This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode.
The thing about ghost stories is they’re full of rules: mysterious noises, flashes of lightning, cold spots, psychics, detecting equipment replete with oscilloscopes and toggles (noun), plus photographs revealing the impossible. And there are contemporary film conventions too: a burst of light illuminating something right next to our protagonists; a dark, menacing shape flitting across camera (a trick used back in ‘The Eleventh Hour’). ‘Hide’ throws itself into this maelstrom of whirling tropes with gusto and sincerity. And being set in the seventies, it almost feels like a classic BBC TV ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ reanimated at the wrong time via anachronistic technology: it’s as if the theatrical-yet-brilliant Stone Tape has been worked over for high-def, high-style TV.
Despite the opening “ghostbusters” reference, we’re treated to a greatest hits’ collection of spooky goings-on that are played pleasingly straight. Jessica Raine is outstanding as the emotionally suppressed and confused empath Emma Grayling, radiating fragile luminosity and stern verity as she warns Clara off the Doctor, instantly reading him as a “liar”. Professor Alec Palmer is also well realized, with Dougray Scott putting in a strong performance as the guilt-ridden researcher unable to shake off revenants of his past.
You can see why Neil Cross was asked back to contribute ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. This is a fantastic script; a blend of believable, character-led emotional moments (rather in the vein of Russell T. Davies’s writing on the series) and Moffat-style inversion and tricksiness as we get around to the final genre-shifting kicker. There’s also a clever, parable-like challenge to our interpretation of monstrosity:
what we’ve assumed to be grotesque and terrifying (the half-glimpsed, gnarled stuff of nightmare) is simply a form of life and love we’ve been unable to recognize. Cross handles it all with skill, making me suspect possible problems with ‘Akhaten’ may have been far more to do with budgeting and production issues.
Although the sequence where the Doctor disappears off to monitor Earth's planetary life-cycle seems to puncture the episode’s rhythm and atmosphere, it rapidly gives rise to two great pay-offs – not just the Sapphire and Steel-type explanation of what’s going on, but more importantly Clara’s realisation that “we’re all ghosts to you”. Time travel will do that, jumping from birth to death, hurtling from joyous presence to jaded memory. And of course the Clara-Doctor exchange isn’t just a mirror of its surrounding ghost tale, but also neatly harks back to ‘The Snowmen’ and the Doctor’s graveside visit there.
Cross’s paralleling of the Doctor and Clara with the Professor and his “companion” also draws attention to the different genres that the two couples occupy – while Alec and Emma are part of a love story, the Doctor and Clara are instead tied together by a “mystery” that needs solving. For all their banter, and the Doctor’s exaggerated discomfort with talk of love, this Doctor-companion pairing is perhaps overly dominated by ongoing arc stuff, not quite giving Clara the space to really come alive as a three-dimensional, flesh and blood character. Her ghostliness is partly a product of the need to keep the ‘Oswin’ Oswald puzzle flickering away in the background.
And while I know the Doctor has to get used to new teeth with each incarnation, “Metebelis” seems to be pronounced strangely. Surely a DVD of ‘Planet of the Spiders’ could have been sent to Matt Smith or director Jamie Payne as additional homework? Otherwise, though, Payne plays an absolute blinder: the scary, mist-wreathed forest visuals are especially gorgeous, reminding me of Adam Smith’s work on series five. Echoing laughter and sweeping, dream-like camera work also somehow put me in mind of ‘The Deadly Assassin’, placing this episode’s flashes of surrealism in very good company indeed. As for the stillness and silence immediately following in the wake of Emma’s furious bid to retrieve the Doctor, this was an inspired, chilling instant. I’d expected “boo!” moments from ‘Hide’, a perfectly unimaginative expectation which sure enough the pre-credits sequence promptly answered, but I hadn’t expected such a startling soundtrack punctuation. Not since Graeme Harper’s outer space silence in ‘42’ have separation and absence been so well calibrated. In short, more Payne, please: this was smartly directed, making impeccable use of guest actors and capturing a visceral sense of the Doctor’s fear.
‘Hide’ sells itself as one kind of story, turning all its ghostly paraphernalia up to eleven before sharply sidestepping into a whole different pocket genre where the rules are different. Crammed with quotable dialogue (the “I’m not holding your hand” business even felt like Moffat pastiche, unless it was an uncredited showrunner contribution), its ending – “jump!” – had the sort of vitality and irreverence that perhaps only a newcomer to the fold would attempt. Hiding its twist in plain sight, ‘Hide’ nevertheless represents the most audacious and spirited genre switch in Who’s recent memory as it toggles (verb) between love and monsters.
Filters: Series 7/33 Eleventh Doctor Television