The Unquiet Dead
The Unquiet Dead was the third story in series one of Doctor Who. It was the first episode of the BBC Wales series to be set in the past, relative to the viewer. It was also the first since Timelash to feature an extended encounter with an historical figure from Earth’s past. From a production perspective, it was significant for being writer Mark Gatiss’ first televised Doctor Who episode. This episode features the first appearance of the Cardiff Space-Time Rift which would reappear this series in Boom Town, as well as the initial focus of Torchwood for its first two series.
Though set at Christmas time, this story is not a fully-fledged Christmas special, constrained to the average 45-minute format of most episodes in the revived series. However, it is the closest episode Christopher Eccleston’s era has to an actual Christmas special, with the actor leaving the role before the end of 2005. Instead, his successor filmed the special to close out that year.
In the funeral parlor of Sneed and Company in the Victorian era, Mr Redpath grieves over the open casket holding his dead grandmother, Mrs Peace. Closing his eyes in sorrow, he does not see a blue, glowing vapor wash over the corpse and enter it. Mrs Peace’s eyes snap open and she grabs Redpath by the throat, strangling him to death. Gabriel Sneed, the undertaker, rushes in and tries to close the lid on the reanimated corpse but she knocks him unconscious to the floor, then gets up and wanders onto the street, wailing.
Some time later, Gwyneth, Sneed’s servant girl, returns from the stables to find Sneed recovering from the cadaver’s attack. This is not the first time there have been zombie incidents in the funeral home, and Gwyneth tells Sneed they need to get help. Sneed protests that it is not his fault and that they have to get Mrs Peace back before she does any damage. In the hearse, Sneed orders Gwyneth to use her clairvoyant abilities to seek out the dead woman, and Gwyneth focuses on the old woman’s last desire: to see Charles Dickens, who is giving a reading in a music hall in town at Taliesin Lodge. Dickens himself is in a melancholic mood as he waits for his stage call. He feels old, is estranged from his family and his imagination is growing thin. He feels he has seen all there is to see.
In the TARDIS, the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler are having a rough ride. As the ship shakes and they hold onto the console, the Doctor aims the TARDIS for Naples in 1860. When they land, Rose is about to rush out when the Doctor tells her that she would start a riot in her 21st century clothing. Rose returns in more suitable attire: an off-the-shoulder gown. The Doctor admires her beauty, “considering” her humanity. They step into the snow-covered streets of history. The Doctor realizes when he buys a newspaper that his aim was a bit off — it’s Christmas Eve, 1869, and they aren’t in Naples — they’re in Cardiff.
In the music hall, Dickens gives a reading of A Christmas Carol. Just as he reaches the point where Marley’s face appears in Scrooge’s door knocker, he stops short. In the audience, Mrs Pearce starts to glow blue. Vapor pours out of her mouth, and an ethereal gas with a vaguely humanoid shape sweeps around the hall, emitting ghastly screams and sending the audience into a panic. The screams attract Rose and the Doctor, as well as Sneed and Gwyneth. The vapor completely leaves the dead woman’s body and is sucked into a gas lamp, as the body collapses. Dickens accuses the Doctor of being responsible for the illusion. Sneed and Gwyneth carry the limp body out. Rose goes in pursuit, and Sneed chloroforms her, bundling her into the hearse with the dead woman. The Doctor commandeers Dickens’s coach. The great writer’s protests vanish when the Doctor discovers who he is and gushes over his genius. When the Doctor tells him about Rose, Dickens chivalrously joins the chase.
Rose awakes in the locked viewing gallery of the funeral parlor, just as the gas takes over Redpath’s body. As the Doctor and Dickens arrive at the parlor and force their way in, Mr Redpath and his grandmother climb out of their coffins to menace Rose. The house’s gas lights flicker. The Doctor realizes there is something living in the pipes. He hears Rose’s cries and breaks the door down, pulling her away from the corpses. He asks them who they are. The corpses cry that they are dying because the Cardiff Rift is failing and these forms cannot be sustained. The screaming blue vapors stream out of the dead, and the bodies collapse again.
After recovering from the incident, Gwyneth pours the Doctor’s tea just the way he likes it — that is, with two sugars — without asking him what that is. Rose lashes out at Sneed for drugging her, kidnapping her and locking her in a room full of zombies. The stricken Sneed explains that the house has a reputation as haunted, which is why he bought it at such a low cost. The Doctor tells him that the house was built on top of the Rift, a crack in space-time that’s growing. These entities are from across the universe. Dickens is skeptical, refusing to believe there are ghosts in the gas pipes. The Doctor informs them that dead bodies release gas when they decompose, making ideal vehicles for these gaseous aliens. Dickens tells the Doctor, shakily, that if what he has seen is true, then perhaps his entire life, spent fighting against injustice and for social causes in what he thought was the real world, has been for nothing. The Doctor tries to reassure him that the real world is still the same; there’s just more than Dickens thought.
Rose talks to Gwyneth, finding out she was taken in by Sneed when she was twelve, after her parents died. The two girls initially get along well. Gwyneth sees the future in Rose’s mind but is shocked when she sees the things Rose has experienced with the Doctor. She apologizes, admitting her clairvoyance and saying her abilities have been growing stronger recently. The Doctor has been listening, and surmises that Gwyneth’s abilities are due to her growing up in this house over the Rift. She is the key. He suggests they hold a séance.
Gwyneth summons the aliens, who speak through her. They identify themselves as the Gelth, a species, whose bodies were destroyed in the Last Great Time War, which left them facing extinction in a gaseous state. The few Gelth remaining need to come through the Rift and take over dead bodies to survive. Rose is repulsed by the idea, but the Doctor insists they help. Gwyneth will stand at the spot of the Rift down in the morgue and allow the Gelth to use her as a bridge. Rose continues to protest. She knows the Gelth do not succeed, because the future does not have walking dead, but the Doctor tells her that time is constantly in flux. The future can be rewritten. Nothing is safe. In any case, Gwyneth wants to help her “angels”. The Doctor warns the Gelth this is only a temporary solution — once they possess the bodies, he will take them to another place where they can build permanent ones.
However, when Gwyneth stands at the Rift and the Gelth begin to come through her, the numbers are “a few billion” — much more than they originally implied. They show their true colors. Only dead corpses are not enough for them. They will kill to supply themselves with more hosts and occupy the planet. Gwyneth stands motionless at the position of the Rift as the Gelth stream in. Sneed demands Gwyenth to stop, only to have his neck snapped by a reanimated corpse and be taken over. Dickens, overwhelmed, flees as the Doctor and Rose are backed into a corner. The Doctor apologizes to Rose that she is going to die over a century before she was born, but she assures him that she wanted to come. The Doctor and Rose hold hands as they prepare to go out fighting together. He tells Rose he is glad he met her; she replies the same and they share a final smile.
Outside, Dickens sees a pursuing Gelth get sucked into a gas lamp on the street with a scream. Suddenly, he has an idea. He rushes back into the house, turning off the flames and turning up the gas. He goes into the morgue, doing the same, explaining to the Doctor what he is doing: these creatures are gaseous, so the moment the house is filled with gas, the Gelth will be sucked out of the corpses like poison from a wound. This is precisely what happens; the Gelth pour out of the collapsing corpses, screaming and swirling around in the confines of the morgue. The Doctor tells Gwyneth to send them back, but she says she is only strong enough to hold them here. She takes out a box of matches from her apron, but Rose won’t let her carry through.
The Doctor tells Dickens to get Rose out before the two succumb to the gas fumes. He tries to convince Gwyneth to leave the Gelth to him. As he touches her neck, however, he discovers the truth and leaves. Gwyneth lights a match, and the house and the Gelth are consumed in an explosion. The Doctor tells Rose that when he checked Gwyneth’s pulse, he realized she was dead — and probably had been from the moment she stood in the Rift. Rose does not understand, because Gwyneth spoke to them and saved them. In response, Dickens quotes Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”. Rose looks sadly at the ruins of the funeral home and mournfully states, “She saved the world… a servant girl. No one will ever know.”
Dickens thanks the Doctor as they stand in front of the TARDIS. The things he has seen tonight have given him hope there is more to learn. He plans to patch things up with his family and finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, identifying the murderer as a blue elemental to warn humanity of the Gelth. He asks the Doctor if his books will last. The Doctor assures a smiling Dickens his work will last… forever. Inside the TARDIS, Rose asks if Dickens writing about what they just experienced will change history. The Doctor tells her that Dickens will never get to write his story; he dies the following year, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood will never be finished. Right now, though, they have made him more alive than he has been in a long time.
Dickens watches in wonderment as the TARDIS fades away before his eyes. He laughs out loud and walks through the streets of Cardiff, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and exclaiming, “God bless us, everyone!”