Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Doctor Who - Hide


There’s no doubt that we’ve been getting a wide variety of story types in this current run of Doctor Who. This has always been the show’s strength: the ability to do one thing one week, and something completely different the next. This week, the show turns to the classic ghost story, but with a science fiction twist. On the surface, “Hide” is a very different story from author Neil Cross’s previous story, “The Rings of Akhaten” from two weeks ago. Yet it shares a lot of similarities, both in its strengths (inventive ideas, a compelling and detailed setting) and in its weaknesses (loose ends, an unsatisfying ending). It does manage a few things better than “Akhaten”—in particular, there’s more depth to the characters in “Hide”—but overall, it leaves a very similar impression. It’s a story that I really want to like, but which leaves me ultimately disappointed, not quite the “masterpiece that could have been” like “Akhaten”, but still a story that could have been really good, even great, if not for its egregious flaws.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Much like “The Rings of Akhaten”, “Hide” starts out brilliantly, deftly creating a spooky scene and paying homage to classic ghost story tropes, from cold spots to writing on the walls. Neil Cross certainly seems to have a talent for creating a world or location that feels utterly real. Caliban House has a detailed history, one that’s not just told to the audience through spoken words, but one the audience also gets to see through pictures and the wonderful trip the Doctor and Clara take through the entire history of Earth. More than this, though, the location itself is almost like its own character. By the end of the story, viewers can feel a connection to the house and the forest surrounding it.

Part of the character of the house is the feeling of dread and tension present throughout most of the story. Candles blowing out, windows freezing, something unknown holding Clara’s hand—these are all classic ghost story devices that the story uses to very good effect. Where the episode fails in this regard, however, is not explaining their presence in the end. For while “Hide” is a ghost story, it’s also a science fiction story, and as such, it needs to provide an explanation for the ghost. In order to do that, it also needs to explain the ghost-like activity in the house, and it simply doesn’t do that. The hand-holding is explained, but beyond that, very little else is. What is the significance of the cold spot? Why does the writing appear on the wall? Hila, the time traveller, certainly didn’t have time to write anything down while running for her life in the pocket universe. Did one of the monsters write it? It’s left completely unexplained. And this is ultimately the problem that “Hide” shares with “The Rings of Akhaten”: it presents a bunch of wonderful ideas, but doesn’t follow through on all of them.

Even that which is explained sometimes falls into the trap of not quite working logically. Here I refer particularly to the different speed at which time travels in the pocket universe. The Doctor specifically states that every second there takes a hundred thousand years or more in the real universe. This is why Hila has been running throughout the entire history of Earth (and allows for the wonderful time travel sequence where the Doctor takes pictures throughout history). Yet, when the Doctor enters the pocket universe, suddenly time seems to move at the same rate as the outside universe. The Doctor and Hila, or the Doctor and the monster successfully run about with the same amount of time passing for everyone back in the real universe. While the portal’s open, it could perhaps be explained by stating that the portal somehow lines up the time differential. However, the Doctor also spends time in the pocket universe while the portal is closed. Based on the rules set up by the story, hundreds of thousands of years should have passed for everyone else in the time it takes him to run around and tell the Crooked Man that “I am the Doctor and I am afraid.” To be fair, this kind of error is made in science fiction (not just Doctor Who) all the time. It is one that continually bugs me, though.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of things about “Hide” that I really like. In particular, there are a lot of great moments. Although many of the scenes I mention above are not explained, the moments when they occur are genuinely creepy and scary. The distorted appearances of the two creatures, particularly in the out-of-sync way that they move, also instil a feeling of true dread.

There are a number of great character moments, too, as this story does make an attempt to develop its characters beyond two-dimensional plot devices. It helps, too, that the guest cast (Dougray Scott as Alec Palmer and Jessica Raine as Emma Grayling) are top-notch. From their first moments together, even though the dialogue doesn’t yet betray it, Scott’s and Raine’s performances beautifully demonstrate the affection their characters have for each other even though they’re hiding said affection from each other. Palmer is particularly well-developed, with a complex history in the war that has led to his current demeanour and motivations. Unfortunately, both of them also suffer from being a little stereotyped, particularly in gender normative ways. The man is the brilliant, but troubled, professor, while the woman is the gentle empath who helps the man rise to be a better person. I really do wish there was a little development for Emma beyond just her love for the professor. She does, at least, have the motivation to help the ghost, which gives her a desire in life other than just a man. Still, the crux of her story is finding fulfilment in a relationship with a man—a theme that has been overly present in recent Doctor Who. And of course, the one time she sits down to have a discussion with the other woman present (Clara), the discussion becomes one about men (while the two men are simultaneously talking about their broader lives).

The problems with the relationship between Alec and Emma aside, there is some clever mirroring going on here, with the two of them mirroring the standard Doctor-companion combination, even going so far as to play with the connotations of the words companion and assistant, two terms that have been used interchangeably with the Doctor and his associates over the years. It also plays on the gender assumptions of the 1970’s during which the story is set, so some of the gender normative associations of the relationship are understandable, even expected here.

While the grand theme of love (which I’ll get more into later) bothers me in this story, I do like that the Doctor-Clara relationship actively twists this, with Clara stating specifically to Emma that she’s not interested in the Doctor. On top of that, the Doctor finds himself having to be wary of the usual way he behaves around his companions. The Doctor tends to hug his companions a lot or hold their hands, but Clara actively resists this, feeling it an intrusion into her personal space. She tells the Doctor that she’s a grown woman and doesn’t need him to hold her hand. Later, the Doctor puts his arm around her, but then snatches it away, realizing he might have overstepped his bounds. It’s nice to see the Doctor being forced to question his actions around other people for a change.

Clara also gets a number of great moments. In particular, the trip through Earth’s history is a highlight of this episode. What makes it great is not so much that we get to see the beginning and end of the Earth along with several points in between, but rather the effect it has on Clara. This started last week in “Cold War” with Clara’s reaction to the dead sailors: “It’s all got very real.” Clara is realizing that travelling with the Doctor is more than just adventure and fun and games. There’s a very real, and even disturbing aspect to it. The Doctor is a man who has seen the death of worlds and is apparently not bothered by it. This is something that can be difficult to come to terms with, and it’s good to see a companion struggling with this.

Clara’s relationship with the TARDIS also takes centre stage in this episode, building on the allusion in “Ahkaten” that the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara. Just like in “Ahkaten”, I’m bothered by the way the episode handles it, with the writer, cast, and crew once again ignoring that it’s perfectly normal for the TARDIS to not open it’s doors to someone without a key! The Doctor giving his companions keys to the TARDIS has even been played up as very big moments in the show since 2005. The Doctor handing Victorian Clara a key in “The Snowmen” is a pivotal moment, yet there’s been no mention of a key for current Clara. Perhaps the Doctor simply doesn’t trust current Clara enough yet, but that still doesn’t explain the fact that the TARDIS not opening without a key is being presented as something odd. It can’t even be dismissed as Clara not understanding how the TARDIS works, since her belief that the TARDIS doesn’t like her is justified when the TARDIS communicates with her via hologram (that said, I do enjoy the fact that the TARDIS chooses to use Clara’s own likeness as being the only image that Clara would esteem—”Oh you are a cow! I knew it!”). Since the whole situation is reliant on things behaving as normal, the audience is left relying on being told that the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara (at least until the hologram shows up). I can’t help think that it would work so much better if something truly unexpected happened in these scenes. Perhaps if the Doctor had given Clara a key and that key simply didn’t work. That would make the scenes in “Akhaten” and this episode truly shocking. Suddenly, it wouldn’t just be Clara saying the TARDIS doesn’t like her, but we, the audience, would actually see that there was something wrong.

While we are getting some good development of Clara, I do wish we knew a little bit more about who she is as a person to start with, so we could understand more how she’s changing. Clara is still a bit of a blank slate when it comes to her goals and desires. We still don’t know anything about them other than she wants to travel. Still, there is last week’s hint that maybe she really doesn’t have any.

Speaking of blank slates, that’s really all the remaining character Hila is. Apart from the fact that she’s a time traveller from a few hundred years in the future and that she’s Alec and Emma’s great great great... (many times on) granddaughter, we learn literally nothing about her. She has zero personality and once the Doctor rescues her, she does nothing but stand there. She has barely any lines. We don’t even get to learn what she’s going to do next (other than she can’t go back to her own time since history records her lost—something the Doctor must have told her off-screen since she couldn’t otherwise know). Once she’s rescued, the story has no other use for her so she’s shunted aside as a non-entity only for a token reappearance at the end. Since her rescue is a focus of so much of the story, it’s really disappointing that we never get to know her.

The two creatures could also be considered characters in the story, especially since the story attempts to make them more than just undefined, ghostly threats by revealing that they’re lovers pining for each other. However, they are characters who are just as much blank slates as Hila. The Doctor determines their motivations through some rather questionable jumps of logic. That the one in the pocket universe wishes to escape makes sense. However, how exactly the Doctor determines they’re in love doesn’t make much sense at all. It’s certainly a possible explanation, but perhaps they’re just friends. Perhaps they’re family. Perhaps they’re something entirely different.

More annoying is the fact that the Doctor immediately places heteronormative assumptions upon them. One is male and one is female. He determines this despite stating earlier that he doesn’t know what kind of creature they are, and he has not had any opportunity to examine them up close or interact with them in any meaningful way. Of course, the one that is actively trying to escape and reach the other is the male, and the one that waits passively for the other to return is female. The Doctor, of all people, should know better than to make such assumptions without anything else to go on. “You old Romeo, you,” he says directly to the creature in the pocket universe (along with lines like, “She’s waiting for you!”), negating any possibility that the Doctor is trying to simplify things for his 70’s audience (which would still be a questionable thing to do, even if he were). He has honestly decided that one is male and one is female, they are in love, and they are going to be together.

This really doesn’t surprise me in current Doctor Who, but it does bother me as it is completely at odds with the central theme of this story—that things are not always as they seem and that you shouldn’t assign the expected roles to them. The ghost turns out to be a living person. The monsters turn out not to be evil, but separated lovers trying to get back together. Yet the Doctor then assigns the two lovers an expected role and it’s not challenged in any way. The story strives for a moralistic message, yet shoots itself in the foot by not living up to its own message.

Hide” centres around the theme of love and it’s resolution is tied entirely around it. It’s not literally another “love saves the day” plot as the heroes don’t win through the literal power of love (like in “The Snowmen”). However, it is love that is ultimately the motivating force behind the actions. It is learning that Alec really loves her that gives Emma the ability to go on when she thinks she’s too exhausted. It is the family connection brought about by their love that allows Emma to sense Hila (and vice versa) in the first place. Even the creatures are acting out of love. I admit I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if love, romance, and family weren’t such central themes to all of Doctor Who in the last couple of years, as this episode actually handles its theme better than most (heternormative problems aside). However, its presence amongst so many other “love wins the day” plots makes it just another in an overused trend. There are motivations out there other than love. Let’s see a few more of them!

The other problem with the resolution is that it piles things on too thick. “The Rings of Akhaten” has the same problem. After a powerful moment between the Doctor and the planet, the ending gets repeated again with another moment between Clara and the planet (that just doesn’t end up being as powerful). In “Hide”, the situation builds to an exciting rescue of Hila. Then it does it all over again with a not-as-exciting rescue of the monster. More than that, the revelation that the monsters are also in love piles on yet more of the same from the rest of the episode, weakening much of what went before. When even the villains are just pining for love, the story starts to lose some of its depth. The love story has been adequately told at this point, the motivation strength of love made clear. The story doesn’t need to do it again, and in fact weakens its message by doing so.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the reference to Metebelis III. This is the second time this season that a planet from the Pertwee years has been mentioned (the first was in “Asylum of the Daleks”) and the second time that planet’s name has been mispronounced. It’s a very odd mistake to make. The writers and production team are clearly aware of the originating stories in order to add these references, so you would expect them to also be aware of how they are pronounced in those stories. I can understand the actors not necessarily knowing, but I would also expect someone to correct them. It’s a very nit-picky thing, I know, and I am not basing my overall perception of this episode on this little thing, but nonetheless it’s something I (and many other people) have noticed.

Overall, my reaction to “Hide” is very similar to my reaction to “The Rings of Akhaten”. Both are stories I want to enjoy and even do enjoy on many levels, but both ultimately disappoint. I would consider “Hide” to be the better of the two stories (although I think “Akhaten” had the greater potential), but they both suffer from very similar problems, particularly introducing ideas that they then don’t follow through on. “Hide” has lots of great moments, but just doesn’t hold together in the end.

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