Was The Unquiet Dead ever going to be anything other than a massive success? A period setting that the BBC has managed flawlessly for decades, Simon Callow, and Mark Gatiss writing it; come on, it was a foregone conclusion!
One thing immediately striking about the opening of this episode is just how traditional it feels, establishing the setting and the guest characters before allowing the TARDIS to materialise. This is probably the best way to do things with the short episode format as the alternative of starting with the Doctor and Rose means that we have to take time to discover the setting at the same pace that they do, which takes time. It also gives us the sense of unknown, as an old lady's body mysteriously and terrifyingly comes back to life, as well as showcasing the brilliant period detail and flawless acting from the principal members of the guest cast. What's notable though (and I'm only saying this because I had Gatiss pegged as a comedy writer) is that while the episode is very witty it isn't actually funny; the wit is jet black and brings more of a gasp at its grotesqueness rather than a laugh. Also, the pre-titles sequence of the new series allows for a kind of mini-cliffhanger and nowhere is this used better than here, as the lady strides towards the camera streaming glowing gas from her mouth. It's almost enough to make you forget that the cliffhangers are largely missing from the series now.
The TARDIS scene after the titles shows the Doctor struggling to keep his ship from falling apart, which seems at odds with the much more controllable time machine that the new series presents. It is much more in keeping with the less predictable TARDIS of the original series, although the cynic in me says that Gatiss simply couldn't find a reason for the Doctor to actually want to go to Cardiff. Gatiss's traditionalist philosophy can also be seen from the slightly later scene where the Doctor stops Rose from going out in 21st century dress; it reminded me of Leela complaining about having to wear period clothing in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and Horror Of Fang Rock. Although far from cosy viewing (you know, what with the walking corpses and all), The Unquiet Dead feels like 'real' Doctor Who (well, my definition of 'real' anyway) and therefore of all the episodes of the new series is the most oddly comforting. But maybe that's just me.
I'm not going to beat about the bush: Simon Callow as Charles Dickens is hands down the best guest actor in the new series. I put him up there with such original series luminaries (oh man, I love that word) as Ian Hogg in Ghost Light and Simon Rouse in Kinda. Its a bit unfair really having his first scene opposite the stage manager as, while not exactly a bad actor, Wayne Cater just cannot cope up against such foil. It's like watching someone lay siege to a castle with a rolled up newspaper. That and his sideburns make him look like a hamster. However, this scene showcases Gatiss's clear love for the period he's writing about, with naturalistic but authentically Victorian dialogue (I know these things) and it's easy to see why he was the first person Russell T. Davies contacted to write the episode set in the 19th century.
The first sight of the Gelth is magnificent, a clear homage to Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It is this kind of effect where CGI is in its element; the smooth gloss it produces is appropriate for the effect it is trying to create for once, and there's no need to create a semblance of realistic organic movement within the swirling shapes, which is where CGI tends to fall down (see Spider Man). My only real criticism is that Gatiss gave them names far too similar to the comedy monsters in Red Dwarf, but that's hardly something I can hold against the episode itself. In terms of scariness the Gelth are too familiar looking to be truly frightening (Gatiss did say that their design was based on the traditional Victorian image of a ghost), but when on the other hand they come pouring out of a corpse's mouth...
The 'fan' scene in the hansom cab is fun but inappropriate in the circumstances really since Rose has been kidnapped. Still, it could be worse, Dickens's line of "what the Shakespeare?" is clever given that the now-antiquated phrase "what the Dickens" has its origin in Shakespeare (maybe someone could tell me which play). The zombies that attack Rose gurgle like drains in true George Romero style but on the whole the sound effects on this episode are outstanding, although not having a 5.1 surround system I can't fully appreciate the swirling sound of the Gelth whipping all around the room.
After this it gets very plotty, and this is really where Gatiss shines as a writer. He is able to combine characterisation and exposition together in a single line of dialogue, making the most of the 45 minute format. The scene where Rose and Gwyneth chat to each other in the parlour enhances both their characters at the same time as advancing the plot, and is one of my favourite scenes of the new series simply because it is executed with such virtuosity. For example, we get to learn about Gwyneth's life and character and also about Rose's world and her deceased father - importantly, we also get to see how she still makes mistakes through culture shock three episodes in. Three episodes in to her time on the show, Sarah Jane Smith was mucking in with the Exxilons like the best of them. This kind of scene shows us how much better paced this episode is than Rose and The End Of The World. Almost incidentally, and as a consequence of this characterisation, we learn of the rift and Gwyneth's psychic powers that govern the rest of the episode. In writing terms then, full marks for style and efficiency. Also it is interesting to note Gwyneth's observation that "you've been thinking about him [Rose's father] more than ever, which is a neat pointer towards the revelation of Rose's whole agenda in Father's Day and shows how the episodes all link together. Following this, the revelations about the time war expand on this plot arc that trickles gently and subtly through the series. Russell T. Davies may be seriously lacking as a writer for the programme, but as a producer he can't be faulted.
The Gelth's betrayal is extremely frightening, and I found it genuinely unexpected. The zombies come out in force giving the audience its monster fix (again, a tradition), but how they ever thought they'd get away with a PG certificate is beyond me (then again, Pyramids Of Mars and Attack Of The Cybermen got away with Us so it's swings and roundabouts really). Unfortunately the Doctor's lack of involvement in the story's resolution (a trend of the first half of the series) doesn't truly satisfy, and how the dead Gwyneth is able to move and talk could do with more of an explanation. Usually I'm not to concerned with pseudo-authentic explanations for fictional, fantastical concepts but in cases like this where it really doesn't make much sense I feel we do need something.
The 'man reborn' coda is slightly cheesy, but I'll let it go as it's nothing terrible and this is a very good episode indeed. Its strengths are in its production and particularly the writing, as I feel that Euros Lyn is a slightly bland director, continually taking the path of least resistance (although nowhere near as ham-fisted as Keith Boak). I'll leave the episode with that beautiful image in my mind of the snow staying in a police box shape as the TARDIS dematerialises, before fluttering down to the ground - did I just call Lyn bland?