The Unquiet Dead, yet another pseudo-historical, is one of my favorite episodes to watch again, and again. This episode also features Gwyneth, played by Eve Myles, who would then go on to play Gwen Cooper in the spin-off, Torchwood. When Rose Tyler and the Tenth Doctor see Gwen on Tochwood’s view screen in Journey’s End, this episode is referenced:
According to The A.V. Club review:
“Aren’t you going to change?” “I’ve changed my jumper. Come on!”
“The Unquiet Dead” is the first of new Doctor Who’s so-called celebrity historicals, episodes that team up the Doctor and his companions with a recognizable figure from the past. This particular Who subgenre has a few antecedents in the classic series, but only a few; after the 1st Doctor’s early hobnobbing with Marco Polo and Emperor Nero, just about the only historical figure of any real significance who shows up in the subsequent two decades of the show is a young H.G. Wells in the much-derided 6th Doctor adventure “Timelash,” and even that story featured a young, pre-fame “Herbert” instead of the established titan of science fiction. While I have my issues with subsequent celebrity historical episodes, which could be overly reverential or simplistic in their treatment of their chosen subject, that isn’t the case with this first example of the form. Charles Dickens gets to play the hero—indeed, he ends up saving the day, or at least enabling Gwyneth to save the day—but a real effort is made here to capture the complexities of one of the great luminaries of 19th century fiction as he nears the end of his life.
It helps that the episode enlists one of the world’s foremost Dickens experts to play the part. Simon Callow had at least a decade’s experience performing as Dickens before he stepped into the role for Doctor Who, and that close familiarity is readily apparent in “The Unquiet Dead.” Indeed, there are times when Dickens threatens to take over the episode; his initial scene in his dressing room where he discusses his frustrations with the theater owner feels so disconnected from the adventures of the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS. But then, part of the purpose of these early episodes is to reveal just how expansive the boundaries of Doctor Who’s storytelling actually are. For this week—hell, for this scene—the show can be a meditation on the life of Charles Dickens, and it’s under no obligation to be so again next week.
The Doctor’s own reaction to Dickens is carefully considered. While the 9th Doctor is all business whenever the ghosts are specifically on the move, he allows himself a few minutes’ fannish excitement when he barges his way into Dickens’ private coach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Christopher Eccleston tends to be more convincing when portraying the deadly serious side of his Doctor, but one of his best playful moments in the role comes when he starts offering his gushing feedback to Dickens about “The Signal Man” and “Great Expectations”—although the Doctor proves that he has the right stuff to be a Doctor Who fan when he can’t help but point out how rubbish the American bit in Martin Chuzzlewit is. Dickens is the perfect straight man to the Doctor’s sudden exuberance, especially because the character never steps outside of his established for the sake of the jokes; indeed, Gatiss and Callow anchor Dickens’ funniest reactions—such as his declaration to the driver that “I think he can stay” after the Doctor showers him with praise—in terms of his previously established despondency. The scene in the carriage could easily just be two actors trading well-written banter, but the dialogue is informed by and builds upon what the episode has revealed about these two men as characters.
And yet, for all his obvious love of Charles Dickens and his books, the 9th Doctor has no patience for the man as a co-investigator of impossible mysteries. For the space of about 15 seconds, “The Unquiet Dead” appears to be gearing up for a fairly standard Doctor Who arc in which a skeptical supporting character comes to realize that the supernatural, or at least alien beings that resemble the supernatural, do in fact exist. But the Doctor is not as tolerant as he once was, snarling to Dickens, “If you’re going to deny it, don’t waste my time. Just shut up.” It’s a harsh moment, so much so that the Doctor apologizes to Dickens in the subsequent scene. This is an important moment for the new Doctor Who, because it signals that the arguments and conflicts aren’t going to be driven by plot but rather by character.
When the Doctor tells Dickens to shut up, he effectively speaks on behalf of the show, declaring that the denizens of this universe are entitled to their own reactions to the insanity unfolding around them, but not their own interpretations. Instead of getting mired in a debate about the nature of the ghosts, one in which Dickens would obviously be in the wrong, “The Unquiet Dead” pushes past that to the crucial monologue where Dickens explains why he cannot accept the existence of such spirits and the vast uncharted universe they represent. He asks the Doctor whether his decades of ignorance of such things mean that he has wasted life. Pointedly, the Doctor never answers that question.
It isn’t just Dickens who struggles to cope with the world that the Doctor inhabits, as Rose is deeply disturbed by the thought of the Gelth being given free rein to inhabit human corpses. The Doctor humors her for a bit longer than he does Dickens, but he still doesn’t see this as some high-minded rhetorical exercise; he offers the donor card analogy to prove his point to Rose, but he short-circuits the argument when she objects again by telling her that she is now dealing with a different morality, and that she can either get used to it or go home. This is such a clever moment because it demonstrates to viewers that Doctor Who is not fundamentally concerned with its own cleverness. There’s room to kick around the odd philosophical debate, yes, but the Doctor’s overriding priority is saving as many lives as possible, even if that involves making some superficially unpleasant compromises.
The question then is whether “The Unquiet Dead” lets itself and its characters off the hook by revealing that the Gelth are not nearly as innocent or benevolent as they first appear; indeed, when the Gelth make their move, their leader takes on the appearance of a smoky demon. This betrayal is arguably a dramatic necessity, as it’s difficult to see just how the episode could have reached a suitably exciting climax without some escalation of its primary threat, but it does make the Doctor look like a bit of a gullible idiot. But then, is that such a bad thing? After all, even if “The Unquiet Dead” has a more tightly developed plot than its two predecessors, what happens here is still fundamentally driven by the choices the characters make, and it’s instructive to see why the Doctor would make such a wrong decision for the right reasons. The still bears the weight of the Time War, and he feels deeply his responsibility to all the races that he and his people indirectly destroyed; in that context, it’s not really surprising that the Doctor is a little too quick to take the Gelth at their word.
And anyway, there are other ways for the Doctor to be right. He places his faith in Gwyneth and Charles Dickens, and they end up saving his life when he finds himself outmaneuvered. It may seem like the Doctor knows everything—he might even make that claim on occasion—but that isn’t really what the Doctor derives his power from. He believes in people, and he helps them find their best selves before it’s too late. If that means they end up preventing his death in Cardiff, then so much the better as far as he’s concerned.