Padding down the hallway, spilling coffee, I heard the announcer announce, as announcers do, that Doctor Who would be on in a moment and it was time to hide behind the sofa. Do kids actually do that anymore? This is something I’ve been wondering lately. My cynical self’s been wondering of late if the brand and all those tacky plastic free-gift Daleks on the front of Doctor Who mags are detracting from one of the show’s most important jobs; to scare the crap out of kids. It’s part of the thrill.It's part of the legacy. As the the announcer proved, it's a shared cultural memory.
Watching the trailer for this week’s episode, Hide, I’d thought, OK, it’ll be The Haunting of Hill House minus the scares. The ghost’ll turn out to be nice and it’ll collapse under the weight of its own banality, crumbling into a schmaltz-fest that’ll result in me turning into the kind of bitter individual who ends up writing jaded things like this.
But no. Well, yes in a way too because there was a distinct nod to The Haunting of Hill House with the ghostly crashes and bangs, and yes the ghost was nice, so I can – and will – look a little smug but the episode was an excellent surprise. It was actually scary and didn’t rely on tired cinematic devices to achieve this. Instead, with its small cast, claustrophobic interiors and dark look it successfully created an atmosphere of foreboding, much more so than last week’s Cold War episode which, despite taking place on a submarine, really didn’t capture that sense of isolation.
Earlier in the day I’d popped in to see friends. On hearing that I was to be writing this their nine-year-old daughter vanished upstairs and returned with her arms full of Doctor Who collectables and toys. I asked whether the Cold War episode had scared her and she simply shrugged, wrinkled her nose and thoughtfully shook her head. I wonder what she made of this week’s episode?
It’s the first episode I’ve seen in some time that had support characters which were genuinely engaging. Emma Grayling, as played by Jessica Raine, and Dougray Scott as Professor Alec Palmer, were shrouded in such a palpable aura of sadness. Isolation, doubt, guilt and fear were the real 'monsters' in this episode. The themes of love, seperation and aloneness were executed with an assured subtleness that proved such a welcome change from spending an hour being repeatedly beaten around the head with a ‘message,’ quite often to the point where I sit, concussed, watching the final credits roll and wondering if I should go along to A&E and get checked for head trauma.
Something’s changed about Matt Smith’s Doctor too. I’m going to step forward and say that I believe he’s a great Doctor, which has only fueled my frustration with the show because it’s all felt like a massive missed opportunity. Last night, and the first two thirds of The Rings of Akhaten (or up until the cosmic sing-along bit) – both by writer, Neil Cross, have provided a glimpse of how good the show really could be. Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara is really shaping up to be a memorable companion and not just a fresh-off-the-production-line two-dimensional ‘feisty woman.’ As Emma Grayling points out, Clara is more scared than she lets on. So it seems is the Doctor, and perhaps this is what feels different about him; at times he appears full of doubt and painfully vulnerable. In Hide his quirkiness came across as a mask, a performance for those around him. When alone in the pocket universe that mask momentarily slips revealing a completely different Doctor. Perhaps the most chilling moment for me came when Emma Grayling tells Clara not to trust the Doctor; that he has a sliver of ice in his heart. That alone has got me tuning in next week.
Good to see a few 'whovian pleasers' in there as well. There were references to The Eye of Harmony and the blue crystal of Metebelis, stolen by the Doctor in The Green Death and later returned in The Planet of the Spiders – which, incidentally, were two of the first Doctor Who episodes I can clearly remember seeing as a kid, both of which scared me, as they should! The orange spacesuit from The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit got an outing too, albeit a brief one. Actually it looked in need of a good boil wash.
After Hide I went online for a little research and came across an interview with Neil Cross conducted recently by SFX magazine, and what do I find? Refering to Hide he speaks about his desire to make a really scary episode, one that produces in the audience, and especially in children within the nine to twelve years old bracket, the same response to the show that he experienced as a child of around the same age; terror. He adds that one of his influences for Hide was the cult British show Quatermass, which, he goes on to say, Doctor Who owes a lot to Quatermass was another show that terrified me as a kid, although, being so young I remember the 1970s Thames Television outing starring John Mills rather than the original. No comments please. The show, like Hide, had a very grainy, almost colourless look and used atmosphere to build tension, rather than in-your-face shocks.
Towards the end of last night's episode I could feel myself begin to tense up as I waited for the feel-good, schmaltz ridden ending, and yes it did lean towards that a little but in a very understated way that felt unforced and consistent with the rest of the episode. All in all the best, and most suprising, episode I've seen in a while. Let Neil Cross do more, I say. He's putting the much needed 'Boo!' back in Doctor Who.