After a minor wobble with Matt Smith a couple of weeks ago, I’m back to raving about the man. He’s simply the best thing to happen to Doctor Who in a very long time, and I sincerely hope he stays in the role beyond the anniversary, Christmas and for the seemingly remote series eight.
He’s quite wonderful in Hide, virtually dancing through the action as if suddenly inhabited by the spirit of Fred Astaire. And with this being a ghost story, he gives us several levels of fear – from cartoonish tomfoolery (bolting down a staircase like a gibbering Stan Laurel) to a tangible sense of terror when marooned in a misty wood stalked by an unknown horror.
His Doctor is so lovable that it’s hard to accept Emma’s warning to Clara not to trust him: “There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.” But before long Clara gets a taste of this. After their dash through eternity in the Tardis, she is in tears. “Have we just watched the entire lifecycle of Earth – birth to death? … To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you.”
He’s been insensitive, callous, even. The only crumb of comfort he can offer is that, for him, she’s the only mystery worth saving. Towards the end, the viewer learns that the Doctor’s main purpose in coming to Caliburn House is so that Emma Grayling, the famous empath, can check out the “Impossible Girl”. Her verdict is that Clara is “perfectly ordinary”.
So the Time Lord remains perplexed. Can he trust Clara? Significantly, he still hasn’t given her a key to the Tardis. Meanwhile, she has “a weird feeling it’s looking at me. It doesn’t like me.” This matter will be developed next time in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis.
Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are a perfect pairing, perhaps the breeziest Doctor/companion partnership since Doctor Who came back in 2005. Providing a subtle contrast is the relationship between uptight Professor Alec Palmer and Emma, which recalls the Doctor/assistant dynamic of the 1970s.
Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are big-name but unshowy guest stars. The minuscule cast allows us to focus on the characters, who are well drawn, even if the compressed format of modern Who means the Doctor has to gabble out their resumés as soon as he arrives.
Despite the hectic pace, there’s room for a still moment at the halfway point when the Doctor bonds with the professor in his photo-developing room (they discuss the weight of war and guilt of sending people to their deaths), while Emma and Clara open up about their feelings.
The only person who is short-changed is Hila, after she’s finally materialised in 1974. She stands around like a lemon, united with her ancestors (Emma and Alec) but given nothing of import to say about her time period or mission. The notion of a ghost actually being a traveller from the future is tried and tested, and has been pursued at least once in Doctor Who. The first episode of Day of the Daleks (1972) is more or less a haunted house story, with guerrillas from the 22nd century.
Hide harks back to those supernatural tales the BBC made for Christmas in the 1970s (Nigel Kneale’s The Ghost Tape in particular). But from Doctor Who’s own back catalogue, the serial that Hide most closely resembles is Image of the Fendahl (1977), a Tom Baker tale with an ancient, largely unseen horror stalking a mansion’s corridors and surrounding woodland.
Other fourth Doctor country-house serials come to mind too. In The Stones of Blood (1978) we learn of Vivien Fey who has had multiple identities over thousands of years. Sightings of Hila, the female spectre in Hide, pre-date the existence of Caliburn House: she’s mentioned in Saxon poetry and parish folk tales, variously named as the Wraith of the Mayday, the Maiden in the Dark, the Witch of the Well…
But the Doctor whom Hide is most careful to evoke is the third: Jon Pertwee. The main action is set in 1974 after all, the year he hung up his cloak. The tape spools, oscilloscopes, the prof with an assistant are very third Doctor. But the sweetest kiss to that time is the reuse of the mind-enhancing blue crystals from Metebelis Three.
Forever known as “the famous blue planet of the Acteon galaxy”, Metebelis Three is part of the folklore of 70s Who. Pertwee’s Doctor visited in The Green Death (1973) and it was the setting, one year later, for his swansong, Planet of the Spiders. It was most recently mentioned in 2010 by companion Jo (Katy Manning) in The Sarah Jane Adventures (Death of the Doctor).
So it’s a shame that the 11th Doctor has forgotten how to pronounce it – “metter-BEE-lis” suddenly becomes “meh-TEB-elis”. It’s a small detail but infuriating. No reason why Matt Smith should know how to say it, but the many fans working on the show should have spotted the mistake. Why bother to reference the past if you don’t do it properly?
Hide is probably about as creepy as modern Doctor Who can get in its teatime slot – even I was a bit freaked by the subliminal glimpses of the “Hider” monster – carefully lit and shot throughout by new-to-Who director Jamie Payne. If I have any major gripe, it’s that I could have done without the dollop of gloop at the end when the Hiders turn out to be lovelorn and looking for their mate. “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story,” explains the Doctor, for the benefit of any class clods.
Focussed and properly spooky, Hide would have been a far more impressive calling card for writer Neil Cross. Unluckily, his second script The Rings of Akhaten ended up being shown first. If he can deliver more Hide and less Akhaten, I’ll be delighted.