We’re onto episode 3 already. Although the mixture of humour and drama is much as we’ve come to expect, this week’s instalment benefits from a more consistent tone and a satisfying feeling that the parts add up to a cohesive whole.
The sense of time and place is every bit as well-evoked as in the far future episode. This was arguably more of an achievement for last week’s episode where the setting was entirely fictional, but Mark Gatiss deserves full credit for deploying Victorian cliches in a manner that feels knowledgeable and purposeful rather than hollow pastiche. Charles Dickens is a case in point, with his character feeling more like a real historical individual than a Victorian everyman. I greatly appreciated the effort to make the aliens look like Victorian ideas about ectoplasm, and the seance was used with precision, especially counterpointed by Dickens’s skepticism.
In storyline this episode falls somewhere between the gothic horror of the middle Tom Baker years and an episode of Sapphire and Steel, with the apparent ghosts turning out to be alien beings intruding into our dimension. Although this is very familiar stuff, the idea of the aliens inhabiting gaseous form is a nice spin. Only the resolution lets things down, with the seemingly inevitable revelation that the good aliens are in fact evil (accompanied by a visual nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark), and a nice big explosion to settle the matter. The predictability is offset by the darkness of the conclusion, however, which is appreciated. The production values are splendid throughout, from apparitions to explosions, with only the dreaded sheen of videotape detracting from the realism.
The Doctor and Rose continue to be on good form, assisted by the more or less seamless flow from one episode into the next. Rose gets a fetching change of outfit (so the Tardis does have other rooms after all) and the Doctor goes to the immense lengths of changing his jumper, but is still accused of looking like a Navvy. I really do enjoy the chemistry that these two have together, romantic or otherwise; for example their little back and forth as the Doctor explains how they’ve arrived in the wrong place and time works very well. Rose continues to display more psychological realism in her approach to time travel than every other companion put together. She also seems to be developing a habit of talking to the servants, which is a useful way of exploring all aspects of the situation. It has to be said that Christopher Eccleston drifts into hamminess when he becomes a babbling Charles Dickens fanboy, but otherwise he gets the balance between cheerful gusto and grim determination about right.
Lastly I must give a nod to the supporting cast, who are uniformly excellent. Simon Callow is predictably good as Dickens, but the other cast members do an excellent job of sketching rounded individuals in a relatively short space of time.
Overall, this is my least favourite of the three episodes so far, but still very accomplished and enjoyable. It feels as if the production has settled into a comfortable rhythm, which can only bode well for future episodes.