Well, that was more like it.
As my regular readers know, I've been pretty lukewarm about Series 7 of Doctor Who, and particularly underwhelmed with this back-half of the season. One of the few bright spots for me, however, was “The Rings of Akhaten,” written by novelist and Luther creator Neil Cross. From what I gather, I liked "Akhaten" considerably more than a lot of people did, and I fully admit that there were elements of its plot that made little sense. But an illogical plot is the easiest thing for me to forgive in any episode that otherwise provides, as this one did, some fantastic ideas, excellent characterization, a remarkable (and—for this show—increasingly rare) control of pacing, and some real emotional depth.
It wasn't a slam-dunk, but I was excited to see more from Cross, who seemed to have a strong vision that beautifully melded classic Doctor Who elements with 21st century sensibilities. And the promise glimpsed in "Akhaten" is more than fulfilled in his latest episode: "Hide" is not just the best entry in Series 7 so far; it's also a perfect example of how classic Who can be updated for modern times. There have been many better hours of television in new Who, to be sure, like everyone's favorite "Blink." But it would be hard to argue that "Blink" feels much like classic Doctor Who. "Hide," on the other hand, is more or less exactly what I hoped for—way back in 2005—when I heard that Doctor Who was coming back. If this was the first Doctor Who of the modern era, I think everyone would be saying, Yes, thank god, they got it right.
"Show me the ghost: it's ghost time!" — The Doctor
Now, I'll fully admit that I am biased. In its 50-year history, Doctor Who has been many things, in many different genres and milieux, and the beauty of the show is that it can be one kind of show one week and a completely different kind of show the next. But my personal favorite Doctor Who episodes, old and new alike, have always been the scary ones. I'm a sucker for a haunted house story, and (like many people) one of my favorite runs in the classic era was the golden age of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), when script editor Robert Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe brought a gothic horror flavor to Doctor Who. This is the era that produced many of the best (and scariest) serials of the classic series, including "Pyramids of Mars," "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Brain of Morbius," and "Horror of Fang Rock." Though the explanations for the various phenomena were still rooted in science fiction, these stories—featuring horror tropes like marauding mummies, evil ventriloquist dummies, Frankenstein-like scientists, and haunted lighthouses—had more in common with Victorian ghost stories and Hammer horror films than other sci-fi programs like Star Trek. (Some of my favorite later eras also returned frequently to the horror well, like the Seventh Doctor's entries "Ghost Light" and "The Curse of Fenric.")
"Hide" would feel right at home among such classics. (I doubt that it's a coincidence that "Hide" takes place in 1974, which was the first year Philip Hinchcliffe joined Doctor Who, ushering in the gothic era.) Arriving at remote Caliburn House, the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) have come—or so the Doctor claims—to do a little ghost-hunting, joining psychologist (and war hero) Professor Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his "assistant," empathic psychic Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine). They're all there to uncover the mystery of the Caliburn Ghast, a spectral screaming woman who has been glimpsed on the property for centuries.
Though the second half borrows liberally from Poltergeist, the first (and better) half of "Hide" plays out very much like—and very deliberately like—Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, and its wonderful 1963 film adaptation The Haunting. (Most of the scares and background elements here—the psychic, the banging sound, the statues, the writing on the wall, the cold spot, and the mysterious figure who holds Clara's hand—are all lifted directly from this classic story.) And it's done very well: given the constraints of making it suitable for family viewing, this episode is fairly scary, and generates most of its scares—as The Haunting did—from patient pacing, and well-crafted atmosphere, and the terror of things not seen. (Kudos to first-time Who director Jamie Payne—a veteran of Raine's show Call the Midwife, and many others—whom I'm also hoping returns for more.)
If it were only an homage to—or even a skillful plagiarization of—The Haunting of Hill House—"Hide" would still be worth the price of admission, but the connection—and intention— goes a little deeper than that. For at its core, Jackson's story (though terrifying) is not really a horror novel, but a story of loneliness and repressed longing. (I can't possibly attempt to summarize The Haunting here, so take my word for it, or—if you're really interested—you can read my take here.) The point is, "Hide" is also about repressed longing and loneliness, in ways that turn out to be both obvious and surprising.
"Every lonely monster needs a companion." — The Doctor
One of the things classic Who was better at than modern Who—mostly because they had more time, since almost every story was at least four episodes (or 100 minutes) long—is the development of supporting characters. Last week's disappointing episode, "Cold War," was a good example of how the current show often neglects this element: the characters on the Soviet submarine were largely not characters at all, just types, without even an attempt to flesh them out; the one exception—David Warner's character—was mostly just a collection of quirks standing in for a personality.
Here, however—though forced to do so relatively quickly—Cross makes Professor Palmer and Emma feel like real people, with a sweet and believable relationship. There is an unacknowledged attraction between them, of course, but where other writers would have found that storyline sufficient to generate human interest in our guest stars, Cross makes them each interesting apart from this: we are given glimpses of the loneliness that comes with Emma's empathic abilities, and of Palmer's deep trauma and survivor's guilt from his wartime experiences. It's accomplished very efficiently, but this extra effort to write rounded characters (aided by strong, mature performances from both guest stars) makes us more invested in both the ghost story and the love story. These are two damaged, lonely people reaching out to one another, as if from beyond the grave.
Cross is also proving himself adept at the kind of thematic resonance that gives Doctor Who emotional weight and makes it more than just a monster-of-the-week sci-fi romp. We are meant, of course, to notice the similarities between Palmer and Emma, on the one hand, and the Doctor and Clara, on the other. (This is telegraphed early, as the Doctor calls Emma Palmer's "companion," then is corrected and realizes his mistake: "It's 1974, you're the assistant," he says, reminding us that this is what the Doctor's own female companions were more often called back then.)
These echoes are deepened by scenes where the men and women talk separately. Clara and Emma bond quickly—Clara is empathic enough to protect Emma from the Doctor's blathering about the loneliness of empaths—and the two have a nice scene together later, discussing their respective situations. Emma, despite her gifts, doesn't know if Palmer loves her—because sometimes we can't see (or trust) what is right in front of us—but it's obvious to Clara. Clara, in turn, quickly denies that there's anything between her and the Doctor, but she unconsciously relates their situations when she reassures Emma: "It's obvious," she says. "It sticks out like…a big chin." (My one complaint about this scene is that it would have been nice if Clara and Emma could have discussed something other than their relationships to men: this episode, like most Doctor Who episodes, noticeably fails the Bechdel Test.)
And the professor recognizes a kindred spirit in the Doctor. "Yes, he's a liar," Palmer says of the Doctor. "But 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, and what we've done." Later, alone with the Doctor, the professor describes why he spends all his time alone, trying to contact the other world:
"Because I killed. And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths, but here I am, still alive. And it does tend to haunt you: living, after so much of…the other thing."
This, of course, resonates with the Doctor. One of the best ideas Russell T. Davies had when he brought back Doctor Who in 2005 was to make the Doctor the last member of his race, and deepen his character with memories and trauma and survivor's guilt from the "Time War." Old-school Who fans who sometimes complain that the modern Doctor does not always act much like the classic Doctor should remember that he is not the same man he was in regenerations 1–8: he has been altered by the things he has seen, the things he has done. It has made him harder in some ways, and softer (and lonelier) in others.
And we don't need to even go that far back to hear the echoes here: just a few episodes ago, in "The Snowmen," the Doctor—having lost Amy and Rory—had dropped out of life, and had sequestered himself atop a cloud with little intention of ever coming down. It was Clara who lured him down, who gave him a reason to live again. What Palmer says to Emma, towards the end of this episode, is something the Doctor could just as easily say to Clara: "You brought me back to life."
But of course, the parallels are not exact: Emma and Palmer are destined to live happily ever after—in fact, given that the Caliburn Ghast turns out to be their great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, time-traveler Hila Tacorien (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), one could say they're pre-destined—but the Doctor and Clara may not be. "Don't trust him," Emma warns Clara. "He has a sliver of ice in his heart." The ice—or snow, if you will—in the Doctor's heart was a major theme of "The Snowmen," and now Clara is beginning to glimpse that ice herself. Going along for the ride as the Doctor flits from the birth of the Earth to its ending, she finds herself understandably overwhelmed and horrified at his nonchalance:
"I mean, one minute you're in 1974, looking for ghosts. But all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever is standing there. To you, I haven't been born yet. And to you, I've been dead for a hundred billion years. Is my body out there somewhere, in the ground?…Yet here we are, talking. So I am a ghost: to you, I'm a ghost. We're all ghosts to you. We must be nothing."
This entire conversation has a marvelous double-meaning—because, of course, Clara is more right than she knows. The Doctor has watched Clara die twice already, and so, in a way, she is a ghost to him, and he did come here seeking to investigate her mystery. And so his answer to her—“No, you're the only mystery worth solving”—is both direct and symbolic. He does mean her—Clara herself, her mystery—but he is also answering her question about what humans are to him: they are the mystery, the one unsolvable riddle in his life, and the thing he needs to keep him going. Especially since the Time War—when he became so immersed in the other thing—his companions, and humans in general, represent life to him, the only thing that brings him back, again and again, from the dead. Whether you call it romance, companionship, or simple curiosity about people, he has a need to fall in love, over and over and over again.
"This isn't a ghost story. It's a love story." — The Doctor
Because, in the end, that's really all there is to live for. "Everything ends," Clara says, but Emma corrects her: "No, not everything. Not love. Not always." Another sticking point about the new series for many fans of classic Who is the increased emphasis on romance, especially between the Doctor and his companions. To them I say two things. First: that apart from a few regrettable moments—*cough*half-human-Doctor-and-Rose*cough*—the show has actually been pretty restrained on this point. (It is so easy to imagine a modern version of this show going so far down that road, as the 1996 TV movie seemed prepared to do.) The second thing I would say, however, is this: it was always about love.
It may not have been overtly romantic in the classic series, and it may not have ever been overtly sexual, but give me a break: go back and watch the way Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) looks at the Fourth Doctor; watch the Third Doctor (John Pertwee) walk away from Jo Grant (Katy Manning), and tell me his heart isn't breaking; watch the Fourth Doctor and Romana II (Tom Baker's then new-wife Lalla Ward) gallivanting around Paris together, and tell me Doctor Who wasn't always about love.
"Birds do it, bees do it, and even educated fleas do it," the Doctor says here, quoting Cole Porter, and of course he's right: "Every lonely monster needs a companion." He's talking about himself, he's talking about the professor, and, in one final twist, he's talking about the horrible-looking creature (called "The Crooked Man," according to the IMDB page for this episode) dwelling within the echo universe. It turns out that it, too, was just another lonely monster looking for companionship, following a thin light of hope back to land of the living.
It turns out that there are no ghosts or monsters at all: just longing, and loneliness, and lovers calling to one another in the darkness. With a long enough perspective on life, everyone dies, and everything ends, and we're all just ghosts drifting through time. But it also turns out that, as long as lonely souls can find one another, there's really nothing to fear in the dark at all.
It was never a ghost story: it was a love story all along.
"My dear, how can I make you perceive that there is no danger where there is nothing but love and sympathetic understanding? I am here to help these unfortunate beings—I am here to extend the hand of heartfelt fondness, and let them know there are still some who remember, who will listen and weep for them; their loneliness is over…"
— from The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- I expect much of the fan community's discussion of this episode will focus on the very interesting relationship happening between Clara and the TARDIS. "I've got this funny feeling it's looking at me—doesn't like me," Clara says, while the Doctor assures her that "the TARDIS is like a cat, a bit slow to trust. You'll get there in the end." Why the TARDIS doesn't like her remains to be seen: Emma is convinced that Clara is "a perfectly ordinary girl. Very pretty, very clever, more scared than she let's on," but does the TARDIS know something no one else knows? (My hunch continues to be that Clara is some sort of paradox, and we know the TARDIS doesn't like paradoxes.)
- Although, to be fair to Clara's paranoia, there does seem to be something a little bitchy about the TARDIS's attitude: "I am programmed to select an image of a person you esteem," the TARDIS says, showing Clara a projection of herself. "Of several billion such images in my database, this one best meets the criterion." Meow!
- How wonderful that Doctor Who has found a slightly fresh approach to its companion just by making Clara a bit of a scaredy-cat:
Doctor: Are you coming?
Doctor: To find the ghost?
Clara: Why would I want to do that?
Doctor: Because you want to.
Clara: I dispute that assertion.
- And I liked the resolution of this dispute: "Dare me," Clara says. "I dare you. No takesy-backsies," the Doctor replies.
- And this: "Do you feel anything?" "No." "Your pants are so on fire." (Sorry, Mr. Moffat, but so far Neil Cross is my favorite writer of the Doctor/Clara relationship.)
- This episode was chock full ofreferences to older stories, beyond the general ones I've mentioned so far: from the new series, we have the Tenth Doctor's ugly orange haz-mat suit making an appearance, and from the classic series we have the Eye of Harmony (the power source that fueled all Time Lord technology), and one of the famous blue crystals from Metebelis III, which were used for various psychic-technology purposes in "The Green Death" and "Planet of the Spiders," both stories from roughly the same time period (1973 and 1974, respectively) in which "Hide" takes place. (Though certainly someone should have corrected Smith's pronunciation of "Metebelis.")
- My theory about Clara is a work in progress, but I bet the end of this season will reveal more parallels in this episode than we recognize now: I strongly suspect that "ghost" Hila and "ghost" Clara may have a few things in common.
- OK, I'll say it: showrunner and head writer Stephen Moffat will leave this show sometime in the dark but not unforeseeable future, and already I've mentally added Neil Cross to my shortlist of potential replacements. (If you're curious, the rest of that shortlist currently reads: "Toby Whithouse, Paul Cornell, Tom MacRae, and anyone but Mark Gatiss or Chris Chibnall.")
- I don't read other reviews until after I write my own: I was surprised more people didn't like "The Rings of Akhaten," and shocked—shocked—at how most critics seemed to like "Cold War." If people didn't like this one, I may have to turn in my credentials.