I love it when Doctor Who tackles horror. Not just in the sense of having monsters running around, which it does quite often, but the stories that start out creepy and supernatural before seguing into unlikely sci-fi scenarios. My all-time favourite Doctor Who story – The Talons of Weng Chiang – is the perfect example, opening with a compelling mixture of (very racist) Eastern mysticism, Ripper lore and Victorian stage magic before gradually revealing itself to be a tale of alien war criminals adrift in time.
Hide doesn't quite pull off a juggling act quite that ambitious, but it still offers a packed episode and one that is by far the strongest of the seventh season's second half.
We open with a setting that will be familiar to most horror movie fans, as Professor Alex Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his empathic assistant Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) are investigating an alleged haunting at Caliburn House. It's 1974 and armed with an array of early electronic gizmos, the pair are trying to document the apparition known as the Witch of the Well, a screaming phantasm that has been reported in the area. They don't have to wait long. This ghost is very happy to send the equipment haywire and manifest on photographs thanks to Emma's summons.
Even allowing for the almost instant appearance of the spirit, it's good creepy stuff and the debts to such classic spook movies as The Haunting of Hell House are as fun as they are obvious.
Cue the Doctor and Clara, hammering on the door and cheekily introducing themselves as Ghostbusters. The Doctor is particularly thrilled to meet Palmer, rattling off his achievements and shaking his hand with more enthusiasm than usual. That's because, as writer Neil Cross explained to British sci-fi mag SFX recently, this episode was supposed to be a crossover and the character of Palmer was supposed to be Quatermass. Any fan of British sci-fi will surely swoon at the prospect of the Doctor and Quatermass working together, and while you can still pretend that's what actually happens, the truth is that the BBC was unable to clear the use of the character from Nigel Kneale's estate. That's a real shame, as this is one crossover that would actually make sense and work beautifully.
It's not a disaster though, as Dougray Scott imbues Palmer with a weariness and loneliness that makes him fascinating in his own right. Broken by his experiences in espionage during WWII, he's turned to paranormal research in hope of finding some hint of peace for the hundreds who died because of his intelligence. Emma, meanwhile, pines for her colleague but doesn't dare voice her intentions for fear her psychic gift is giving her the wrong signals. It's a simple but sweet dramatic setup, and it's one that only grows stronger rather than weaker as the story progresses.
The Doctor wastes no time in exploring the haunting using his own unique approach to investigation, which mostly seems to involve walking around with Clara and a candlestick. This allows us to get all the required haunted house gags out of the way – candles get blown out, cold spots appear, messages are scrawled on walls and unholy banging noises echo through the house. There's even a callback to the classic “holding hands” scene from the 1963 genre classic, The Haunting.
Clara notices that in every photograph of the ghost over the years, it looks exactly the same – identical pose and all. This sends the Doctor back to the TARDIS for a nonchalant jaunt to “always” as he takes photos of the exact same spot throughout the history of the Earth, from its formation eight billion years ago to its eventual death millions of years in the future. It's the sort of extravagant way of solving a puzzle that would only occur to such a mercurial hero, and Clara is rightly disturbed by the cavalier way he speeds through the life cycle of her home planet to solve a comparatively petty mystery. It's here that the script nails one of the Doctor's most uncanny aspects – from his perspective, belonging to no particular time or space – everyone he meets is both yet to exist and long dead. “We're all ghosts to you” declares Clara, and that one jolt of brilliant insight is enough to justify the hoary old haunted house motif.
From there, the Doctor quickly works out that the ghost is in fact Hila Tukurian, a pioneer of time travel who went missing during an experiment. She's trapped in a pocket dimension which can only exist for a few minutes. Those minutes, however, transpire differently inside the bubble so a cry for help that lasted mere seconds for the hapless temporal castaway has been stretched out over millenia when it reaches our Earth. It's a playful explanation for the haunting, and one that draws more than a little from Nigel Kneale's non-Quatermass 1972 teleplay The Stone Tape.
The story becomes a lot less interesting once this discovery is made, as it becomes a rescue mission rather than a mystery. The TARDIS can't enter the pocket universe, as the accelerated entropy of that decaying space would render its power source inert in a matter of seconds. Instead the Doctor whips up a psychic amplifier that will allow Emma to open a portal, through which he plans to extract the stranded time traveller. Imagine if the X-Men's Cerebro was used to open the closet wormhole in Poltergeist, and you've got the basic idea.
The Doctor crosses to “the other side” where he finds Hila being stalked by a skittering monster through a gloomy forest, the last scrap of reality left in this rapidly collapsing universe. He guides Hila back to an echo of Caliburn House, projected by Emma, but is unable to escape with her as the portal closes. This allows for some more spooky stuff, as the mangled phantom now stalks the Doctor through the dying forest, but mostly it's used to underscore the character elements back on Earth. Professor Palmer has wrestled with his notion of responsibility, at first willing to risk Emma's sanity to contact what he thought was a ghostly victim needing help, then realising he can't risk losing her for someone who knowingly put themselves in harm's way.
At the same time, the TARDIS makes its dislike for Clara well known, refusing her entry and communicating with her via a hologram of the form it thinks she holds in highest regard – herself. Eventually the TARDIS relents and Clara is able to fly into the pocket universe to save the Doctor, just as Palmer and Emma reopen the portal to pull them out.
As he prepares to leave, the Doctor drops a last minute twist that is both narratively clever and mawkishly obvious. Hila is the distant descendent of Palmer and Emma, thus explaining their strong psychic link as well as ramming it home to the stuff Professor that he really should stop moping and start a new life with his pretty partner. This then prompts a final revelation, as the Doctor realises why the beast in the forest was chasing them. It too is in love, and its mate has been trapped in Caliburn House on the other side of the rift. The episode ends with the Doctor undertaking one final jaunt into the pocket universe to rescue the lovesick creature.
That's a lot to squeeze into 45 minutes, and though this story is rushed it never loses sight of what it's really about. It would have been nice to spend a little more time on the scary stuff at the start, which does get jettisoned before it can really chill the bones, and the knowledge that this should have been a Quatermass crossover is something that will haunt me far longer than the standard bumps in the dark. Strange, too, how the threat of the collapsing dimension never really comes across. We're told the TARDIS can't survive there for more than a few seconds, yet it ends up flying in twice with no apparent ill effects. It's hard to begrudge a little fudge when it comes to cliffhanger finales, but this one felt a little undercooked.
Balancing that logical wobble out is the strength of the characters and themes. The cast are all superb, and the ideas being explored not only make sense for the tale being told but feed into the ongoing mystery of Clara's origin. Tying up one last loose end, we discover that the reason the Doctor appeared at the door of Caliburn House was because he wanted Emma to “read” Clara for him. His disappointment at being told she's just a “normal girl” is palpable, reminding us of Emma's warning to Clara: “there's a sliver of ice in his heart”. The Doctor is a big-hearted fellow, especially with two hearts, but he has a tendency to lose his humanity when faced with a problem he can't solve. We've just seen that he'll casually watch an entire planet from birth to death just to solve a supposed “haunting”, so what lengths will he go to in order to solve the riddle of Clara?
We'll hopefully find out next week in an episode that looks like it will be all about the TARDIS and its dislike of Clara. Personally, I can't wait. I quite like Clara as a character, but the rather vague mystery of her nature hasn't really grabbed me, certainly not enough to sustain the remaining episodes. A few tangible answers are overdue.