Series 1, Episode 3
The Unquiet Dead
By Mark Gatiss

Pragmatism, rationalism and supernaturalism in Victorian Cardiff

200-word synopsis

The Doctor intends to take Rose to visit Naples in 1860. The TARDIS lands them in Cardiff in 1869. On Christmas Eve. When Charles Dickens happens to be giving a public reading.

Meanwhile, a gas-powered group of aliens known as the Geth have been terrorising an undertaker (Mr Sneed) and his servant-girl (Gwyneth). The aliens have been animating the corpses, taking them on walks through Cardiff and attending public readings by famous Victorian novelists.

The Doctor and Rose arrive at Dickens’s public reading just in time to see a corpse collapse as one of the Geth leaves it and heads for a gas lamp. Rose is kidnapped by the undertaker, while the Doctor carjacks Dickens’s carriage to chase down her kidnapper.

There is a Rift in space-time in the undertaker’s morgue. Gwyneth, having been exposed to the Rift over time, has supernatural insight. During a séance, the Geth persuade the Doctor to allow Gwyneth to help them to cross over the Rift and inhabit human corpses. Gwyneth forms a bridge across the Rift. The Geth begin to cross over in vast numbers and threaten to kill every human currently alive. Dickens turns up the gas. Gwyneth blows up the house.


Rationalists and pragmatists are the big baddies this week (apart from the Geth, with their opportunistic plot to wipe out the human race). Supernaturalists are the heroes, even if they need the Doctor’s superior wisdom to explain empirically the supernaturalism that they believe in by intuition. The lesson to take away from it all is this: supernatural theories or explanations – particularly those inviting scepticism from rationalists – always have at least some truth to them.

Pragmatism

Pragmatist Mr Sneed is too busy covering up his zombie corpses to notice that his servant-girl has the power to solve the problems he is experiencing with his corpses coming back to life.

Sneed is a curmudgeonly old man who pays his servant too little and treats his “stiffs” with little respect. His primary concern is his reputation, which he seeks to protect at all costs. When Rose sees “too much,” he smothers her face with a chloroform-coated cloth and bundles her into the back of his hearse along with a recently re-animated dead body. And when the Doctor turns up on his doorstep with Charles Dickens, he tries to get his servant to pretend he is indisposed and then blames her when they are unconvinced.

Sneed is singularly incurious about the cause of his corpses seeming coming back to life and roaming the streets of Cardiff. He seeks only to contain the problem and to prevent his business suffering. As a result, although he knows about Gwyneth’s supernatural gift of being able to sense things, he urges her to use it only when it is convenient for him.

Sneed’s bigger crime is to fail to protect the people of Cardiff from the evil that has come into his morgue. He does not alert the authorities or seek any kind of help with what is going on, instead preferring to fix things up himself. There are obvious consequences to such actions, like Rose being locked in a room with two zombie corpses only to be rescued in the nick of time.

Such is the Doctor’s contempt for men such as Sneed that he barely engages with him. When the Geth strangle him and possess his body, the Doctor doesn’t seem to care. The implication is that Sneed got what he deserved.

Rationalism

Rationalist Charles Dickens is a late convert to the supernatural, redeeming himself with some mild heroics and a commitment to write more interesting fiction hereafter.

Throughout the story, Dickens is portrayed as an almost Sherlock Holmes figure, looking for evidence of trickery. He thinks smoke and mirrors, lanterns and strings are involved. It must all be an elaborate ruse, surely? Indeed, when the Doctor suggests that Gwyneth host a séance Dickens dismisses the very idea of it:

This is precisely the sort of cheap mummery I strive to unmask. Séances? Nothing but luminous tambourines and a squeeze box concealed between the knees. This girl knows nothing!

His search for evidence, however, eventually forces him to accept the supernatural reality of what he is experiencing. Empiricism leads him from a flat denial of supernatural things towards an acceptance of them.

Charles Dickens: Can it be that I have the world entirely wrong?
The Doctor: Not wrong! There’s just more to learn.

For the Doctor, scepticism is the product of ignorance and a lack of imagination. As Dickens is exposed to more supernatural things, he is discovering the world as it really operates. This is not a black-and-white contrast, but rather a recognition of a hidden depth that Dickens has never seen or explored.

Dickens ends the episode as a convert to supernaturalism. His character development is a deliberate echo of that of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. (Why else would you set an episode on Christmas Eve when it is due to be broadcast in April?)

Dickens is at pains to tell us that he is spending Christmas alone because his family is estranged. He changes his mind at the end of the episode, though, and hurries “literally post-haste” to London so he can spend Christmas with them. He has seen the light, thanks to some ghost-like apparitions, just like the character in his book.

He has seen that there is more to life than he had dared to imagine. Now that he knows that supernatural things exist (murderous gas-like, ghost-like aliens from another world, for instance) he is a changed man. This knowledge will change his family life. It will also change the direction of his writing, if only he lives long enough to put down on paper all the exciting possibilities that he sees opening up before him.

No cold-hearted rationalist could be unmoved by the end of the episode. They, too, must surely convert to the warm and fuzzy world of supernaturalism. It will make you love your family and inspire creative prose.

Supernaturalism

Supernatural theories or explanations – particularly those inviting scepticism from rationalists – always have at least some truth to them. In the world of Doctor Who, that is. For rationalists are unimaginative, like Charles Dickens was at the start of the episode. But when presented with enough evidence the open mind will allow supernaturalism to enter in.

Gwyneth is similarly constrained by her hang-ups about tapping into the supernatural. She thinks that using her mind-reading sight is “ungodly” and is reluctant to do so when pressed by Sneed. It is her conversation with Rose – where she unwittingly sees an even deeper supernatural reality than the one she had experienced – that softens her up to using her gift more actively. She admits to having dabbled in the occult, expecting chastisement, but is instead encouraged to host a séance. Before long, she is actively volunteering to become a bridge to another, unknown, world.

As it happens, her eagerness is misplaced. The Geth are evil, tricking her into pitying them and then using her to invade the planet. She dies, taking the Geth with her on her way out. So there are limits to her supernatural sight. Yet that is precisely what we would expect: like the Doctor says, people don’t get things wrong – “there’s just more to learn.”

When faced with sceptics and rationalists, the supernatural explanations of events will always prove to be true – in part. The journey that the Doctor takes us on is to discover the depths to the supernatural world that we haven’t considered for ourselves. Like Gwyneth, that might lead us to a place of self-sacrifice. More likely, like Dickens, it will change our temperament and compel us to tell grander stories than the ones we have told to date. Whatever it does for us, it will take us on a journey of personal discovery.

What would the God of the Bible make of all of this? He would champion the supernatural just like the Doctor does, and for the same reasons. There is indeed more to learn. More to learn about ourselves; more to learn about one another; more to learn about the world; more to learn about God himself. By his grace, we can change in the same way Dickens does. We can find our scepticism turned into a steadfast trust in the supernatural, simply by following the evidence. There is truth to be found if we will only look to discover what has been staring us in the face all along.


Doctor Who doctrines

  • Supernatural theories or explanations – particularly those inviting scepticism from rationalists – always have at least some truth to them.

Posted on 28/08/2016  •  1457 words