Sunday, August 25, 2013


"This one shows the kitchen, the library,
this one's for the bathroom, your room..."
Doctor Who had a particular penchant for horror during the Hinchcliffe era - that's the most popular period from when Tom Baker was the Doctor, you ignorant pleb - during which there were numerous pastiches of classic horror stories. There were mummies in "Pyramids of Mars", a Frankensteinian monster in "The Brain of Morbius" and creepy dolls among other things in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang." All of these are fan favourites from the period, although the Classic Series did horror at other times as well with varied success. Since the revival the use of horror has largely been relegated to historical episodes, with ghosts, werewolves, witches and vampires all putting in their token appearances. Having apparently exhausted this, the episode "Hide" turns towards pastiche of contemporary horror trends which, after the collapse of the 'torture fest' style Hollywood production line has become very interested in old fashioned ghost hunts, largely motivated by Paranormal Activity and the like. Of course it's Doctor Who so we also have to have some weird barely-scientific stuff crowbarred in as well.
He doesn't like it up him.
"Hide" begins as these things so often do with two people in a spooky mansion full of generic 'beep boop' paranormal investigation paraphenalia. Resident ghost hunters du jour are cute but slightly ethereal young lady Emma and awkward middle-aged man Alec. Something's haunting the house. "She's lonely," Emma announces rather clunkily, bringing us some angst right away. Alec mumbles "Excellent, excellent," sounding weirdly like Rory Williams. Emma reaches out to the spirit in the house with some typical "I am talking to the lost soul" type invocations and the machines stark freaking out, a white silhouette appears and Emma collapses, announcing that the spectre present is "dead." A spirit haunting a house is dead? Strike a light. But wait? Who's that knocking at the door? By this point upon first viewing I was relatively intrigued. The two guests are quite decent, particularly Dougray Scott as Alec, and a haunted house premise is always promising. Then the door gets open and behold, the face of Matt Smith springs into view, observing that the two ghost hunters are, in fact, ghost hunters. "And you are?" asks Alec.
"Ghostbusters!" declares Clara.
Shut up, Clara.
Cue titles!
"The ghosts love it when I do this..."
I've got to admit that I found this opening better the first time, and really the whole scenario is awfully trite by now. One day can't the woman be the technical expert and the man being the psychic sensitive? Having seen too many decent horror films since, such as The Conjuring, I find it hard to get behind this episode. I'm not surprised to learn that Neil Cross, who wrote this and "The Rings of Akhaten", also co-wrote Mama, a spook-flick from early this year that started off as a decent-ish horror film and ended as a rather bemusing horror-fantasy. I remember finding the Smith more annoying in this episode than I did; I can't help but find his "Boo!" moment vaguely funny, but then he runs around all over the place like a headless chicken rattling off info about Alec and Emma and going on about how he likes the word "toggle." Let the actor's performance inform the eccentricities of the character; they don't need to be part of the script. There's been an awful Catch-22 with the Smith where he started as a sort of quirky young-man old-man type figure and now he's scooting all around the place and making absurd statements left and right, like "It's ghost time." Urgh.
Spot the difference.
I like the way Alec assumes that the Doctor is from military intelligence but the way we get a huge backstory dump about Alec is very heavy-handed to inform us that he's a spy, rather than letting it emerge organically over the episode to inform his character development, and the sense of gravitas which was possessed of the first scene is totally diminished by the flippancy of the Doctor and Clara. Clara has this long-winded joke about how bizarre it is for Alec to have gone to the bank and told them he wanted to buy the haunted house and it just emphasises how little there is to her apart from self-referential postmodern navel gazing, which is a shame because I really think Ms. Coleman could be afforded something better.
"These are all the places Steven's been seen not writing scripts..."
Having wasted no time dumping Alec's entire backstory on us the Doctor now does so with Emma, revealing that she's an empathic psychic and that psychics are very lonely and so on. I've heard that there's a "Writer's Bible" for New Who featuring the sacred laws set in stone by RTD at the beginning of time featuring the dos and don'ts of how he thinks Modern Doctor Who must be written. Evidently there is no law stating "Show, don't tell." This episode is just as guilty of ignoring this concept as any which have come before. In the spirit of this Alec gives us the low-down on the spirit haunting the house, a "Caliburn ghast" which features as early as in "Saxon poetry" - something I, a student of Saxon poetry, dispute very much given how utterly little has survived - and that it has a bunch of other typically ghostly names like the "Maiden in the Dark" and the "Witch of the Well." For all of this, Dougray Scott is pretty class as Alec, doing the best he can to make the whole thing seem legit.
"If we get four more we can do a Hannukah special!"
We must thank him for this because it's followed by an incomprehensible scene in which the Doctor encourages Clara to follow her out of the corridor for reasons unknowing while muttering unfathomable suggestions at her. I have no idea what is going on, but watching her accompany the Smith down the spooky corridor holding a candelabra the idea that Clara is the most generic companion ever suddenly springs into my head. There are some stupid jokes as they wander around to eliminate any sense of tension. Back in the other room, Emma wonders whether the Doctor is really a spy. Alec replies that he has the "right demeanour." This should be enough, but then he has to explain it: "capricious, brilliant." Is any of this necessary? He goes on to give a really heavy handed speech about how "experience makes liars of us all" to show that obviously he's got a bad case of romantic feelings for Emma but doesn't want to act on them and son on. This episode is set in 1974, right? And the Doctor told us that Alec served in the Second World War. How old is he? Dougray Scott is 47, apparently, but assuming Alec was, say, 20 when the Second World War began in 1939 that would make him about 55 by the time of this episode, and that's being conservative regarding his age. It just makes him seem implausibly old to me, and certainly a touch too old for the obviously much younger Emma, at least from my fusty old-fashioned sensibilities. I guess that might explain why he's so uncomfortable around her? But it never comes into it. I just think setting the episode in the mid-Sixties might have been a little more plausible.
I know how they felt.
Meanwhile, Clara and the Doctor feel like they're being watched, he draws a chalk circle on the floor which starts steaming for some reason and after they get spooked by something after wandering around some boring and not very scary corridors a giant spinning disc appears out of nowhere revealing to the reunited four characters that the ghost is in a forest somewhere. This incident rather inexplicably causes the words 'HELP ME' to appear on the wall. How did that happen? Afterwards we discover that Emma can't take her liquor and Clara agrees that whiskey is disgusting. Praying for anything to afford Ms. Coleman with some character development I think she should have knocked back a couple of fingers of the neat stuff with satisfaction, personally, but no, they'd rather have a nice cup of tea. Now that I think about it, having the companion chugging down on spirits like a champ would probably not sit well with the show's family-friendly image.
"And these are the pictures from the shower-cam."
In the photo lab the Doctor is still fanning out over Alec and he gives yet another big spiel about how hunting ghosts is the task he's appointed to himself as a response to all the deaths for which he was responsible during the war. Once again Dougray Scott sells this stuff well but it just feels too much like we're getting to read the author's character notes rather than having the character presented to us organically through their actions. In New Who characters just talk and talk and talk and then do whatever the plot demands of them so that there's a character schism between speech and action. We're repeatedly told, for instance, to swallow what a good or bad person the Doctor is while he's doing the exact opposite. It's too clunky for me.
"Now let's have a lovely chat about knitting and making sandwiches."
Back in the study Neil Cross spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test as he has Clara and Emma have a big chin wag about Emma's feelings for Alec and whether there's anything going on between Clara and the Doctor. Clara tells Emma that she's got to get all aboard the Alec train, while Emma for her own part warns Clara that the Doctor has "a sliver of ice in his heart." Where on earth do these writers get their metaphors from? The Hollywood Guide for Maximum Cliché? Observing that the ghost is in the same pose in all pictures, the Doctor whisks Clara off to the TARDIS, which apparently dislikes her in a grudging concession to the ongoing series arc, and then he throws on David Tennant's bright orange space suit following some quip-laden dialogue, investigating the same location on Earth at the dawn of time, the present and the end of the world.
"No, even this won't be early enough for
Steven to get the scripts done on time..."
This brief experience of the entire life of Earth gives Clara the willies, so she complains that the Doctor seems very blasé about the whole thing and how "we're all ghosts to you" and "we must be nothing," to which the Doctor retorts that "You are the only mystery worth solving." It's not much of a juxtaposition of ideas and certainly no real effort is made by the Doctor to contextualise the situation. There's no attempt at, say, comparing the immense complexity of a brief human existence to the vast 'broad strokes' of astronomy at large. It's hardly up there with the Sixth Doctor's speech to Peri about matter coalescing and so on, and before we know it the Doctor's charging back out of the TARDIS without a care in the world. Clara complains to Emma that she just realised that "Everything ends." "Not everything," Emma replies. "Not love. Not always." Are we still harping on about that? I thought she couldn't suss Alec out.
"Can we... switch roles... with you two?"
Anyway the big dénouement comes with the Doctor revealing that the ghost is actually a projection of a woman in a space suit, a crashed time traveller running through a pocket universe where time is flowing much more slowly relative to our own. In this scenario Emma is some kind of "lantern" linking the two, and like an obnoxious lover lurking behind the dressing screen my old nemesis Magic Thinking reveals himself with a triumphant flourish as the science-magic of psychic powers is detailed as a completely adequate explanation for what's about to happen. The Doctor needs Emma's psychic ability to rescue this lost woman, 'Hila Tukurian', who is being pursued by some big horrible gribbly identical, seemingly, to the thing that was spooking them earlier in the boring corridors. The Doctor mispronounces the name 'Metebelis III' of Third Doctor fame, putting the emphasis on the antepenultimate rather than the penultimate syllable, the latter of which he also accidentally shortens when it should be a long vowel, and soon the room is full of more pointless junk. In addition to Metebelis III the Doctor makes a needless reference to the Eye of Harmony and informs Clara that due to the laws of technobabble the TARDIS can't just pop over to the pocket universe because entropy would drain its engines.
"Now tell us why you want to become a model."
I was so bored by this point in the episode that it was a struggle to get through the rest of it. After Alec's had to deliver yet another heavy-handed speech about how Emma should feel no obligation to risk her life to save Hila Tukurian she puts on a stupid helmet the Doctor gives her, talks at the air for a bit and a portal opens which the Doctor dives through wearing a harness attached quite simply to a length of rope, revealing that the 'Well' of 'The Witch of the Well' is a wormhole. So is he saying that at some point before now the wormhole opened in the house, someone saw it and thought it looked like a well? After falling through a generic time tunnel the Doctor lands in a generic mist-laden creepy forest on a dissolving island in space, which is apparently what a pocket universe is like. I would have preferred an area that wrapped around itself or something interesting like that rather than just Discworld.
Thinking of the sweet day when Capaldi takes over.
After running into Hila she and the Doctor run around a fair bit, trying to escape the monster, reaching dead ends and turning around and what not. Why did the Doctor take his harness off? He's lost the wormhole, and it's just pointless time wasting as he tries to figure out what to do next. The plot is really poorly paced in this episode, because by this point it feels like Cross has more or less run out of ideas and is trying to pad the script sufficiently to meet the run time. Regardless, Emma somehow creates an image of the house to help them find the wormhole and Hila escapes, but she can't keep it open any longer and the Doctor gets trapped. Why didn't he just jump on? Get to the point. Now we get more time wasting as the big gribbly chases the Doctor around while Clara chucks a wobbly at the obviously tormented Emma for leaving him behind. She then promptly pisses off to the TARDIS, which despite being locked for some reason activates its visual interface thingie to talk to her, a duplicate Clara appearing. The bit where Clara goes "Whoa" amuses me a tad, but in terms of the overall mood it's all over the place.
The whole episode's budget down the tubes.
Alec gets to deliver yet another big speech, this time to Emma about how she saved him from his dark past. Meanwhile Hila sits around like a plum getting no lines. No effort is made to establish her as a character. After some convincing Emma dons the Truth Helmet again to save the Doctor, but Clara also convinces the TARDIS to take her to the pocket universe somehow. The projection of the house reappears, suggesting that the Doctor probably should have stuck around, and we get yet more time wasting as he tries to figure out where the monster is. "I am the Doctor," he announces, "And I am afraid," in a line of dialogue presumably filmed specifically to be used in the series trailer. He keeps blathering on tediously like this, calling the alien "big boy" and such, until the TARDIS flies in and knocks it away. The Doctor grabs on and somehow they reappear back in the real world in the room with the other three. Did the TARDIS do this by itself, or was Emma's involvement also necessary? It's not clear, nor is it clear that the TARDIS was not present in the other universe long enough to survive. The Doctor and Clara consider it an appropriate time for a high five as Emma writhes in pain on the floor.
"Tennant got away with it, why not me?"
So it's time for all good boys and girls to go their separate ways. It's revealed that the whole reason the Doctor and Clara are present was so the Doctor could have Emma psychically read Clara, but Emma insists that she's "ordinary." No actual progress on the plot arc, then, just pointless teases. Hila reveals that the Doctor can't take her home because "History says I went missing" and it's a fixed point in time. Ugh, again? At least it's not famous past Earth history for once but come on, what a cop out. The Doctor reveals that she's a descendant of Emma and Alec, and that Emma was able to bring the two universes together due to "blood calling to blood" to strengthen the psychic energy or whatever. So, magic, then?
A fangirl's impression of Capaldi.
At the last minute the Doctor realises that the big monster in the pocket universe and the big monster in the house are two different things, a separated couple. We get a very unsubtle line about how "every lonely monster needs a companion" and with all the subtlety we've come to expect from New Who Cross delivers the finishing blow as the Doctor announces that their entire experience "isn't a ghost story, it's a love story." Just about sums up what every genre New Who purports to be and what it ends up being. So the Doctor asks Emma to endure the awful agony of opening the wormhole again so he can rescue the alien, which looks awfully similar to the form of the ghost from Mama in some respects, and reunite it with its lost mate. An interesting twist but crammed in hard at the end.
"Are you looking forward to Christmas? I am!"
To me "Hide" really sums up the weakness that has insinuated itself into the Matt Smith era. There are different kinds of bad episodes: the kind that are full of holes but entertaining for what it's worth, like the finale of Series 5, episodes that are self-indulgent shambles, like most of the arc episodes Moffat writes these days, and episodes like this. "Hide" is just poorly paced and boring. It has some decent ideas going around, the foundations of a good atmosphere and a strong cast, but the writing just isn't strong enough to support it in terms of both the plot and the character development. The entire narrative lurches to a halt about ten minutes in before making strange diversions which are not absolutely necessary. In between these pieces we have huge chunks of exposition, backstory and character explanation dropped onto us like a piano from the twentieth floor. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine do the best they are allowed as Alec and Emma, with particular kudos to Scott for selling so many utterly leaden sentimental speeches so convincingly, but it's not scary and any sense of tension is ruined by the way the Doctor and Clara are written. In the past, New Series Doctors have made me cringe. Smith these days sadly just makes me yawn. I can predict how he's going to move and what he's going to be made to say or do with utter precision. Jenna-Louise Coleman is simply given nothing. I wouldn't go so far as to say that watching "Hide" is a horrific experience in itself, because that would mean that it inspired more than ennui.

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