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.
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:
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.
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.