Monday, September 23, 2013

Romeo & Ghouliet

The trouble with a ghost story written and played as well as Hide is that it’s never going to have the same impact the second time around. The suspense and scares are all delivered in exactly the same way as before, of course. Nothing’s changed. It’s as (relatively) flawless as ever.

Problem is, we know there are no monsters under the bed. It’s only shadows.

And I pick my words carefully. See, I know this Doctor Who episode not a ghost story but a love story because the Doctor takes the trouble to declare it loudly and with great enthusiasm at the end. I have to say, I’m not sure I welcomed the twist so enthusiastically the first time round.

But it’s the element that I can appreciate more on a second viewing.

It’s not as though Doctor Who hasn’t done a ghost story before, not to mention one that involves the phantoms turning out to be time travellers or temporal projections of some sort. So the writer was under an obligation to turn it into something novel. It’s just that when you pull the rug out from under things they sometimes have a tendency to fall down.

Hide doesn’t do that. It still stands tall. Because everything preceding that final revelation is superb. Even with the benefit of knowing how it all unfolds, this haunting tale is crafted and orchestrated with superlative skill behind and in front of the camera. Chilling, urgent, exciting and genuinely scary. The Doctor’s fear as he’s stalked by some barely glimpsed horror in the pocket universe is evident without him having to spell it out.

By incorporating the Metebelis crystal, it even harks back to Planet Of The Spiders and the idea of the Doctor confronting his greatest fear. (And yes, I say ‘everything’ was superb but the Doctor does suffer that awkward mispronunciation slip which set Twitter flapping at the time. It’s inherited some added comic value now as a result, but I’d hope it’s not what Hide is remembered for.)

In any case, it’s a perfect example of how much more effective it is to emotionally invest the audience in the fate of a handful of people than some grand threat to the universe or a global population. It wasn’t as immersive on the rewatch, but I recall being fully engaged by the story the first time and the core relationships are just as touching.

The fact is, long before the monsters are revealed as lovers, it’s already a terrific love story with the tender and nervous romance-in-the-making between Emma Grayling and Alec Palmer – in essence, another Doctor and assistant relationship. Beautifully pitched and played by Jessica Raine and Dougray Scott. Emma’s empath also happens to touch on themes close to my heart as a character of mine, Aphrodite (from Emotional Chemistry) can be a lonely figure, sometimes uncertain whether feelings of those around her are real or a product of her own ‘gift’.

In addition, we’re given some strong relationship material between the Doctor and Clara, as he seeks to understand her and vice versa. The notion that he views mortals as ghosts is an interesting and compelling one and Clara’s reappraisal of her position in the Doctor’s eyes makes for another key step in the progression of their relations. The reveal that the Doctor has come here principally to consult psychic Emma about Clara reminds us that she is his current ongoing obsession for this season. “The only mystery worth solving” is a neat summation of the Doctor’s perspective at this point.

Throw in Clara’s difficulties with the TARDIS as they’re learning to get on with one another plus the inevitable temporal paradox of the ‘ghost’ turning out to be the great great great (etc) granddaughter of Emma and Alec and it’s practically a 45-minute LoveActually, with its anthology of relationship examinations. Only less saccharine. Instead it’s sweetened with a few deft sprinkles of sugar and strengthened and darkened by a ghost story to rival Poltergeist.

Flipping the whole thing over in the last minute is a bold and novel move, but at the same time it dilutes the scares. It’s as though Richard Curtis collaborated with M Night Shyamalan and both men brought their B game for the final three minutes.

I remember from the first viewing sitting back entirely satisfied with the episode at the point before that, with the monster(s) left as (largely) unseen horror(s). The notion of something out there, lurking in the mists of a pocket universe, that terrifies the Doctor, something in the face of which ultimately he has no answers but to run and/or hide is so steeped with potential that it seems a shame to undo it all with an original twist.

Within the context of a succession of rather impotent endings, in some respects an actual honest-to-frightening monster strikes as the more original choice.

On the other hand, that’s not really the fault of Hide. Taken individually, this is a damn near-perfect story and I sincerely doff my writer’s cap to Neil Cross. The sting in the tale is not as scorpion-like as I’d prefer it to be, but in the end it’s a pretty minor flaw in one of this season’s true highlights.

It runs rings around Akhaten. But on the strengths of that one and this, I’d certainly like to see more from this writer next season.

Next Time...

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS


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