jason stives is hidden …
Who doesn’t love a good scare once in awhile? Most do but it’s so hard to incorporate good scare tactics into a story and trying to combine that with the science fiction genre can be very tough. Doctor Who is renowned for its “behind the sofa” appeal but it’s done without putting the labels of ‘scary’ and ‘horror’ over it but sometimes when it does it’s done right. This week’s episode, “Hide” is just that and acts much like last week’s episode as a one off from the season’s current arc. While the story concludes with a brief nod to the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald it acts mainly as a standalone story with no formal connections to narrative. And boy is it spooky!
The Doctor and Clara arrive on the doorstep of the Caliburn House on a stormy night in 1974. They are greeted by its temporary tenants, Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his assistant, Emma (Jessica Raines). The two are seeking the truth behind a mysterious ghost dubbed “the Witch in the Well” who supposedly in habits the house. The Doctor and Clara tag along looking for a good ghost story to engage in but along the way they learn more about their own fears as well as whether this ghost is real or the work of something more complex and otherworldly.
Advertised as a ghost story, “Hide” is far more complex than that and if there is one thing that Whovians know it’s that appearances are always deceiving. There hasn’t been a straight ghost story in the show’s history (even the aptly titled “Ghost Light” didn’t actually deal with ghosts!) and whatever appears to be supernatural ultimately involves some kind of extraterrestrial connection and here was no different. The idea that the Witch of the Well is a pioneering time traveler stuck in a bubble universe is incredibly clever and while simple it’s executed with precision that invokes jumps and scares at every corner.
What’s scary in Doctor Who is up for debate depending on the viewer but the fear of the unknown has always delivered the best thrills over the years. The scares and jumps never stop and one could argue the person who faces the biggest fears is The Doctor. We seldom see our favorite Timelord scared and seeing it here was a breath of fresh air that squashes the towering God figure he can invoke. While the Doctor is given a lot of focus compared to other recent episodes Clara is still a point of interest and this week it’s her being able to warm up to the TARDIS. It’s possible that like its owner the TARDIS is suspicious of its new occupant but Clara handles it with a sense of wit and excitement. Still she has some fun with ‘sexy’ and her interactions with the blue box are some of the more light hearted moments. It does deter from the overall fear factor of the episode but it livens things up a bit and that includes some of the more Scooby Doo moments the episode throws in early on. I mean, it IS a haunted mansion we are dealing with.
Knowing now that this was written prior to scribe Neil Cross being commissioned the audience splitting “Rings of Akhaten,” there is hope for the Luther creator as a returning Who writer after seeing this episode. Atmosphere is key here and the murky mansion setting owes a lot to the success of this story but so do the influences that Cross has clearly lifted from in British television folklore. In the first 15 minutes alone I found myself reciting the influences as they became obvious: Quatermass, The Stone Tapes, and Ghostwatch. All of these are noted examples of 20th century British television known for its thrills and chills and Cross incorporates these all well and makes it his own. But it isn’t just the influences and the setting that work because we also get two supporting characters in Professor Palmer and Emma that engage us and act almost as a mirror to the dynamic of the Doctor and Clara.
Dougray Scott as Palmer might as well be a descendent of Bernard Quatermass, the namesake of the famous British television serial which is often cited as an early influence of Doctor Who. There is constant mystery around him as he speaks of participating in the war (which war?) and the lives that he has seen lost at his expense. Ambiguity can be a real pain depending on the depth of the character but here it works exceptionally well because we are dealing with a rather likable individual who also has love for his assistant. Jessica Raines gives a stellar performance as Emma, a psychic empath who knows much more than she leads on and even sees danger in the Doctor that Clara can’t. While the implied romance between Palmer and Emma fits fine it still feels a bit hush hush but that’s addressed at episode’s end when the Doctor explains it takes more than holding hands to make a granddaughter (well, great, great, great, great, ah never mind). I’m speaking of the revelation that the trapped time traveler is a descendant of Alec and Emma who feels a bit tacky but it works well in tying together the romantic notions of these two characters.
Compared with “Cold War,” “Hide” is definitely one of the high points of this half of the season, maybe even the season as whole, but what prevents it from being a pitch perfect story comes in the last twp minutes of the episode. Okay, look, I have no problem with romance within Doctor Who (clearly) and love is a fundamental element that flows through all the good in the show’s protagonists but when love ultimately puts a damper on the overall tone that has been established it’s very disappointing. The main reveal at the end that the scorpion creature was a frightened being separated from his love across a dimension was incredibly hokey. The romance lovers out there can wish shame on me for scoffing at that element but the horror elements that proceeded the previous 40 minutes are killed instantly by trying to make the threat a sympathetic creation. Sympathy depending on how well written the threat is can really kill a Doctor Who story and showing the creature as some misunderstood individual hurts the fear The Doctor showcases in this story.
Regardless of the last few minutes “Hide” was an absolutely solid adventure and went beyond initial expectations. This was truly a spellbinding, haunted house story that served its purpose as a standalone story that mixed its scares with the lighter moments perfectly. Rarely do we get these kinds of stories but when we do they usually serve their purpose well and this episode was no exception to the rule.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Excellent)
All Photos Courtesy of BBC America