“I’d rather have a nice cup of tea.” –Clara
How long can this winning streak go on? I have been more excited about Doctor Who this series than I have for many years. It’s great but I just fear for when it will end. Unfortunately, I missed much of the dialogue at the beginning of this second story by Neil Cross, but soon find out we are in 1974 in a haunted house—we could, for all we know, not be far from the events of “Planet of Spiders” (which seems likely given the Doctor talks about a crystal from Metebelis III—though I was shocked to hear Matt Smith pronouncing it wrong).
I absolutely adored “The Eternity Trap” by Phil Ford for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and like this it was a ghost story in a haunted house with parapsychologists using equipment to monitor and track everything from EVP to heat waves. However, this being Doctor Who and adhering to Pertwee’s doubtful adage of “Science, not sorcery, Miss Hawthorne,” both stories were intent on giving a rational explanation—though I was impressed that “Hide” took a completely different tack than the normal one. I’m not that up on my history of parapsychology, so I don’t know when it became a formalized (pseudo)science; the dating of this episode would suggest it was the 1970s, though that dating could be merely to tantalize fans with its many references to Old Skool Who. Clara names Emma as the “companion,” though the Doctor changes that to “assistant.” Clara walking into the TARDIS with an umbrella and the Doctor insisting there should be somewhere to put it. The Cloister Bell. (Notice how we’re skirting 20th century Earth here? Clara’s parents in the early 1980s, the Russian sub in 1983 . . . I thought the ghost in this story was going to turn out to be Clara in some way . . . which is probably what we were meant to think.)
“Blink” probably still reigns supreme as one of Who’s scariest stories, though attempts to topple its crown have been made in recent years. Despite copious efforts to affix one into a sort of pre-Most Haunted televised fearscape—with candles for mood lighting, long sequences following Clara and the Doctor “real time” into “haunted” rooms, and creepy figures just out of sight—I couldn’t completely concentrate and lose myself into this world. Moving at the snappy pace of all new Who stories, I couldn’t get an enormous amount of character development out of Alec and Emma, the researcher who “will not have my work stolen!” and the “empathic psychic,” whose lonely occupation exposes her to the “guilt, pain, and sorrow” of others. The repressed romance reminded me more of Professor Yana and Chantho than anything from the Tom Baker era, especially Clara’s heart-to-heart with Emma. We’ve had empathetic, “touched” women sacrificing themselves for the Doctor before—Gwyneth of course in “The Unquiet Dead.”
Curiously, the ghost in the story is older than the house, a phenomenon at least I haven’t come across much in my years of armchair ghost-hunting and is tied to a well, “the witch of the well.” It reminds me of The Devil of Lanyon Moor, of all things. However, speaking of armchair ghost-hunting, they set up everything very well. “The music room is the heart of the house.” While we all (or maybe just I) was expecting poltergeists and phantoms on spinets and harps (I still find harps in spooky-looking ancient rooms a bit unnerving and it’s the subject of a poem), all we get are some literally cold spots. This is followed up by a trip through a half-lit pantry, easily the creepiest part of any house on Most Haunted.
Much like a seed of doubt, mixed up with a dash of Saxon, was planted in series 3, Emma is insistent at the Doctor is “a liar.” And I suppose he is—also, as established two episodes ago, raaather stalker-ish. It’s a bit the Doctor assessing Amy’s pregnancy a few series back—he’s not telling the whole truth. Will it prove satisfying à la McCoy or just infuriating? The romance here, between impossibly-young looking Prof. Alec Palmer (played, in some very strange casting, by Dougray Scott) and weird-ish Emma, hasn’t quite got the charm of Yana and Chantho as mentioned above, and the connect-the-dots quality is fairly grating by the end. Nevertheless, the skittish TARDIS hearkens back to classic Who, too, somehow, and even in personifying her, I have difficulty envisioning Idris inside. “The TARDIS is like a cat,” the Doctor says. A trip six billion years into the past does not produce Scaroth but still the ghost is there. Funny how the emotional realism and resonance of new Who used to be moving and astonishing in light of classic companions just deciding to go or stay or whatever—and now it’s a bit pedestrian? I understood and appreciated Clara’s points, all the more noteworthy against the example of Amy, but in some ways it felt like, “We’ve been over this ground, haven’t we?” We have, but Clara hasn’t. “To you, I haven’t been born yet, but I’m already dead. . . . To you, I’m a ghost. . . . We must be nothing!” “You are the only mystery worth solving.” Now, does he mean humans by that, or companions, or Clara specifically?
The Doctor has, meanwhile, cracked it—the ghost is a time traveler, a “pioneer.” Before Prof. Palmer can protest, “Paradoxes—” “—resolve themselves.” The Doctor very demonstrably gives us a pocket universe; he can’t go in with the TARDIS because “entropy would bleed her.” He mentions the Eye of Harmony, and puts together a set-up that’s adorably Pertwee-esque, causing Prof. Palmer to say, “it’s rather make-and-mend?” The Doctor, using Emma’s amplified psycho-chronograph’ed power, tosses himself into the whirlpool of the pocket universe to rescue the time traveling pioneer. I’m not a big fan of “Warriors Gate,” but I must say I was thrilled to see the pocket universe’s atmosphere have much in common with that story’s famed depiction of the vagaries of time. Beautifully done, and beautifully creepy. “There’s something in the mist . . .” “Then run!” “An echo house in an echo universe,” which was also beautifully achieved. I am also thrilled that they managed to keep the monsters out of sight for so long, upping the terrifying factor and giving enough glimpses to suggest the kind of nightmare of the bone spider in The Gallifrey Chronicles.
I didn’t think I would like it, but I rather enjoyed Clara having to fight against the TARDIS and its interface system. “Let me in, you grumpy old cow! . . . You are a cow!” I can even accept that Clara can (badly) pilot the TARDIS into the pocket universe to save the Doctor. Clara has had many opportunities to save the Doctor, at least as many as for him to save her. Furthermore, it’s great that he can see that “blood is calling to blood . . . every lonely monster needs a companion.” So, in the end, this combines the small cast of “Horror of Fang Rock” with the haunted-house-that-wasn’t of “Ghost Light” with “Warriors Gate” and “The Doctor Dances.” What’s not to love?
A few days ago, I was sitting on a bus and a woman and her young son were sitting next to me. They were talking about the nature of infinity, and she was trying to explain to him how a concept like infinity can exist, something that just exists and you can’t quantify it. Is the universe quantifiable in Doctor Who? Stories like “Logopolis” and “Utopia” would suggest it is not infinite. Like Moffat’s famous line from “The Doctor Dances,” “Hide” seems to end on an upbeat note by reversing the totally frightening monster into one of a pair of star-crossed lovers and suggesting that love conquers all. “Everything ends.” “No, not everything.” I don’t have anything profound to say about this, but I just wonder where it’s all leading. We all commented on the fairy tale quality of Amy’s first series, which was never totally resolved. That whole tack started up again once we saw Clara’s 1001 Places to See—how will it end? “This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story.”