Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Unquiet Dead

[2005 - Season 27/Series 1 - Episode 3]

The Unquiet Dead starts a tradition the new series has done many, many times: dump us into a historical period as often as possible, but always give it a sci-fi twist.  I'd really like to see more otherworldly settings or even some straight-up historicals, but if all the semi-historicals were this good, I doubt I'd complain.  The period detail and production are sweeping, with enrapturing sets, costumes, and atmosphere.  Mark Gatiss' story is good -- complex, thoughtful, and surprising.  It packs a lot into the 45 minute timeframe, and is a real joy to watch.  The characters are intriguing and have some depth, and are perfectly played by the actors.

Having gone to the far future, the Doctor takes Rose to her past -- 1860s Cardiff, to be precise.  They soon stumble across a series of strange events -- dead bodies coming to life, apparent ghosts, and a clairvoyant young woman working for the very funeral parlour where all this mysteriousness is coming from... and while they're at it, they run into Charles Dickens himself, who soon finds himself involved in all sorts of "phatasmagoria" that he would never have believed.

It’s a dark, scary, compelling story, but unfortunately, it’s been softened and lightened too much.  RTD apparently didn't want the ghost story to be scary, and had Gatiss scale it back.  Gabriel Sneed is set up as a great Dickensian villain in the grand tradition of Sykes and Miss Havisham, what with his threatening Gwenyth and chloroforming Rose and dumping her in a room with zombies and such... and then nothing comes of it.  He’s just weirdly threatening but apparently not evil, I guess, which isn’t terribly interesting.  

Though I can't fault the casting for a second.

 Dickens’ angst and depression should be deep and powerful, but it doesn't really seem like more than someone on a bad day, just your average funk.  The ending should be much more moving.  Simon Callow is magnificent as Dickens; it's too bad his material isn't quite as good as he is.

Speaking of which, the climax almost End of the World for fizzling out after great buildup.  The ghosts look spectacular, their story is good, the hints about the Time War are fascinating, and the intensity goes sky-high... and what does the Doctor, our great hero do?  Well, nothing.  The Time Lord does nothing to stop what happens.  Someone else figures things out, there's a sacrifice (which, to be fair, is far, far more affecting than the previous episodes', since it actually seems to come out of the story and character), the Doctor does a little monologuing, and that's it.  It's not near as unsatisfying as End of the World, but the Doctor is starting to seem like an incidental character in his own show.

I don't want to tear into this episode too much.  It really is a good, solid episode, well written, well directed, extremely well acted.  It just could have been a great episode, and the things that make it miss greatness are so frustrating.  But it does a great job at balancing the historical, character, and sci-fi elements, and it fits them all into 45 minutes very effectively.  It's good stuff.


* * * 

  • Okay, Billie Piper is a gorgeous woman, but man, her widest smiles show just a few too many teeth.  I mean, it's not an inhuman amount of teeth like Tom Baker, but still...
  • Murray Gold's scores are improving through this series.  I guess I might as well put my feelings about his music down now: with the exception of some clumsy early episodes, I generally like his stuff.  Except for his obnoxious comedy music (and to be fair, I just generally find comedy music obnoxious in general), it's good music, and occasionally spectacular music.  He fills the soundscape with drama and excitement, and comes up with wonderful themes and ideas.  The only problem is that sometimes he scores scenes that would be far more effective without music.  But, to be honest, that's more the fault of the director or producer than him; they should know when to underplay things, and it's their job to get rid of unnecessary music.
  • The visual effects guys have definitely seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seriously, the ghosts move exactly like the angels at the end of Raiders.

         That's not a complaint, mind you.  Just a note.

  •  One thing that mostly disappeared after Romana left was the fun costuming for the companions.  This show corrects that oversight already: they've already got Rose in an awesome period dress.

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