A mysterious ghost sends the Doctor traveling through time and pocket universes

By Darren Franich
Updated April 21, 2013 at 01:01 AM EDT
Adrian Rogers/BBC

Doctor Who

S7 E8
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  • BBC America

The simultaneous joy of watching Doctor Who is that every episode is completely different and yet identical. Different, because each week the show reboots its basic setting, with a new supporting cast and even a radically different genre. Just in this current run of episodes, we’ve had a techno-thriller set in the present, a galactic showdown set on the cusp of an angry-demon superstar, a ticking-clock Alien riff onboard a Soviet submarine, and now a mid-70s haunted-mansion ghost story. But the Who machine has a pleasingly well-oiled, sui generis structure. The pre-credits scene introduces the new setting and a new cast of ace British actors; the first half of the episode establishes a fairly clear-cut story arc; and the second half of the episode usually winds up undermining that story arc, as monsters begin to seem less monstrous and minor actions have major cosmic reverberations. There are variations, of course. (A typical Steven Moffat will regularly undermine, deconstruct, and reboot its own story arc every five minutes or so.)

And then there are episodes like “Hide,” which float along fairly directly, with one sudden radical shift that would be impossible on any other TV show. The hour began in a scary room in a scary house. Professor Alec Palmer — glasses, stern, handsome — announced the location (Caliburn House) and the date and time (November 25th, 1974, 11:04 PM.) His partner Emma — quiet, a little sad, beautiful — announced the mystical nature of their work. There were spirits inhabiting the house, and curious technology attempting to communicate with them. A bizarre event occurred: an ethereal figure appeared, lit up by the light from Palmer’s camera. Then an even more bizarre event: The Doctor and Clara knocked on the door and declared themselves Ghostbusters.

The Doctor knew about Palmer’s work. And not just the ghost stuff, either. He knew that Palmer was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a.k.a. the Special Operations Executive, a WWII espionage unit. He also knew Palmer was a talented water colorist. He referred to Emma as Palmer’s “Companion,” establishing a link between the professor and himself. (Palmer was played by Dougray Scott, who was almost Wolverine in X-Men and almost James Bond in Casino Royale; this episode seemed to thematically argue that he could’ve been the Doctor, too.) The Doctor also established that Emma was an empathic psychic who can “sense feelings,” so basically Betazoid.

Then they got a rundown of the mansion’s history. Caliburn House was only a few decades old, but the ghost in the house dated back centuries. She was mentioned in Saxon poetry, in fairy tales: “The Witch of the Well.” There were photos and paintings of the ghost, always in the same position, always screaming. The Doctor went to go investigate the house. Clara came with him, after some coaxing. The Sonic Screwdriver helped him track down a curious corner of the house, where he drew a chalk circle. There was something moving in the shadows; the house began to get very cold; and there was a “very loud, angry noise.” Clara told the Doctor that she wasn’t scared and he didn’t have to hold her hand, leading to the immortal horror-movie line: “I’m not holding your haaaaaAAAAAANNND!” It looked exactly like this:

In the main room, a shiny black mirror-thing suddenly appeared, floating in the air. In disappearing magic ink, the ghost had written a message: “HELP ME.”

NEXT: Professor, profess thyselfThe Doctors and their companions settled in for the evening. Clara poured Emma some whisky, which they both opted out of drinking. “Whisky is the 11th most disgusting thing ever invented,” said Clara, which either means she’s never tried Laphroaig or she’s definitely tried Laphroaig. Clara asked if Emma and the Professor had ever acted upon the emotions that were clearly bubbling under the surface — especially considering that Emma was an empath. “Sometimes we get our signals mixed up,” Emma explained. Was she really sensing that the Professor had feelings for her — or were those just her own feelings reflecting back at her?

In turn, Emma asked if there was anything between the Doctor and his newest companion. Clara laughed that off, but Emma told her forcefully: “Don’t trust him. There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.” (ASIDE: Over on Twitter, @ManInBlack2 pointed out to me that the Doctor has mentioned his heart a couple different times this season. “Sliver of ice in his heart” could just be an empath’s accurate read of the Doctor’s personality…but could this all be pointing forward to a greater revelation? What could the Doctor’s heart have to do with the Mystery of Clara? Clara = Multiple people, same heart; The Doctor = One person, multiple hearts? END OF ASIDE.)

The Doctor chatted with Professor Palmer about his own past as a war hero. Palmer had never quite left the war behind him — the men he sent to their deaths, the actions he performed for King and Country. There was an intriguing correlation between the two characters, two old heroes with bruised emotions struggling for companionship and keeping themselves busy with curious fantastical missions. But that was right about when everything changed, and the Doctor took Clara on a trip through the complete life of the planet earth. They jumped back in time 6 billion years — “It’s a Tuesday, I think.” They were on the site of Caliburn House, which they returned and visited throughout history; in a matter of minutes, they were on the same site at the end of the world. “Have we just watched the entire life cycle of earth, birth to death?” asked Clara. It was a rhetorical question.

This was, to put it mildly, a heck of a leap — especially considering that the episode seemed like a fairly hermetic little ghost story. (It reminded me a little bit of “The Late Philip J. Fry,” the one flat-out brilliant episode in Futurama‘s otherwise so-so second life.) I like how Doctor Who is keeping track of Clara’s slowly expanding understanding of the Doctor’s existence. “To you, I haven’t been born yet,” she said. “And to you, I’ve been dead for a billion years. We’re all ghosts to you.” Clara was having a cosmically existential crisis: She wasn’t just questioning her own purpose, she seemed to be wondering what the purpose of the whole linear universe was, for a being like the Doctor. The key, of course, is that the Doctor doesn’t think the people he meets are all dead. He thinks they’re all alive: Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Dickens and a WWII spy-turned-professor and a curious girl from 2012 named Clara, all of them living throughout history.

Still, there was an intriguing double meaning to how the Doctor explained the importance of living beings to Clara: “You are the only mystery worth solving.” Did he mean that “you” as the royal you, as in “The only mystery worth solving is the mystery of one other person, the infinite unknowability of Someone Who Is Not You?” Or did he mean: “You, Clara Not-Oswin Oswald, born three times at least, are the only mystery left for me to solve, the only thing keeping me from the edge of despair?”

Back in 1974, Emma asked Clara why she looked so shaken up. Clara explained, bluntly, that she had just learned the most basic truth in existence: “Everything ends.” Emma countered with another truth, simultaneously more naive and more mature: “Not everything. Not love. Not always.”

NEXT: Hila Tacorian, lost in timeThe Doctor used his jaunt throughout the history of Earth to deduce the true nature of the Witch of the Well. Neither witch nor ghost: She was a time traveler named Hila Tacorian, trapped in a pocket universe where one second amounted to untold eons of earth time. He demonstrated this impossibly massive sci-fi concept with a couple of helpful balloons. “You’re a lantern,” he told Emma, “Guiding her back to the land of the living.” But Hila wasn’t alone. She was running from something. The Doctor couldn’t take the TARDIS to get her: Something about quantum foam. Instead, he created a makeshift Psycho-Chronograph, which could be used in tandem with Emma’s empath powers to open a doorway to that pocket universe. Emma had a question: “Will it hurt?” The Doctor responded, jauntily: “It might be agony. I’ll be interested to find out!”

Emma agreed to help. And so, the Doctor plunged through the reality well into a pocket universe that looked remarkably like The Watcher in the Woods, complete with the alternate-ending monster: A strange creature in the mist. The Doctor brought Hila back to the gateway and sent her through. Problem: After Hila returned to our world, Emma collapsed, and the gateway closed. While Professor Palmer tried to coach Emma into reopening the rift, Clara raced to the TARDIS. Just one problem: The TARDIS didn’t seem to like her very much. The door stayed locked.

Suddenly, another Clara appeared. For a second, I thought we were seeing yet another iteration of Clara…but no, the TARDIS Voice Visual Interface had teasingly appeared as “a person you esteem.” “Oh, you are a cow!” said Clara.The TARDIS was skeptical about zooming into the pocket universe. The entropy would drain the ship’s energy; it wouldn’t last more than ten minutes. Clara begged and pleaded, and the TARDIS relented. (ASIDE: I believe this is the first time the TARDIS has been personified since “The Doctor’s Wife” — and since next week’s episode is very TARDIS-heavy, I wonder if the ship’s apparent distaste for the Doctor’s new companion will be brought up again. END OF ASIDE.)

Meanwhile, in the pocket universe, the Doctor figured out that the monster was trying to piggyback across to the real world. As the strange forest collapsed on itself, Clara flew the TARDIS down, picked up the Doctor, and carried him through the wormhole created by Emma.

So all was well. The Mystery of the Ghost of Caliburn House had been solved. But the Doctor, as it turned out, hadn’t come for the ghost. He came for Emma. Specifically, he came to ask Emma just what, exactly, Clara was. Emma couldn’t offer any answer to the mystery. “She’s a perfectly ordinary girl. Very pretty, very clever, more scared than she lets on.” The Doctor smirked an unreadable smirked: “That’s it, is it?” For now, that’s all — one more dead end in the Mystery of Clara.

Hila thanked Emma for rescuing her. They both thought that the other looked familiar…but that would be impossible, since they’re from different times. At which point the Doctor happily explained that Hila was the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Emma and Professor Palmer. “But you already figured that out, didn’t you?” Professor Palmer looked flabbergasted. “Oh…I suppose not,” said the Doctor. (Time travel can be ever so confusing.) He told the Professor to hold onto Emma’s hand, and never let go.

A happy ending…except it also got the Doctor thinking. They had seen the creature in the pocket universe…but they had also seen a creature hanging out in the shadows of the mansion. All at once, it hit him: “Every lonely monster needs a companion,” he said, a quote that practically reads like the Doctor’s autobiography. The monster in the pocket universe was just trying to get back to the monster in the mansion. “This isn’t a ghost story! It’s a love story!” he exclaimed, before diving back into the pocket universe to rescue the lovelorn creature. We finally got a good look at it. It looked terrifying — like the unloved stepsibling of John Carpenter’s The Thing. “Hello again, you old Romeo!” said the Doctor, as the TARDIS flew downwards. “Get ready to jump!”

Fellow viewers, what did you think of the episode? Any Call the Midwife fans out there enjoy seeing Jessica Raine as Emma? Do you think there is some greater significance to the Doctor’s confusion over the umbrella stand, or is he just getting used to the new TARDIS?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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