...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, May 03, 2013

Day 4493: DOCTOR WHO: Hidden Gems


Sorry for the delay. Sometimes you just end up stuck for what to think.

"Hide" is a really terrific spooky story that, even on repeat watchings, plays with the tropes of the haunted house mystery to stay tense and scary even though you know what is coming. And boy does that make a difference because, right at the last minute, it pulls the most astounding, genre-smashing hand-brake turn.

It was that ending that left me, mouth flapping open like a fish, without a real handle on the episode. It's just so... outré! And yet very, totally, brilliantly Doctor Who.

To wind you up to fever pitch and then plant a big soppy kiss on you was... weird. And I can see why people have reacted as though the ending is somehow "wrong", but actually it's completely part of the story, resolving what would otherwise have been plot holes (how do the creepy effects affect anyone in the house if the "monster" is actually stuck in a whole different universe?)

The Doctor's right: it was a love story all along.

"Sometimes love lasts forever," was already flagged up early in the episode, and a lot of the story is about the pull of love against barriers, social, emotional, even temporal, with the implicit attraction between the two guest leads and the pseudo mother-daughter bond that arguably rescues the time traveller from her fate. And of course the in-story physics of the bubble universe that lasts three minutes in its own time, but the whole length of the Universe from our perspective is perfectly symmetrical with that: the monster-that-isn't-a-monster, called "the Crooked Man" in the titles, really does have a love that lasts for the whole of time.

And why should every alien be an enemy? Indeed, it was getting to be a problem of the Russell era that for all the Doctor's talk – or all of Sarah Jane Smith's monologues – about life out there being wonderful, it seemed that every non-human who turned up was out to destroy the world. So Neil Cross is to be mightily commended for having the alien not equate to evil (again! – Akhaten's alien inhabitants were not hostile either).

The thing that Alex particularly noticed is that this is very much the third Doctor tribute story, after "Cold War" had taken us back to the Monster Era of Patrick Troughton and with the exploration feel and the reference to Susan and grandfathers, "The Rings of Akhaten" had had the air of a Bill Hartnell.

(Not so much for "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" as a fourth Doctor story though, in spite of the "Invasion of Time"/"Logopolis" referencing exploration of the Ship's interior, and asides about conceptual geometers, and the presence of the Eye of Harmony.)

What's really clever though is the way that this is almost entirely an "arc" story episode, hidden (as it were) in plain sight. There are (at least) four big developments: "Don't trust the Doctor"; "We're all ghosts to you!"; "You really are a cow!"; and "She's just a normal girl". And they all arise very naturally from the story.

Is there something actually wrong with the Doctor?

Emma Grayling, the empathic psychic played by "Call the Midwife" and soon to be "An Adventure in Space and Time" star Jessica Raine, warns Clara that "there is a sliver of ice in his heart".

That's quite a scary departure from "never cruel, never cowardly" without actually being a contradiction of it. But it's also, I'm sure you know, a reference to the fairy tale "The Snow Queen", and the detail there is that the ice sliver was stabbed into a boy who was otherwise good, and when the ice was removed or melted, then the boy's goodness was restored. So is this suggesting that the Doctor has been "got at" in some way? Obviously, this brings us back to "Asylum of the Daleks" – a frozen planet, by the way – where the Dalek nanogenes "deducted love and added hate". At the time, there were concerns that the Doctor had exposed himself to the nanogenes when he gave his protection to Amy, but there seemed to be no consequences. Or so we thought...?

Having said that, of course, this is also the same Doctor who committed jolly genocide against the Silence back in "Day of the Moon". And old Kazran Sardick in "A Christmas Carol" was likewise a man with a sliver of ice in his heart, (and Clara is doing that "ghost of past, present and future" thing too) so it may be that Moffat has been setting up this material for quite a while. Or is it that he just keeps writing the same shtick?

It's not original, of course, as the early New Adventures (specifically from "Witch Mark" to "Deceit") feature an arc where the Doctor and the TARDIS are infected with a speck of malign protoplasm, exaggerating his, er, more ruthless qualities, which results in driving Ace away (by using her boyfriend to blow up the Hoothi – it was that sort of a year).

Know anyone who's been going rather too far recently?

The sequence of photographs as the Doctor travels the length of Earth's history – much to Clara's developing horror – is again doubly ingenious.

On the one hand it serves as an original – and terribly clever – answer to the "where do ghosts come from?" question, and one that is smoothly in keeping with the "ghosts from the future/ghosts from the past" vibe of the third Doctor era (see in particular "Day of the Daleks" for the way that time creates ghosts). It's a rather better abstract of "Narnia" than Moffat himself used in the other Christmas special, "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe", with a real "Wood between the Worlds" vibe to the pocket universe. If you recall your CS Lewis, "The Magician's Nephew" sees the eponymous Digory jumping into pools (or "wells" perhaps) to travel between our world and others, including doomed Charn whose pool disappears when the world ends. Lots of themes there having resonances within "Hide", without anything so crassly obvious as just lifting a wood within a magic box. Ahem. The Witch even escapes from Charn by clinging onto Digory's ankle, just as the Crooked Man tries to do to the Doctor, or indeed as the Doctor does do to the TARDIS.

On the other hand, it also establishes that the Doctor "walks in Eternity", that he has, from time to time, a very alien perspective on life the universe and everything. That he does this without even thinking is, in some ways, even more shocking. And his response to Clara's assertion that we mean nothing to him, "You're the only mystery worth solving" is not terribly comforting, either. He may be thinking it's quite profound, but it could be taken as reducing his companions to organic Rubik's Cubes to keep him occupied as he wheels through the cosmos.

Cleverly, this reinforces Clara's paranoia, already stoked by Emma's cryptic warning not to trust the Time Lord.

And then we add to the mix whatever the hell is going on between Clara and the TARDIS. When she couldn't get into the TARDIS in "The Rings of Akhaten", it was a bit odd – because we don't know if she had a key at that time, but she didn't try to use one and just seemed to expect the doors to open for her. But now it's clearly a "thing". (You might even add in the HADS escape from the sub in "Cold War", leaving Clara to potentially drown.) There's certainly some mixed messages here: one minute, the TARDIS is locking Clara out even though the Doctor is in danger and lecturing her using the holographic display; the next she's allowing Clara to fly her! (Probably leading to the flying lessons that lead to so much trouble at the start of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" too.)

No one else, aside from River, Romana and, under the Master's direction, Adric (though Tegan thought that she was doing it) has flown the TARDIS. (And Leela does it, in the same story where the authors mock her for being 'stupid', showing how stupid they are…) This at the very least would suggest that Clara is pretty darned special. And in spite of the Doctor's fairly extensive researching of her past, people (and maybe he) are determined to come up with theories: is she a surviving Time Lord? Or River's daughter? Or River in a different not-seen-before incarnation? Don't forget Clara's reference in "The Bells of St John" to a "woman in the shop" (probably River) who somehow gave her the TARDIS telephone number as "the best helpline in the universe".

Or is she the Doctor's daughter? Or even the twelfth Doctor? I'm intrigued by the Pharos boys' suggestion that she might be a humanoid TARDIS, a surviving Type-103 that escaped the Time War. Or even going the Compassion route: Clara is going to become a TARDIS as a child of the TARDIS. (Mining Lawrence Miles for plot ideas: the gift that keeps on giving!) But actually, I think that's a bit obscure for the telly.

All of which tends to play against Emma's assertion that there's nothing up with Clara at all.

Well, it could just be as simple as Emma is lying to the Doctor. She's already told Clara not to trust him, so she may, with the very best of intentions of protecting her friend, be telling the Doctor outright porkies.

There's also the possibility that Emma isn't actually psychic at all – that her connection with the "ghost" isn't parapsychological but because of the sort-of time paradox of being her however-many-greats grandmother. (Arguably, the events of November 25th 1974 bring Emma and Dougray Scott's duffle-coated Alec Palmer together without which their descendent Hila Tukurian won't exist... but they might have got together anyway.) It would certainly explain why Emma can't recognise the fact Alec fancies her even when he's waving it under her nose.

Mind you, the Doctor believes her to be psychic and he can usually tell, as Professor Clegg found out to his somewhat fatal cost in "Planet of the Spiders".

Ah yes, that Metebelis crystal. My Alex wonders if this isn't a sly dig at Mr Pertwee's habit of, ah, liberating souvenirs. We know that all of the blue crystals ended up in the Great One's web – we know that because the spiders made such a fuss about the one last crystal that the Doctor nicked on his first visit, and that was why they came to Earth in the first place. And weren't they all exploded by the feedback loop as the Great One tried to increase her mental power to infinity?

So imagine the third Doctor, staggering back to the TARDIS, dying of radiation from the cave of crystal, but still taking a moment to snatch up one of the blue shards that have just recently exploded all over the planet when the Great One's web went up.

I guess he didn't learn his Buddhist lesson after all.

Still, the headdress is rather more fetching than the very Seventies earmuffs that Clegg gets to wear in the UNIT lab (themselves half-inched from BOSS the year before! See! He must have picked up those from that smouldering wreckage! Though I suppose in a "green" story, he'd say it's an ethical act to reuse and recycle… I'm drifting).

Kisses to the past aside – and there are Stone Tape and Quatermass references to be found too – the archaeology of the episode shows in a couple of moments, notably where the Doctor refers to the pocket universe, just once, as "the hex" and in the allusion to the "Witch from the Well", both apparently, from former titles for the story: "The Phantoms of the Hex" and "The Witch from the Well", as well as the (very Lovecraft) "The Hider in the House" which eventually became just "Hide". Hide as in "hide and seek", I guess, briefly suggested by the Doctor as the Crooked Man's modus operandi; although hide as in "skin" might also be plausible given the skeletal appearance of the "monster" and the "getting under the skin"ness of the tale; you could even have hide as in "a unit of area sufficient to support a household", given the house and its environs and/or the tiny area of the "hex".

And what is it with "The Witch from the Well"? It's the title of a (fairly good) Paul McGann adventure from Big Finish too. It sounds like it ought to be a quote or a reference, but somehow isn't.

Alex suggests an Arthurian nearly-connection. Caliburn is Arthur's other sword, the Sword in the Stone, which he breaks in an unchivalrous act (as Excalibur, the Sword in the Lake, is Ex – after – Caliburn). "The Witch in the Well" is nearly-but-not-quite "The Witch in the Wood", the original title of the second volume of T H White's "Once and Future King", to which the first volume was, of course, The Sword in the Stone.

Back to the point. If Emma is right, though, and there really is nothing wrong with Clara... is this, along with each of the other points raised, pointing the finger back at the Doctor? A grand case of "It's not you, it's me", if it's the Doctor that's somehow wrong and splintering Clara across time something to do with him not her.

Every lonely monster needs a companion. So he says. And then very quickly pulls his arm away from hugging her. Which is probably more of Matt Smith's slapstick. But might mean something more than that.

Interestingly, lovely though Matt's work is – especially in the wood between the worlds, confessing he is afraid – he's at the more Scooby Doo end of his spectrum for a lot of this story, something shown up by the rather more subtle performance of Dougray Scott, who is rather wonderful as the diffident Professor Palmer.

(What's that? A spy called Palmer in the Seventies? Interestingly, he is easily convinced that the Doctor is a "Man from the Ministry" and goes on to describe the "type". The man he describes is... John Steed.)

The scene between Matt and Scott in the darkroom, where they discuss Palmer's past, his wartime activities, is a beautiful performance. On both parts, in fact. And of course it's really about the Doctor's wartime past too. Going on living after so much of the other thing is, after all, what both of them have to do. And it's what's brought them both to Caliburn House on this dark and stormy night.

Jenna-Louise is given more time and space to give Clara a bit of depth this week, and it helps, particularly the "we're all ghosts" outburst. There's also a nice exchange where the Doctor expects her to come looking for the ghost with him and she initially turns him down. It adds up to a sense that "typical feisty Moffat girl" is actually a front that she's putting on, and deep down she's scared out of her wits by this strange and almost threatening man who had dragged her off into who knows when and where.

The suspicions set up here lay the groundwork for conflicts that spring up next week and, who knows, the rest of the season arc. We've had suspicious companions before – well, Turlough – but aside from maybe Ace in the New Adventures, not a companion who has reason, good reason, to be suspicious of the Doctor, though perhaps Amy should have been.

Where, as Buffy might sing, do we go from here?

Next time... Everything gets torn apart – in more ways than one – in the story I have to confess I've been most anticipating this year, but will it be another "Logopolis" or another "Invasion of Time" when we "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"?

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