I saw the Fall of Troy! World War Five! I pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party, and now I’m going to die in a dungeon…in Cardiff!
The Doctor and Rose, along with Charles Dickens, encounter the Gelth in 1869 Cardiff who are possessing dead human bodies. Can the Doctor help both parties, or are the Gelth not to be trusted?
With this story taking place during Christmas 1869, sadly, this is most likely to be the closest we’ll ever get to a Christmas episode starring Christopher Eccleston. The story is not overtly festive, despite various references to arguably Dickens’ most famous work, A Christmas Carol, and Mark Gatiss’ story focuses more on the gothic atmosphere and a ghost story for most of its run. The story is aided by the casting of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, with this inclusion allowing us to see a more enthusiastic and joyful side to the Ninth Doctor amid an alien threat possessing the bodies of the dead plot.
Can it be that I have the world so wrong?
Not wrong. There’s just more to learn.
Charles Dickens and the Ninth Doctor
It has to be said that casting an actor as well known as Simon Callow for the revived show’s first ‘celebrity historical’ would have been an enormous coup for the show at the time. A widely well known thespian, Callow has also appeared in critically renowned films such as Four Weddings and A Funeral. It is also to the show’s advantage that he had played Dickens numerous times before, and the actor states that he believes that this characterisation is one of the truest to the real Dickens, which is a credit to Mark Gatiss’ writing. Dickens here is presented as being quite similar to arguably his most famous character, Ebenezer Scrooge, at the start of the story and is initially disbelieving of the situation that he finds himself in. In fact, Charles acts almost like a second companion in this story, and as a counterpoint to Rose. Whilst Rose is used to aliens from her previous adventures, she has not travelled back in time before, whilst Charles is the complete opposite. Both require the Doctor to help them through this alien experience. His adventure with the Doctor and Rose leaves him sufficiently and believably changed into the new man, and like Scrooge, he leaves to make amends with his friends and family, inspired by his encounters with the Gelth. It is a credit to Callow that in a relatively limited time, we care enough about Charles as a character by the end of the story that the fact that he dies the year afterwards does render an emotional punch. Gatiss cleverly ties this into Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edward Drood, with the author stating that an extra-terrestrial influence will be the resolution of his novel. Of the remaining guest cast, Eve Myles stands out as the maid Gwyneth, the channel through which the Gelth attempt to enact their plot. Myles is quite convincing in this role, and it is easy to see why she was asked back to play Gwen Cooper in Torchwood.
Speaking of Mark Gatiss, this is one of the strongest stories he contributed to televised Doctor Who. Gatiss clearly loves the Victorian era – he goes on to revisit it in The Crimson Horror and Empress of Mars – and this period certainly suits the gothic tone here and it’s evident that he understands how to make a Doctor Who story chilling and effective. He also easily incorporates an important element of historical stories by establishing in the modern continuity that events the Doctor and his friends experience are in flux and so their actions can have unintended consequences, including their own deaths. This enables this story and those set in the future to have a feeling of stakes. This story also features some really lovely scenes, with one particular highlight being the conversation between Rose and Gwyneth. This scene seems quite light and frothy at the outset, with Rose learning what life was like for Gwyneth and trying to draw comparisons between their lives, despite living centuries apart. However, this scene goes on to explore Gwyneth’s power to see things through the Rift, such as knowing that Rose’s father has died and hinting towards the Bad Wolf arc of the series. This is effective as it builds slowly up to this revelation rather than giving them away straight away, which adds to the power of the scene.
The Gelth are also quite a good one off villain, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing to begin with, they manage to manipulate two of the central characters. They are able to play on the Doctor’s survivor’s guilt regarding the Time War, as they claim that their species were victims of the universe “convulsing” as a result of this. This makes the Doctor feel a personal responsibility in ensuring their ultimate fate, which does ensure that he comes up with a more sustainable plan than leaving them in the bodies of the deceased. They also manipulate Gwyneth, as she states that they have been calling to her since her childhood. When it is revealed that they are actually not the weak children that they have been presenting themselves as in the story so far, and especially at the seance. They are quite an effective one-off antagonist for the Doctor and effective for this initial historical story.
No, it means “fanatic”, “devoted to”. Mind you, I’ve gotta say, that American bit in Martin Chuzzlewit, what’s that about? Was that just padding or what? I mean it’s rubbish that bit.
I thought you said you were my fan.
Oh, well, if you can’t take criticism.
Ninth Doctor and Charles Dickens
Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is also great here, in a story where we get to see a slightly lighter side to this incarnation. This incarnation’s delight and slight incredulity at meeting Charles Dickens is really lovely to see and this new found levity on the part of the Doctor is part of an ongoing arc of development for both this and the next incarnation of the Doctor. We also see his survivor’s guilt tapped it into here, with his feeling of responsibility making him determined to find the solution that suits both humans and Gelth alike. There is a tiny moment which highlights why I like this incarnation so much. When the Doctor hears the screams coming from the theatre, his entire face just lights up and Eccleston has such a contagious smile, showing his insatiable desire for adventure and danger. I also like the dynamic relationship between Rose and the Doctor here, especially highlighted in the scene where the Doctor realises that they have not landed where they intended, and where the Doctor tells an ultimate dad joke. I much prefer this dynamic between them than the later relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose, and in a way it is sad that there, at the time of writing, is no prospect of ever getting Eccleston back in the role.
Now don’t antagonise her. I love a happy medium.
I can’t believe you said that.
The Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler
Verdict: Mark Gatiss’s first story for the show is a fantastic Victorian horror story which establishes some important elements for the show. Great guest performances from Simon Callow and Eve Myles help the story along in an enjoyable romp. 8/10
Cast: Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler), Alan David (Gabriel Sneed), Huw Rhys (Redpath), Jennifer Hill (Mrs Peace), Eve Myles (Gwyneth), Simon Callow (Charles Dickens), Wayne Cater (Stage Manager), Meic Povey (Driver), Zoe Thorne (The Gelth)
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Euros Lyn
Behind the Scenes
- Eve Myles went on to play Gwen Cooper in Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood. In Journey’s End, the Tenth Doctor and Rose notice that the two characters look similar, but it is explained as being due to Gwyneth’s physical characteristics remaining as an echo in the Rift and eventually being imprinted onto Gwen, rather than the two being genetically related.
- This is the first televised story written by Mark Gatiss.
- This is the first story since Timelash to see the Doctor meet a historical figure.
- The story also marks the first appearance of the Space-Time Rift in Cardiff.
- This is loosely based on Mark Gatiss’s Big Finish play, Phantasmagoria.
- Simon Callow would briefly reprise the role of Charles Dickens in The Wedding of River Song.
The Doctor’s enthusiasm at meeting Charles Dickens.
What are they?
Like foreigners, you mean.
Pretty foreign, yeah. From up there.
Mr. Sneed and the Ninth Doctor