If “Hide” were just a straightforward ghost story, it would still be an effective hour of television. The setting—a dark night on the moors at an abandoned, centuries-old manor—is naturally spooky and atmospheric, and the writing, direction, and actors all fully commit to the ‘70s-style horror, which means lots of psychics, seismographs, and toggles. Much like Captain Zhukov and Professor Grisenko in last week’s “Cold War,” Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling are clearly not idiots and have at least some idea of what they are doing; if the Doctor hadn’t shown up, they would have never figured out what was really going on, but they might just have managed to save Hila Tarcorian, especially given their blood connection. Their competence enhances rather than undercuts the Doctor, because it means the Doctor isn’t simply trying to save some idiots from themselves. Instead, he confronts something that an intelligent, open-minded human would recognize as a ghost, and he realizes the truth is somehow both more rational and more impossible than anything Alec and Emma could have imagined.
The great fun of “Hide” lies in how it pretends to be a straightforward horror story for the first fifteen minutes, and then it turns into something entirely different. The Doctor and Clara wandering around the house, hearing loud noises and feeling as though they are being watched, is Doctor Who at its most traditionally scary, although the Doctor remains a resolutely offbeat horror protagonist—only someone as brilliant and mad as the Doctor would think to ask Clara whether she made the mysterious thumping noise. “Hide” also builds nicely on Clara’s characterization in “Cold War,” as she again isn’t naturally brave, disputing the assertion that she would want to go hunting for a ghost. Clara’s fear helps anchor the episode’s horror elements, and it’s a good way to shake up the usual dynamics between the Doctor and his companion, which in turn allows Matt Smith to act even more like an alien than usual. His line to Clara about how “He’s making a face” is the Doctor trying to imitate natural human interaction and nonverbal communication, and it’s always funny to see him fail so miserably.
For its opening third, this episode seems like a story where the Doctor would never leave the house, one in which the TARDIS is conveniently forgotten. Instead, the Doctor departs 1974 because he and Clara are “going always,” which Clara points out is not a sentence (though it does have a verb in it). What follows is a quick tour of that spot’s entire history, revealing this apparent ghost is actually a stranded time traveler from a few hundred years in the future. Even though she has been lurking around this spot for billions of years, she only crashed three minutes ago from her perspective. It’s the sort of insane leap that could only happen on Doctor Who, which instantly connects the Doctor to the story in a way Cross’s previous effort, “The Rings Of Akhaten,” never quite managed to. The exact mechanics of how the main universe and the pocket universe interact or how the monsters fit into all this are never fully explained, although—much like the Doctor’s last visit to a haunted house— this is an episode that becomes clearer after a second viewing.
In an interview with SFX, Cross has mentioned that he originally envisioned “Hide” as an opportunity for the Doctor to meet Professor Bernard Quatermass, another icon of British science fiction who has battled alien invasions in various formats since 1955. Rights issues prevented an explicit crossover, which leaves Dougray Scott’s Professor Alec Palmer as a potential Quatermass stand-in. I will leave it to those better-versed than I in Quatermass lore to sort out any specific references, but Palmer also works as a counterpart to the Doctor, something the Time Lord himself strongly hints at when he jubilantly lists Palmer’s remarkable exploits and refers to Emma as his companion—though Emma quickly corrects him with “assistant.” Palmer is a reluctant war hero, someone who investigates the paranormal because he is still struggling to understand why he lives after causing so much death. Palmer’s angst over his continued existence is particularly reminiscent of the Doctor’s own centuries-old survivor’s guilt, and the Professor’s obsession with finding the truth about the ghost echoes the Doctor’s own ongoing investigation into Clara’s impossible existence. In an earlier conversation with Emma, Palmer suggests that the Doctor lies because experience forces him to; like the once Major Palmer, the Doctor hides the pain and horror of his past behind a shield of lies, one that hides not only memories but also emotions.
Crucially, Palmer has his own personality beyond his parallels with the Doctor; indeed, that scene with Emma works so well because it’s really about Palmer, and his insight into the Doctor is just a thinly veiled way for the Professor to discuss his own feelings. Unlike “A Town Called Mercy,” which set up a much more explicit, occasionally labored comparison between the Doctor and Kahler-Jex, “Hide” allows the Professor to deepen the Doctor’s character without letting the similarities dominate the proceedings. Indeed, the episode never specifically connects the two characters, letting Dougray Scott’s performance and Matt Smith’s reactions make the case instead. Palmer’s love for Emma instantly differentiates him from the Doctor—who, for all his kissing and quasi-romantic entanglements in the new series, reveals himself here to be just as clueless as ever in matters of the heart(s), and he is quick to remove his arm from Clara’s shoulder when he declares this a love story. Palmer implores Emma to abandon Hila when he realizes the danger she’s in, although the specific argument he makes is telling. When he thinks the ghost is a victim, a lost soul, Palmer pities it because he sees it as a stand-in for all those he had harmed. But when he learns Hila is a brave adventurer who threw herself headlong into danger, consequences be damned—someone just like him, in other words—he is ready to leave her to her fate.
There’s too much typical Doctor Who craziness going on to call “Hide” a character study—and Hila is underwritten, even given the brevity of her appearance—but Cross’ script finds just enough nuance in his characters to keep them compelling, and then the actors do the rest. In particular, Call The Midwife star Jessica Raine brings a subtle damage to the part of Emma, suggesting the continual pain and heartbreak that comes with seeing inside others’ hidden feelings; Raine conveys fragility without turning Emma into a weak character. Unusually, Emma doesn’t actually seem to like the Doctor all that much—leaving aside the one moment in which the Doctor blows up balloons to explain the plan to Emma, eliciting a genuine smile—and there’s a frostiness that underlies most of their interactions. Emma warns Clara that there’s “a sliver of ice in the Doctor’s heart,” and there’s unmistakable tension when the Doctor interrogates Emma about Clara’s true nature at episode’s end.
The Doctor’s bombastic approach has worn thin on people before, but it’s telling to see just how grating and unnerving this can be to someone like Emma, who can see the real emotions underlying the Time Lord’s apparent whimsy. Emma still saves the Doctor and is even willing to reopen the connection a third time so that the two monsters can be reunited, but she saves him because of an impassioned plea from Professor Palmer—which, in turn, he makes after an impassioned plea from Clara—as opposed to any special fondness for the Doctor. While the Doctor is essential to the episode’s plot, he’s arguably superfluous to its character dynamics; he nudges Palmer and Emma in the right direction, perhaps, but these still feel like fully-formed people who depend on each other rather than the Doctor. Both Cross’ characterization and the performances from Raine and Scott provide “Hide” with an emotional depth that it would otherwise lack.
Then again, it’s only fitting that their relationship would add so much to the episode; as the Doctor notes, this was never a ghost story, but a love story. The final revelation about the monster’s true motivation does feel like an afterthought, but it’s a logical way to tie up that dangling plot thread and explain why the Doctor survived his brief exile in the pocket universe when the monster could have easily killed him. “Hide” makes tremendous sport out of building eerie, otherworldly scenarios and then explaining them, and while the scenes with the stranded Doctor didn’t necessarily need any explanation—they work as pure, atmospheric horror, helped along by Matt Smith’s palpable terror—sometimes impossible mysteries are worth solving and incomprehensible monsters are worth understanding. The Doctor’s thirst for knowledge has cost him dearly in the past, but this time it’s crucial to everyone, the incomprehensible monsters included, getting their happy ending.
- I somehow didn’t even mention one of my favorite scenes of the episode, in which Clara is horrified to reveal she just witnessed the entire lifecycle of Earth and suggests the Doctor must see everyone he meets as a ghost. In both “Hide” and “The Rings Of Akhaten,” Neil Cross has shown a real flair for these revealing character moments in which Clara forces the Doctor to explain things he takes for granted, and he must adjust his cosmic viewpoint down to something more human. You might have to go all the way back to the Ninth Doctor and Rose for a companion who challenged the Time Lord’s perspective quite so thoroughly.
- The TARDIS and Clara officially don’t get along, although they put aside their differences long enough to save the Doctor. Since the next episode appears to be all about Clara and the TARDIS, I’ll save more detailed discussion of this until then. In the meantime, the gag about the TARDIS choosing the image it believes Clara holds in highest esteem is absolutely brilliant.
- Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: Look, any garden-variety Doctor Who crackpot theorist can suggest that Clara is the Rani, because every female character we’ve seen on Doctor Who since 1985 is probably the Rani. But I’ll do you one better—what if the reason the TARDIS doesn’t trust Clara is because Clara is actually a TARDIS herself? The Rani is a scientist, after all, so perhaps she devised a chameleon circuit that takes on the form of living beings… except, much like the Doctor’s TARDIS, it got stuck on one appearance, which is why an identical-looking young woman keeps popping up in different time periods, and her apparent deaths are just dematerializations. So then, Clara is the Rani’s TARDIS. Also, she’s also the Rani, because, well… why not?
- The Doctor dips into his predecessor’s wardrobe for that spacesuit, although I’m still debating whether Professor Palmer’s outfit is meant to evoke the Tenth Doctor’s. The glasses, suit, and overcoat vaguely recall David Tennant’s look, and that would certainly dovetail nicely with the similarities between Palmer and the Doctor. That said, I think this may just be in my head.
- So, the Doctor’s pronunciation of Metebelis 3 has apparently changed in the last few hundred years. Eh, I won’t be churlish; it’s still a lovely reference, even if the Doctor stresses the wrong syllable.