“Hide” is probably not going to be remembered as a New Who classic the way “Blink” will be, but it has my vote for the best story of series 7 thus far. While I greatly admired “Asylum of the Daleks,” Moffat tried to pack oodles and oodles of stuff into it, and as a result, it felt a bit overstuffed, even if it did put its finger on a couple key veins running throughout the series and tap them brilliantly. “Hide” is also a bit overstuffed, but it feels complete and satisfying in a way that none of the other episodes has so far. (Kudos to writer Neil Cross for nailing the second time out!)
Charlie Jane Anders complains a bit that “Hide” exemplifies the trend in recent Who that “every story is a love story.” A true enough observation, but in the case of this particular episode, I don’t see it as a weakness. On the contrary, I think it grapples with this theme rather meaningfully while delivering some grand moments. (Spoilers after the jump!)
First, the story. An ex-British Intelligence operative/soldier and a psychic have taken residence in an spooky old mansion by the Scottish moors for 1970s ghost hunting purposes. Alec Palmer is haunted by the things he had to do during WWII, and Emma Grayling is a compassionate soul committed to helping lay the ghost to rest (if she can), and (perhaps more importantly) helping Alec come to terms with his past. And they’re in love with each other, but time-honored tradition forbids wounded souls from coming clean about such things. Then the Doctor and Clara show up to move the plot forward and provide a bit of thematic doubling.
As it turns out, the ghost is actually a time travel pioneer from the future trapped in a pocket universe, and she’s fleeing from a twisted creature that happens to have a mate occupying the same house in which the spookfest is currently taking place. In a further twist, the time traveler is Alec and Emma’s great-to-the-nth-degree granddaughter, and the twisted creature is just another star-crossed soul trapped in the pocket universe, trying to hitch a ride with the time traveler back to its mate in our dimension. Thanks to the Doctor and Clara’s intervention, everything is happily resolved.
One of the great things about many of Who’s best stories is the attention paid to the world building of character dynamics outside of the Doctor’s circle. That is, when the Doctor arrives on the scene, it’s usually as an interloper butting in in media res, and in the classic series especially, there was more time to flesh out the supporting cast and the drama in which the Doctor and companion find themselves enmeshed. The new series doesn’t always do quite as good a job of fleshing out non-Doctor/companion characters in the one-off stories, and one of the big reasons why “Blink” stands out as a high point of the relaunch is that it delivers one of the most memorable protagonists in Who history in Sally Sparrow. In “Blink,” it’s the Doctor and Martha who are supporting characters, and though some other stories have foregrounded non-Doctor protagonists, they haven’t always worked out quite so well. (See: “Love and Monsters.”) “Hide” touts Clara and the Doctor front-and-center, but by trimming the episode’s supporting cast down to basically two other characters, it leaves plenty of time to let them breathe and develop as protagonists independent of the time travelers. This feels like their story, and the Doctor’s just passing through, as opposed to most episodes, in which it feels like the Doctor’s story, and everyone else is just momentarily a part of it.
Which isn’t to say that Alec and Emma’s story isn’t relevant to longer-running Who themes. The Doctor obviously finds a mortal mirror in Alec, the veteran struggling to piece his humanity back together in the wake of war’s hell. Clara isn’t necessarily a romantic interest for the Doctor (frankly, I’m really hoping she never becomes one), but she desires more intimacy, and she and Emma are able to bond over the distances their respective men place between them. The difference is that Emma knows that Alec is basically a good man, whereas the Doctor, as Emma puts it, “has a sliver of ice in his heart.” He’s not to be trusted. Of course, in the episode’s climax, Emma winds up putting fate in the Doctor’s hands anyway for the sake of the “ghost.” But the emotionally confusing nature of Clara’s relationship to the Doctor is contrasted with the emotionally confusing nature of Alec and Emma’s repressed love.
Clara is further perplexed by other significant events. Like Rose in “The End of the World,” Clara is overwhelmed by the Doctor taking her on a whirlwind tour of the Earth’s entire life cycle, from birth to death, and struck for the first time by the fact that his immortal perspective is so vastly different from hers. Then there’s her relationship to the TARDIS, which has previously exhibited a discomfort with her presence. Here, it manifests in straightforward bitchy hostility. It’s curious that the TARDIS apparently has no problem with the Doctor’s Other Wife, River Song, whereas Clara brings out a side of the TARDIS’s personality that is basically a passive-aggressive jealous ex (or overprotective “just friends” friend). For the moment, I’m going to leave aside the Moffat era’s troubling perspective on gender dynamics and marvel briefly at the fact that the Doctor’s companion has had to negotiate a special personal relationship with the TARDIS at all. Unless I’m mistaken, this is unprecedented in Who history. The “girls” set aside their differences long enough to rescue the Doctor when he gets trapped in the pocket universe, and it leaves the impression that there’s way more to the TARDIS’s aversion to Clara than female jealousy. The TARDIS ran to the end of the universe to get away from Jack Harkness; perhaps something is similarly “wrong” with Clara.
Which turns out to be the real reason that the Doctor showed up at all, of course. Much like investigating the Flesh last season or forcing Ace to confront her past in the last season of the classic series, the Doctor brought Ace to Emma specifically to get a powerful psychic’s read of what Clara is. Emma seems convinced that she’s just a normal girl. Then again, this psychic is the great-great ancestor of a time traveler who used her as a beacon to navigate out of a pocket dimension she accidentally created/slipped into. At the conclusion of this episode, it turns out that Hila the time pioneer is going to be stuck with her ancestors because her disappearance is one of those “fixed events” the Doctor is reluctant to rewrite, suggesting that there is still a bittersweet edge even to the happiest of endings in love stories.
The self-reflexiveness of the plot works out pretty nicely, all things considered. This is a story that manages to be a haunted house chiller and a bogeyman-beast horror flick, send our heroes into an alternate dimension, a two-tier romance, and a mythos-builder for the longer Who arc all at once. It even manages to work in a souvenir from Metabelis 3. Tying all that stuff together is a tall order, and it’s done in under an hour. On top of that, there’s the thematic resonances, and it managed to be one of the creepiest episodes of the last couple seasons while finding a way to avoid any bloodshed (heck, even the monster is a romantic couple!) without resorting to a preachy, pacifistic cop-out. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are a terrific pair, and it was especially delightful to see Smith almost back in his old form of the enthusiastic, fussy Troughton-esque meddler/adventurer. “Hide” balanced out his world-weary oldness with his natural buoyancy with a clarity even Moffat seemed to muddle in “The Bells of St. John.” To me, this is a model of new Who done right, and it has stoked me up for the remainder of the season. ☕