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Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Say we actually find her. What do we say to her?

We ask her what she is, how she came to be.

Why?

Because I don’t know and ignorance is… what’s the opposite of bliss?

Carlisle.

Yes, Carlyle. Ignorance is Carlyle.

– the Doctor and Clara

Hide is the best episode of Doctor Who to air since The God Complex, almost two years ago. Writing an affectionate tribute to gothic horror Doctor Who, Hide allows even the most skeptical member of the audience to forgive writer Neil Cross for his somewhat clunky script for The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a nostalgic and atmospheric trip back in time, and a reminder of just exactly what this show is capable of, offering a creepy haunted house horror that manages to morph into an epic love story by the time the credits have rolled.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

With the show’s fiftieth anniversary approaching, it feels appropriate that Hide is written as something of an affectionate homage to the show’s past. The Doctor and Clara land in 1974, which feels about right. It’s worth noting that the season’s Pertwee homage, The Bells of St. John, references another ’74, making it clear that the year was a time of transition for the show. It was the end of the Pertwee era, and the start of the Tom Baker era.

More specifically, it was the start of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era. In 1974, the show finished its eleventh season with Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker. The twelfth season was about to air. That twelfth season would be the first to feature Tom Baker in the title role, arguably the most recognisable and iconic iteration of the Doctor. That season would also introduce viewers to the vision of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. The first script of their era – a profound influence on Steven Moffat – was The Ark in Space, and it aired in January 1975.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

The Hinchcliffe and Holmes version of Doctor Who looks quite similar to Hide. The era of Doctor Who that was on the cusp of debuting in late 1974 would feature many of the trappings of Hide. Gothic mansions became a staple for the show as Hinchcliffe and Holmes drew their inspiration from the films of Hammer Horror. Many alien monsters would masquerade as supernatural and superstitious forces, in contrast to the invasions-by-stealth during the Pertwee era.

Indeed, when the Doctor uses the TARDIS in Hide to sneak a peak forward in time, it can’t help but evoke Pyramids of Mars. That serial was another classic adventure featuring an alien presence stalking a country estate posing as something ancient and horrific. In Hide, the monster’s blurry movement even recalls claymation-style special effects. Although it is executed beautifully and with the utmost technical craft, it seems to hark back to more basic monster effects used in those early adventures. Although the craft is top notch and in keeping with the times, the concept feels decidedly classical.

Giving up the ghost...

Giving up the ghost…

It is worth noting that the production quality on Hide is top notch. Indeed, every episode of this half-season has featured top-notch production values. The monster itself, viewed as a blurry and barely-distinguishable creature for most of the runtime, is revealed towards the end of the episode as a rather fantastic creation. So while the style is very clearly attempting to emulate the Tom Baker era of the show, the values are as high as we’ve come to expect. It’s a loving recreation crafted with a higher budget and better technology than was possible at the time.

Doctor Who has always, as a rule, done period more convincingly than science-fiction, probably due to the fact that BBC as a whole has a gift for historical drama. So a story set in a haunted mansion, even one in 1974, looks absolutely lovely. Neil Cross’ script is tight and fun, but director Jamie Payne brings it to life with incredible skill. Payne realises that less is more, and that a shape moving in the shadows can often be more unnerving and intimidating than an entire monster in a brightly-lit room. Hide works in a large part due to Payne’s atmospheric direction, and the opening half-hour of Hide might be the most terrifying episode of the season.

Shedding some candle-light on the matter...

Shedding some candle-light on the matter…

Still, the production design and the general aesthetic isn’t the only shout out to the show’s rich history. When helping to investigate the mysterious goings-on, the Doctor uses a bit of crystal harnessed from his trip to Metebelis III, the planet featured in Planet of the Spiders, and a small piece of the Eye of Harmony, which appeared in The Deadly Assassin. These points of reference don’t seem accidental.

Since Planet of the Spiders was the last episode of the Pertwee era, even if Barry Letts remained producer for Tom Baker’s first serial, it marks a suitable starting point. Mary Whitehouse’s reaction to the violence and brutality in The Deadly Assassin led quite directly to the departure of Hinchcliffe and Holmes at the end of that season, making it a closing point for that particular era. As such, Hide seems to pull together the beginning and the end of the gothic horror “golden age” of Doctor Who.

Great Scott...

Great Scott…

(While we’re at it, I choose to interpret the Doctor’s “psychochronograph” as a shout out to TARDIS Eruditorum: A Psychochronography in Blue blog run by the ever-brilliant Philip Sandifer. I might be way off base, but it’s still an excuse to mention Sandifer’s excellent work, and to point anybody seriously interested in Doctor Who in the direction of his excellent work on the show.)

It seems somewhat intentional, given how Hide deals in beginnings and endings. What starts out as a simple haunted house mystery becomes a science-fiction adventure that shifts from the beginning of time to the end of the planet, shifting genres in the way that only Doctor Who can. “This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story!” the Doctor asserts at the end of the story, and he is entirely correct. Cross seems to realise the potential of Doctor Who, and the ability to hide so much inside what appears – from the outside – to be a relatively simple show. It is, to borrow a cliché, so much bigger on the inside.

In the beginning...

In the beginning…

Hide looks like it is just going to be a mystery story about strange spectral forms haunting a house in 1974. Then, all of a sudden, the Doctor flies away in the TARDIS. Asked “when” he is going, the Doctor responds in a way that makes it clear how far the show can span. “We’re going always,” he replies. “Have we watched the entire life cycle of Earth, from birth to death?” Clara asks after the Doctor makes a few quick stops that last less than two minutes. “And you’re okay with this; how can you be?”

Part of the problem with this early run of episodes in this second half of the season has been the way that the show has been forced to devote what should be the middle of a season to establishing a new companion. Hide seems to be the point where Clara really comes to terms with what the TARDIS is, what it can do, and what she has signed up for. It mirrors Rose’s similar existential revelation in The End of the World.

No hands!

No hands!

It’s a profound quandary, one so much deeper than “let’s meet Agatha Christie!” or “let’s visit cat people Earth!” As the Doctor explains, “The TARDIS… she is time.” This really feels like an idea that would be better with a bit more room to breath, and it seems almost like Clara’s epiphany has been embedded in this episode because it was the best possible fit. It’s not quite as jarring as the way that The Rings of Akhaten had to include her personal history, but it still feels like the show is rushing to check off a list of character beats that Clara needs, making her development seem almost perfunctory.

Still, Cross hits on a rather wonderful idea here, one which keeps Hide grounded even as things take a number of sharp twists. “To you, I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead a hundred billion years,” Clara suddenly realises. “To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you.” Perhaps that’s why Doctor Who lends itself so well to ghost stories. After all, to a man who walks in time, we must all seem so ethereal and insubstantial. Even as the Doctor leave the mansion in 1974 to explore the length and breadth of the time line, Hide remains a ghost story. It’s just now a science-fiction ghost story.

Basically, run!

Basically, run!

Of course, despite these rather wonderful twists that make Hide more than just a simple tribute to an old era of the show, it should be noted that Hide is a wonderfully atmospheric episode. It’s downright spooky in places, perfectly capturing the creepy potential offered by the format, turning some of the science-fiction plot devices into atmospheric horror elements. The TARDIS’ cloister bell becomes the chimes at midnight in a haunted house. There’s a scream that seems to last forever, resonating across the universe and stretched beyond eternity. There’s a monster which is, to quote the Doctor, “the bogey man hiding under the bed.”

And yet there is hope. When Professor Palmer observes that time travel must, logically, be impossible, the Doctor repeatedly assured him, “The paradoxes resolve themselves, by and large.” There’s a “happy-go-lucky” approach to it, a sense that things work themselves out, that everything will be okay, despite what experience and cynicism might tell us to expect. And, despite the horror and suspense of Hide, it turns into a story where everybody ends up with a happy ending. Even the monster. “Every lonely monster needs a companion,” the Doctor muses.

The Doctor and the Professor...

The Doctor and the Professor…

Introspection and reflection seems to be the order of day, and Cross mirrors the Doctor both in the character of Professor Palmer (“you’re the professor and you’re the companion,” the Doctor declares) and in the lonely monster who would do anything to find its companion. Like the Doctor, Professor Palmer is a survivor. He has survived a horrible war, and watched countless decent people give up their lives for what he deemed a greater cause. He is fatigued, worn out. And yet he’s still curious. He still wants answers. And despite the fact that he is too closed off to admit it fully, he needs companionship.

“Experience makes liars of us all,” he observes at one point. “About who we are, about what we’ve done.” Given that the show’s fiftieth anniversary seems to be pushing towards big revelations about the Doctor, those lines seem to apply as much to the show’s protagonist as this week’s headlining guest star. Later on, Palmer finds himself relying on Emma as much as the Doctor frequently finds himself relying on his companions. “You gave me a reason to be, Emma. You brought me back from the dead.”

Well equipped for the situation...

Well equipped for the situation…

The Doctor could arguably say the same of Rose (as in Journey’s End) or Amy (as in The Power of Three), or even Clara if you believe The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John. In a way, it’s the most succinct summary of the subtle shift that has occurred in the Doctor and companion dynamic since the classic show. The companions now have a much more intimate and personal relationship to the Doctor than was possible in television in the seventies.

When introduced to Emma, the Doctor describes her as “the Professor’s companion.” She corrects him, “Assistant.” The Doctor responds with, “It’s 1974.” He seems to suggest that the tighter relationships of the new series are only possible because of shifts in cultural moors and values. Much like Palmer and Emma, the Doctor and companions must have seemed purely platonic and perfectly formal, but there was a raft of subtext that could never be properly explored in the context of the time.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

The presence of Palmer also does a very good job foregrounding the Time War once again. With The Eleventh Hour, Moffat pushed the Time War into the show’s past – something that the Doctor had gotten over. However, The Day of the Doctor deals with that wound, and so the seventh season works quite hard to re-establish it. It’s not mentioned explicitly here, but it’s heavily alluded to. “Yes, but how does that man, that war hero, end up here in a lonely old house, looking for ghosts?” the Doctor asks, without any real self-awareness. That is, after all, exactly what he is doing.

Palmer responds, “Because I killed, and I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths, but here I am, still alive and it does tend to haunt you. Living, after so much of the other thing.” It’s a perfect reminder of the Doctor’s role in the Time War. The show would lean even more heavily on the concept in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, even explicitly mentioning the words on screen.

Hm. We're a little screwed...

Hm. We’re a little screwed…

Unfortunately, the episode hits its only real stumbling block when it comes to Clara. Clara fills the role of companion quite well, largely thanks to Jenna-Louise Coleman’s easy charm and her chemistry with Matt Smith. However, Hide decides to suggest that the TARDIS doesn’t like her. This isn’t exactly unprecedented. The Doctor’s Wife revealed that the TARDIS considers the companions to be “strays.”

As such, it is entirely understandable that it might take exception to the “twice dead” Clara, particularly when the Doctor has described her as an impossibility. The TARDIS ran to the end of the universe in Utopia, when the impossible Jack tried to climb on board. And it’s nice to see the TARDIS being given even more personality. The ship has been the Doctor’s longest-serving companion, and the series has been dropping hints about the nature of its self-awareness since The Edge of Destruction.

Blown away...

Blown away…

However, Hide expresses this dynamic in the worst possible way. When Clara tries to convince the TARDIS to save the Doctor, it appears in a holographic form borrowed from Clara. It’s treated in a way that’s meant to seem petty and passive-aggressive. Clara actually calls the TARDIS “a cow”, which seems like an oddly sexist insult. Between that and Emma’s comments about Clara’s possible love of the Doctor, the two almost seem like jealous lovers – each fighting for their right to the Doctor.

Still, Hide is the strongest episode of this season, a beautifully-crafted homage to Doctor Who, and a very fitting show to air during the show’s fiftieth anniversary year.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing weekly reviews of the show (past and present.) The last one published isn’t actually that old. It’s The Last of the Time Lords with David Tennant, so feel free to check it out.

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