This series of Doctor Who hasn’t wowed me in general, if I’m honest. I’ve certainly enjoyed pockets of it, and I’ve definitely enjoyed segments of certain episodes — but apart from “The Snowmen” at Christmas there hasn’t been an episode that I felt really lived up to the trinity of idea, character and plotting in their execution.
After “The Rings Of Akhaten” aired, which I didn’t care for, I was worried that “Hide” — another episode written by Luther show-runner Neil Cross — would be similarly high on concept but faulty in execution.
I needn’t have worried. What bogged down “Rings” was its sheer scope, the desire to tell the story of a mad alien world with crazy visuals, and a singing little Queen, and an alarm clock vampire monster, and demon planet, and all while dealing with the concept of Clara being introduced and the fate of her parents.
But “Hide” is a different creature altogether. Here Cross is allowed to stretch his legs.
Essentially the whole thing boils down to a ghost story. Two ghost hunters — the ageing, slightly damaged Professor Alec Palmer and the youthful, off-beat psychic Emma Grayling — are holed up in a Victorian mansion, trying to unlock the mystery of a ghost known as the Witch of the Well. Emma’s empathic powers combine with Alec’s high-tech (for the seventies) equipment to capture an image of the ghost: an open-mouthed, vague horror, one arm out-stretched as if beckoning for us to join her.
And then the Doctor and Clara arrive, introduce themselves as ghostbusters, and things really get going.
Much like last week’s “Cold War”, “Hide” makes ample use of its location. It plays the cliches of horror, and seventies horror, to the maximum — drawing in hints of The Haunting (the original, not the Catherina Zeta-Rezoning it got in the remake) along the way. A scene where the Doctor and Clara hunt for the ghost is suffused with fear, all candlelit and cold, with statues in the background and shadows in the fore.
But what makes a ghost story work so well on Doctor Who is the true sense of the unknown. We don’t know what this thing is, but we’re all pretty sure that it’s not a ghost — and that’s even more terrifying. The stretch of the opening of this episode is so enjoyable, but the charm lies in the fact that as a Who audience we get to watch two stories happening at once. The ghost story and the… whatever else is happening.
The characters are also well-drawn, and despite being confined to four people Cross shows an aptitude for building relationships. This was one of my complaints about last week’s “Cold War”, that in confined spaces the writer had failed to deepen the characters.
Here there are no such problems. While Prof. Palmer and Ms. Grayling are here on a purely professional basis, it’s clear that she has romantic feelings for him, ones that he may share. The Who element is that Grayling is an empath, which one would think would be fantastic for knowing what your beloved is thinking. But, as she explains in some brief dialogue that gives a fantastic sidelong glance into her whole life, she often gets confused between what someone feels and what she wants them to feel.
And the Palmer-Grayling pairing doesn’t develop alone. A lovely mid-point scene sees the Doctor and Grayling, essentially two sides of the same coin, studying photographs of the witch. The Doctor asks Grayling why he did this, and he explains that his time as a spy saw him send many men and women to their deaths. Perhaps by helping this one person to move on he can shake his own ghosts as well. The Doctor sympathizes.
Clara, meanwhile, is typically straight-forward in her dealings with Emma. Of course the Professor is in love with her, of course she should go for it. It’s quite refreshing, seeing Clara cut to the chase like this, but it’s also a sort of wish fulfillment — she still has some feelings for the Doctor, and can’t let a sure thing pass by when the feelings are so obvious. Especially when the nature of her relationship with the Doctor is still, to her, such a mystery.
This mystery is hinted at by Emma, who warns Clara that the Doctor “has a sliver of ice in his heart”. It’s more likely that Emma has seen that the Doctor’s been keeping vital information from Clara, information about her other, deceased selves. But for someone like Emma, and perhaps someone like Clara, deception is something to be feared as much as anything else. And when one thinks back to how he withheld information of her true form from the Ganger Amy in Series 6, it’s hard to argue that the Doctor has a continuing superiority, if not God, complex.
And look, we haven’t even gotten to the plot yet.
When analysing the photographs of the Witch of the Well, the Doctor notices that in every photo her arm is out-stretched, her face locked in the same rictus. Every photo, whether it was taken that night or fifty years ago. He theorizes not that the Witch is reaching out, but that she is trapped in a snap-shot of sorts, frozen in whatever time or place she actually is.
He and Clara use the TARDIS to visit the dawn of time, the age of the dinosaurs, and the end of the world — taking photos along the way, proving that while billions of years have passed for us, mere minutes have for the Witch of the Well. Whoever she is, she’s a time traveller, and wherever she is, she’s running from something.
This timey-wimey photography trip does more than just serve the plot, however. It gives Clara a chance to call the Doctor on some of his shit. As an audience, it’s often hard to remember just how the Doctor must appear to a Companion. This is especially true when the last Companion was Amy, someone who (for all her strengths) grew up as a fangirl of the Doctor.
But Clara is much more suspicious, and she has reason to be. As she rightly points out to the Doctor, he can travel to millennia before she was born, and after she has died, and not care. He is everywhere and nowhere all at once. To him, everyone is not yet here, and already gone. “We’re all ghosts to you.”
It’s another bit of great pacing, and great writing, in an episode that knows how to dole out its moments.
Back in the mansion, the Doctor sources equipment to allow Emma to open a portal — a “well”, if you will – between this world and the slow-moving and crumbling bubble universe where our ghost is trapped. The Doctor travels through, finds time traveller Hila Tukurian running from a monster. Before they can return, however, Emma’s strength drains away and the portal closes.
Clara kicks into action as we all ignore logic (surely with a slow-moving universe at stake Clara can take her time?) and tries to use the TARDIS to save the Doctor — though not before she is, once again, locked out. The TARDIS calls up its interface, which looks like Oswin, and the two argue it out before the blue box relents. She swoops in, saves the Doctor and Hila — who, as it turns out, is Emma and Alec’s great, great, great, great, great grand-daughter — and returns home.
There is another brief story line wrapped up, one where the monster (known as “The Crooked Man” in notes) was actually trying to get back to his loved one who lives in the mansion, a nice but narratively awkward ending.
And in another nod to Clara’s ongoing mystery and the Doctor’s ongoing deception, he asks Emma just what Clara is. Emma responds that Clara is like anyone else, a human being, but the Doctor seems unsatisfied.
All in all, a great episode that shows Cross at his strengths — by being confined to simpler stories he is allowed to give the characters and setting the depth that they need.
A great ghost story, an intriguing science-fiction tale, a delightful mystery and a rewarding love affair. Back on form.
– “I’m the Doctor.” / “Doctor what?” / “If you like.”
– Interestingly enough, Neil Cross wrote “Hide” first, and on the strength of it was taken on for “The Rings Of Akhaten”, which shows that he may have blown his best ideas in his first story — or that producers were trying to wedge a square peg into a round hole.
– The TARDIS vs. Clara continues. I’m sticking by my theory that she is an incarnation of the TARDIS.
– Lovely performances all round. The pain of an empath was sold immediately by Jessica Raine, while Dougray Scott is the damaged academic we all want to bang. And let’s not forget Aidan Cook, who played The Crooked Man with the jerky, inhuman movement of a true terror.