Some ‘Doctor Who’ episodes, like last week’s ‘Cold War’, lay out exactly what they’re about in the opening scenes, and play that scenario out to the end. Others start you down one path, and then take an abrupt left turn and lead you down another. Saturday’s episode, ‘Hide’, falls into the latter camp.
In 1974, in a big empty house, Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) are attempting to make contact with a spiritual being – a ghost. After a sighting of a hazy figure, an ominous knocking can be heard from the door. Turns out it’s the Doctor, with Clara in tow, and they’re ready and willing to help the duo out. After learning a bit about the phenomena (a woman who appears, screaming, always in the same position), the Doctor makes a realization. This isn’t a ghost at all, but a time traveler caught in a pocket universe, and he must save her. However, even though she’s not a monster, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other creatures out there in the dark…
‘Hide’ was written by Neil Cross, the creator of the stunning BBC series ‘Luther’, who also penned the recent ‘Who’ episode ‘The Rings of Akhaten‘. I was plain about my reservations on ‘Akhaten’, feeling that too many elements simply didn’t work. ‘Hide’ tends to jump about a bit, but the characters are far stronger here, which grounds the story and gives us a much needed through-line.
The heart of the episode isn’t the Doctor or Clara (although both get some wonderful character moments, more on that in a bit), but Palmer and Grayling. Dougray Scott, the man who could have been Wolverine, has grown into a charming character actor, and he imbues Palmer with a texture you rarely see in ‘Doctor Who’ tertiary characters. Emma is a psychic empath, meaning that she can see what others are feeling, though not what they’re thinking. But even she cannot decide how she feels about Palmer, or how Palmer feels about her. One thing she is sure of is that the Doctor is not what he appears to be. She warns Clara that there is “a sliver of ice” in his heart. (Which heart that might be, she does not say.)
And then there’s Clara herself. What a wonderful companion we’ve found in her: bold and brash, but also scared and altogether quite reasonable. When things start getting spooky, she’s not interested in chasing after ghosts, demanding that the Doctor dare her to go with him. Even better is the sequence where the Doctor takes the TARDIS on a short jaunt through the history of Earth, from birth to death. The Doctor thinks nothing of it, but Clara is horrified at the magnitude of such actions. She confronts the Doctor and asks him how she, or anyone, could be anything but ghosts to him, a man who can go anywhere at any time. The Doctor replies, “You’re the only mystery worth solving,” and we’re not sure whether he means the human race in general or Clara in particular.
To that end, the Doctor later reveals to Emma that he didn’t come for the ghost, but rather for Emma to read Clara and shed some light on how she can exist. Emma tells the Doctor exactly what he doesn’t want to hear, that Clara is a perfectly normal girl. When he prompts her for more, Emma replies, “Isn’t that enough?”
With all these wonderful character moments going on, it would be easy to ignore the plot of the episode. And, in fact, the plot is the least interesting element. The woman that the Doctor is charged with saving, stuck in a pocket universe, is revealed to be a distant relation of Emma’s and Palmer’s, but she herself is underwritten into complete uselessness. She’s just someone in need of a rescue, which the Doctor readily supplies, but we feel nothing for her.
Much better is the last-minute revelation of the piece, which helps tie together many of the thematic threads floating through the episode – or perhaps the continuation of Clara’s antagonistic relationship with the TARDIS. Trying to save the Doctor from being stuck in the pocket universe for all eternity, Clara begs the TARDIS to let her in. Talking to an image of herself via the visual interface (the TARDIS churlishly assumes that Clara holds herself in higher regard than anyone else), you can feel Clara’s desperation. When the TARDIS lets her in, Jenna-Louise Coleman simply responds with a winning smile, which says more than any amount of dialogue could have.
While ‘Hide’ isn’t quite the tour de force that ‘Cold War’ was, it’s rewarding in an entirely different way, and is ripe for multiple viewings.