In the UK: Saturday, 6.15pm, 20th April 2013, BBC1/BBC1 HD. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Saturday, 8pm/7c, 20th April 2013, BBC America
Nigel Kneale is something of a god on this blog. A revolutionary writer of some of the best scripts in British TV history, his effect can still be felt today. One of his most powerful and influential works was The Stone Tape, a genuinely scary scientific ghost story that has leant its name to a parapsychology concept: the idea that ghosts may be ‘memories’ of events somehow imprinted on buildings or the landscape. When you have a mo, watch it below…
The latest piece of British TV to owe a debt to The Stone Tape was Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who – Hide, which not only had a scientist investigating a haunted house with the help of scientific apparatus and a woman with psychic abilities, it was even set in the 70s.
Now, I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to expect of this. On the one hand, it was written by Neil Cross, who also wrote the rather dreadful Rings of Akhaten. On the other, Cross only got the job of writing Rings, because he’d apparently impressed Steven Moffat and co with the quality of this script. Cross also has ghost-story form, having written the recent BBC2 adaptation of MR James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You.
So which Cross were we going to get, I was wondering: super-scary ghost-writing Cross or sucky singing child Cross?
Thankfully, it turned out to be the former. Here’s a trailer.
Something terrifying is hiding in Caliburn House and the Doctor joins the ghost hunt.
Was it any good?
Beyond a few minor criticisms, I really liked this. In fact, I came close to loving it as a proper scary ghost story that really only pulled punches because of the general age of the audience, I suspect.
There were several layers to the story, all ranging from very good to excellent (or at least as excellent as you can get in 45 minutes in a show with a mandate for action-adventure). We had the initial mystery of the ‘ghost’ itself, which was wonderfully handled, deploying all the television ghost story tropes available: we had the ghost only partially visible in photographs, ghost coming towards camera, ghost with smeared out or distorted face, and ghost only visible for short moments if you’re paying attention. There was poltergeist action, cold spots, loud thumping noises, writing on walls, a history of hauntings in the area, unexplained changes to scientific instruments and more.
Look around and you’ll spot the references, particularly to The Stone Tape, but also other stories, including Poltergeist, Ghostwatch and the best haunted house movie of all, The Haunting. It’s all marvellously well done, with moments of genuine scare, although Cross used the Doctor to defuse a lot of the tension in case, I suspect, it was too frightening for younger viewers and the BBC got complaints.
The eventual revelation of what the ghost is was novel (although why the ghost should be white-faced in the photos and psychic visions, but black in reality, I can’t explain). Add on the creepy monster, which was genuinely nasty-looking, and this was the definite A-plot in all senses.
The next layer was the romance between the two humans, including the surprisingly good Dougray Scott (do you remember him in Mission: Impossible 2?) With so little time to develop it, Cross still managed to make this relationship work, yet still managed to add a darker, Doctor Who undertone to it that tied into the third layer: who is Clara? With the Doctor able to travel throughout time, everyone is effectively already dead to him, so even if people do wind up together, it’s just a passing moment in time to him. It’s a point that doesn’t get brought up very often, but Cross examined it in an adult, thoughtful and surprisingly mournful manner. It’s the kind of thing Russell T Davies looked at in terms of the Doctor’s loneliness, but Cross examines under the Moffat banner of ‘the Doctor as alien and other’.
The mystery of Clara and the TARDIS deepens, with Cross also developing the notion mentioned in Rings that the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara for some reason. It’s interesting to note that the TARDIS presents Clara with a vision of herself, given that she’s the woman who’s died twice. Is this a hint of something deeper, I wonder?
My main criticism, although it’s only a minor one, is that neither the Doctor nor Clara really feels like the character we’ve met before. While Clara is new so is bound to be harder to write for at the moment, the Matt Smith Doctor is more well defined but the dialogue didn’t really feel Smithish.
All the same, these are minor niggles for what’s been easily the best of the season so far (including the previous half, last year). Let’s have more Neil Cross stories, I say – but only one a year.