Ah Mark Gatiss. What a love/hate relationship I have with your Who episodes. Still, I think this is one of your best. Gatiss is always at his best in a period piece story imo, and this one has a lot of fun with The Doctor meets famous historical figure (this time, Dickens) trope as well as a bunch of Victorian horror tropes; spirits, ghosts, vampires, seances, visions and zombies all get a kind of nod.
So what happens? Rose and The Doctor go back in time to 1869 and find all is not well in Cardiff where Dickens is performing A Christmas Carol. The dead are walking. A mysterious alien race is unleashed through a rift gate. Why have they been stranded and why do they need bodies? Watch the episode or read below to find out.
Maureen: Though the opening titles weren’t quite as strong as last week’s, they were still pretty good. The period piece, walking dead ghost story opening is creepy, even given the old fashioned SFX and as Ben points out, the screeching sound is used to spine tingling effect.
Ben: This was another banger of a pre-title sequence, I mean, any scene that ends with a possessed body running screaming into the night gets a thumbs up from me. Upon rewatching (I’ve found watching the episode again whilst writing my review rather helpful) I noticed how prominent they made the gas a character; Sneed opens the episode lighting a gas lamp, and throughout the scene you can hear the hiss of the gas below conversation. And then you see the gas possess grandmama, kill her grandson and make off into the night! Along with the exasperated “oh no, not again” from Mr Sneed, they really give you all the threads of the story right away. Also of note – this is the first episode written by Mark Gatiss!
Maureen: I’m loving the Rose/Doctor chemistry in this episode, and the absence of Mickey is bliss. Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston have great chemistry, evident right away when they spar back and forth about where the TARDIS toilet is and that Rose looks ‘blimey… beautiful… considering’ she’s human. I am a bit partial myself to good old Billie Piper in 19th century attire, even if the Rose is nineteen reveal makes the Doctor/Rose relationship a little icky for me. Doesn’t stop the quote below being lovely:
Rose Tyler: Think about it, though. Christmas 1860. It happened once. Just once, and it’s… gone, it’s finished. It’ll never happen again. Except for you. You can go back and see days that are dead and gone, a hundred thousand sunsets ago. No wonder you never stay still.
The Doctor: Not a bad life.
Rose Tyler: Better with two.
There’s also a lovely parallel going on this episode between The Doctor/Dickens and Gwen (the servant girl with the sight)/Rose as companions. I love that in this episode, just like the prior one, Rose finds the downtrodden and listens to them actively in a way Nine never would. She talks to Gwen about her pay, about her schooling and about love in a lovely scene.
We also see a deepening contrast between Rose and The Doctor. Rose thinks about the human cost to The Doctor’s plan and advocates on behalf of having a heart. Nine is still damaged from The Time War, angry and bitter. But Rose is also a thoroughly modern companion, young and naive, and Gatiss isn’t afraid to remind us of that. Gwen calls Rose out, telling her she knows Rose thinks she’s superior, and that Gwen herself, has the right to a voice to choose.
Ben: Right off the bat, Rose is getting her flirt on with The Doctor! They really are laying the attraction on thick, although it could just be that the two of them have excellent chemistry compared to Rose and the wet rag that is Mickey.
In stark contrast to last week’s episode, you can tell Rose is truly enjoying experiencing an 1800’s Christmas. Well, she is for the five minutes before the screams start. What I’m starting to get annoyed by is this is now the third week where she becomes a damsel in distress; in this case being knocked unconscious by Sneed, kidnapped, and left in a room with two zombies to die only to be rescued by the Doctor.
She gets some great moments in the rest of the episode though, telling off Sneed and the sweet then creepy scene with Gwyneth in the pantry in particular. Also of note is the way she stood up to the Doctor when it came to Gwyneth, contrasting how Rose sees her as a (dumb) person who shouldn’t be getting into any alien business, and the Doctor sees her as something of a tool. A means to an end. Final point to mention – the scene when Rose realises her own mortality was excellent. It doesn’t matter they’re on Earth before she’s born, of course she can still die. This is real.
Secondary Companions of the Week
Maureen: I loved, loved, loved the actress playing Gwen and the brilliant mind reading speech she gave to Rose; both chilling and beautiful.
Gwyneth: And you’ve come such a long way.
Rose Tyler: What makes you thinks so?
Gwyneth: You’re from London. I’ve seen London in drawings, but never like that. All those people rushing about, half naked. For shame. And the noise, and the metal boxes racing past. And the birds in the sky… No, they’re metal as well. Metal birds with people in them. People are flying. And you, you’ve flown so far, further than anyone! The things you’ve seen. The darkness… The Big Bad Wolf.
Gwen is the second example (after Jabe) of a companion who never was, and like Jabe, she is a highly likable character.
Ben: As shown at the start of the episode, poor Mr Sneed and Gwyneth are very much in over their heads, but they’re trying their best to keep the living dead down. Luckily for them, Gwyneth has something of A Gift and is able to locate their stiff, but not before she’s made rather a commotion. The scene of her and Rose bonding in the pantry is pure magic, with the easy banter giving away to unease when you realise Gwyneth is actively reading Rose’s mind (giving us the second Bad Wolf reference of the season that I’ve noticed). She then proceeds to gives us the second-best séance scene in a tv show behind the séance in Penny Dreadful. Iconic stuff.
One of my main criticisms of this episode is how they never really explain how these powers came to be – how did she grow up on top of the rift if the rift is in the basement of a haunted house she only recently started working at? Why do the Gelth need to use a human as a gate? On top of that, how did she manage to close the gate, sacrificing herself and saving the day, if she’d already been dead for five minutes like the Doctor said? It’s all a bit too ill-defined for me. All in all, though, Gwyneth was a great character who added a lot to the episode.
And finally, poor Charles Dickens. At the start of the episode he is in something of a funk, blathering on about family and just being a general Debbie Downer. Getting interrupted by a blue screaming woman and accompanying ghost in the middle of his performance didn’t provide any relief, for reasons unknown to me. He does lighten up somewhat in accompanying The Doctor in his chase to recover Rose, but only because of some serious fangirling by The Doctor. The whole scene is rather silly, really.
He doesn’t do much for the rest of the episode except to move from dismissing it all as fakery to having the horrifying epiphany that there is much in existence beyond his understanding. He does provide some crucial assistance at the end of the episode though, realising they can use the gas to draw the Gelth out from their possessed bodies. When we say goodbye to Mr Dickens he’s back in good spirits. Having gone through the 5 stages of grief, he has come to accept the new world, and is excited to explore these new ideas in his books.
Maureen: Ben covered a lot of ground, so I don’t have much to add, other than it’s interesting to note that Dickens is the first time New Who does the whole ‘go back in time to meet famous person’ trope. I think Vincent and The Doctor is a stronger episode, but perhaps some of its inspiration comes from this earlier episode. Dickens is inspired to change the ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he dies a week later, as The Doctor calmly tells Rose. In Vincent, there are no more artworks because he commits suicide. The parallels are interesting.
Ben: My first observation is that The Doctor really is terrible at driving the TARDIS, and also interior planning. Why exactly does one have to go through a maze to get to the wardrobe?? And then we get The Doctor laying on some of his classic backhanded flirting, “You look beautiful, considering”. Smooth, Doctor. Real smooth. Then comes the second confirmation that The Doctor is a terrible driver: Not only is this not London(it’s Cardiff – a location which will show up repeatedly in the future), it’s not even 1860 (it’s 1869)!
When the screaming starts he’s moderately useless, getting distracted by Charles Dickens and the gas and letting Rose get chloroformed, but luckily, he arrives back at the funeral home just in time to save Rose and start figuring out what these gas beings want. I wasn’t a huge fan of how blindly and willingly the Doctor went along with the Gelth’s plan, but considering they straight up call him The Doctor, I suspect the reference to them being victims of the Time War was a deliberate act to get the guilt flowing.
Maureen: Unlike Ben, I quite liked the characterization of The Doctor in relation to The Gelth. This Doctor is seriously damaged, his whole race is dead and he firmly believed he played a part in his and other species destruction. He feels he must atone for his past transgressions, and here, right before him, are The Gelth ready to feed his ego and make him feel good about himself. When Nine says, ‘I trusted you. I pitied you,’ he sounds incredulous, unable to believe another species could manipulate him so coldly. It’s a near perfect character moment for me.
The Gelth, Gwyneth: We are so very few. The last of our kind. We face extinction.
The Doctor: Why? What happened?
The Gelth, Gwyneth: Once we had a physical form like you. But then the War came.
Charles Dickens: War? What war?
The Gelth, Gwyneth: The Time War. The whole universe convulsed. The Time War raged, invisible to smaller species but devastating to higher forms. Our bodies wasted away. We’re trapped in this gaseous state.
I am loving the drip feeding of Time War information we get every week!
I continue to enjoy Nine’s sense of humour too. I laughed out loud when he said of the morgue, ‘this is Bleak House,’ again in his conversation about being Dickens number one fan, and when he blythly said of Gwen that he ‘loved a happy medium.’
Aliens of the Week
Ben: We get a good few twists this week with the aliens – first off, they’ve possessed bodies of the dead, and are killing willy-nilly; then we find out they’re actually the Gelth, alien refugees who lost their physical forms as a result of the Time War and, trapped in a gaseous state, want to inhabit human corpses in order to survive.
I was a bit suspicious from the séance scene onwards, because of how thick their spokesperson laid on the “Pity the Gelth!” line. Unfortunately, Gwyneth has started calling them her angels at this point, so of course they’re getting rescued. You can’t get between a Godly woman and her angels. The final twist comes after Gwyneth opens the gate and we find out the Gelth are in fact a hostile species looking to conquer the Earth. It’s fitting then, that Gwyneth is the one that foils their plan in the end, but not before poor Mr Sneed dies and we get an excellent moment of the Doctor and Rose coming to terms with their mortality.
Maureen: The Gelth are probably the most morally ambiguous aliens New Who has explored thus far. Yes, they want to take over earth, but they have legitimate reasons to do so. They have lost their entire world after all! The final twist of how The Doctor and Rose resolve the ‘invasion’ felt a little too get out of jail free card for me, but I enjoyed the twists up until that moment, and the link between Gwen and The Gelth leading to her Sight made for some great spooky scenes.
So how did we rank this episode overall?
Maureen: I quite enjoyed this. I thought the ending was a bit silly, but otherwise a strong episode. 7/10 inky stars.
Ben: Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the first period drama episode of New Who, I’m giving it an 8/10.