Saturday, May 18, 2013


In the midst of a frustrating season delivering mostly entertaining but deeply flawed episodes, Hide stands as a much-needed reminder of the heights Doctor Who can scale. And it does so in a small, personal story where the stakes are rarely higher than a single life, and never higher than a handful.

And it's a 45-minute story that works beautifully. I think 90 minutes is a more natural fit for this show in general, but for all my problems with individual single-parters, I really have nothing inherently against the format when done well. And it's done very well here - a simple, character-driven story full of atmospheric horror and deeply felt emotion.

Its success lies primarily in its characters and the performances. In a savvy move, writer Neil Cross reflects the Doctor and Clara in the other two characters: Professor Palmer (Dougray Scott, a great actor who, sadly, I always remember as the bad guy in Mission Impossible II), a genius, something of a Renaissance Man, but also a haunted war hero researching the supernatural; and his assistant Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine, who will play Verity Lambert in An Adventure In Space and Time), a compassionate but lonely psychic longing for the Professor.

Setting them as reflections allows for compelling conversation. The Doctor and Palmer, who seems almost like a low-key, human version of the Doctor, discuss what so haunts the Professor: "I didn't mind dying for that cause. It was a very, very fine cause..." but he's horrified at having been forced to send others to their deaths.

DOCTOR: "If you could contact them, what would you say?"
PALMER: "I'd very much like to thank them."

Of course, the Doctor has been haunted throughout New Who by the Time War, but more recently, his torment stems from his companions. As he said in Let's Kill Hitler, when reminded of his most recent companions, he mostly feels guilt. Rose was torn away into another dimension; Martha left because in favor of a (relatively) ordinary life, partly because the Doctor mistreated her; Donna's story, of course, ended in tears; and now, Amy and Rory were taken from him by a brutal time paradox that keeps him forever away. Even knowing they all went on to lead happy lives is little consolation.

Later, when the Doctor takes Clara through the whole history of the Earth (a fantastic scene, by the way), she's stunned. "To you, I haven't even been born yet. And to you, I'm already dead." And while he naturally doesn't quite see it that way, being a Time Lord, it does reside in his mind. It's why so often he simply abandons the companions in a time and place where they'll be happy - that way, somewhere out there, they're always alive. There's something selfish in it - an inability to deal with death and goodbyes. And for an immortal traveling infinity, he'll always have to deal with those. And all this starts to hit home for Clara.

CLARA: To you, I'm a ghost. We're all ghosts to you. We must be nothing."
DOCTOR: "No. You're not that."
CLARA: "Then what are we? What can we possibly be?"
DOCTOR: "You are the only mystery worth solving."

There's tremendous history and an epic power in their conversation - in a way, every farewell from The Dalek Invasion of Earth until now haunts the conversation. But there's also something deeply personal to give it even greater resonance: Clara herself. It's a moment of personal vulnerability we haven't really seen from such an outwardly cock-sure, energetic and apparently brave girl.

Clara spends time talking with Emma, which results in one of the most bizarrely on-the-nose failures of the Bechdel Test ever - while the Doctor and Palmer have a quietly searing discussion brimming with subtext about death and losing comrades, the girls mostly just talk about boys. Still, it's a thoughtfully written conversation, so it's worth looking at on its own merits. As with the Doctor / Palmer conversation reflecting the Doctor's relationship with companions, the Emma / Clara conversation nicely parallels - and contrasts - relationships between the Doctor and his companions. Both Emma and Clara have feelings for their partner, but neither admit it. But Emma warns Clara not to trust the Doctor: "There's a sliver of ice in his heart."

Later, after the Doctor and Clara traverse the Earth's history, Emma senses Clara's torment:

EMMA: What's wrong?
CLARA: Just saw something I wish I hadn't.
EMMA: What did you see?
CLARA: That everything ends.
EMMA: No, not everything. Not love. Not always.

If there's something keeping their conversations from reaching the higher plane the other conversation reaches, it's strangely that Clara's less well-defined than Emma. This episode does more than any other to flesh her out, digging beneath her brash exterior, but she's still a strangely generic companion elevated by a fantastic actress. I do love the stuff about the TARDIS not liking her, but I'm still waiting for her to get the level of development the other New Who companions had by the end of their first adventure. Her fear is nicely explored, though. I particularly like the conversation where the Doctor tries to get her to explore the haunted house, and she refuses until finally telling him to dare her. Even if she's not especially well defined, she's fleshed out nicely for an episode that doesn't really focus on her.

On the other hand, the Doctor is on fire here, getting to be properly Doctorish throughout in a way he rarely does this season. His alien nature comes across well - I love the Doctor going on about how lonely she is right in front of her, totally missing how utterly insensitive it is. His later conversation with Emma right before diving across universes also shines:

EMMA: Doctor? Will it hurt?
DOCTOR: No. Well, yes, probably. A bit. Well, quite a lot. I don't know, it might be agony. To be perfectly honest, I'll be interested to find out.

He also gets plenty of moments of cleverness, humor, and derring-do, particularly in the second half, as he throws himself into the collapsing pocket universe.

Which finally brings around to the story itself, which works beautifully - it's scary, intelligent, and perfectly paced. The ghost stuff never runs out of clever bits to do, and the second half delvers all kinds of adventure and frightening moments. If there's a problem, it's that the ending isn't quite built to properly, but it's still a nice ending that fits Who well. It's probably the best exploration this season of the Doctor's relationship with death, and a nice reinforcement of the general Moffat theme of Love.

And it's what this season really needed. The technical quality has been outstanding, and except for the endlessly dull Cold War, the stories have been interesting, but every season of a TV show needs those standout episodes that fully deliver on the promise of the show - a few great peaks redeem a dozen valleys. Since Asylum of the Daleks, there have been a lot of good episodes, and many flashes of greatness, but no episode you could call a classic or even a minor classic. And Asylum itself couldn't hit higher than "minor classic". Hide easily reaches the lesser plane and nearly hits the higher one.


* * * 1/2


  • While Emma and Clara both gets lots of character development, it would have been nice if the "ghost", Hila Tukuria (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) had a little more than "lost adventurer". I like that they cast a woman of color as the scientist, but a few lines other than variations on "Help me!" would have been a welcome touch.
  • As far as the Bechdel test goes, the episode does, arguably, by certain definitions, pass the test. Clara and Emma have two conversations. The first begins with an amusing exchange about whiskey. The second is the conversation about love, which while implicitly dealing with Emma's feelings for Palmer, doesn't technically reference a man, and does reinforce the central theme of the story. Still, it's weird to watch an episode that makes a clear push for strong women - they actually outnumber men! - yet still fails so obviously to get them to talk about something other than romance, and leaves one of the three almost completely undefined.
  • While "Villain in the bad Mission Impossible movie" may sound a bit undistinguished for such a fine actor as Scott, he was up for two much bigger parts. He was actually cast as Wolverine, but he lost it because MI2 went badly over schedule. He was also one of the frontrunners for James Bond after Pierce Brosnan, which he presumably lost because Daniel Craig just stared at the producers with so much intensity they surrendered out of fear for their lives.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cold War

As I mentioned in Rings of Akhaten, there's a New Who tradition of giving the new companion an adventure in the future and an adventure in the earth's past - The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code, The Fires of Pompeii, Victory of the Daleks, and Vampires In Venice. But while I like the future ones, the past ones is the half of the tradition I'm not a huge fan of. With the exception of the excellent Fires of Pompeii, they tend to be servicable but completely unmemorable.

Though, to be fair, part of my problem may be that a lot of them are written by Mark Gatiss. It's not that Gatiss writes bad scripts - they're perfectly competent. They just aren't interesting. At all. When I have liked his stories, it's because a director like Euros Lyn or Richard Clark gave them enough atmosphere and enough sense of drama that they worked. And even Lyn, one of the best directors to ever work on Doctor Who, couldn't make anything interesting out of The Idiot's Lantern.

Even by Gatiss' standards, though, Cold War doesn't accomplish or attempt anything interesting.

Let's start with the Ice Warriors. The Ice Warriors are in that category of Classic Who monsters beloved not because they were particularly interesting - the only thing separating them from the Yeti was that they occasionally growled words - but because they looked cool. (Well, that, and Troughton and Pertwee each fought them twice, and three of those times were six-parters, meaning they actually had more episodes than the Sontarans.) And they really do look cool. But, like the Zygons, they really don't have much else going for them.

That doesn't mean there's no reason to bring them back. First, you could always add something to them - flesh them out, expand on their culture and their individualities. Gatiss doesn't do this. But there actually was one fantastic aspect to them: in their third story, The Curse of Peladon, they turned out in a pretty great surprise twist to be good guys. In all of Classic Who, they were the only monsters that started evil and turned good in a later story, and it pulled it off 15 years before Star Trek got around to redeeming the Klingons.

Granted, it's hard to write a new story about that, and Gatiss doesn't generally go for anything challenging, which really only leaves two worthwhile things about them. The first would be to have fun reconciling the idea that they come from an advanced civilization on Mars and the fact that Mars turned out to be a lifeless desert where the temperature rarely makes it above freezing at the height of summer. But that would probably be expensive, and with a season with so much visual spectacle, you've gotta cut costs someplace. So you get one Ice Warrior on a small, simple set.

Failing all that, the only thing left, I guess, is to give your Ice Warrior a really great characterization and dialogue. That still wouldn't give a reason to bring them back, but at least it would be entertaining. What we get, unfortunately, is the Xenomorph from Alien, except instead of a horrific being of sheer visceral terror, he occasionally growls a few vague threats. Yes, the updated version looks very cool, and they manage the very difficult feat of taking his mask off and still making him look cool.

But that's it. The whole episode is just an alien with no personality going around killing everybody off. And without anything going for it besides an alien runninig around killing people in a tight space, it can't help but be compared to Alien. Douglas Mackinnon is a fine director, but he's not Ridley Scott. There's a little bit of claustrophobic atmosphere here, but not much. There are a few moments of minor suspense, but nothing to really get your pulse moving.

But Gatiss is the real culprit. Not only does he fail to do anything interesting even within the very basic concept of "monster chasing people on a ship", but he writes a staggeringly stupid script. Right from the beginning, it's just dumb. Seriously, how stupid is that guy who thaws out the Ice Warrior? What possible reason would he have to do that? Even by the standards of stupid people doing stupid things to drive horror plots, that's pretty dumb. Even in Friday the 13th sequels, the idiots aren't trying to bring Jason back to life.

It extends to every aspect of the story, including, tragically, the Doctor himself - within the same breath, he says that the Ice Warrior is so powerful he could easily kill all twelve of the living people in one go, and that their best chance of surviving is to split up into teams of two. Which, naturally, results in the crew's decimation. Again, if these scenes were scary, or if the characters were anything other than generic cardboard, it might be at least moderately forgivable, but it's all so totally standard.

And in this scenario, the Doctor stopping the captain from shooting the Ice Warrior to negotiate falls flat. It makes the Doctor seem even more foolish. In any half-decent horror yarn, the idiotic authority figure getting everyone killed would meet a richly deserved death (or, if it was a really good horror movie, they would see the error of their ways and be racked with guilt).

And the ending really sinks the whole enterprise. The Doctor gives a big speech. Which fails. Again. It's one thing for the Doctor to fail on occasion, but up to this point in this season, he's had four companion deaths out of three companions; Clara solved two stories after he, The Doctor, failed to give a compelling speech, and two more basically because he showed up (and she was already more or less dead, once because of the Doctor's own stupidity); Amy and Rory solved another after he failed; and his solution to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was to straight-up murder the villain after stopping the hunter from shooting him with a tranquilizer gun because it's a gun, and guns are bad but killing is totally okay. Oh, and he solved Power of Three by waving the Sonic around and apparently getting all the human victims on that spaceship killed (or sucked into a plot hole). As clever, Doctorish solutions go, he's only got A Town Called Mercy and Bells of St John out of nine stories. And he's been kind of a creeper to Clara. If I was basing it solely on this season, I don't think I'd be cheering for this guy as the lead; I'd be hoping he'd get killed off so Clara could take over the show.

And the whole thing with the TARDIS flying off to the South Pole? Gatiss manages to end the episode by making even Sexy herself seem brain dead. It was dumb enough reviving the long-dormant Krotons bit about the TARDIS flying off to the nearest "safe location" when you're on a submarine and they could easily just be, you know, locked out of that room, but why would she fly off to Antarctica?

The result is an episode insulting to the audience's intelligence, the characters' intelligence, and the abilities of some very fine actors. And the combination of that with the usual bunch of cliches without style or invention is the single most boring episode since... Timelash? Man, that sucker came out two years before I was born. And at least that was cheesy enough to provoke a couple of unintentional laughs. And, you know, had the Doctor actually solve the plot and do Doctorish stuff here and there.

Besides the Ice Warrior costume, there is one good thing about the episode - Clara. In her fifth appearance, she's still not a fully-developed character as such, but she's gradually getting more layers. I like how genuinely scared she is when the Ice Warrior threatens her, and then how quickly she jumps from being scared to diving back into the action - "I'm okay! I'm okay! Where did he go?" At some point, I'd like to see her as fully fleshed out as the other companions, but even without that, she's consistently fun.

 But in a black hole like this, it doesn't count for enough.


* ½

It gets an extra half-star for Smith doing little moments like this, though.


  • Wait, we're in Clara's third story and the Doctor hasn't explained the whole languages thing? Why didn't this happen last episode?
  • I guess I didn't talk about the whole Cold War aspect, but honestly? It didn't really have anything to do with the episode. It was just an excuse for the lone alien to be able to blow up the whole planet, because we haven't had an alien threaten the entire Earth before. The Soviet soldiers are awfully quick to accept that the mysterious strangers who showed up on a nuclear submarine aren't some kind of sabeteurs or spies or anything of the sort. There's no sense of the fear and paranoia that pervaded even ordinary lives, let alone those manning a submarine that could end it all. Just a satisfactory exploration of that would have largely redeemed the episode. Unfortunately, none of these characters were more than the dullest cardboard.
  • Whatever its flaws, I've gotta give some praise to the production team - this sucker looks good and expensive, even though it's probably the cheapest or near it of the season.