It’s the oldest story in the book. Paranormal investigators with unresolved sexual tension camp out in supposedly haunted house to catch a glimpse of fabled ghost. Boyish time-traveller turns up with his bit of skirt and shows complete lack of social awareness. Lots of flickering candles, sudden noises and something lurking in the shadows. Eventually, time traveller discovers ghost isn’t actually a ghost, and the monster isn’t actually malevolent.
At first I figured this was going to be the low-budget story. The Doctor demonstrated the concept of a pocket universe with two balloons, for heaven’s sake. The ‘opening gag’ consisted of Jenna-Louise Coleman putting her head round the door carrying an umbrella. It’s something they really need to stop doing. Pop culture references seldom work on Doctor Who, and the Ghostbusters shoe-ins have always been utterly lame.
Not long after this the effects started in force, but even so there was something about this episode that felt very old school. It might have been the minimal cast. It might have been the fact that the bulk of it is set in a Victorian mansion with surrounding woodland that could have come straight out of Hinchcliffe’s gothic era. Or it could have been the obvious Scooby Doo links – a recurring theme that we’ll come back to in a few days. I can only be grateful that the Ponds have gone, because if they hadn’t you can guarantee that there would have been at least one scene where Amy was dragged off by the monster while Rory was busy in the kitchen assembling a giant sandwich.
Another reason to be grateful for the Ponds’ departure is that one fewer companions gives space to Clara, who seems more and more fun as the question of who she is gradually fades into the background. We are given a quiet reassurance by Emma, the Psychic of the Week, who tells us (and the Doctor) that Clara is “a perfectly ordinary girl – very pretty, very clever, more scared than she lets on”. Elsewhere, the tedious question of why the TARDIS “doesn’t like” Clara is ostensibly answered, after she argues with it.
Yes, fine, it’s all suitably existential and it builds on the idea of multiple versions of the same character, but they missed a trick by not inviting back Suranne Jones, who – I’ve decided – should become the resident TARDIS hologram. It would have solidified the virtual catfight, a catfight that is eventually resolved when the TARDIS starts playing ball and pops into the pocket universe just in time to rescue the Doctor from the monster-that’s-not-a-monster. Of course, this doesn’t stop him going back later.
(Which, by the way, reminded me of this.)
I’m not an idiot – all this apparent resolution is almost certainly to lull us into a false sense of security, and put a stop to the fanboys’ assertions that Clara’s muttered “I don’t think it likes me!” in ‘The Rings of Akhtanen’ actually means anything at all, when the locked TARDIS door thing is far more likely to have been something that they dropped in just to force her character to improvise (and besides, SHE DIDN’T HAVE A KEY). Still, Coleman is far more fun to watch when she’s allowed to be a companion, rather than an enigma. It’s no bad thing that the bulk of her facial acting seems to be done with her eyes, even if she’s obviously drawn inspiration from Kate Warner.
There are some lovely touches here and there – if the script is dull, some of Coleman’s one-liners are wonderful (when asked for the opposite of bliss, she immediately responds “Carlisle”); moreover, the scene when the Doctor’s about to leave the TARDIS and warns her not to touch anything – and she responds with a single, slightly incredulous thumbs-up – might be my favourite moment of the new series. I’m over-stating my case here, but it’s nice when Clara can just be Clara, without having to be the centre of the universe, and it’s moments like this that encapsulate that part of their relationship. This particular gag takes place within the framework of a TARDIS-based intermezzo where the Doctor is tracking back and forth through time to test out a theory. There are gratuitous nods to Classic Who (the Doctor laments the loss of his umbrella stand) and New Who (the spacesuit is, I think, the same one he wore in ‘The Waters of Mars’) but some of the cinematography is gorgeous.
But the Doctor’s jaunt through history has only the barest connection with the plot (in the sense that he could have just explained it), and it all comes to a head when Clara stops to examine the nature of eternity. It’s not the first time in the new series that he’s had this conversation with a companion – as early as ‘The End of the World’, the Doctor allowed Rose to call her mother across the universe in what seemed to be an interesting proponent of San Dimas time. (When she laments that half the conversation took place five billion years ago and that her mother is now dead, the Doctor snorts “Bundle of laughs, you are”.) Meanwhile, back in the TARDIS, Clara watches the Eleventh Doctor at work.
CLARA: Have we just watched the entire life cycle of Earth, birth to death?
CLARA: And you’re okay with that?
CLARA: How can you be?
DOCTOR: The TARDIS, she’s time. We – wibbly vortex and so on.
CLARA: That’s not what I mean.
DOCTOR: Okay, some help. Context? Cheat sheet? Something?
CLARA: I mean, one minute you’re in 1974 looking for ghosts, but all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever’s standing there. To you, I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead one hundred billion years. Is my body out there somewhere, in the ground?
DOCTOR: Yes, I suppose it is.
CLARA: But here we are, talking. So I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.
DOCTOR: No. No. You’re not that.
CLARA: Then what are we? What can we possibly be?
DOCTOR: You are the only mystery worth solving.
Oh, it was all going so well.
There’s a lot that ‘Hide’ doesn’t get quite right. The scientific explanation for the Chrononaut’s presence is inadequate, and two days after watching the episode I’m still trying to work out how she managed to write ‘HELP ME’ on the walls of the mansion. Jessica Raine is competent in an episode that requires her to do little other than look emotionally distraught, but Dougray Scott is clearly there just to cash his paycheque. The ending, too, is hopelessly off-base, from the Doctor’s muttered forest-bound monologue on the nature of fear to the sudden reversal in the closing scenes (although the device he rigs up is very Doctorish, and Clara’s gag about how sharks make babies is priceless). Every cliché in the horror book is mined, and Murray Gold’s score is once more intrusive – heavens above, can’t they just turn it down?
For all that, it was fun. Most of the time. There were moments that scared me, and I haven’t been able to say that about a single Doctor Who story since ‘Blink’ (with the possible exception of ‘The God Complex’, depending on what mood I’m in). But then I read the reviews and the comments beneath, and I wonder if my standards have lapsed. These days, you see, we watch Doctor Who on the fly – I’m no longer playing catch up with the boys, and instead we all sit down together and have family viewing sessions, the way it’s meant to be. And I measure the success of an episode by how much my children enjoy it, and after this one was over I had to sit in a darkened bedroom with Josh so that he’d be able to go to sleep. Whatever the inadequacies of ‘Hide’, it got him back behind the sofa. And behind the sofa is, in an ideal world, the place where any Doctor Who viewer – eight to eighty – truly belongs.