Thoughts on: Hide

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.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Rings of Akhaten

“Something awesome.” That’s where Clara asked to be taken in her first trip in the Tardis. Rose was taken to see the end of the world in the year 5 billion. Martha was taken to visit Shakespeare in Elizabethan England. Donna to Pompeii’s last day. Amy to the Starship UK to save a star whale. The Doctor gives Clara Akhaten, which, as a “companion’s-first-trip” destination, easily beats the lot. Akhaten surely ranks among the most fully-formed, immersive alien planets the Tardis has visited in the revived series. Clara steps out of the Tardis and is immediately hit by a barrage of strange colours, shapes, sights, sounds and smells. It’s an entirely novel culture, a totally alien world, something Doctor Who, a show premised on “all of space and time”, doesn’t do quite nearly as often as one would expect. Here, the show delivers sumptuously, though. It’s constructed a whole, unique culture and ejected the viewer right into the middle of it. This is what being a tourist in a strange culture is supposed to be like, and here Doctor Who does space tourism. The visuals, throughout the whole episode, are duly spectacular.

After a couple of charming minutes watching the Doctor and Clara play the tourists, the plot of this episode gets rolling in the person of the sweet Merry Gejelh. Merry’s an enchanting little thing, and she brings out the empathetic and compassionate side in Clara in a few minutes’ beautiful dialogue in which Clara gently soothes Merry’s anxieties and convinces her to complete her duty. We learn a thing or two about the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion as she comforts Merry in those moments, such as how the death of her own mother explains her feeling of compulsion to look after Angie and Artie as their nanny after their mother died. This episode’s plot, centring around the awakening of the “Old God”, was generally somewhat light and insubstantial. There wasn’t all that much to it, and the resolution was simplistic. But (and there’s a very emphatic “but”), it was still a hugely gripping and enjoyable romp. There was real suspense in the threat of Grandfather the mummy in the pyramid scene, which was realised terrifyingly and actually made compelling what little there was of substantive narrative.

Everyone remembers The Rings of Akhaten for one thing though. It’s when the Doctor realises he’s made a “semantics mix-up” and mistaken the mummy for the Old God… which is actually a dirty great planet that eats people’s souls. And he decides (clearly against his better judgment) to fight it. There follows about three of the most electrified, hypnotising minutes in the Doctor Who canon. The Doctor’s speech, raging against the Old God, offering up his own millennium’s accumulated memories, is exceptionally powerful, profoundly rousing stuff. I’ve seen it many times now, and it still never fails to bring on the goosebumps. I’d certainly consider it close to being one my all-time favourite scene. Matt Smith is otherworldly, digging deep and delivering one of the standout performances as the Doctor in those couple of minutes. He brings out forcefully at the same time the Doctor’s rage at the Old God as well as, in offering his own memories, the intense pain and regret those memories evoke. The acting is so awe-inspiringly good that Matt convinces you that he really is feeling the Doctor’s emotion and pain as the Doctor offers himself up, all that he is, all 1,300 years of him. The words themselves are poetic and rousing, and they’re set just perfectly to Merry’s song.

Some final thoughts. All the music in this episode is exquisite. My most energetic praise to Murray Gold, who has really seized the opportunity to display his considerable creative talents. For the life of me I can’t understand how some can disparage the music in this episode. It was beautiful. Take it from an actual classically-trained musician. I mean, I get that musical taste is subjective, but some music is just objectively good. Ravel’s Bolero, for example. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Gangnam Style. And this. Secondly, despite his exceptional delivery of the speech to the Old God, I found Matt Smith’s acting somewhat lacking again in the rest of this episode. The phrase “phoning it in” comes to mind. Admittedly, Matt wasn’t really given much of substance in this episode apart from the speech (and perhaps he expended all his energies on that speech; if so, I’m not complaining at all). However, his distant performance actually did create an interesting effect of making the Doctor seem distinctly aloof, tired and, above all, older. Which actually works really well, given both Matt Smith’s “old-man-in-a-young-man’s-body” Doctor and the maturity and increasing weariness of the Eleventh Doctor at this stage of his regeneration. It creates a totally different, and interesting dynamic with Clara as contrasted with that between Matt’s Doctor and Amy. Tom Baker’s uncommitted performance in his final season was similarly ironically effective in the same way.

Rating: 8/10.