This episode begins like a lot of ‘Classic Who’ stories. (Classic Who being the term used within Doctor Who fandom to identify episodes that were part of the original run of the show, which lasted from 1963-1989.) It uses the traditional method of showing something scary happening before the opening credits. In this case, we witness a young man in the Victorian Era, looking over the coffin of an old woman. “She was so full of life” the man revealed to be her grandson sighs before he has a moment alone with her body. There’s silence as the man closes his eyes and grieves. The woman’s face turns an alarming blue colour as some kind of energy (spooky looking CGI) covers her face. All of a sudden, the woman grabs hold of his neck and this doesn’t seem like a kid’s show anymore. The woman appears outside and spookily walks amongst the snow, just before the opening titles begin.
The Doctor and Rose decide that 1860 is there next destination purely for the sake of fun and randomness. “What happens in 1860?” she laughs as the TARDIS rocks them both across the spaceship. “I don’t know, let’s find out!” he responds excitedly. It seems surprising to me that there are years that The Doctor has never visited before. Didn’t he learn Earth history at the academy on his own planet, Gallifrey? Possibly not. Maybe it’s just a boring year. Like Sundays. “Sundays are boring!” David Tennant’s Doctor protested in Silence in the Library. As Matt Smith’s incarnation of The Doctor said in The Beast Below, “It’s always a big day tomorrow, I skip the little ones!”
As the TARDIS lands, The Doctor and his companion are shown getting up from giggling next to each other on the floor. Rose’s giddy from the excitement of it all and they grin at each other as she marvels at the idea of being able to go back in time and relive times that were “dead and gone millions of sunsets ago”. They have developed such a close relationship after only one adventure together. “Not a bad life?” he grins at her, obviously overjoyed at the fact that she’s enjoying herself, but at the same time, being a complete show-off. “Better with two” she confirms and they come across as flirty teenagers. This was one of the rare occasions when The Doctor appeared to care what his companion wore.
Maybe it was the writer, Mark Gatiss who wanted Rose in period dress, but I wonder why Martha, Donna or Amy never caused a riot by wearing modern clothing. What’s weirder is that The Doctor sticks to his leather jacket and doesn’t change himself. Maybe it comes from the Ninth Doctor’s hatred of domesticity, which completely reverses in his next two regenerations.
The Doctor’s compliment to Rose is ironic and amusing because Timelords look like humans, (Well he would argue that humans look like Timelords – as they came first). He tells her “You look beautiful…. considering that you’re human”. Rose’s original, brilliant smile falters slightly, but she shrugs it off and walks outside into the snow. It’s Christmas, 1869. It’s Cardiff, The Doctor discovers from a newspaper and Rose is bemused.
Mr. Snee’s housekeeper Gwyneth is introduced early into the episode. As it’s revealed that the old woman wasn’t the first to be resurrected, she insists to him that they should seek help about the mysterious goings-on. They go looking for the old woman and end up kidnapping Rose as well once she witnesses Gwyneth put the woman inside her carriage.
The Doctor then grabs himself a carriage and follows them, only to discover it belongs to the one and only Charles Dickens. Then proceeds the funniest scene in the episode, as Dickens questions what he means by him being a ‘fan’ of his work. Dickens was cast very well and looks very iconic. Being the writer of A Christmas Carol, his presence blends in with the Christmas setting of the episode. Dickens’s disbelief in the aliens is believable because he’s so use to writing ghosts as purely fiction. He checks one of the bodies to see if there are any strings, convinced it must be a trick. He voices his frustrations to The Doctor, dismissing the Gelth as illusions that you’d see in the theatre – just as he’d seen the dead old woman who’d appeared there that evening.
Gwyneth pipes up that it’s her decision and even though Rose thinks she’s stupid, she’d appreciate making the choice on her own. She comes across as a very likable character, sweet and innocent and only wanting to do the good thing. She believes that she has a calling to protect who she calls her “angels” and it’s debatable if she would have even needed to be asked by The Doctor to carry out this sacrificial task. She’s a servant. She’s lived for other people her whole life and she even enjoys putting others before herself.
Once all of the main characters are at the undertakers, an ‘Agatha Christie’ like tone settles over the scene. Mr. Snee (short with a beard, reminding me of the Peter Pan character) explains in more detail how the dear departed have been coming back to life. It’s here that The Doctor first mentions the rift – “a weak point within time and space, connecting one place to another”. Gwyneth and Rose share a conversation about boys, which manages to be both comedic and intense. She’s puzzled by some of the things the blonde woman says. The Doctor walks in just as Gwyneth has revealed that she’s been growing up living on top of the rift. As a result, she has a sort of physic sense and stuns Rose by telling her all about the future London where she’s from. It’s clear from here onwards that Gwyneth is going to be the key to what’s going on. They decide to hold a séance, where The Gelth speak through and explain how they lost their form after The Time War. The Doctor and Rose have an argument about the morality of letting The Gelth recycle the dead bodies. He compares it to carrying a donor card, but she’s insistent about the sanctity of life.
The twist is that The Gelth were lying about their race dying off. Once Gwyneth makes the link, they posses all of the bodies in the morgue and then Mr. Snee as well. “I trusted you!” The Doctor yells. It’s the first time that we know of that he’s encountered other survivors of the time war. He had thought that he wasn’t alone and had wanted to help. They’d lied to him and used him and as he and his companion are backed into a corner, he confides in Rose that it’s all been his fault. Grinning at each other, they accepted their fate to die together. The Doctor tells her “I’m so glad I met you”. It’s fitting because she’s already started to begin to heal him, like a man who has just come home from war. He is content to die with her and doesn’t think it’s worthless to be in the presence of a “stupid ape”.
Just when it seems there’s no hope left, Charles Dickens saves the day by turning off all of the lamps and filling the place with gas. The Doctor demands for Gwyneth to send The Gelth back, but she’s not strong enough, she can only hold them in place by destroying herself along with the aliens. Heartfelt music plays as The Doctor tells her he’s sorry and thanks her. She’s just the first of a long line of casualties that have selflessly given their lives for him in the new series. Davros refers to them all in Then End Of Time, at the end of David Tennant’s era.
The episode ends with a farewell to Charles Dickens, as he ponders over a future novel of blue spirits. It’s a nice touch when he asks about his books; The Doctor assures him that people keep reading them forever. This is taken to more extremes during The Eleventh Doctor’s era, when he takes Vincent Van Goth to the future to see his paintings in a gallery.
Dickens’s last line is “God bless us everyone!” and gives a brilliant feel-good ending to an enjoyable, worldly episode. It’s certainly one of my favorite historical romps, with likable characters and new aliens that take the form of spooky CGI.