All Along The Watchtower

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

One of the original tenants of Doctor Who was to be an eduational tool. Send the TARDIS crew back in time, have them interract with historical figures and witness historical events and hopefully, whet the interest of the intended audience to history. It was designed to make histroy less stuffy and boring and more relevant.

And, at first, these were successful. But unlike Quantum Leap where you never quite knew which major historical pop-culture figure Sam might interact with, Doctor Who, for the most part avoided meeting up with significant historical figures (well, outside of the superbly done "The Crusades" back in the mid-60's that is). Sure, the Doctor would refer to having met some significant historical person but it was rare that we saw them on screen. And while the TARDIS would travel back in time to various periods in history, the stories were less about the historial aspect and more about using history as a setting.

So, it's interesting that three episodes into the new season of Doctor Who not only do we travel backward in time, but we also meet up with a major historical figure. The Doctor takes Rose back in time to 1869, where they meet up with Charles Dickens. It's Christmas time and the TARDIS lands in Cardiff where Dickens has come to perform some of his work. Meanwhile, a local funeral home is having problems--seems the dead are getting up and walking around.

Turns out it's the Gelf, an alien race who are gaseous. When we did, there is enough gas in our bodies that they can take over and move about for a period of time. The Gelf were victims of the Time War and want the Doctor to help release them. Seems the funeral home is on the juncture of a space-time rift that the Gelf want opened. They'll only need the help of a local woman who has second sight to open the rift.

Playing on the Doctor's sense of guilt and isolation, the Gelf trick him into helping them open the rift. Then, as we all expected, we find they have another agenda besides being sweet and friendly. They've decided that Earth looks good, so they'll take it.

Of the first three episodes, I'll have to admit "The Unquiet Dead" is the strongest. It may even be the strongest of the first five or so stories from the new season. It's a quietier story and one that's fairly straightforward. Novelist and Doctor Who fan Mark Gattiss delivers a script that moves ably forward and while it has some character elements, it doesn't shift wildly in tone from moment to moment like "End of the World." Instead, what we get is a story that would have been right at home in the golden-era of Hinchliffe and Holmes. Indeed, there are a lot of scenes in this one that seem a direct home to the much-loved story of that era "The Talons of Weing-Chiang."

Even the direction seems more assured than in the first two stories. The effects are well done and less obvious and you can see Eccleston really starting to step up and take command as the ninth Doctor. His sense of isolation and being utterly alone in the universe increases. And there are some genuinely Doctor-like moments when he shows up and inserts himself into the events.

I'll admit over the past few weeks, I've been delving into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Those first few episodes were, to be frank, pretty disappointing. After putting all the eggs in the launch of the show basket, you get the feeling the writing staff was still uncertain of where the show was going or what it would be (something that would plague the show really for its first two years...until the arrival of Michael Piller). But as I was watching those early episodes and then re-watching the early episodes of the new Doctor Who I was struck by home quickly the new Who hits the ground running. As critical as I may be of the early episodes, they're no where as wince inducing as "Code of Honor" from TNG, where it's like a two-by-four to the head with the subtelty about the issue of the Prime Directive. (It's not once but twice!) The new Doctor Who seems to have some direction and vision behind it early on and that seems to increase as the season goes along. It pays homage to the past, but it doesn't try to emulate the success of the original show to such an extend that it hampers the storytelling and character development. But then again, Doctor Who was a show built on change and evolving each time a new actor or producer came on the scene.

I know in the shuffle of how great "Dalek" was and how superlative that "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" were, "The Unquiet Dead" can get lost in the shuffle. And that's a shame really. It's a well-done, entertaining and fairly straight-forward story that pays homage to the rich past of Doctor Who while showing off the new bells and whistles of the modern era.


At 9:45 AM, Blogger John said...

I really had read very little about the new series in advance, so I'm experiencing it first-hand. But I am really, really enjoying it. I can't tell you how much I like Billie Piper as Rose. I found her annoying in the first scene or two of "Rose" ("This is the new companion?" I said to myself) but I warmed up to her very, very quickly. She's a great counterpart to the Doctor, and, to me, one of the secrets of the new version's appeal.


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