* Warning: Spoilers Ahead *
Finally we can see what was so good about Neil Cross’ Doctor Who debut that Steven Moffat immediately asked him back to write The Rings of Akhaten. Hide is much better, but you can also see evidence of the problems that beset Cross’ other episode: the groundwork and the resolution feel stylistically at odds, and there are a number of scenes in which Matt Smith ends up acting “to himself”; fortunately in this instance, they tend to work to the benefit of the overall result, rather than against it, and the reason for that must surely be that Hide is set (more or less) entirely on Earth with a small cast of believable characters, behaving entirely plausibly and brought to life by some outstanding actors. The Rings of Akhaten suffered by having a supporting cast of one – and a child at that – and by being set in a location so alien that neither convention nor motivation felt wholly compelling, whereas Hide manages to be almost an entirely immersive experience thanks in no small part to the wonderfully human dialogue and characterisation.
The episode begins like a lost scene from The Stone Tape, indeed being set just a year or so after the broadcast of the influential Christmas Ghost Story, and to some extent manages to mirror Nigel Kneale’s play in the manner in which it treats the ghostly aspect of the story with proper conviction and seriousness (ultimately contradicting the supernatural nature of the “haunting” with a more corporeal explanation), even in spite of the Doctor and Clara’s initial frivolity reminding us of the tenth Doctor and Rose of Series Two – there’s even an amusing reference back to Army of Ghosts with the mention of Ghostbusters, in case we didn’t appreciate the allusion. But Neil Cross is more interested in pricking this bubble, and the eleventh Doctor and his new companion are painted more acutely for it; “What do you think she is?” Alec Palmer asks the Doctor at one point. “Not what I thought she’d be,” he replies. “What did you think she’d be?” the professor asks. “Fun.” It’s a beautifully played scene, and the line that precedes those quoted is a genuine heart-in-mouth moment too, as we come to fully understand the professor’s motives in buying the house the “ghost” resides in. Cross manages to fashion moments of truth and revelation for all four of the main characters, including Clara and the Doctor, and that’s no mean feat; it knocks his script for The Rings of Akhaten into a cocked hat (and it wasn’t a bad script either). The revelation at the end of the episode, that it wasn’t ghosts the Doctor was hunting when he arrived after all, feels both logical and natural.
Clara is at her most human here, neither inhumanly brave nor improbably clever, and her reaction to losing the Doctor, almost demanding Emma go through the whole painful process of opening up the wormhole again, feels real in a way that Amy Pond wouldn’t have made it. Contradicting the expectations that Steven Moffat would produce yet another clone of River Song (and after all, you can counter those criticisms by pointing out that a mother and daughter ought to share similarities), at other times Clara is cheeky and inquisitive, amused and afraid, and none of the changes seem forced. Her best moment is perhaps “Dare me!”, a demonstration of her willingness to put herself into dangerous situations even while fearing for the consequences, just as long as she can feel that she has been influenced to do so, and the sequence in which she meets the TARDIS Interface provides for both the biggest shock, and then the biggest laugh, of the entire episode (Matt Smith’s mispronunciation of Metebelis 3 notwithstanding).
The Doctor, meanwhile, is at his most compassionate and brave – once he gets over his initial enjoyment of the ghost-busting, that is. As well as watching the character move from detached delight to concerned involvement, we actually get to witness the Doctor properly scared, not something we see every week, and ultimately there’s even a scene in which he discovers a misjudgement and has to go back to set things right; it’s the full gamut from Smith this week, and his pleasure at being invited to participate in something a little more substantial than of late is palpable.
Jessica Raine probably gets the short straw, if there is one, of our central quartet. Alternating between doe-eyed affection (actually, these scenes are written and acted considerably more credibly than they might have been) and sheer terror (although once again the writing and performance is a lot more about courage than cowering), the character of Emma Grayling might have come across as thin and potentially obsequious. But Raine finds the truth of the character and manages to bring it out, making Grayling just as strong a presence in the story as the Doctor, the professor, or Clara. Which bodes well for the forthcoming An Adventure in Space and Time, as Verity Lambert is an entirely different proposition and one which Raine has proven herself more than capable of tackling. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Hide, though, belongs to Dougray Scott, who brings gravity and honesty to the role of Professor Palmer (a little reminiscent of his character in Enigma) in an interpretation that is borne out of some incredibly strong writing. It’s an impeccable combination of script and performance, a very strong contender for best supporting role of the series – if not the last several – and Scott ensures that the professor remains rooted throughout the shenanigans that constitute your typical Doctor Who story.
Although Hide is not entirely typical Doctor Who; unusually for a series that comprises teatime terror for tots, Doctor Who has very rarely tackled a “standard” ghost story (the five series of The Sarah Jane Adventures probably attempted more of those than the 26 years of the original Doctor Who), and not only has Neil Cross managed to bring one to the screen that doesn’t shy away from the conventions of the form, he has also managed to deftly and discreetly adapt it to the style of Steven Moffat’s take on the series too. Here, not only are we presented with alternative universes, timey-wimey and “Everybody lives!”, but there’s also a sense in which Cross has almost managed to smuggle these things in without our noticing. Suddenly the Grand Moff Steven’s decision to invite him immediately back makes a whole lot more sense.
It’s not entirely a success. The resolution does begin to feel a bit like watching a cosmic yoyo competition, and there are a few logical inconsistencies – such as the Doctor making use of the TARDIS in order to be able to understand the crisis but not resolve it (more of an excuse than a reason, and his assertion that he can’t just fly the machine in and save the day is later belied by the fact that Clara manages to do just that) – that while they don’t spoil the whole, do leave a nagging doubt that somehow Hide isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It is, however, quite easily the strongest episode of this latter part of Series Seven to date, and promises much for the second half of the run. A positive triumph after the last couple of moderately underwhelming episodes.