Gwyneth isn’t with him, and that means that she didn’t make it. The Doctor tells Rose he’s sorry and stresses that he did try to help, but that Gwyneth had been dead for at least five minutes, probably since the Gelth came through her in the archway. Rose doesn’t understand how the maid was able to talk to them, to help them, to blow up a building for them, if she was dead. But it’s Charles Dickens who answers her, quoting the famous line from Hamlet about there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Rose is saddened that a servant girl saved the world and, was so brave, when no one will ever know what she did. The three of them take a moment to take that in, and remember her.

The trio head back to the TARDIS – or the Doctor’s “shed” as he explains it to Dickens. Rose asks what Dickens will be doing now, and he’s so excited and inspired to go home and make up with his family and get back to writing, including coming up with an ending for The Mystery of Edwin Drood that involves blue elementals. Dickens also tries to get the Doctor to tell him who he is and how he knows so much about the future, but the Doctor demurs and says he’s just passing through. Dickens does have one final question though – he wants to know the fate of his books, whether they will last into the future. The Doctor grins at him and says that Charles Dickens’ work will last forever and it’s all incredibly sweet.

Team TARDIS returns inside the um….shed and Rose is curious about whether it’ll change history if Charles Dickens suddenly starts writing about blue ghosts. The Doctor – a bit wistfully – says that it’ll be 1870 in a week’s time and that’s the year Charles Dickens dies. He sadly says that Dickens will never get the chance to write what he saw. The TARDIS vworps off – one more surprise for old Charlie – and the episode ends with Dickens smiling, striding off and cheerfully wishing a passerby Merry Christmas – and God bless us every one.

Next week: Our first two parter! Aliens in London! Big Ben destroyed! Another random bit part for an actor who would later turn up on Torchwood!

But, first, The Unquiet Dead – thoughts? Comments? Favorite lines?