New Who, Series 7

No need to hide:

A sweet rain in time of drought

Hello Romeo! Screenshot, Doctor Who: Hide."Hello Romeo!" Screenshot, "Hide" Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

April 22, 2013, OTTAWA — Like a narrative matrioshka doll, "Hide" is a tale whose telling reveals one adventure within another: a ghost story holding a mystery, containing a voyage through time and across realities which, in its turn, opens to reveal both a monster and a love story, each one surprising in its variation of genre patterns.

Unlike Neil Cross' earlier, entertaining but badly flawed "The Rings of Akhaten, "Hide" needs no logic patches to cover plot holes, no viewer's rationalizations to make sense of inconsistent or non-existent characterization. Even the climax logically emerges from that which preceded it, without resort to hand-waving or techno-babble. [ETA, April 24 2013: Well, maybe some patches are needed after all. For a run-down on such, please see the redoubtable Patches365's "Mooning: Hide".]

The time is 1974. The place, an ancient pile called Caliburn Mansion (pace Wikipedia; I heard "Caliban"), home of retired spy-master Alan Palmer (Dougray Scott), a war-hero haunted by memories of the men and women who died following his orders. As the man is figuratively haunted, so is his home, but literally.

With the assistance of Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine), a young "psychic empath" and a roomful of 1974's state-of-the-art equipment (the Doctor: "You know, I do love a toggle switch!"), Palmer struggles to discover the nature of the ghost.

Emma is a woman equally haunted, not by her own past but by the pasts — and presents — of others. As the Doctor will explain (in Emma's presence, but to Clara) empaths are "the most compassionate people you will ever meet [...] And the loneliest [...] exposing themselves to all those hidden feelings, all that guilt, pain and sorrow."

The ghost. Screenshot, Doctor Who: HideThe ghost. Screenshot, "Hide" Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

Lonely or not, Emma is terrified of the connection she has made with the mysterious presence, but perseveres, as she believes it seeks help, not to cause harm. Whatever its true motives, the apparition is frightening, to characters and viewer alike.

Director Jamie Payne has made of Cross' script an admirable construct, using techniques new and old to tell the tale. The time-travel sequence excepted (and even there, the colours are muted) the episode feels almost black-and-white, not colour. In Caliburn Mansion, Payne uses light and darkness, eerie sounds, guttering candles and rapid jump-cuts to create an atmosphere of oppressive mystery and looming malice. When the Doctor himself shows signs of nerves, we believe it. (It is worth noting: Payne is happy to use CGI — and to use it effectively — when it's called for. "Hide" treats us to the most convincing other-worldly settings seen so far this series.)

But there is much more to "Hide" than its excellent direction. Neil Cross has in 44 minutes created a richly multi-layered story, giving us glimpses enough of both Alan and Emma that we feel we're watching individuals who had lives of their own before the Doctor and Clara knocked on Palmer's door, and who (if they survive the encounter) will go on long after we've stepped back inside the TARDIS.

The Doctor and Clara (the Doctor loves a toggle-switch! Screenshot, Doctor Who: Hide.The Doctor and Clara (the Doctor loves a toggle-switch! Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

And so it is with Clara and the Doctor. Suddenly more than labels — Hero and Companion — the two demonstrate a comfortable affection that must have sprouted while we weren't watching. For the first time since this series began, do we have a script that shows us two persons. If the sudden friendship seems too sudden, the flaw lies with the show-runner, not this episode's screen-writer.

"Hide" contains undeniable nods to earlier episodes, also. Not as winking meta-commentary, but as solid history. When Clara sits down with Emma after an intense "seance" (in a rare Moffat-era scene that very nearly passes the Bechdel Test), a long-time viewer can't help but remember Rose bond with Gwynneth in "The Unquiet Dead". And, remembering that, we become even more anxious about Emma's fate when the Doctor tasks her with saving the apparition at the heart of this story.

Despite such interludes (the Doctor gets a similar one-on-one with Alan), "Hide" is not a quiet episode. Event piles on event upon event, the lulls and humour serving to pace things, giving us a chance to catch our breaths.

The mystery of the ghost's true nature (on Doctor Who, it's never really a ghost. Because that would be silly) might seem a bit too easily solved, but its resolution is the key to another mystery and that proves to be the key that frees the love stories and the adventures to come.

The briefest of those adventures, though one that lasts billions of years, provides Clara her first real inkling of just how alien the Doctor is.

The ends of the Earth. Screenshot, Doctor Who: Hide.The ends of the Earth. Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

Returning to the TARDIS after stepping out onto what might be taken for the near-molten surface of Mercury to take a few pictures (the last in a quick series of photo-stops), the Doctor finds Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman at her subtle — I know, I keep using that word, but it fits! — best) looking upset and asks her what's wrong.

"Have we just watched the entire life-cycle of Earth, birth to death?"

"Yes," says the Doctor. Not looking at her. Matt Smith too knows how to suggest, to hint at a character's inner state. Excellent stuff.

"And you're okay with that? How can you be?" To the Doctor, Clara realizes, an entire human life can be but a fleeting experience, one among very many. "Is my body out there?" she asks, glancing at the desolation outside. Probably it is, he admits. "To you, I'm a ghost. We're all ghosts to you ... We must be nothing ..."

And Smith's Doctor — despite the fact he keeps having this conversation with his mortal friends — is nearly oblivious to her shock and confusion. A being who can feel all of space and time, Smith's Doctor finds it almost impossible to constrain his imagination to such limited, human, perspectives. He stumbles in his denials of Clara's nothingness.

"Then what can we possibly be?"

The Doctor's answer, "You are the only mystery worth solving" is empty of meaning and too pat by half. But what choice does Clara have? It will have to do, at least for now.

Clar and the Doctor. Screenshot, Doctor Who: Hide.Clara and the Doctor. Doctor Who copyright © BBC 2013.

This is strong stuff, an important thematic reminder that the Doctor is not a clown, but an alien, a creature perhaps as far beyond a human's ken as a human is to a cat.

If Coleman's talents are not so obvious in this episode, it's because Matt Smith gets a lot more acting to do than he usually does (and that the guest stars have good parts to play as well). In particular, beyond the above-noted scene, Smith's Doctor experiencing real fear is a very convincing pleasure.

What flaws there are to "Hide" are mostly flaws of context; the episode's craft is so superior to its immediate predecessors it seems almost like another program entirely. We can only hope that next week does not see the return of Clara the Cypher, Clara the Object, rather than Clara the Person.

Regardless of what happens next time, this time at least, those of us unhappy with where Steven Moffat has been steering the TARDIS can take comfort in the pleasures of this well-written, skillfully-directed and strongly-performed story. It is the occasional oasis of an episode like "Hide" that keeps this bitter old(ish) fan following it even through such a creative desert as it has endured over the past few years.

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