Devoted fans of any television show can often go for months waiting for an episode like Neil Cross’ “Hide,” a story so well-suited for Doctor Who that I feel confident ranking it among the very best episodes in the revived* show’s eight-year history.
*A revival that will be 100 episodes long in only two weeks, with Mark Gatiss’ “The Crimson Horror.” Some days it still feels like the show just started.
The story of “Hide” begins on November 25, 1974, in a creepy house on the moors. (One that “dachshunds are too scared to dachshund.”) Psychology professor Alec Palmer and his companion (“assistant,” she corrects) empath Emma Grayling are conducting ghost-hunting tests on The Witch of the Well, the house’s resident ghast. The Witch is a more reliable ghost than most, appearing frequently and seemingly attuned to Emma’s empathic abilities.
The Doctor and Clara show up, for ghostbusting, fun, and fun ghostbusting, although the Doctor appears to have already studied up on Alec and Emma already. He reveals pretty much instantly that Alec was not a P.O.W. in World War 2, as Emma thought, but a covert operations agent. And a damn good one, too. Palmer doesn’t bother denying the Doctor’s claim and spares Emma further panic by telling her that the Doctor is military intelligence. All while discussing their work in hunting the Witch of the Well.
“Hide” is very good at giving its secondary characters Alec and Emma scenes to breathe and develop in, but it also packs the script with little turns of dialogue (like the above mentioned) that serve to provide even more details about their situation and history. The characterization is superbly consistent. The revelations you learn later on in the episode inform every tiny action right from the very beginning and make rewatching the episode an even richer experience.
The Doctor insists that Professor Palmer explain the Witch and he brings them to a board filled with photographs and mentions of the ghost, stretching back over 400 years. “During the war American airmen stationed here left offerings of tin Spam. The tins were found in 1965 bricked up in the servant’s pantry along with a number of handwritten notes. Appeals to the ghast: ‘For the love of God, stop screaming.’” Clara notes that the ghost is always photographed in the same position, mouth open, one hand reaching towards you. Emma then reveals that the ghost knows that Emma can detect her and is crying out for anyone to help her.
The Doctor and Clara go off to explore the house, making their way slowly to the music room. Clara, still new to being a companion, has to be nudged to come exploring by the Doctor, although his “nudge” takes on the distinct air of playground pigtail-pulling. Clara, he likes you but also ew girls = cooties.
A shadow rushes behind them. It turns out to be a scuttling grey creature, following them as they make their way through the house….
Elsewhere, Alec is forthright to Emma that the Doctor is probably not who he says he is, but nevertheless he understands why someone would feel the need to cloak their history in such a manner. “He’s a liar, but you know that’s often the way that it is. When someone’s seen a thing or two, experience makes liars of us all. We lie about who we are, about what we’ve done…”
To which Emma responds, “And how we feel?”
“Yes, always. Always that.”
Emma decides to go for it and makes a pass at Alec, but is rebuffed. It’s a sweet and painful moment between the two, and it won’t be the first scene with them that reminds the viewer of the Doctor at his most vulnerable. It’s part of the overall brilliance of the episode that whenever we learn more about Alec and Emma, we’re essentially learning more about the Doctor and his companions, as well.
In the music room the Doctor and Clara identify a cold spot, which the Doctor circles with chalk. Some ominous creaking is heard and Clara abruptly tells him that she’s “not happy.” The Doctor doesn’t really know how to respond to that and leaves the room. Clara follows after and the two hear a loud pounding. Suddenly the candelabra that Clara is carrying is blown out and she accuses the Doctor of holding her hand because he’s scared. Except he’s not holding her hand.
The two rush back to Alec and Emma just as a circular mirror appears in thin air, spinning rapidly and spitting out light. The ghost appears before Emma, although now we can see images of a forest surrounding the ghost. It rushes towards Emma and she collapses. The mirror disappears and the words HELP ME appear on the wall.
Clara pours her and Emma some recovery whiskey, which they quickly exchange for tea but good instinct Clara. They talk about Emma’s feelings for Alec, which to Clara seem obviously reciprocal but to Emma seem constantly unsteady. “People like me, sometimes we get our signals mixed up. We think people are feeling the way we want them to feel when really there’s nothing there.”
Emma asks Clara about her feelings towards the Doctor. Clara quickly shoots down that possibility but Emma doesn’t really believe her and warns Clara not to trust him. “There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.”
The Doctor and Alec adjourn to the darkroom to develop the photos the Doctor and he have been snapping throughout the episode and the Doctor recites Alec’s history of deeds back at him. “Disrupting U-boat operations across the North Sea, sabotaging railway lines across Europe, Operation ‘Gibbon’, the one with the carrier pigeons was brilliant.” The Doctor admires Alec’s record and is baffled as to why a “war hero” would end up in a lonely house looking for ghosts.
“Because I killed,” Alec responds. “And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths and here I am, still alive. It does tend to haunt you. Living, after so much of…the other thing.” Swap out “Alec” for “the Doctor” from the above and the statement would just as accurate, if not more so, and the Doctor is keenly aware of this. Alec reveals that he wouldn’t mind meeting the ghosts of those he sent to their deaths. “What would you say?” the Doctor asks, extremely curious but trying not to show it. Alec’s response is a bit unexpected, “Well I’d very much like to thank them.”
The Doctor has a hunch about the ghost so he and Clara rush out to the TARDIS. She voices her concern that the TARDIS is “staring at me, I don’t think it likes me.” The Doctor brushes it off, saying that it’s like a cat and slow to trust, somehow not noticing that the TARDIS locks her out almost immediately afterwards. The blue box definitely has something against Clara.
The Doctor begins cycling the TARDIS through different periods of Earth’s history, taking a picture in each one, while keeping it in the same geographic location. We go through the formation of the planet, the prehistoric era, the construction of the house, all the way up to just before the Earth’s death which Clara, like Rose two lifetimes ago, is completely freaked out by. “Have we just watched the entire life cycle of Earth, birth to death? And you’re okay with that?”
It is, and we know it is, but the Doctor has trouble explaining why. Clara sees herself in the blasted soil of the almost-dead Earth and to her the Doctor just literally walked over her grave. “Is my body out there somewhere? In the ground?” Her entire life, lived and done and gone to the very same dust that she has just been witness to. The emotional implications of that are troubling. “So I’m a ghost,” she realizes. “To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.”
Finally, something the Doctor can honestly rebuke. He insists that they—Clara, humanity, his companions—are not that but Clara is unconvinced and presses him further. Finally, the Doctor has an answer for her. “You are the only mystery worth solving.”
The Doctor and Clara return to the house and Emma comforts the upset Clara, insisting that while it may seem that everything ends, love does not. Not always. The four of them then look at a slideshow of the pictures they took throughout history and discover that the ghost appears in all of them. The Witch is not a ghost. She’s a pioneer from an era in Earth’s future where time travel is being tested for the first time and she’s become lost in a pocket universe where time runs grindingly slow. A second to her is 100,000 years to everyone else.
As twists go, this one’s a keeper. You expect the ghost to be sympathetic, but not sympathetic and iconic of a fascinating theoretical moment in humanity’s future. And she’s sympathetic in the very best way, not as a victim, but as someone who’s courage and sense of the intrepid we admire. And where Alec reminds us of the Doctor’s darker days, the ghost reminds us of the Doctor’s best qualities.
This time traveling pioneer, Hila Tacorian must, of course, be saved. Not only because it will make our characters feel useful or forgiven, but because they know it is The Right Thing To Do.
Unfortunately, Hila’s running from something in this pocket universe: the same creature that has been creeping around the shadows of the house. Emma, the Doctor points out, is Hila’s “lantern.” For some reason Hila can detect Emma and vice versa. That gives them a chance. “We’ll need some sturdy rope, a crystal from Meteblis 3, and some cake,” the Doctor says, and off he pops to rig something up from the TARDIS.
Alec has a change of heart. Sacrificing Emma to save a woman he doesn’t know is too much for him and the only way Alec knows how to stop her is to let her know how much he needs her. The four of them go ahead with the plan anyway (Eye of Harmony reference and all) but Alec paces the room like an expectant father, all energy and worry.
Emma reaches out to speak to the “ghost,” Hila, and the floating, spinning mirror reappears. It’s a wormhole, a “reality well,” to the pocket universe and with a determined “geronimo” (and a sturdy rope) the Doctor dives in.
As the Doctor theorized, the pocket universe is a bit dodgy, essentially a crumbling forest floating in space and not something he could take the TARDIS into without it succumbing to fatal entropy within ten seconds. He runs through the forest trying to find Hila but the creature finds him first. Hila appears and he tells her to run as Emma calls across universes to guide them home. Emma creates a version of the house in the pocket universe so he and Hila can essentially jump between houses but the creature is hot on their tail. The Doctor bars the door against the creature while Hila jumps back into our universe. But Emma can’t hold the connection and the Doctor becomes stranded.
For the first time in a long time, the Doctor has no idea what to do. Obviously he’ll get out of this mess somehow, but “Hide” does a very smart thing in using the moment to cast about for solutions in the same manner as the viewer, ratcheting the tension up and introducing an element of real fear into this ghost story that only just finished being a ghost story. It’s a momentary shock, but the fact that it’s a shock at all is tremendous.
Clara has pretty much the same idea that we do and that is:
- Fly the TARDIS to go get the Doctor somehow.
- You did it!
The TARDIS seems to agree, as it rings the Cloister Bell over and over in high alarm. Clara rushes out but the blue box keeps its doors closed to her. She screams at it to relent and suddenly… another Clara appears.
Meanwhile, Alec is trying to convince Emma to muster her strength and re-open the wormhole. “You saved this woman,” he says about Hila, and tells her that not only that, she saved him and gave him a reason to keep going after the war. “You brought me back from the dead.” One certainly wonders if this scene will play out in a future episode between the Doctor and Clara, but who might be bringing back who from the dead?
The other Clara is actually the TARDIS voice interface and states that it chose the form that Clara has the most esteem for: herself. (Despite the fact that the TARDIS probably knows how high Clara holds her dead mother in esteem. That is cold, TARDIS. That is ice cold.)
Clara agrees with me but moves past it immediately and tries to convince the TARDIS to go fetch the Doctor. The TARDIS would die, Clara would die, but Clara doesn’t care. So off they go.
Back in the pocket universe, the creature laughs and stalks the Doctor but never strikes. He realizes that the creature wants to use the Doctor to piggyback across to the not-dodgy universe and laughs at the very idea. The creature then knocks the Doctor down but is knocked down itself by the arriving TARDIS. The Doctor latches on and they head back home with no seconds to spare. Everyone is saved, the mystery is solved, relationships are blooming, and it’s probably time for morning tea.
Later, the Doctor sidelines Emma and reveals why he really came to the house: to ask Emma to use her empathic abilities on Clara. She’s already done so, and the answer just confuses the Doctor further. Clara’s a perfectly ordinary girl. Very pretty, very clever, and more scared than she lets on. “Is that not enough?”
During their goodbyes, the Doctor theorizes that Hila is the great-times-8 granddaughter of Emma and Alec. “Not everything ends! Not love. Not always!”
And that’s when the Doctor realizes the creatures weren’t chasing anyone, they were trying to reunite with each other across universes. He, Clara, Emma, and the TARDIS head once more unto the breach to fetch the creature from the pocket universe. “Here she comes. Get ready to jump!”
There’s no one reason why “Hide” is so thrilling and so immediately identifiable as a classic Doctor Who episode. Rather, its triumph is due to a procession of elements, from the surprise twists to the strong secondary characters and more, that all mix and interact with each other in a way that propels the story to a point where you are living completely within the logic of the episode. That special place where you see something new about the Doctor that is so specific to this circumstance that it is unexplainable to anyone unfamiliar with the show. To new fans, “Hide” is an indication of just how incredible the show can be. To old fans, it is a reward for their dedication.
Neil Cross’ script is bouyed along by fantastic performances from Dougray Scott as Professor Alec Palmer and Jessica Raine as Emma Grayling. In a lesser episode, the character of Palmer would end up being a flat, humorless character who is redeemed by the doe-eyed and otherwise featureless Emma. Instead, both Scott and Raine imbue their characters with a lot of subtle variations. Palmer becomes a man defined by regret but one who pushes forward nonetheless. But carefully, so carefully, because he’s seen so many things that he’s touched fall completely to pieces. Emma embodies exactly the kind of fragility that Palmer fears, yet breaks nearly every boundary she encounters. She knows what you’re feeling. She speaks across the gaps between the universes. She’s the first to try and initiate a relationship between her and Palmer.
The actors do a great job of really inhabiting these roles, adding little character touches here and there. Jessica Raines looks away whenever her character is being talked about unless it’s Palmer. Dougray Scott wanders off at one point during a conversation at the end of the episode so Palmer can inspect the TARDIS up close. The small touches help sell the authenticity of the larger, more rote scenes near the end. Really, everything in this episode helps everything else along.
(Well, Hila is underwritten. This episode runs a little longer than usual Who outings, though, so I wonder if Hila scenes got sacrificed to get it to a suitable running time.)
We got a serious amount of new information in regards to the ongoing saga of Clara and the Doctor, as well. Throughout the course of the episode Neil Cross makes it clear that the Doctor’s focus on Clara is beginning to become a bit of an obsession, but he couches it inside of an ongoing stream of playground infatuation. (Which is par for the course for a Doctor who is famously childlike.) Is the Doctor falling for Clara as a result of focusing so much on her?
Six instances come to mind:
- He taps Clara on the head then is playful about trying to get her to go exploring the house with him. If Clara had had pigtails on he would have pulled them.
- In the music room he asks if she “feels anything.” She says no and with a forced joviality he responds, “Your pants are so on fire.”
- He models his bright red spacesuit for her and sulks when she doesn’t like it.
- “You are the only mystery worth exploring.”
- The Doctor agrees with Emma when she says Clara is pretty and clever and genuinely doesn’t seem to know if that’s enough for him.
- He is ALL THE AWKWARD about having his arm around her at the end of the episode, something he wouldn’t have been with Amy or Rory.
The Ongoing Mystery of Clara:
We also got more clues about who or what Clara might be, and another pattern regarding the Doctor and Clara emerged.
- The TARDIS definitely doesn’t like her. Notice how it still didn’t let her in until Emma opened the wormhole back up? I can’t wait to see how this plays out in the next episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.”
- She seems to have some telepathic ability. How did the creature in the house tell her it was unhappy without the Doctor hearing?
- “There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.” This is the third time that snow or ice has come up in regards to the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. The first time we saw Clara she had crash-landed on an ice planet (in a ship named Alaska, no less). The second time was when Clara emerged in “The Snowmen.” I suppose you could count “Cold War” towards this pattern, as well, but I’m hesitant to since that episode is otherwise completely disconnected from the overarching mystery of Clara.
- Meteblis 3 was a shout-out to the Third Doctor episode “The Green Death,” despite its mispronunciation.
- The correction of “companion” to “assistant” was another shout-out to the relationship between the Third Doctor and Jo.
- This setting of this episode, November 1974, took place between the Third Doctor’s final season and the Fourth Doctor’s initial season.
- The Eye of Harmony was a shout-out to the classic series’ mythology. It was last mentioned in the 1996 Doctor Who television movie, featuring the Eighth Doctor.
- Emma is more than a little reminiscent of Sarah Jane Smith.
- Professor Alec Palmer is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a very real group of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts who count fellow Who writer Neil Gaiman as a member.
- “Ignorance is carlyle.”
- “Whiskey is the 11th most disgusting thing ever invented.” Oh Clara, I like you but you’re wrong about this one.
- “It amplifies your natural abilities. Like a microphone or a pooper scooper.”
- “How do sharks make babies?” “…carefully.”
- “Every lonely monster needs a companion!”
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is more than a little reminiscent of K-9.