I was going to keep this one relatively short, since I didn’t think that I had a lot to say about the latest instalment of Doctor Who other than that this was one of the best and strongest episodes to date of an otherwise uneven series 7. But it turns out that there’s a lot to say about excellence after all.
Here was a story that was finally let off the leash and allowed to be proper scary in just the way that the previous episode, “Cold War”, didn’t quite have the heart to follow through. I was amazed by the lengths this one went to and what it ended up getting away with: if this were indeed back in the 1970s and Mary Whitehouse was still with us, she would surely have been apoplectic at how much the show must have traumatised the little kids on Saturday night. Or the big kids, come to that – this was seriously frightening stuff. And it felt great to have Doctor Who back to its full-blooded, no-holds-barred best.
In a nutshell it was a haunted house story with a ghost and a hideous monster lurking in the shadows, being investigated by slightly eccentric paranormal researcher Alec Palmer and his assistant (not companion – this is 1974) Emma Grayling, an empathic psychic. Her talents prove vital to solving the mystery of Caliburn House, but of course it’s the Doctor who provides the brain power in figuring out what’s going on in the first place and what must be done about it – which takes us out of gothic supernatural horror and into a quite wonderfully clever and original science fiction story about time travel. This in turns allows some important character moments between the Doctor and his companion (not assistant – this is 2013) in which Clara gets insight into the Doctor’s world view, and we in turn get insight into the mystery of The Impossible Girl and why she fascinates the Doctor so – although why the Tardis is apparently not also a fan of hers is a whole different juicy strand to things.
But this wasn’t just about the Doctor, Clara, ghosts and monsters: the guest stars also got some decent screen time and consequently were able to develop their roles as proper characters rather than just window dressing or script devices, as all too many recent episodes have ended up. Dougray Scott as Palmer, a sort-of surrogate Jon Pertwee-style 70s Doctor figure, was quietly wonderful and Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine absolutely fantastic as Emma.
“Hide” had all the elements that have been somewhat lacking from recent outings, with a real sense of jeopardy for all concerned and in particular the Doctor himself when trapped in the eerie pocket universe forest. It’s the first time in a long while that the character has been allowed to look genuinely afraid and out of his depth which in turns ramps up the dramatic stakes a thousand-fold. You could argue that the (slightly unnecessary) coda revealing that the monsters in the shadows weren’t really bad after all but just wanted a hug was the third episode in a row where such a ploy has been used; but having railed against it in “The Rings of Akhaten” and “Cold War” I actually didn’t mind it here, mainly because the revelation came only after the Doctor had saved the day and not as the pivotal part of the solution. No singing to or pleading with the creepy crooked tree monster here, thank goodness.
Instead the coda nicely reinforced the episode’s overall thematic structure of love and companionship; the only problem was that the scene was too short and rushed, jammed in as a 30-second afterthought. In fact overall this was an episode that really needed an extra ten minutes of running time to get the best out of it. Some shows are improved by being cut down as far as possible to keep them lean and fast moving, while others are harmed by not having enough time to jam everything in: “Hide” tended to be the latter side of this balance. Just watch the initial scene when the Doctor arrives – how the edit tramples on his first appearance at the door, and then the gabbled exposition Matt Smith has to get through in the next minute to get the set-up out of the way. Yet despite the clear time pressures, writer Neil Cross does a strong job in making the story stand up properly without any major loose ends, even remembering to come back and provide the Doctor with a proper reason for his seemingly random arrival at Caliburn House in the first place.
Okay, there are minor quibbles as there always are. If I understood that rapid-fire exposition at the start properly, Alec Palmer played a big role in World War 2 military intelligence. But WW2 ended 29 years ago and with the best will in the world, Scott is too young to play a character who would have to be nearly sixty at the very least. Did something get changed in the story late in the day – maybe an older actor was envisaged, around Jon Pertwee’s age when he himself played the Doctor for example? Or maybe the choice of 1974 as the date for the story was a late detail?
And why was it 1974 in any case? Taken alongside the mention of Metebelis 3 and the return of the famous blue crystal of that world, it seemed clear that the episode was linking itself very firmly to Jon Pertwee’s last season in the role and in particular to his final story “Planet of the Spiders” – so much so that I was even distracted for a time thinking that the monsters lurking in the dark would prove to be giant arachnids. In the end this seemed to be a red herring, just as the return of the Tardis’ emergency cloister bell alarm (always effective in striking deep anxiety into the core of any longtime Who fan) and mention of entropy seemingly echoing plot points of “Logopolis” (Tom Baker’s 1981 final bow in the role) also went nowhere. Perhaps the 50th anniversary season is simply methodically seeding grace notes to pivotal stories of the classic series for long-time fans? Such touches won’t distract new fans but it did leave me a little all over the place trying to work out what – if anything – it all meant.
After all, showrunner Steven Moffat never does anything without a reason. Which is why immediately after the show aired the Internet was alight with speculation over why Matt Smith’s pronunciation of ‘Metebelis’ was so utterly different from that of Jon Pertwee. Is it significant? A mistake? Simply an updating of the pronunciation in line with current linguistics much as the Betelgeuse star is now called ‘beh-tel-gus’ rather than the old ‘beetle-juice’ – although as far as I can tell, Metebelis is an entirely made-up Doctor Who word not used in science or astronomy from which to take its cues? In any case it seems hard to imagine a Time Lord succumbing to such fleeting vagaries of fashionable pronunciations. If anyone should know the true way of saying the word then it’s someone who has actually been there after all, and yet it’s even more difficult to believe that the production team just allowed Smith to say it incorrectly.
Yes, for long term fans ‘Metebelis-gate’ is the lasting takeaway controversy of “Hide”. The way of saying a single word in the script ends up distracting from the other great highs and strengths of one of the best episodes in ages. Such are the perils of working in the Doctor Who universe. Thankfully ‘normal’ viewers will be blissfully ignorant of the paroxysms of debate this one tiny detail has sparked in the world of Who-centred fandom and will instead be looking forward to the next instalment, “Journey to the Centre of the Tardis”.
That premise doesn’t sound remotely like die hard fan geek-bait at all, now does it?
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.30pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.