13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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Wait, what? Neil Cross wrote this? Neil Cross? Who wrote the terminally appalling Rings Of Akhaten? Colour us astonished.
Because Hide is good. Really good. In fact, only a couple of wrong steps stop it from being exemplary.
Neil Cross is clearly far more comfortable with his feet firmly planted on Earth than he is in the wilds of space: Hide has an assurance completely missing from his other effort. And for once, it’s delectably small-scale: a handful of players and one tiny issue, not the fate of the world eternally, yawnfully at stake. In forty-five minutes, that’s more than enough.
When you do something this small, every actor needs to be perfect, because their performances are under a microscope. Fortunately, Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are up to the task. Theirs is a relationship in which far more is unsaid than spoken out loud, and they both convey this beautifully. Dougray Scott in particular has so much going on on his face that he’s a sheer joy to watch. It’s the subtle dance between Alec and Emma that gives this episode a more adult tone (as in grown-up, not snarf-snarf) than we’ve seen for a while.
And the other pair, mirroring Alec and Emma, is the Doctor and Clara. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman play off each other so perfectly that it’s difficult to believe that this episode was shot so early. Stripped of the rushing around and pointless action of the previous couple of episodes, the dialogue that Matt excels at has a chance to breathe: it’s funny and it’s clever. The “I’m giving you a face” scene is one of the nicest companion scenes ever. We also love the tiny but intensely characterful moments like the Doctor dramatically taking the lid off the teapot to search for the ghost. Perfect.
The teaser has got to be one of the best in Doctor Who: utterly intriguing and massively creepy, with a shift in tone when the Doctor arrives that could have been like gears grinding but actually works very nicely.
And that beautifully controlled tone continues. This is one episode where a repeat viewing doesn’t do it any favours because you know where all the bodies are buried, but first time through it’s a terrifically crafted chiller. The atmosphere is eerie, you never know what’s going to happen next, and those photos of the ghost are deeply, deeply creepy. Then the lightning flash lights up the figure standing right behind Emma, and brrr!
And let us just repeat that part: you never know what's going to happen next. That's a major, major achievement in a show where in too many episodes you can see the middle and end with all-too-crystalline clarity from the beginning.
It’s classic horror, yes. But the clever thing is that it’s also more than that. Instead of being a straight-line horror story, it morphs into science fiction. (Science fiction, what’s more, that with its multiple references to classic series stories lights a happy little flame in the old-skool viewer’s heart.) They may not get the details exactly right, but we applaud the breadth of the vision. The photos throughout the entirety of the Earth’s history is a cracking idea that at the same time serves the plot and also illustrates the sheer mind-bending stretchiness of the Doctor’s vision. Clara, unsurprisingly, is left feeling like a speck of dust on the page of history, whereas the Doctor takes it all in stride. Generations, civilisations, planets rise and fall: it’s all the same to him. A person can be at once the subject of his consuming interest, a still unthought-of part of the future and a footnote in history. No wonder he has a sliver of ice in his heart.
We’ve always liked the Doctor best when he shows his alien nature, and this is a great episode for that. He’s just not the same as us, and anyone in his orbit does well to keep that in mind.
We’re not like that, though. We’re not meant to see the end of our planet and come out of it unscathed. And that’s why Clara’s reaction is exactly right. We love the way this works both on a plot and on an emotional level. And the Doctor’s reaction is also brilliant: he really wants to understand how Clara feels about this, because she is important to him, but he just can’t see it the way she does.
As for Clara’s relationship with the TARDIS, this could have been horribly cutesy, but we like it. Where all this is going we decline to speculate. We’ll find out soon enough.
So what’s wrong with it? Well, for a start the second half isn’t quite as strong as the first. In E-Space, sorry, the pocket universe, the forest with lashings of fake mist looks great, and it’s still pretty scary, but there’s rather too much bellowing of “Doctah! Doctah!” for us. Hila suffers the Curse Of 45 Minutes as she’s no more than a cipher. Also, there are a few loose ends between the first and second half. How was the “ghost” managing to write “Help me”? And what’s the music room being the heart of the house (whatever that means) got to do with anything? They said it so portentously, but it never came to anything. We were at least expecting Hila to be clutching a kazoo or something.
And the ending? Big, big mistake. As everybody who watched the rebooted Battlestar Galactica knows, a bad ending can ruin all the great work that came before. Not only did they undo all the good stuff they’d done keeping the monster only in our peripheral vision, they changed the tone from a sober and nuanced contemplation of life, death and love to a sickly sweet Disneyfied puppet show. Frankly, it was awful. We were dying to get in there, slice the ending off and drop it on the cutting room floor. Also, what does the Doctor think he’s doing importing an alien to Earth without the faintest idea of what it is? For all he knows they might snack on puppies. And now they're a breeding pair.
But for us, there was something even worse than the ending. And that was the way they let themselves down with regard to their central concept. Forgive us for trying to put the science in science fiction, but if you hinge an entire plot on time running more quickly in one universe than the other, you’d better follow through or you look a little bit silly. All those shots the Doctor painstakingly snapped off were to show us that while only three minutes had elapsed in the pocket universe, hundreds of years at a minimum had passed over here. The Doctor spends longer than that on his jaunt with Hila, yet when she gets back, it seems hardly any time has passed.
At this point we had a lengthy argument about whether attaching a wormhole to each universe would temporarily smooth out the differences in elapsed time. From which our conclusion was: maaaaaaybeeeee. We think it’s incredibly unlikely, but then again we can’t prove it wouldn’t. However, once the wormhole disappears, the Doctor’s all sealed up like a fly in aspic and time, if indeed it had changed speed while the wormhole was open, should now resume its normal speed in both universes. However, when he gets back, again little time seems to have elapsed. It’s possible that the TARDIS being involved somehow helped out, but by this point we’re cutting them so much slack we’re tripping over it.
So it’s undeniably got its faults. Nevertheless, if you can overlook that, we think it’s a triumph.
MORAL: All you need is love. Love. Love is all you need.
SCHRODINGER WAS HERE
In her first encounter with the ghost, Emma says to Alec “She’s dead”. But she isn’t, though, is she? Could Emma be picking up something from Clara, who’s standing outside the door? But if so, why would she tell the Doctor Clara was a normal girl?
YOU KNOW WHO
“Doctor what?” “If you like.” That’s a pleasant change. Let’s hope they’ve finally put the ghastly “Doctor who?” to bed.
Some great lines here. We can’t decide which we like better: “Sorry to interrupt the rest of your life” or “It amplifies your natural abilities, like a microphone. Or a pooper scooper”.
LIE BACK AND THINK OF GALLIFREY
Drawing such a strong parallel between Alec and the Doctor might have been clunky, but in practice it works powerfully. Alec’s “Experience makes liars of us all” speech is a really affecting summation of the Doctor’s life.
MeTEbelis 3? The Third Doctor would be a bit surprised. Also, that gem hat thing was just a little bit too smirksome.
Ooh, look, the spacesuit from Satan Pit! And doesn’t the Doctor look crestfallen when Clara says the colour’s a bit much?