When I wrote about "The Bells of Saint John", I cited Doctor Who's recent settling into a trend of bland consistency as one of its major problems. I stand by that as one of the overarching problems it has, but another, more insidious one is what I have come to think of as the Problem of Perspective. By way of explanation, let's jump back in time a little to "The Wedding of River Song", the finale of the lumpy but largely successful sixth season. The episode ended with The Doctor faking his own death, making it seem as if he had been killed in the process of regenerating. In the last scene of the episode, he said that he did this because he had become "too big" and needed to return to the shadows. Both at the time and now, I think that was a rare instance of self-reflection not just from The Doctor as a bombastic, forward-moving character, but also on the part of Doctor Who itself.
For The Doctor, it was a way of admitting that he had become too noticeable and that he was attracting much too much attention, something which is dangerous for someone who is meant to be able to travel around with little fanfare, but I also took it to mean that it was an admittance by Moffat and his writers that the show had fallen into the trap of being too grandiose, too often. For a while, it seemed as if every episode of the show revolved around The Doctor having to save the world by the end of the episode, which is perfectly fine considering that he is an immensely powerful being who commands all of space and time, but does get wearying after a while.
The Problem of Perspective is that if every episode is about a life-or-death struggle to save the Earth or the galaxy or the Universe then it gets harder and harder to care with each passing crisis. This is especially problematic where end of season finales are concerned; how can something be a climax when everything leading up to it is just a succession of climaxes? The show needs small-scale stories to give the epic ones meaning, and it's perhaps no coincidence that some of the best episodes the show has ever produced have been ones which aren't about the end of the world, but are about individuals in peril.
If we look at the work of Joss Whedon, someone who has had a clear influence on Moffat's Who, his shows knew how to maintain the perfect balance. Sure, every season of Buffy had a Big Bad whose actions provided the focal point of the bigger story, and many of them had world domination-y intent, but most episodes were about the Scoobies battling demons who had no interest other than killing people. They were combating evil, but it was a low-level kind, the demonic equivalent of pickpockets versus the magical Mafia kingpins who they'd eventually do battle with.
That's not to say that the show should only do those smaller kinds of stories, but making the world-ending ones rarer makes them all the more potent, and one of the problems of the Moffat era, and particularly this current season, has been that almost every episode seems to be taking place on a grand canvas. It doesn't seem to be enough to put people in danger every week and have The Doctor get them out of it. No, everything has to be colossal. Even last week's more restrained and tense episode was not just about The Doctor helping the crew of a submarine survive an extra-terrestrial encounter; it also had to somehow be about averting global nuclear war. Moffat and his writers don't seem to trust the notion that a story can be worth telling if the only things at stake are the lives of people caught up in events they don't understand, which is antithetical to The Doctor as established by the show to this point.
All of this is a massive preamble to me saying that I thought that "Hide" was one of the best episodes the show has put out in a while precisely because it, for the most part, avoided these pitfalls. Set in 1974, it revolves around the efforts of The Doctor and Clara to help Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his empathic assistant Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) track down a seemingly supernatural spirit. Yes, like R. Dean Taylor and Mark E. Smith before him, Professor Palmer has a ghost in his house.
Except, of course, it isn't really a ghost, but a time traveller (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) who has become trapped in a pocket dimension, and her appearances throughout the history of the house are the result of her trying to break through and escape from...something. It falls to The Doctor to enter the pocket dimension and bring her back, one of the many nods or apparent nods to Poltergeist and its ilk, which brings far greater peril to those involved than the spectral figure herself.
While "Hide" might not, strictly speaking, be a ghost story, owing to the fact that there isn't really a ghost in it, it has all the trappings of one and director Mat King did a very good job of recreating the feel of a classic chiller. The CGI was kept to a minimum, with most of the scares coming from eerie silences, the brief appearances of the time traveller and a general mood of quiet fear. This was particularly true during the scenes in which The Doctor became trapped in the pocket dimension, which took the form of an immensely creepy wood through which a herky-jerky monster could easily approach. It's rare for Matt Smith to play The Doctor as someone genuinely terrified by the circumstances, largely because he's someone who is so powerful and in control, so it was a pleasant change of pace to see him frightened for his life.
While the episode mostly confined itself to the problems of the five characters and the question of whether The Doctor would get the time traveller out before she died, "Hide" didn't completely escape the trap of epicness. In order to determine that she was not a ghost, The Doctor and Clara took the TARDIS on a trip through the history of the house and the surrounding area, marking its existence from both the beginning and end of time. For what was otherwise a very small, focused bit of storytelling, this was quite jarring and could have derailed the entire episode. After all, the problems of five little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, especially when measured against all of existence.
What pulled it back from the brink was a lovely scene in which Clara acknowledged just how grand such an action is. She realises that The Doctor's existence outside of time means that at any moment he will be in a time and place where everyone he knows, including Clara, is long dead and forgotten, which makes everyone he meets a ghost on some metaphysical level. It was a wonderfully written scene from writer Neil Cross, who also wrote the thoroughly middling "The Rings of Ankhaten", and it was beautifully played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who really sold the idea that Clara would be over-awed by this realisation. It was a very human moment which nicely deflated the possible pomposity of the scene.
Everything works out in the end; The Doctor and the time traveller escape the pocket dimension, Palmer and Emma realise they both have feelings for each other, and The Doctor even goes back to the pocket dimension to free the monster, who he realises is not evil, but trapped and alone. It's a sweet ending that nearly falls into another pitfall - Moffat's penchant for "Everybody lives!" endings - but was undercut effectively by the revelation that The Doctor came to see Emma, hoping that she would be able to use her psychic abilities to explain just who, or what, Clara is. She says that there is nothing strange about Clara, but she is far more scared than she appears. Based on the preview for next week's episode, which shows her apparently getting lost within the infinite confines of the TARDIS, she might have very good reason to be.
- Obviously the episode tipped its hat to a lot of mainstream ghost stories, not least of all Poltergeist, but it reminded me most clearly of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. If you haven't read it, you simply must; it's a post-modern ghost story which is one of the scariest things I've ever read.
- The episode didn't seem to be set in 1974 for any particular reason other than to indulge a love for the sort of analogue machinery that can be toggled. Actually, that's more than reason enough.