I think this episode is the first that’s actually had me jittering in my seat since The Empty Child all the way back in 2005. It’s seriously scary. It’s not just the dark, moody haunted house with its resident wailing phantom; the “monster” of this episode was one of the most terrifying things featured in a Doctor Who episode — at least to look at. The fear factor was retrospectively diminished somewhat by the eventual revelation that the monster was just a pining lover separated from its other half, but, gosh, wasn’t it freaky while it lasted? Those peekaboo scares set the hair on end, and the scenes in the pocket dimension forest, with the Doctor being terrorised by the male monster, were heart-in-mouth stuff. The scares of this episode were accomplished by exceptional direction, which created scenes, particularly in the first half of the episode, positively dripping with suspense and claustrophobia.
This episode in general is just brilliantly produced. The first fifteen to twenty minutes or so are tinctured with this sense of irresistible, compelling mystery. It’s the oldest trope in the horror genre, a ghost in a haunted house, but, when done right, as here, it makes for unfailingly captivating viewing. The revelation that this particular phantasmal visitation was actually a time traveller caught in a pocket dimension was a nice sci-fi spin on the very traditional ghost-story premise, and the scenes of the Doctor hopping through millions of years of the Earth’s history to gather his evidence were a nice touch. Part of the success of this story, too, was its character element, and, apart from an ebullient Doctor and Clara, the episode featured two endearing, wonderfully-realised characters in secret-government-operative-turned-ghost-watcher Professor Alec Palmer and his empathic assistant Emma Grayling. Both were charming, well-developed characters played deftly by Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine, and the romantic tension between the two was pitched perfectly, puncturing the spooky atmosphere nicely.
This episode makes time for some really effective poignant, contemplative little moments in between its varied chills and thrills. The Doctor and Palmer sharing a meaningful moment over what prompted him to go looking for ghosts: his experiences with death. Doubtless the Doctor understood only too well Palmer’s impulse to inquire after the dead. Nice little bit of foreshadowing of the 50th Anniversary special there. There was also Clara’s being confronted with the entire life-cycle of her world, and realising how little that means to the Doctor. “We’re all ghosts to you.” This show often lets the viewer forget that the Doctor isn’t human, but it’s little, jarring moments like this that jolt us back into remembering that the Doctor is not human; he’s an alien, sometimes unrecognisably alien. That said, I’m not sure the Doctor’s reply to Clara’s assertion — “You are the only mystery worth solving.” — was all that in-character. Not the most reassuring thing he could have said. Whatever happened to “You’re all that I ever remember.”?
This was the first episode Jenna Coleman filmed as Clara 3.0, and it doesn’t show at all. Jenna is wonderful here. She pitches her performance perfectly, and endears her character effortlessly to the audience. Clara here is obviously scared, but also gutsy and brave. She compensates for her fear with sass. Clara is also convincingly disturbed when challenging the Doctor over how unaffected he is by witnessing the birth to death of the Earth. Many fans insist that Clara in Series 7 was too much of a generic companion with no discernible personality. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view, but, upon this re-watching of Series 7, much less so than I used to be. So far, I’ve loved watching Clara. She’s a worthy successor to Amy, and her chemistry with Matt Smith’s Doctor is electric and a joy to watch. I recall vaguely that Clara seemed to deteriorate as a character as the series went on, so I’ll hold off my judgment until then, but, for now, I’m liking what I see. I think perhaps, when I first saw these episodes, I was still missing Amy, and was inclined to see Clara as an interloper, which was why I wasn’t all that keen on her the first time round. Now that I’ve (finally) got over Amy’s heartbreaking departure from the show, I find I warm to Clara in Series 7 a lot more.
There’s some more quality classic-spotting fun to be had in this episode. The dynamic between Professor Palmer and his “assistant” Emma was cleverly contrasted with that between the Doctor and Clara, the former recalling the more staid Doctor-“assistant” dynamic of the 1970s, particularly that between Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Jo Grant (between whom there were subtle hints of an unspoken romance). The Metebelis III crystal was a big nod in the Third Doctor’s direction (the Doctor seems to have forgotten how to pronounce “Metebelis” at some point in his intervening nine regenerations). I also loved the Doctor wondering where his hatstand had got to, which he assumedly put away several hundred years ago. Finally, the Tardis’s bullying Clara is great fun. There’s a bit of subtle teasing going on here, which as we know, ultimately pays off in The Name of the Doctor, but, in the meantime, it’s funny and intriguing to watch the Tardis’s suspicions over the Doctor’s inexplicable new companion.