The Ninth Doctor and Rose arrive in Victorian Cardiff during the Christmas period and are attacked by zombies and what looks like the ghosts of characters from the film Tron.
Mark Gatiss’ superb story is said to be the first Celebrity Historical. This is true if you ignore Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Romans, The Crusade, Let’s Kill Laurel and Hardy, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and The Gunfighters which were all broadcast within the first few years of the show. It is more true to say that The Unquiet Dead was the first story to be referred to as a Celebrity Historical. By the way, all those stories I mentioned are worth a watch or a listen (be warned though, some of them exist only as audio soundtracks upon wax cylinders). Great stories each and every one. This one is worth a watch too.
These ghosts are made of gas. Gas seems to be a theme among the monsters of this season. The Slitheen from Aliens of London/World War Three were also gaseous although theirs tended to be more of the rectal emission kind. Even the Daleks are known to let off a crafty fart. And between you and me, I wouldn’t want to be in an elevator with Mr and Mrs Pakoo if you know what I mean.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
The Doctor wanted to take Rose to Naples in 1860 but ended up nine years and 1,442 miles off target. This may seem positively shoddy but considering the universe is infinitely big and many billions of years old, this is the equivalent of parking two streets away from where you meant to park. Seen in that light, it isn’t too bad. Plus who would want to go to Naples when you can go to Cardiff instead? Um. Yeah…
Meanwhile at a funeral parlour (belonging to Gabriel Sneed) not so far away, there is a bit of a faff going on. A cadaver has come back to life, filled up and possessed by blue smoky gas. The late Mrs Peace is back and she is angry as you’d might expect if some little Welshman had scooped out your insides and embalmed the hell out of you. Sneed and his servant, Gwyneth, are not as faffed out as you may imagine. This has happened before. This is Wales, remember. The walking dead are an everyday occurrence here.
After killing her grieving grandson, Mr Redpath, (who wouldn’t be grieving if he knew that the old dear had willed all her money to the local cat orphanage), she decides to pop out to see Charles Dickens who is going to play his cover version of Donovan’s Season of the Witch.
During his seven-minute guitar solo, Dickens is interrupted when the blue vapour gushes out of Mrs Peace and frightens the audience away.
Following the shrieks and screams of the audience who flood out onto the streets in order to escape. the Doctor and Rose race to the scene. A little too late though as Sneed and Gwyneth manage to wrangle the corpse away into the hearse. Oh, and they take Rose as well because you never know when you’ll need a blonde stranger.
I am pretty sure that horse-drawn hearses didn’t have the name of the funeral owner plastered all over the glass. Nit-picking: I does it.
Charles Dickens is understandably a bit miffed but to blame the Doctor, well, silly old man. After the Doctor goes squee over his literary prowess, Dickens is mollified and offers to help.
At Sneed’s funeral parlour, Rose awakens and finds herself with the bodies of Mrs Peace and Mr Redpath who promptly reanimate and try to devour her brains. Boy, are they are going to starve.
Mrs Peace knocks on Rose’s skull.
REDPATH: Sounds hollow to me, grandmama.
PEACE: Hold her upside down, maybe there are still a few dribbles left.
Luckily the Doctor and Dickens arrive and break into the parlour before the corpses can bang the side of Rose’s head hard to get the last few dregs of brains out. Rose smiles gormlessly at her rescuers and says, “I done a poo-poo!”
Sneed explains about the corpses going walkabout, how they keep getting up and bumping into things. Gwyneth has a girly chat with Rose and reveals that she is a little bit psychic. She manages to see the future where Rose comes from. The thought of kebab shops, mini-skirts and drinkable water makes her dizzy and fearful.
Fearful? Oh, most certainly. Gwyneth sees something in Rose’s future: “…the darkness… the Big Bad Wolf!” The phrase ‘Bad Wolf’ crops up a lot in this season and for a good reason too. I won’t spoiler you with the reason why though. Not yet at least. But consider this, Rose has gold hair, and the Big Bad Wolf stars in the fairytale Goldilocks…
What do you think the Doctor does in response to this? Remember that this is a man who is a scientist. He doesn’t believe in ghosts or anything like that. You’d expect him to do something scientific, wouldn’t you? Nope! He just arranges a séance. As you do.
The blue vapours swirl around the room and then the ghosts from Tron appear. After a few minutes of shouting “Boo” and “Woo”, they get down to the nitty-gritty and tell the Doctor and all that they are all that remains of a race called the Gelth. Once upon a time, they had been corporeal until they were wiped out by the Time War. They had gone through a rift in time and space and ended up in Cardiff. Poor sods.
Many races were destroyed by this Time War that I presume was between two alien races who thought that they had the most superior digital watch. The Doctor physically reacts when he hears the phrase “Time War”. Maybe he was one of those who thought his digital watch was the best?
The Gelth have such a friendly name. Nobody with such a soft-sounding name as this would be evil surely? They plead for the Doctor to open up the rift that is in Sneed’s basement and allow them to come in their thousands to Victorian Wales.
The Doctor, who is a big softie at heart(s), says, “Oh go on then. Why not use these spare corpses that are lying around as temporary bodies until you guys can build your own bodies, eh? If only we had a psychic to help with rift widening, oh hello, Gwynnie, are you a psychic? What a lucky coincidence! C’mon here and allow the lovely Gelth to use your powers to come through!” I forget the exact phrasing.
So Gwyneth stands under the arch and opens up the rift with her psychic can-opener. The Gelth come through but the Doctor’s suspicions are raised when the ghostly gas aliens turn bright red and start cackling like witches. “Hah, you were fooled by our friendly name! We spell it with a K and a Z and another K and a silent Q! If you had seen our name written down, you would have automatically known that we were evil” Or something to that effect.
The Gelth intend on killing everything that lives and hijacking the bodies so that they can have hosts and take over the planet. As far as alien schemes go, this might actually work.
Sneed gets himself deaded by one of the reanimated cadavers. “You call this embalming? I embalm you, you bald oaf!” Sneed is then promptly possessed. But what about Charlie? Hah! Dickens has it away on his toes before he can be nobbled by the Gelth, leaving the Doctor and Rose alone with a bunch of narked-off corpses.
Because the Gelth turn red when they are angry, does this means that they would be spectacularly bad at poker?
Dickens is not a complete coward though, how could you think that? He returns to the parlour because he figures that since the Gelth are gaseous, he might be able do something. He extinguishes all of the gaslights but turns the gas all the way on. This, he suspects, will suck the Gelth out of their stolen bodies. By jingo, he is right!
The Doctor asks Gwyneth in she can get shut the rift and get rid of the corpse-joyriding Gelth but she is unable to do so. She cannot leave or shut it down but she does have a lucifer box full of matches.
Matches + gas = dead Gelths! Who said that maths was not fun?
Joking aside though, The Doctor notices that Gwyneth is no longer alive but somehow her consciousness is still there. By opening the rift in the first place, she has paid with her life.
As the Gelth are pulled back home, they can be heard to say, “We would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!”
The Doctor, Rose and Charles Dickens get out of the funeral home just before it explodes before they can be fried.
On their way back to the TARDIS, Dickens thanks them and says that the events of tonight will help with how he plans to resolve The Mystery of Edwin Drood: blue spectres!
The Doctor and Rose say their goodbyes to Charles and leave. Dickens is already getting a bit jaded since this doesn’t really surprise him. He then walks away.
The sad coda to this story is that Charles will die before finishing the story.
Eve Myles plays Gwyneth remarkably well. She never overacts or tries to steal any scenes. Any scenes which she does steal are simply because she is a cracking actress. Rightly so, she would go on to play a descendent of this character in the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.
Billie Piper as Rose is better than I would like to admit. A lot of people were awfully snooty about her being cast as the companion (one even sent a letter to Doctor Who Magazine saying that they would not watch because of her) but, hey, Billie is great. Not the greatest actress but she has a lot of heart and warmth which shines through with her performance.
Simon Callow is Charles Dickens. No, I mean it. He is literally the man himself. As well he might be since he knows nearly everything about the man. Callow is brilliant. His performance is the reason to watch this episode. There are other reasons, but this is good enough on its own.
Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor and he is also bloody marvellous. Chris is a great actor, one of the best actors of his generation. Every scene he is in, he has this intense presence (even the ones where he is mainly goofily grinning like a cat that has not had the cream but has also had an entire factory full of milk cartons). I love his performance. In hindsight, it is such a shame that he couldn’t have done another season.
As I said at the beginning, this is a superb story. But then again, I think they are all superb. Please dust off your DVD of the episode and give it a spin. I promise that it will be like welcoming an old friend. If you haven’t watched this adventure before, what the hell are you waiting for? Get watching!