Pity the Gelth! A review of The Unquiet Dead

An episode I didn’t think much of when it came out has quietly become my favorite of Doctor Who‘s first revival season. That’s The Unquiet Dead – known in fan circles mostly as "the one where we first suspected Mark Gatiss might be a fascist." It’s Mark Gatiss’ first writing credit on the new show, and it’s been heavily, and famously, criticised for being xenophobic. And then, of course, heavily defended against those charges as well. The most intelligent response I’m aware of is Phil Sandifer’s, from well after the fact, which argues … well, it’s pretty convoluted, but basically he takes an out offered in Lawrence Miles’ follow-up (read: toned down) critique and decides that Mark Gatiss simply made a boo-boo, and that while the xenophobic reading of the episode is undeniably there, the reading that Gatiss more likely intended – a paean to open-mindedness and stepping outside of one’s preconceptions – is there too, so why not choose that one?

And then there’s me. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have an opinion about which is righter than the other, so I’ll just come out and say it: they’re both (insufficiently) right! What I think both critics are missing is that the importance of the Doctor’s mistake with the Gelth – aka "the xenophobic reading" – is to underscore the paean to mind-expansion reading.

The plot, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, goes like this. The Doctor, having taken Rose to see the Earth’s final day in the previous episode, now wants to take her to the past – specifically to Naples in 1860 at Christmas. The TARDIS has other ideas, however, and they end up in Cardiff in 1869 instead. But hey, it’s still Christmas! Charles Dickens is in town on the lecture circuit, and his performance is rudely interrupted by a plothole. I mean, OK, it’s a zombie – one of the titular "Unquiet Dead." It’s a woman who’s recently been interred at Mr. Sneed’s Funeral Home, where the corpses have the unsettling habit of getting up and walking around. Sneed and his assistant Gweneth – who is apparently a bit psychic – are aware of the problem and are out looking for this one. Because the Doctor and Rose immediately get involved in the crisis as the woman disrupts Dickens’ performance, signalling they may know too much, Sneed kidnaps Rose, stashing her in his hearse, obliging the Doctor to follow. And of course the Doctor follows by trying to take Dickens’ own cab, thus involving Dickens in the plot. It’s completely impertient to steal the great man’s cab, but this episode’s original purpose seems to have been to signal to fans that new Doctor Who was going to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, so we get a very Tom Baker/Fourth Doctor scene where the Doctor throws Dickens off balance by unexpectedly being a gigantic fan (he has to explain the word "fan" of course), winning him over. In fact, come to think of it, this horror-themed period piece is a Hinchcliffe Era episode through-and-through, with Rose playing Leela the savage, Eccelston the eccentric, alien and broad-minded Fourth Doctor, and the plot involving supernatural-seeming phenomena that are actually aliens.

The aliens in this case turn out to be a collecive called "the Gelth." They’re in some kind of weird gasous-state limbo owing to (they claim, anyway) the Time War – a war we’ve heard cryptic mentions of in the previous two episodes, but which hasn’t been cleared up by this point in the series – and they’re attempting to cross into Earth and inhabit dead bodies using a spacetime rift that exists under Cardiff, of all places. The gas that powers the iconic victorian gaslight culture acts as a kind of medium for them, in ways that are never really elaborated. They exist within the gas. Somehow. Don’t question it. Anyway, we find all this out mostly because the Doctor seems to suspect it and, realizing that Gweneth is a kind of psychic, proposes that she hold a seance, which of course succeeds. He chides Dickens not to question it because "I like a happy medium," to which Rose responds "I can’t believe you just said that," effectively lampshading the pun. Can you lampshade a pun? I dunno, but it sets up the more effective pun you don’t even notice becuse you’re too busy groaning from this one, where, when the Gelth appear, Dickens wants to know "What the Shakespeare is going on?" Get it? Because he should’ve said "What the Dickens…" ANYWAY, this is the critical scene that everyone hangs their "xenophobia" interpretation on. During the seance, the Gelth basically present as asylum-seekers. They need to inhabit human corpses, because they’re incorporeal owing to unexplained circumstances involving the Time War. The Doctor is all for this, but Rose thinks it’s creepy. Ultimately, though, it’s up to Gweneth, since she’s the psychic medium they would have to travel through. She agrees with the Doctor. All her life, she’s been contacted by what she thinks of as Angels – which is of course actually the Gelth. She wants to help. Rose objects, but Gweneth basically tells her she’s being condescending. Gweneth can read minds, remember, and she knows that Rose thinks she’s stupid.

It’s interesting why. Rose – we know already three episodes in – has a habit of trying to bond with lower-class women whereever they travel. We’ve seen this in two of three episodes so far, and each time it’s ended with Rose being ironically taken for an upper-class lady instead. In The End of the World, it’s the plumber Raffalo, who can’t speak until Rose – who is a guest at the party – gives her permission. Here, Rose presents as a Londoner to Gweneth, but Gweneth is psychic and knows that she comes from a London that no one’s ever seen. The friction comes when Rose tries to bond with her over men, and it’s clear that Gweneth has (very) victorian sensibilites about sex. Also, that she doesn’t mind her job with Mr. Sneed and considers Sneed kind to her, where Rose thinks he works her to death and looks down on her. Gweneth senses that Rose thinks she’s stupid. The point the audience is supposed to get is that Rose, for all her attempts at bonding, hasn’t even considered trying to see things from Gweneth’s point of view. It’s the paradox of liberal smugness, actually. Rose, like any modern progressive, assumes that her point of view is the right one – it doesn’t even occur to her to think otherwise. And while the episode isn’t defending the victorian worldview, exactly, it is implying that maybe it made sense for the time, and for the people who grew up then. Victorian morals may be old-fashioned in 2005, but they’re ordinary in 1869.

To cut to the chase, the same mechanism is in operation with regard to the Doctor’s naivete about the Gelth. The big, completely foreseeable, twist is that the Gelth aren’t actually asylum seekers. Whether they’re actual victims of the Time War or just using that as a psychological lever against the Doctor (who is harboring a lot of unaddressed guilt about his role in it) is ambiguous, the point is that they intend to kill everyone on the planet and inhabit their corpses. And this is where we have to be studiosly fair to Lawrence Miles – the xenophobic reading is clearly there. It’s not just that the Gelth are eviL asylum seekers, it’s that they want to inhabit the bodies of everyone on Earth. If that ain’t a metaphor for cultural displacement in this context, I don’t know what would be. They don’t seek asylum, they seek domination, and they’re using a stealth trojan horse strategy to accomplish it. That’s exactly the nativist right’s fear about muslim "asylum seekers" personified, in case you missed it.

Sandifer thinks he can get around this by noting that the Doctor’s argument is still logically correct:

… it’s still apparent just watching the episode that the Doctor’s speech to Rose is meant to hold moral weight that is not undermined by the Gelth’s treachery, and that the writer of this episode is, in practice, not an anti-immigrant xenophobe. To any viewer savvy enough to get the basic interplay of concepts within this episode in the first place the fact that the undermining of the Doctor’s speech goes unanswered clearly reads as a mistake in the same way that, for instance, the Boatswain’s disappearance during The Curse of the Black Spot or UNIT dating are clearly mistakes.

But see, I don’t think it is a mistake. The Doctor’s argument (in favor of bringing the Gelth across the breach) is intentionally shown to be naive. Setting that up is the purpose of the expression of guilt and pain on his face when the Time War is mentioned. And it’s just silly to try to read the fact that the Doctor and Rose end up trapped in a cage with their backs to the wall, and that the Doctor directly apologizes for this as anything other than the Doctor being punished for his naivete. It’s Charles Dickens, and not the Doctor, who saves Rose’s life, and of course it’s Gweneth who ultimately saves the day. The Doctor is not just ineffective in this episode, he’s expressly the cause of the problem. The political intention is clear: liberal guilt blinds people to realities. Sandifer can’t see it because he wants his favorite show to everywhere and always affirm his worldview. It’s a prejudice he comes by honestly: this show almost always does. But not this time. Sorry, mate.

The point, I think, is broader than our provinical culture wars. Sandifer is reading this as a commentary on our times to the exclusion of its being science fiction. In truth, it is a commentary on our times, but it’s also science fiction, and as science fiction it takes the broader view. The point with Rose is clear: not everything is about you and your 2005 sensibilities. And that point transfers to the Doctor: not everything is about him and his guilt either. Guilt is natural, but it can be destructive. Dealing with guilt is difficult precisely because the temptation is always there to take the easy path of relieving the emotional burden rather than addressing the cause. That’s what the Doctor is doing here – he feels bad, he sees a way to alleviate those feelings, and he wants so badly to be rid of those feelings that he fails to ask the obvious questions. And yes, that very much is a clear metaphor for a distinctly liberal/center-left failure pattern in our own contemporary reality. Like the Doctor, liberals deal with their guilt in ways that are often narcissistic rather than productive.

This is why Sandifer is flat-out wrong in statements like this:

This is the first place where we can see that the xenophobia reading is clearly a mistake. Because the parallelism leading up to it is too artful. Rose’s argument about the indecency of letting the Gelth ride around in people’s corpses is framed in terms of her own sense of self-righteous superiority to Gwyneth. So it’s not just a point about immigrants and diversity, but one about privilege in general. So knocking out just one of those two pillars is insufficient. Even if the Gelth do turn out to be evil, unless Rose’s sense of superiority to Gwyneth is also shown to be valid or correct it’s not a meaningful argument.

Just the opposite, actually. The "artful[ness]" of "the parallelism leading up to it" is meant to show us why the Doctor’s argument for helping the Gelth is wrong. Because it’s wrong in exactly the way that Rose’s sense of superiority is wrong. And wrong in exactly the way Charles Dickens’ assumption that nothing will come of the seance is wrong, while we’re at it. In all three cases, it’s a failure to look outside oneself, to recognize, as Dickens, quoting from Hamlet, puts it at the end of the story: "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Rose’s impression of Gweneth would be right if Gweneth were a 21st century girl. But she’s not. The Doctor’s argument about the Gelth would be right if they were really asylum seekers. But they’re not. And in both cases, it’s a clear case of the character really being responsible for knowing better.

Notice that this is flipped with the actual heroes of the episode: Dickens and Gweneth. Dickens isn’t responsible for "knowing better" about spirits because he’s seen no evidence that they exist, and plenty of examples of fraudulent seances. And yet, the moment he sees an actual "ghost," he accepts it immediately. This isn’t easy for him – we see the astonishment on his face – but he doesn’t hesitate. The same is truth of Gweneth. She thinks of the Gelth as Angels, because that’s the way they’ve always presented themselves to her. Confronted with the first evidence in her life that they’re not, she immediately accepts it, even though it more or less entails that she has to sacrifice her own life. Dickens and Gweneth are brave. Rose and the Doctor are cowards. "Bravery" here is precisely the willingness to accept that the world might not be as you thought, and to react to the world as it actually is. The Doctor and Rose accept this too, but only because they are forced to by circumstances. Rose only stops condescending to Gweneth when Gweneth reveals that she’s seen in Rose’s mind that Rose thinks she’s stupid. The Doctor only changes his tune when he’s literally about to die because of his short-sighted decisions. It takes Dickens and Gweneth to save the day because they’re the two characters who are able to be open-minded by instinct. They do it naturally, efortlessly. It’s part of who they are.

To be fair, it’s part of who the Doctor and Rose are too. But there are circumstances preventing them from being those people. The Doctor is carrying a burden of guilt that he will address over the course of the season. As for Rose – well, her problem is the time and society she’s from. Her problem is what’s been called, by headline writers, "The Smug Style in American Liberalism". Drop the unfortunate "American," and you have the diagnosis. She’s been told by her education system and media that she’s enlightened if she just accepts this list of approved opinions – and she complies. She’s probably repeated things about trying to see things from other people’s point of view, but this may be the first time she’s really tried to do it. And no, no dodging out of this one – the point was already well made in the previous episode where she expresses anxiety to the Doctor that the aliens on the station are all so alien. This is a girl who isn’t used to seeing things outside her frame of reference. She assumes that her cockney accent makes her Rafallo’s mate, but she’s not. What she actually is – as Gweneth points out to her – is the girl who’s "flown further than anyone." What she actually is on the station is privileged even among the privileged – because as far as we know at this point in the series, she’s the one companion of the one remaining Time Lord on the one remaining TARDIS. She’s extremely special, and she hasn’t earned any of it.

The reason Sandifer can’t see any of this is because he is Rose. And the Doctor. He suffers from the same smug liberal assumption that new evidence will always back up his worldview. He likes Doctor Who, and he’s not a (metaphorical1) UKIP voter, and so Doctor Who, being a thing he likes, must inevitably support asylum seekers, since he does. And, you know, it does in general. But only if they’re actual asylum seekers. Raising the fear that some asylum seekers might not be the genuine article is a Forbidden Thing right now, though, because smug liberals have decided that fighting racism and nationalism is a higher priority, and since they "know" that the hoi-polloi are easily confused, it’s best not to acknowledge the complexity. But of course, not acknowledging complexity doesn’t wash it away. In reality, sometimes asylum seekers aren’t asylum seekers – and that’s true even if it’s rhetorically inconvenient for the left. And so, like Rose, Sandifer sees what he wants to see, and so ends up not seeing.

This episode is about diversity and tolerance, and acceptance. The problem for Sandifer is that it’s about real diversity and tolerance and acceptance, as opposed to the cargo cult kind he’s used to. Mark Gatiss IS a bit of a reactionary. The punchline is that these days it takes a reactionary to write about diversity and really mean it. Only Nixon can go to China.

The Unquiet Dead is a sleeper – a sly little episode that you don’t appreciate until you come back to it. I’ve seen it four times now, and I love it.

  1. Sandifer’s a US citizen, I believe.

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