“I’m talking to the lost soul that abides in this place. Come to me. Speak to me. Let me show you the way home.”
I like haunted house thrillers. So much so, in fact, that my final piece for the TV production module of my drama degree was one (one day I’ll get round to posting that on YouTube to embarrass myself). My DVD collection is crammed with the likes of The Haunting, Legend of Hell House (music by Delia Derbyshire), Poltergeist, The Shining, Stephen King’s Rose Red and so on and so on. Naturally, then, I was pleased to see Doctor Who delving into this most traditional of genres, and keen to see if they’d pull it off.
Not that the show hasn’t done ghost stories before. In spirit (pun intended), this was close to the much more subversive Ghost Light, which took the tropes of the traditional haunted house tale and wove them around an unfathomably complex story commenting on evolution and Victorian culture. 1977’s Image of the Fendahl includes references to the local ghost, which the Doctor explains away as being due to the presence of a Time Fissure. And 1972’s Day of the Daleks features time travellers from the future being mistaken for ghosts, leading the ever-sceptical Third Doctor to deliver a lecture to the ever-credulous Jo about there being no such things.
Hide was a far more straight take on the genre, complete with overt homages/ripoffs from The Haunting, Legend of Hell House and even Poltergeist. We had the abandoned Caliburn House with its longstanding haunting, the open-minded parapsychologists investigating it with scientific equipment that goes crazy at particularly spooky moments, the terrifying pounding noises, the unexplained cold spots, and the strange messages etched into the walls only to fade away moments later.
Cliched though this all is, if done well it’s always effective. Here, some great direction from Jamie Payne made these well-worn tropes as spooky as they’ve ever been – especially that perennial favourite, “but I’m not holding your hand”. The sinister, dim lighting helped too (though it did rather depend on you not asking why the house’s very evident electric lights were only turned on in one room, leaving our intrepid heroes to explore by candlelight).
It was another good script by Luther scribe Neil Cross; as I seem to be the only person I know who enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten, some would say his first good script. Keeping the guest characters to a very minimal three (one of whom we only encountered towards the end) meant that they could be imbued with some welcome depth that’s often singularly missing in 45 minute episodes.
Dougray Scott’s Professor Palmer was a likeable scientific hero (visually resembling the stereotype of the classic ghost hunter, with his tweeds, duffle coat and glasses), and was given a believable, interesting motive for his passion. He was a former war hero (a nod perhaps to his role in wartime thriller Enigma), whose guilt over the deaths he’d caused drove him to try and communicate with what he hoped was an afterlife. Mind you, that did mean that the ultimate resolution, which proved this ‘haunting’ had nothing to do with that, seemed like it should have been more devastating to him as a result.
Still, perhaps he was distracted by the realisation of his love for ‘assistant’ and empathic psychic Emma Grayling, played with some subtlety by Jessica Raine (the temptation in many a ghost story is to turn the Ham Factor up to 11, and thankfully all concerned resisted that). Emma was the key to the whole story, as it turned out, and got many of the best lines in a generally excellent script as she lamented her seemingly unrequited feelings. It did, however, seem a little odd that somebody who had a talent for empathy bordering on the telepathic should fail to spot the Professor’s obvious affection for her – something noticeable even to the non-empathic Clara.
The fact that I can nitpick certain aspects of the characterisation only serves to demonstrate that here, unlike last week, we actually got some. This was fairly crucial, as that theme – undying love – turned out to be central to the story. There were the expected hair-raising apparitions, heralded by much needle-twitching on the drama-sensitive scientific equipment, and these were well done – a screaming, translucent figure, characters’ breath suddenly clouding as the temperature dropped. Your basic classical haunted house stuff.
But of course it turned out that, despite the well-visualised classic tropes of the genre, it wasn’t a ‘ghost’ after all. To be honest, this wasn’t a surprise, which was perhaps an inherent weakness in the show attempting to tackle this genre. Even if you’re unaware of the earlier stories mentioned above, if you’ve ever seen any Doctor Who you’ll know that the central character’s (and by extension the show’s) philosophy champions rationality and scepticism of the supernatural at all times. There’s always a ‘scientific explanation’; as the Fourth Doctor once put it, “to the rational mind nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained”.
So it proved here, as the ‘Witch of the Well’ (the story’s original, and far more interesting, title) turned out to be a future time traveller whose malfunctioning test flight had stranded her in a pocket universe where time moves far more slowly than our own. This was an interesting idea (although wasn’t it the central plot point of last series’ The Girl Who Waited?) which explained why, for hundred of years of sightings, the ‘ghost’ always appeared in the exact same posture, apparently frozen in time.
It’s hard to know how much of this was intentional, but a lot of it was reminiscent of plot points from the classic series. The Doctor, suspecting the ‘pocket universe’ possibility, investigated it by dint of taking the TARDIS on a trip through time from the very birth of Earth to its end while never moving from the same point. This was visualised beautifully, with some magnificent CG vistas, but the idea of suddenly heading off in the TARDIS to investigate something seemingly unconnected to the main plot is also a major point in Image of the Fendahl. The nature of the collapsing pocket universe, with the accelerating entropy that made it impossible for the TARDIS to land there, was also much reminiscent of plot points from Tom Baker’s last season, notably Warriors’ Gate.
Of course, in this fiftieth year of the show, deliberate callbacks to its past are understandable, even welcome, and showrunner Steven Moffat seems to be encouraging them. They were here in spades this week. We got the TARDIS Cloister Bell (previously reserved for universe-endangering peril, though that had been eroded even in the 80s). There was a mention of “a subset of the Eye of Harmony” in the TARDIS, perhaps answering those infernal fanboy nitpicks regarding Gallifrey’s black hole power source being located in the TARDIS in the 1996 TV movie. And the headset that channelled Emma’s psychic power to open the wormhole to the pocket universe was basically the one which had such a fatal effect on Professor Clegg in Planet of the Spiders. It was even powered by one of that story’s blue crystals from the planet Metebelis Three – though minus points for Matt Smith mispronouncing the name. Twice. Was there nobody on the set who would have noticed that?
There might also have been some significance in the time period setting. After last week being in 1983, this story was set in 1974. Is that of any relevance to the anniversary year? Of course, the actual date (November 25) was a point when the show was taking its usual break in 1974, so it’s hard to see how. Still, there seemed no actual reason for this story to have been set in the past at all, and it was only glancingly referenced visually with the old-style milk bottle and Emma’s excessively sized shirt collar. The past setting was the only way for Professor Palmer to have been involved in World War II; but given that Dougray Scott is 48 years old, he’d have to have been awfully young to have played much part in a war that ended 29 years previous to this.
That’s quibbling, of course, and it’s telling that such minor points are the only things to really criticise here. There were also some very interesting hints about both the Doctor and Clara, both of whom were characterised with as much depth as the guest characters. The temptation can be to write them as purely two dimensional heroes, but of late there’s been much cogitation particularly on the nature of the Doctor himself.
That continued here. the fun and often childlike elements of Matt Smith’s Troughton-esque performance (“Double dare. No takesie-backsies”)are contrasted with moments of real darkness and non-human incomprehension. Early on, Emma warned Clara not to trust him – “there’s a sliver of ice in his heart”. And his response to Emma’s plaintive query about whether using the headset would hurt was actually rather chilling – “it might be agony. I’d be interested to find out”. And of course, it turned out that his whole reason for crashing the ghost hunt party was to ask the psychic to probe his new companion – “Clara. What is she?”
Plainly all this navel-gazing about the Doctor’s often dark, manipulative nature is leading somewhere. Perhaps towards that tantalising “question that must not be answered”, which now seems it might be dealt with in a 50th anniversary season finale addressing that very matter. It even got referenced here; in an offhand, actually funny way. Annoucing his name to Professor Palmer, he was met with the response, “Doctor what?”, to which he looked nonplussed and replied, “if you like.” An amusing line, but does it have deeper significance?
Along the way, there was also some room to expand a little on the ongoing “what the heck is Clara?” arc without detracting from the main story, which was an unusual case of balance. After the business in The Rings of Akhaten with the TARDIS refusing to let her in, this week it was overtly confirmed that the temperamental time ship wasn’t keen on the new companion (perhaps she spends a lot time on the Gallifrey Base forums). “She’s like a cat,” the Doctor explained – a nice analogy for the character we saw as a ‘human’ in The Doctor’s Wife.
The dislike is unsurprisingly reciprocated by Clara, who gets to call the TARDIS a “bitch” – surely a first for the show. But her perceptive nature also gave her some chilling insights into the Doctor. Unsettled by being taken on a tour of her planet’s history from birth to death, she came up with a far more cynical interpretation of the Time Lord’s view of humans than we’ve seen before – “to you, I haven’t been born yet. And to you, I’ve been dead for a hundred billion years. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.” A thought-provoking line, it also hints that Clara doesn’t yet fully trust this mysterious alien. His comeback that “you are the only mystery worth solving” is unlikely to help; what emotional investment he has in her seems far more conditional than it did with Amy and Rory. Like Dr House, he seems to see her less as a person and more as a puzzle to be solved.
Hide was an engaging, highly atmospheric take on the classic ghost story that worked surprisingly well in the world of Doctor Who, perhaps showing yet again that Moffat’s take on the show is far more science fantasy than science fiction. It was well-written, well-directed, and as the show so often does, challenged perceptions; the truly ghastly-looking monster terrorising the pocket universe wanting only to be reunited with its mate. The ‘scientific’ resolution didn’t go all the way to explaining the trad ghostly phenomena – what were the cold spots, for example? Nonetheless, even though I alone enjoyed his previous effort, I have to say I thought that Neil Cross beat that here (and this was the first script he pitched). I hope to see more from him in future.