‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Unquiet Dead”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 2: “The End of the World”)

I’m rewatching the first series of the new Doctor Who with an eye toward looking where the show has gone since. (I previously wrote a bit about “The Unquiet Dead” when it was new, over here.)

Yesterday was too gorgeous a spring day to spend it inside watching Doctor Who and sitting at the computer writing about it. But I want the Doctor to know that no level of beautiful weather would keep me from leaping into the TARDIS were he to offer me the opportunity.
It’s funny how a couple years and a lot more insight (via tons more episodes) into what Russell Davies was doing with Doctor Who changes my perspective on an episode. When I first wrote about “The Unquiet Dead” in early 2006 — a year after it had aired in the U.K. but just after it first aired in the U.S. — I was all about noting how literary the show assumes its fans must be (what with references to Martin Chuzzlewit and all) and how geeky I am (what with my own inevitable allusions to Ghostbusters). But I only recalled these reactions when I went back and read what I’d written three years ago. This time around, I’m all about the Doctor and how sad he is and how many things crop up here that will be important over the course of the series.

Also, too, there’s this: I first saw the Christopher Eccleston episodes on the Sci Fi Channel, for which they were edited slightly from the British versions, and I watched them many times in the edited Sci Fi versions before I ever saw them unedited on DVD. I can’t say that I quite memorized those edited versions, but I saw them often enough that when I now watch them on DVD, the scenes that were not in the Sci Fi versions still jump out at me. By the time David Tennant came along, I was, ahem, finding alternative ways to see the British versions as soon as they were available to see, so the opposite began to happen: when I saw the Tennant episodes on Sci Fi — because I couldn’t not watch them, even though I’d already seen them — the stuff that was missing was glaring to me. But it’s wild to be watching these Eccleston episodes and still feel, once in a while, like some bit feels fresher than others.

Like this, right in the beginning of this episode:

The Doctor is laughing! The Doctor is having fun. I’d swear this was not in the Sci Fi version of the episode, and yet it’s so vital to really getting this new Doctor, in how he’s just trying to get past the horrors of the Time War — which we still don’t know enough about.

I’m also not entirely sure that I remember, from the edited episode, the Gelth saying that their planet had been destroyed in the Time War, or that during the war “the whole universe convulsed.” That’s hugely important, too, because it suggests that the Doctor will never be able to completely avoid reminders of the war, that everywhere he goes, he’ll see aftereffects of the war.

This I do remember: the Doctor showing off for Rose and enjoying every moment of it:

And still enjoying every moment of Rose’s reactions to everything going on:

And she is suitably impressed by all this: she actually stops to wonder and marvel at the oddities of time travel. “Think about it,” she says to him. “Christmas, 1860. It happens once, just once, and then it’s gone… Except for you. You can go back and see days that are dead and gone, a hundred thousand sunsets ago. No wonder you never stay still…” Of course, now we know that he keeps moving because if he stays still, he’ll have to think about things he doesn’t want to think about. Funny, too, how I first interpreted her response to his “Not a bad life” — “Better with two,” she says — as flirting. I mean, she is flirting with him, no question. But now, knowing about how she will later deal with meeting Sarah Jane Smith, I found myself wondering if she’s wondering why he’d been alone when he met her, if she’s the first to be here with him like this… Does she think she’s the first one to travel with him? Has she thought about it at all?

Davies obviously is trying to expand the human-Time Lord relationship on the Doctor’s part, too. The Doctor never, ever took any notice of his female companions like he does with Rose. “Blimey, you look beautiful,” he tells her once she’s changed into her 1860s duds. But then he’s either embarrassed for himself or realizes that perhaps it’s not such a good idea to let himself get involved. Or maybe he’s just being even more playfully flirtatious himself. Because he amends himself: “Considering… that you’re human.” But the grin that punctuates that… he’s teasing her, for whatever reason.

(“Aren’t you gonna change?” she asks him. “I changed my jumper,” he says, as if that’s enough. Yeah, if it were me traveling with him, I’d want him to dress up for the period more often than he does, which is just about never.)

There’s already way more physical contact between the Doctor and his companion than there ever was. Not just the handholding porn:

But look where his arm is:

All the way around her and holding on tight. Note that though she complains to the undertaker about him feeling her up, she has no such complaint about the Doctor.

(And look how soft and round lovely Rose is in her frock! It’s nice to see a girl on TV who’s not superskinny and all bones. Hooray for Billie Piper.)

All the fannish stuff — the stuff that is an indication that the writers understand fandom of all stripes — in this episode is, we see now, something that the series will continue to capitalize on. Rose’s speech I mentioned above, the one really considered the awesomeness of time travel, is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect from writer Mark Gatiss, who is a huge Whovian himself (see the first YouTube video here; he’s “Mark,” of course), and will appear later in the series in his other capacity as an actor. But also the Doctor’s excitement at meeting Charles Dickens — “Go on, do the death of Little Nell, it cracks me up” — and complete lack of hesitation at complaining about something he doesn’t like — “Ah well if you can’t take criticism…” Only someone who knows fans could have created this perfectly balanced portrait of obsessive devotion. (The Doctor knows the gossip, too: that “the ladies” call him “Charlie.”)

There’s the Doctor, still hopeful and helpful and even maybe a little bit naive after all he’s been through. He’s actually shocked that the Gelth tricked him, but that says something good about the Doctor, that he hasn’t been hardened all the way through by the Time War.

But there’s just the basic setting-the-stage stuff that it’s now clear is happening here. Here’s the Rift, right from the beginning, practically, the source of all Doctor Who goodness in the 21st century (when everything changes). Here’s Rose “thinking… more than ever lately” about her father, who “died years back.” And here’s “the big bad wolf” Gwyneth sees in Rose. Oh boy.

Random thoughts on “The Unquiet Dead”:

• Geez, is Cardiff really so bad that Rose doesn’t care when or where they are until she learns that’s where they are? Is Cardiff so bad that it’s a worse place to die than anywhere else, as the Doctor seems to suggest? It seems like a nice enough city to me…

• Gwen Cooper!

• The Doctor takes his tea with two sugars.

• Great qutoes:

“Go out there like that, you’ll start a riot, Barbarella.” –the Doctor, to Rose, about her 21st-century clothes. And, aha! it’s another pop-culture reference from the Doctor, who didn’t used to take notice of that kind of thing, either

“What in Shakespeare is going on?” –Charlies Dickens, because of course he can’t say, “What the Dickens?” and also because, you know, ghosts! Shakespeare loved ghosts

“It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home.” –the Doctor, to Rose

(next: Episode 4: “Aliens of London”)

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eric-jon rössel waugh
eric-jon rössel waugh
Mon, May 11, 2009 5:01pm

I don’t think that the joke is that Cardiff is the worst place in the world; just that it’s profoundly anticlimactic. Not with a bang but a muted trumpet.

Also see: Cleveland.

Tue, May 12, 2009 1:25pm

“What in Shakespeare is going on?” –Charlies Dickens, because of course he can’t say, “What the Dickens?”

“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” — Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene 2.

(still, it’s a cute bit.)

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Wed, May 13, 2009 2:29am

I must confess I appreciated this episode a lot more after reading this article.

Wed, May 13, 2009 10:22pm

I am *loving* the series one blogging. So nice to feel all nostalgic and Who-ish while in the dark days (months…) between new eps.