• 14th May 2013 • Review by Dewi Evans •
Firstly, a confession. For all its flaws, I have to admit that I rather like “The Rings of Akhaten”. Yes, I know. Perhaps it was the dreamy, poetic quality the episode had, perhaps it was the rather nicely-handled idea of a civilization so reliant on nostalgia and longing that it had become the basis of their very economy – or perhaps, as a Welshman, I simply have a greater tolerance for a culture based largely on group singing. Even so, it would be hard to deny that poor Neil Cross’s tale has come in for more than the usual amount of criticism from fans of the show, much of it justified – even I think the episode was a) really badly paced and b) full of questionable science and visual imagery that was about fifty per cent spectacular and fifty per cent embarrassing. So, while I enjoyed “Rings”, I’m certainly not blind to its flaws and I can see that it’s hard to like.
So it’s nice to be able to say that “Hide”, the second of Cross’s scripts to be transmitted but the first to be written and produced, is a totally different kettle of fish. It’s a wonderful episode that provides everything you could hope for from the one-line brief (basically, “Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with a Haunted House”). It deftly blends classic imagery from several different traditions of supernatural fiction in a really effective and, occasionally, downright creepy manner. Certainly, this is the first time a Doctor Who story has made me want to sleep with the light on. That it does this whilst also managing neatly to address the show’s inherent need for a rational explanation is also impressive. The little hints about the Doctor and Clara’s uneasy relationship, especially the final revelation that he came to the house specifically to spy on her, is just the icing on the cake.
The show borrows brilliantly from a whole range of sources, from Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House (“If you’re not holding my hand, who is?”) to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (obviously). It also draws effectively on the nightmare blend of supernatural horror and apocalyptic cosmology that typifies the ‘weird fiction’ of Lovecraft and W.H. Hodgson – something Doctor Who had done effectively in 1977 with Chris Boucher’s “Image of the Fendahl”. In fact, this story sometimes feels a bit like “Fendhal” with a bigger budget. The main influence here, though, is Nigel Kneale’s classic 1972 drama The Stone Tape, which also features a dedicated scientist and his ghost-sensitive love interest investigating a strange presence at an old house, which turns out to be not a ghost but a being from beyond time. This story inverts Kneale’s drama, though, by providing a happy ending – the ghost-hunting couple live happily ever after and the beings from beyond time turn out simply to be in need of love.
Put like that, the story sounds like a trite revision of ghost story clichés. Certainly, for me, the main flaw in the episode lies in the fact that, having designed a truly terrifying new monster the story isn’t content to let it simply be a monster. I suppose some sort of redemptive ‘no, don’t worry, it’s OK, they actually just want a hug’ message was deemed necessary for the young kids in the audience, especially after the pretty full-on horror of the episode’s first half. The problem is, it means that the episode isn’t allowed finally to milk that horror for all it’s worth. Despite the ‘bubble universe’ explanation, that haunted wood really works best as metaphor for a deeply primal fear – something terrible, nameless and other, out in the darkness, trying to get in – that lies at the heart of a good horror story. The creepy doubling of the locations also taps into a deep-seated fear of the uncanny: think of how many bad dreams you have where a familiar place has become somehow frightening or oppressive. ‘Bubble universe’ is actually just an effective technobabble synonym for nightmare, and I would have liked a far creepier ending where that nightmare wasn’t exorcised for good, but was somehow still there… hiding… waiting to strike.
For all that though, the way the episode achieved its happy ending is very skilfully handled and for two reasons. Firstly, the Doctor’s “Get ready to jump!” is, if nothing else, a really cool line of dialogue on which to end. Secondly, while the episode exorcises the primal fear of a nameless something coming to get you in the dark, it does make ample use of the ghost story’s other social function as a means of coming to terms with the unpleasant and incontrovertible fact of the fleeting transience of human life. The Doctor can defeat the monsters (or, in this case, rescue the creatures that need rescuing) but he can’t overcome this supreme fact. This pessimistic message is at the heart of the story and stops it from straying into the fantastical, schmaltzy stuff that blights many a Moffatt-era resolution. Ultimately, to the man with a streak of ice in his heart, we are all nothing but ghosts – now there’s a truly unsettling idea.