TV Who in the what now with that pronunciation of Metebelis III? Really Matt Smith? Really? Though to be fair it’s not necessarily his fault. With his Troughton fixation he’s probably not seen The Green Death or Planet of the Spiders but no one else on the production has an excuse, especially the usually meticulous Steven Moffat who must have sat through the episode a couple of times before broadcast. Given that this was the first episode recorded of a very long shooting schedule, how could there not have been a moment during the ADR session when Matt was asked to pronounce it properly. Or is this Steven’s attempt at creating a new potato/patato or more accurately Uranus/Uranus for the Whoniverse?
Luckily this classic fanderail wasn’t enough to sink what in the end turned out to be an instant classic, one of the best episodes of the modern era and although I appreciate I’m more likely than most to make such idle pronouncements, largely because it takes a lot for me to become especially hostile about an episode (THE DOCTOR DOES NOT USE GUNS) (except when he does) (OH). Four (or five) episodes into 7b and there’s a real sense of redoubled efforts, of a sense of direction, of what was all becoming a bit tired regaining its sense of momentum, the renewal which can happen even a few years into a production cycle (sadly for Peter Davison it happened with his final story) (and only lasted that one story) (but take my word for it…).
The problem is, when the alchemy finally works, all the planets are aligned and there is the rare occasion when what should have been a fairly run of mill instalment turns to gold and eclipses others, it’s near impossible to exactly say why. Oh, you can start listing the good, and we will, but in the end it just sort of happens. As Philip Sandifer’s noted frequently on his blog, one of the reasons the Eighth Doctor novels were often so inconsistent was because at a certain point the experimentation led to a lack of focusing on turning out a series of pretty good stories with the inevitable consequence that less than the normal few would turn out to inspired, unlike which Big Finish which manages it on a regular basis.
That’s Who in the modern era down to a tee. With very rare exceptions, across seven years it has turned out some pretty good, consistent Doctor Who on a weekly basis (or at least when it’s on) and although there have been a couple of turkeys, equally there have been some classics not of the Doctor Who form but of drama in general. Even the ardent Moffat haters would be slow to admit that many of his episodes have been especially awful, generic sometimes, repetitive certainly, but they’re never less than entertaining even if its sometimes been because we’re never quite sure what Matt’s going to do with his line reading or if Arthur will manage to hide his adoration of Karen within Rory’s adoration of Amy enough so she won’t notice.
But every now and then a Blink or a Midnight or a, as it turns out Neil Cross’s Hide and we’re reminded why we do this, why for some of us, as Paul Cornell says, aren't just fans of Doctor Who, it’s a way of life. Some shows like Babylon 5 (to pick an especially cruel example) people move on from with fond memories. We don’t. Once we have the bug we slog away at it, year on year, even when it makes us work at it through having to read it in two hundred and seventy six page chunks or listening to Fraser Hines doing his best in creating an atmosphere around the soundtrack to a missing episode (and unable as it turns out to do much at all with Fury from the Deep, which takes four episodes to get the same point nuWho did this week in about five minutes).
Which sounds like three paragraphs worth of drawing away from the achievement, but Hide is an especially prime example because it comes two weeks after Cross’s later recipe for Marmite, The Rings of Akhaten, divided audiences. If Hide had been his single contribution to this season, people who would be talking about him as the new Moffat, or the new Gaiman. Instead we’re all probably scratching our heads wondering how The Rings of Akhaten can be turned out by someone who’s just recently completed a Hide for all their thematic similarities. Sorry, I should have noted for people who don’t read Doctor Who Magazine that in simple terms, Cross was commissioned and wrote Hide first. The Rings of Akhaten came later.
In Hide, Cross confronts head on the (usually resolvable) paradox at the centre of any Doctor Who story which is that it can be any type of fiction it wants to be but in the end it still has to be a Doctor Who story. Hide is ostensibly a ghost story and Cross is heavily influenced by Nigel Kneale and Tobe Hooper in placing a ghost hunter and a psychic or empath within a big old house investigating the paranormal activity (sorry) within. When the Doctor and Clara arrive, a viewer might assume that this will remain an intimate closed space scenario, which will resolve itself within the confines of these walls perhaps in the style of Nick Murphy’s underrated The Awakening in which Rebecca Hall does a good audition for a female Doctor.
It’s an episode that allows us time to get to know, to love its characters. As Martin Belam noticed the other day, even the pace of nuWho has increased since it went into production, but Hide shows that sometimes that has more to do with what the episode wants to do. In this case, the pacing is superb, with action sequences often giving way to quiet conversations about the nature of things, conversations in dark rooms about how spectacular lives always have a cost the Doctor perhaps seeing an element of his own Ninth incarnation in Alec’s survivor guilt. Yet, even taking into account the subject matter of Clara’s confab with Emma, it’s still people talking in rooms, reacting to the encroaching sense of doom.
Except Doctor Who, especially television Doctor Who, especially television Doctor Who when the Time Lord has control of his TARDIS, can’t simply be that because what would be the point? Granted something like The Stone Tape isn’t being made now and so the closest we’re ever going to get is hidden within an episode of Doctor Who, but because the Time Lord has control of his TARDIS, the story opens out from this intimate closed space scenario to take in all of time, the Doctor spinning across this planet’s entire chronology on a hunch in order to make the inexplicable explicable and surprise us by offering an explanation for this paranormal activity which isn’t that they’re aliens.
These are the reasons why the episodes feels longer than the previous two, despite being just as long. If very little intrinsically happens in The Rings of Akhaten. Hide’s almost the exact opposite. Just when you think you have a grip on it, you’re being pulled off across time or into a pocket universe that usefully allows the show to tap into the intrinsic scariness of an empty forest. Perhaps it is a similar trick to something like The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe but it shows that the more singular plotting that’s a hallmark of the Moffat era (in comparison to the parallel plotting of the Davies era) doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t include a lot of stuff in forty-five minutes.
Just another brief detour if you don’t mind. On Thursday, during Radio 4’s Open Book Mariella Frostrup interviewed author Gillian Cross about her new work, After Tomorrow which is about “the aftermath of 'Armageddon' Monday, when the banks collapse, sterling becomes worthless and industry crumbles, people lose their jobs and the hunger begins. The only hope for many is to escape through the Channel Tunnel and become refugees in France, a country that doesn't want them”, in other words, the squintable backdrop to a dozen Who spin-off stories by authors who would never be interviewed on Open Book. Including a TARDIS seems to be the difference between being taken seriously as a writer by mainstream Radio 4 book programmes or not.
But that’s often what makes Doctor Who, Doctor Who, that it can be serious drama when it wants to be, asking big epic questions about the implications of what it would be like if you had the whole of time and space in your hand whilst showing the goofiness of seeing all that in close visual proximity with its giant blue insects and Edwardian costumes. It’s the tension which runs through Hide, as the mojo which in a “real” ghost story might draw whatever ghoul is causing the ruckus out into the open is instead the method through which the Doctor visits a pocket universe in order to save a wayward time traveller and eventually her aggressor, “The Crooked Man” according to the credits, handsome chappy that he is.
All of which is mere commentary really and just proves my point. Other stories have utilised similar mixes but not all of those are “great”. The stately home set Pyramids of Mars, in which the Doctor also gives his companion an existential pause for thought by showing her a possible future is also great. Timelash which attempts a similar journey in reverse isn’t. And before you say, yes but the former was written by Robert Holmes, the latter Glen McCoy, Holmes turned out The Krotons and The Space Pirates before he worked with a producer who fitted his tone. In the case of Hide then The Rings of Akhaten you could argue Cross is worryingly managing to do that in reverse.
What, for example might have happened if the parts of Alec the ghost hunter and Emma the whatever Emma is had been cast badly, however unlikely that is with the patience of Andy Pryor at work. Whilst his career’s been a bit inconsistent lately (Death Race: Inferno, Love's Kitchen), Dougray Scott still feels like the show punching above its weight especially in asking him to essentially recreate the part he played in Michael Apted’s Enigma, albeit with the extra years of weariness. He perceptively notices the attitude of the piece offering a generally understated performance, really nailing the tête-à-têtes with the Doctor especially in the aforementioned in the dark room.
Just as I’ve never seen Luthor, I’ve also entirely missed Call The Midwife, too, so this is the first time I’ve seen Jessica Raine on screen and wasn’t she marvellous and won’t she be an excellent Verity Lambert in An Adventure in Space and Time? To an extent, Emma’s a difficult role to approach, one which so easily could be given what’s never described in the trade as a Duvall or at the other end of the scale a Featherston. Instead, she brings realism to this unreal character, thanks in part to her not ultimately being revealed to be a fraud or mistaken, that she is indeed for whatever reason someone with real insight. She and Carmen from Planet of the Dead have a lot in common.
Another detour. At the close of last week’s episode, it was revealed that due to the HADS, the TARDIS was at the wrong end of the planet which led some to speculate that the Doctor and Clara could have a whole range of adventures set in 1983 as they cross the planet returning to the blue box. Near the close of Hide, Kemi-Bo Jacobs’s Hila seems to be wandering off to the TARDIS with the Doctor and Clara deciding where she’d like to be dropped off. Perhaps at some point in the future a spin-off merchant which has the rights to this era will create a whole series of adventures for these three. With her slender screen time, this time travelling Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart reference is ripe for extra curricular development.
The performances are anchored as usual by Matt (few do fear as well) and Jenna-Louise for whom this was her first episode shot not that you’d know it if the first publicity photos hadn’t been taken during production and DWM’s preview wasn’t all about it. The chemistry is there straight away, and in an episode during which has to play her character dealing with the weight of time travel knowing that she’d soon be having to play it again, with the same character in a different way for the first time. Or something. But there’s nothing here to suggest she hasn’t already filmed all the other stories we’ve seen her in. Again, I sit in awe at the intellectual capabilities of actors to seamlessly play such non-linear characters so non-linearly.
Again, they’re parts of the whole, part of the list with “reasons this is great at the top”. Jamie Payne’s direction is superb somehow managing to make some (over) familiar locations like this mansion into something new and spooky, retaining the closed haunted mansion aesthetic in those scenes while making allowances for the grandeur of the locations the Doctor visits. The forest scenes are perhaps the biggest triumph, keeping The Crooked Man out for sight for as long as possible, know how long a shot needs to be without killing the suspense. The script presumably offered some guidance in that regard, but there’s real courage, especially in Doctor Who, in making a monster exist simply through the Doctor’s frightened reactions.
Then there’s the production design. I feel particularly connected to the episode because it’s set just a couple of days after my birth. Mum says I hadn’t even left the hospital. It’s worth asking. Why set it in the 70s and not now? Variety? To create a closer link to the ghost stories of the era? Pure nostalgia? I’m not sure. But as with Cold War, it’s a pleasure to see the television show setting stories within its own production period, conscious of the fact that for children this is ancient history. Note how the Doctor keeps in period and uses the analogue camera for his picture safari so as not to create too many paradoxes by introducing Alec and Emma to the camera phone.
Now I really am simply listing possible reasons why the episode is great. But after two and a half thousand words, all this really boils down to is that it’s great because it’s great. It’s confident enough to have the TARDIS effectively piloting itself to save the Doctor and put out a projection in order to have a conversation with Clara. It’s unafraid to have the Doctor and his companion walking along corridors joking around and not make it seem smug. It makes the Ghostbusters gag again, despite the volume level of human gorp that met the previous reference in Army of Ghosts, the moment which Tennant haters always point to as the epicentre of their …
And we’re back again so perhaps I should end with the usual Clara shaped speculation. The TARDIS really, really doesn’t like her even to the point of taking the piss by producing a holographic version of her imply that it knows full well about her many versions but is keeping it a secret from her as much as the Doctor is. Unlike Dan Hall at The Guardian, I don’t have a problem with her dialogue, it is writerly in places, but it’s also Doctor Who, the best of which is literary to some degree, plus it’s part of her character, the sense of her not being quite human, or at least being more human than human. Sometimes, as with her convincer speech in Cold War, she sounds positively like the Doctor himself.
Emma apparently taking sides was an interesting twist, her knowing full well why the Doctor has turned up. We know he’s being secretive because to some degree he’s testing Clara to see what makes her tick but now Clara has some sense of that. The way she’s so easily fallen into the role of “companion” still does nothing to dissuade me from the notion that she’s been somehow designed that way and the throw forward to next week’s episode suggests the Doctor’s having similar suspicions. If the Doctor’s relationship with Amy and Rory was situationally complex, this is all psychologically so and if the title of the final episode of this season is anything to go by, none of this may be resolved in 2013. Great.