An old, haunted manor house? A good-natured but troubled scientist and comely assistant in a sweater vest? A goody bag of pseudo-scientific apparatus and a ghost of other than spiritual origin? So far so Quatermass.
As with the rest of Series 7, “Hide”, written by Neil Cross, is very much a genre piece with the genre in question being “haunted house”. Dougray Scott‘s Professor Alec Palmer and Jessica Raine‘s psychic Emma Grayling are performing an investigation at Caliburn House into the supernatural phenomenon known as “The Witch of the Well”. They call for her; a wailing starts up. Their equipment goes wild and suddenly there’s an ethereal white shape phasing towards them as their camera flashes. It’s clear that, for all their acumen and preparedness, the Professor and Emma are out of their depth. Then the doorbell goes and – whaddya know – it’s the Ghostbusters. The Doctor is in!
“Hide” actually seems to take something of a break from the blockbuster style of story that’s been in play since the start of this series. In celebration of Doctor Who‘s 50th year, showrunner Steven Moffat has arranged for a sequence of hugely ambitious episodes – dinosaurs, New York, a Western – leading up to the anniversary Special. However, with so grand a scope and such variety from week to week, the writing hasn’t always been in place and the flaws – such as the whole manner of the Ponds’ departure back in “The Angels Take Manhattan” – have been all the more apparent. “Hide”, however, goes some way towards making up for it with some of the best writing we’ve seen in a while.
From his introduction to the Professor – “Doctor what?” “If you like.” – to his offhand run-through of the Professor’s bio – as well as a war hero, he’s apparently also a talented water colorist -, The Doctor is on great form, arguably the best we’ve seen in a while. He’s full of energy and loving life: I’d go as far to say that The Doctor’s first scenes here feel strangely definitive. While Professor Palmer is determined to secure credit for solving the mystery of the phantom, The Doctor’s just there to have fun. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman continue to have a real natural chemistry and their exploration of the house has a wonderfully understatedly Scooby Doo vibe to it.
Vaguely reminiscent of the setting from Seventh Doctor episode “Ghost Light”, Caliburn House is genuinely eerie, though the episode never achieves true terrifying status. The title, “Hide”, would also seem to be something of a misnomer: “Run” would be a better fit. There are definite hints of The Woman in Black the story, even if the specter here is never so malevolent. There are no villains here, just victims, and, for all the well-worn tropes the episode employs – cold spots, doors slamming – there’s a general lack of menace. When The Doctor, alone in the woods, admits that he’s scared, you can’t quite credit it: this is, after all, the man who’s faced down the Weeping Angels more than once.
The episode’s cinematography also deserves mention with the warmth of the so-called “haunted” house providing a nice contrast to the bleak, grey twilight of the otherworldly woods. This interplay between heat and cold, light and dark, comes into play with the characters, too: Professor Palmer’s obvious love for his assistant Emma trapped within him by the horrors he’s seen while Emma’s empathy, her psychic ability, keeps her paradoxically alone. Emma tells Clara that The Doctor has a sliver of ice in his heart, and, for all his ebullience, we can see that. Just as the TARDIS shuts its doors to Clara, The Doctor is certainly more cautious to trust, to love, than he previously has been.
Unlike his immediate predecessor, who laid down his life for a single human being, the Eleventh Doctor can travel the entire life cycle of Earth – and does in this episode -, from birth to dust, and being untouched by it. He’s obsessed with Clara – “the only mystery worth solving” -, but his humanity seems to be on the wane. Tennant‘s brief (immediately regretted) stint as “the Time Lord Victorious” aside, Smith’s Doctor may well be the most alien incarnation we’ve seen of the character since Sylvester McCoy back in the late 80s or even Fourth Doctor Tom Baker. “Hide”, like every episode in this half of Series Seven, feels like a definite throwback in what seems to be a developing pattern.
Tonally speaking, the episode is fairly close to several of the stories from Baker’s early Gothic period on the show and the events of “Hide” are specifically set in 1974, Jon Pertwee‘s last year in the role and Tom Baker’s first. The famed blue crystals of Metebelis 3 from Pertwee’s final story, The Planet of the Spiders –, even make an appearance. Given the aforementioned apparatus, it’s a shame Matt Smith never got to utter the line, “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” If next week’s episode, “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS” is a Baker episode in earnest – being the first to delve into the depths of the TARDIS since 1978’s The Invasion of Time – what does this mean for the character?
Sequentially, if “Journey” is the Fourth Doctor episode, “The Crimson Horror” a Peter Davison-inspired one, and “Nightmare in Silver” a Colin Baker homage, what does that say for the series finale, “The Name of The Doctor”, which would presumably be connected to the McCoy era? McCoy’s Doctor, the Seventh, was cunning, inscrutable, often keeping his companions in the dark for the sake of his schemes. Could this be indicative of direction in which Smith’s Doctor is headed and how does it tie into the larger mythology of the show; The Doctor’s name, for instance? While Moffat’s plans are almost guaranteed to be something entirely different, the Cartmel Masterplan could nevertheless prove revealing…
Lost souls and pocket universes and unexpected, occasionally contrived love defined “Hide”. As for “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”, we just hope they finally got the swimming pool out of the library.