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BBC1. 6.45 pm. 20.04.2013.
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Jamie Payne
Neil Cross’s first Doctor Who story, ‘The Rings of Akhaten’, set the bar very high indeed in terms of both its visual and intellectual imagination. I thought that ‘Hide’, if not quite matching the overall quality of that story, was nevertheless another very distinctive episode that was not afraid to explore what is possible within the Doctor Who formula.
So, on the one hand, we have some familiar Gothic iconography – a spooky old house, with the inevitable thunder and lighting and Things That Go Bump In The Night – and a ghost story that at first glance seems to be exploring similar territory to Nigel Kneale’s famous BBC play The Stone Tape (1972). Jamie Payne, another newcomer to the series, directs effectively, employing a few tricks from The Sixth Sense (1999) to suggest the ghostly presence lurking somewhere in the background. But, this being Doctor Who, the ghost is not a spectral residue of the past but the voice of a time traveller from the future trapped in a ‘pocket universe’. And, for once, the fate of the universe is not at stake, while the monster, frightening in appearance, turns out not to have harmful intent but is merely seeking to ‘piggy-back’ across universes to be reunited with its mate. In this sense ‘Hide’ was a love story rather than a more typical ‘Threat and Disaster’ narrative. Like ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ it was so different from the usual Doctor Who formula that it is likely to be a one-off – but it was no less effective or enjoyable for that.
‘Hide’ prompts me to reflect more generally on the role of the writer in Doctor Who. Television is predominantly a writers’ medium: unlike cinema, where we tend to identify directors as auteurs, in television it’s the writer to whom creative agency is most readily assigned. Doctor Who has always been something of a challenge for writers. In 1979 producer Graham Williams remarked upon ‘the problems of finding new writers for Doctor Who’ and noted ‘the difficulty writers have in writing within the unique brief’. In some periods of Doctor Who, such as the Philip Hinchcliffe-Robert Holmes regime in the mid-1970s, there was a very small pool of key writers. This accounts in large measure for the consistency of tone and style during those years. In other periods, such as the much-debated John Nathan-Turner era, where it would probably be fair to say that the overall quality of Doctor Who scripts was less consistent, there was a greater willingness to try new talent, particularly when Andrew Cartmell was script editor in the late 1980s. The results were mixed, perhaps, but for every dud such as ‘Dragonfire’ (sorry, Chris Clough, and any ‘Dragonfire’ fans) there were a couple of superior and at times experimental stories such as ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’. ‘Ghost Light’ is the classic Doctor Who story that bears closest resemblance to ‘Hide’ (and, coincidentally, as I type this, it occurs to me that Sophie Aldred and Jenna-Louise Coleman are facially quite similar in appearance), though whereas ‘Ghost Light’ had been one of the late Seventh Doctor stories trying to flesh out the role of the companion (and hence anticipating one of the features of new Who), in ‘Hide’ as much narrative space was devoted to the unstated love between Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his assistant Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine).
Under Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who had a relatively small pool of writers. Davies himself wrote (or co-wrote) approximately half of all the episodes during his tenure, and when commissioning scripts from others preferred working with writers known to be steeped in the Doctor Who mythos, often as writers of Big Finish audios or Virgin/BBC novels, such as Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Robert Shearman, Matt Jones and Gareth Roberts. Others were either familiar with telefantasy, such as Toby Whithouse and Matthew Graham, or, like Helen Raynor and Chris Chibnall, had worked on Doctor Who or its spin-off Torchwood in some capacity. Under Steven Moffat, however, there has been a welcome tendency to recruit from outside the pool of Who fandom, with writers such as Simon Nye, Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman all coming into the fold. More from Gaiman later in this series, but I hope Neil Cross will be commissioned again, as on the evidence of his two stories to date he seems to be able to bring new ideas and concepts into play. And Doctor Who – unlike, say, Gunsmoke, which ran for twenty years telling basically the same few stories – depends on the injection of new ideas to keep the series fresh. This is one of the big challenges for all production teams, and some have done it more successfully than others. But it’s also the reason why Doctor Who has endured for so long and, as the new series is proving, is able to win over new viewers and fans.
Unlike last week’s ‘Cold War’, which despite the resurrection of a classic series monster did not depend unduly upon previous knowledge of the series, ‘Hide’ was full of references which assume a degree of cultural competence on the part of its viewers. In Doctor Who a place is not called Caliban House without it being a conscious allusion to The Tempest, and the appearance of The Crooked Man further reinforces the reference. There were also references to Doctor Who‘s own mythology, most obviously the fabled blue crystal from Metebelis Three which amplifies psychic powers (‘Planet of the Spiders’) and talk of entropy and the sound of the TARDIS’s Cloister Bell (‘Logopolis’). And already this series we’ve seen the return of the Great Intelligence and (in the Christmas Special ‘The Snowmen’) a marvellously oblique reference to ‘The Web of Fear’. Such continuity references became a significant feature of classic Doctor Who around the time of its twentieth anniversary, culminating in the special ‘The Five Doctors’. They’ve become gradually more prominent in new Doctor Who, especially during this series, and we might assume are laying down pointers for the series’ Golden Jubilee later this year.
I have just one complaint. ‘Hide’ was the fourth episode of this part-series of Doctor Who, and the third broadcast time. I wish BBC1 would settle on a regular time for the series rather than moving it forwards and backwards to accomodate The Voice and avoid clashes with Britain’s Got Talent. I mentioned before in these reviews that I’m a television Who-viewer rather than an iPlayer viewer, but so far this series I’m missing the ritualistic experience of sitting down to watch each episode at the same time. Something is lost here, I feel. Doctor Who is the real cornerstone of the Saturday-evening schedules: let the other programmes slot in around it. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.