Finally, a month in, we have our first nearly-great episode of Doctor Who this season.
Neil Cross returns with his second Who story in three weeks, and happily this one is far better than the middling “Rings of Akhenaten”. Haunted houses have been pretty fertile territory for this series over the decades, and while there’s a certain risk in asking to be measured against the likes of “Blink” (in my view the best story since the reboot, along with “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”) “Hide” holds its own – while a loss of steam in the last few minutes causes it to fall short of a true classic, it’s certainly an outstanding episode.
First of all, the guest starts this week, while not the biggest names Who has trotted out lately, are stellar. Dougray Scott is Professor Alec Palmer and Jessica Raine is his assistant, “empathic psychic” Emma Grayling. Both bring boundless humanity and authenticity to their roles, and Palmer especially has an interesting backstory – an intelligence officer living with survivor’s guilt after having been the cause of many deaths in the call of duty during World War II, by 1974 he’s bought a spooky old mansion in Scotland and spends his time chasing “The Witch of the Well”, the local ghast that’s been showing up in local legends since Saxon times. Emma has her own ghosts, the feelings of all the minds she’s read over the years. Naturally, the two of them are in love and too repressed to admit it openly.
The first half of the episode is genuinely scary; Clara at one point memorably says “I dispute that assertion!” when The Doctor insists she’s having fun. It’s all classic haunted house kitsch – machines with lots of dials, knobs and meters, banging on the walls and ceilings, cold spots, messages on the walls… By the time we get our scientific explanation for what’s happening the story takes a much more sci-fi turn, with the clever development of The Doctor and Clara traveling backwards – and forwards – in time to make a full accounting of the Witch of the Well’s activities on the site.
More so than in any earlier episode, “Hide” confronts the disquieting oddities surrounding Clara – though it certainly offers no answers. The Doctor has in fact come to this time to discreetly ask Emma – who must have become quite the renowned psychic – just what Clara is. But ironically, while Emma tells him only the very boring “She’s a completely normal girl. Isn’t that enough?” it’s to Clara that she says something genuinely interesting: to beware of The Doctor, because “He has a sliver of ice in his heart.” It’s clear, in fact, that Emma never trusts and doesn’t like The Doctor very much, which adds an interesting element to the story – especially as it acts as counterpoint to the growing body of evidence that The TARDIS doesn’t itself like Clara very much. There’s definitely something odd going on with that girl – but then, each of the Companions since the reboot have had such mysteries surrounding them (in the old days, it was enough just to be a Companion) so it comes as no surprise.
I could have done without the final element of the episode – a too-cute and too-neat wrap of the story of the mysterious creature that was chasing time traveler Hilla in the pocket universe she was trapped in. All in all the resolution of the episode didn’t have quite the elegance and pathos of the rest of it, but on balance “Hide” was an excellent episode – and in a positive sign, the second in a row that genuinely felt tonally consistent with the classic series. Next week brings us a space adventure by another Sherlock writer, Steve Thompson, whose only previous Who was 2011’s middling “Curse of the Black Spot”. But I think fans everywhere are really counting down the seconds until the main event, the return of Neil Gaiman to Doctor Who with his Cyberman episode “Nightmare in Silver” on May 11.