Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Postclassical Who - "The Unquiet Dead"

A vaguely interesting story that introduces two seriously overused scenarios in the revived series - the 'Aliens in the past trying to take over/colonise the Earth, sometimes disguised as Horror archetypes' scenario and the 'Celebrity Historical'. In terms of the prior, we have the alien Gelth, who somehow can travel through the gas in gas lamps but not in the normal air, which in case you didn't know is also a mixture of gases, who look like ghosts and can inhabit dead bodies because... it evokes Horror. Now Mark Gatiss' script is pretty good although a few points of editing are painfully obvious, but the way they've forced in the ghost/zombie evocation is pretty deliberate and unsubtle. It's obvious that the idea was 'ghosts in Victorian Cardiff, make it sci-fi' rather than anything else. Oh and there's the fact that when they 'reveal' themselves, which is in itself stupid because it gives people time to stop them, they become flaming and demonic. Subtlety is definitely not present here. Why didn't they just take the bodies in the morgue and wait and kill the Doctor while his back was turned, then proceed with the invasion, or something? Who knows?
Then there's the presence of Charles Dickens who, despite being acted brilliantly by Simon Callow, is completely unnecessary and forced purely for the sake of having a famous historical figure appear. So instead of having anything complicated or especially dark given the setting and content we have a silly run-around with Charles Dickens, tedious Dickens jokes and an alien menace so predictable in its ultimate treachery that it's no surprise the 'Monster of the Week' format is already tired three episodes in. Not only that but the fact that it's Dickens who saves the day while the Doctor stands around behind some bars like a lemon and the cheap explosion being used again makes it seem more and more like in this modern series all that happens is the Doctor, the ultimate pacifist and thinker, waits for the aliens to get angry and then blows them up.
There is some good stuff hiding in here about the unknown wonders of the universe and rediscovering the Joie de Vivre which I suppose Dickens' presence helps express but as with "The End of the World" it's just not expressed cleverly or prominently enough compared to the 'alien ghosts in Cardiff' aspect. Now you may think that it's unfair of me to demand that every episode of Doctor Who be a work of art, but why is it? These themes and meanings are lurking just below the surface or off to the sides, but they're not lent enough emphasis. I suppose the problem is that when the show later on does try to provide this it's unsubtle and often mistakes the evocation of an emotional response for meaning or artistic value. But I'll get to that later. The problem isn't really with Doctor Who per se as it is with television as a whole, but Doctor Who is a deeply serialised format with multiple individual storylines, so it has the potential to explore a number of issues. It feels like they're trying a bit, but in the end they think as long as there's a run-around, some aliens, an explosion and some lame jokes then you've done enough.
There are still some cringe-inducing moments though, like when Rose talks about Time Travel as going back "ten thousand sunsets" and Gwyneth is having very predictably described visions of the future using such uninspired phrases as "metal boxes" and "metal birds with people in them" and refers to the "Big Bad Wolf" along with how apparently mysterious and awe-inspiring Rose is. It reeks of RTD's tiresome penchant for pseudo-poetical purple-prose dialogue and not only does it ruin the suspension of disbelief (Rose's little speech to the Doctor is particularly character-breaking; Gwyneth is meant to be psychic after all) but it's just plain embarrassing to watch and listen to because of how melodramatically silly, overly serious and amateurish it sounds. If they started saying "thee" and "thou" and "forsooth" it would probably complete the evocation of someone trying lamely to impersonate the style of Early Modern Literature or translation of classical texts. RTD thinks it conveys a sense of gravitas but it just sounds ridiculous. The fact that he clearly thinks it sounds impressive makes it worse. This problem becomes even worse as the series goes on, though, so let's leave it for now.
In a similar vein, the recitation scene reminds me of how totally overwrought, laboured and dull Dickens' own prose style is, although I think that is more or less a product of that era, if you've ever read Henry James. Funny how Conan Doyle doesn't seem to have that problem though, isn't it?
Anyway, the character of Mister Sneed is underused, the setting is totally arbitrary, Rose's costume change seems to be solely so they can have a shot of her from the bare shoulders up so she looks naked, and even Eccly at times seems like he doesn't give a toss and is stuck in 'grin a lot to look eccentric' mode. At times it feels very dark, spooky and unpleasant, but that itself is inconsistent and the overall product is a slightly dry, by-the-numbers historical.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.