Okay, so I didn’t like The Rings of Akhaten (although I can now spell that without checking) but I really, really liked Hide.
Another from DWM #460.
On Christmas day, 1972, BBC Two screened The Stone Tape by Nigel Kneale. A fresh approach to the ghost story genre, it bolstered the presence of the paranormal by providing a quasi-scientific explanation for it, as a research team hoping to develop a new recording technology accidentally accessed the memory, imprinted in a Victorian building’s walls, of a girl’s traumatic death.
Back then science meant polygraphs scuttling into life and etching fierce arcs while reel to reel recorders whirred industrially and oscillators made green perambulations across blank computer screens. This was the world of analogue technology, a place of rare ambiguity – unlike the binary certainties of today. It was somewhere in which monitors might cloud over and fizz, and things unexpected could be seen in the static.
And it’s a place where – 22 months later – the TARDIS lands for Neil Cross’ second story in this year’s run of Doctor Who. Hide is simply terrific (phew!), and possessed by the spirit of Kneale’s work. The bit where the Doctor and chums discover a note hidden in the house (‘For the love of God, please stop screaming’) marks the moment the crocodile clips of The Stone Tape truly bite. A similar entreaty is found in that tale too, a plea on a folded up piece of paper from years ago saying: ‘What I want for Christmas is please go away’… Both messages resonating through time.
That’s not to say Cross’ script is just a retread of Kneale’s work. There’s plenty that’s new here. But it’s most certainly paying its respects, and in doing so presents something that feels novel for Doctor Who; an out and out ghost story. The series has never really attempted this before. Granted, Ghost Light was notionally set in a haunted house, but it was home to decidedly corporeal freaks and fools rather than spooks and ghouls. Meanwhile tales like The Dæmons, Army of Ghosts and – God forbid – The Chase were fastidious and speedy in debunking the paranormal. Hide, however, plays straight with the conventions of the genre. We have flickering candlelight, a séance, things emerging from the shadows, thunderclaps, clocks winding backwards and the lovely business of the vapour on the Doctor’s breath becoming visible when he steps into a cold spot. We even have our logically-minded hero getting irrationally freaked out as he winds through the corridors of Caliburn House. This is wonderful.
Ultimately – because the show is the show – it all winds up becoming a rationalist ghost story, but the supernatural elements are explained in a fashion that doesn’t diminish them. Instead it reasons them out. As Day of the Daleks (also from 1972) posited, perhaps such phantoms are time travellers? Plus, it’s worth noting that in the character of spiritualist Emma Grayling, a piece of phantasmagorical whimsy is indeed left intact. Okay, she’s given the more scientific sounding title of an ‘empathic psychic’, but nonetheless, this is a story that’s countenancing the existence of such nonsense. Tony Stockwell, you’re canon.
Hide is also fascinating in the way it portrays the ghosts of the living. Upon seeing the lifespan of planet Earth via a kind of TARDIS highlights package, Clara makes an assertion to the Doctor that turns your hair white: “To you, I haven’t been born yet. And to you, I’ve been dead 100 billion years”. Quite a statement, and one even more potent when we consider our hero has just skipped back into the ship from taking photographs at the end of the world. Clara continues, now nailing the theme, “We’re all ghosts to you”. It’s not so much an accusation as a killingly pertinent observation, and one the Doctor cannot refute. His response (“You are the only mystery worth solving”) is just obfuscation, because he is indeed living with the dead.
Dougray Scott’s brilliantly portrayed Professor Alec Palmer is also a spectre. He’s an unusual character for Doctor Who, in that he’s a protagonist with a gentle sensibility. The way Cross’ script teases out his backstory is skilled. When the Doctor gaily arrives and rattles off the Professor’s many war and peacetime achievements, the man just crumples. His later assumption the Time Lord must come from the ministry because he’s “capricious, brilliant [and] a liar,” cleverly suggests the kind of rough treatment he himself has suffered in the line of duty. At the point we finally discover his motivation for turning ghost hunter, the horrors are again beautifully understated, phrased in the repressed tones of a diminished man. Forgive me for quoting at length, but this is great writing. He says: “Because I killed and caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths. But here I am, still alive. It does tend to haunt you, living after so much of the other thing.” “The other thing” – what a superbly bland synonym.
The Professor is a man haunted by himself, but hopes to exorcise that demon by making contact with the afterlife. Fittingly, then, it’s medium Emma who represents his salvation, and their relationship is delicately played. Her sensitive overtures toward him are almost like an effort to reach across to the other side. To see the man subsequently and slowly come back to life is very satisfying indeed, particularly as their relationship is eventually consummated by nothing more than handholding. This feels nicely old fashioned, drawn from a TV archetype of a more sedate time. From 1974, maybe. As the Doctor points out – albeit referring to the parallel plot of two creatures separated by different realities – this hasn’t been a ghost story. It’s a love story.
Meanwhile, Jessica Raine’s portrayal of the Prof’s companion – erm – assistant (loved that bit) Emma surprises for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most prosaically, it’s startling at times how similar she looks to Elisabeth Sladen circa The Time Warrior and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (fittingly, that puts us in early ’74). That Raine will be appearing as Verity Lambert later this year in An Adventure in Space and Time marks her out as an actress who could fall back on a niche of Doctor Who lookalike gigs should the Sunday night midwifery not work out. In terms of her performance, Raine’s Ms Grayling is sometimes dangerously underplayed, but this perhaps hints at a woman who has to keep her barriers up, lest something nasty gets in. At other points, she’s perfectly shocking, Emma screaming in distress – a fine, primal piece of work. Between the two extremes, she’s always earnest, and absolutely fails to represent the “fun” the Doctor thought she might. More than that, she recognises something sinister in him, the “sliver of ice in his heart”.
Despite that sinister overture, the Doctor is presented as a shaft of light in this story, absolutely loving the ghost busting and the job of reuniting the alien lovers. His very last line says it all, full of esprit de corps as he directs the creature, “Get ready to jump!” But we also see him oddly vulnerable in that desaturated, silvery forest. Denuded of his bowtie – except for when he’s not, the thing does pop back in a couple of shots – he looks weirdly weak. No wonder he admits to being scared.
There’s plenty to say about Hide. Kind of like the Professor’s collection of photos purporting to capture images of the Witch of the Well, all the evidence is here of something quite special. Something that transcends Neil Cross’s other story, The Rings of Akhaten, and even rises above that unfortunate mispronunciation of Metebelis III. From behind the screen and through the wires has come a presence both special and uncanny.