Friday, May 10, 2013

Hide [7.10]

"This house is exactly what you would expect in a nightmare. Yes, we're in a world of dreams. Creaking doors, thunder and lightning, monsters and all the things that go bumpety bumpety in the night. "
             The First Doctor -- The Chase

How to write your own Doctor Who story.

1: Introduce monster.

2: Introduce supporting cast.

3: Demonstrate that situation of supporting cast ironically mirrors the situation of the Doctor and Rose.

4: Demonstrate that situation of monster ironically mirrors that of supporting cast.

5: Pull solution to monster out of thin air.

6: Show that solution to monster pulled out of thing air is also solution to supporting cast.

7: Hint that solution to supporting cast would also be solution to Doctor and Rose, but can't be applied, because if it did they would live happily ever after and the series would end.

8: Rinse and repeat. 

For example:

a: Monster is time traveller, lost lonely and alone, needing contact with other humans to help it. 

b: Other monster is apparently scary alien, but actually lonely and needing lurve and a place to be happy in. 

c: Supporting cast are Repressed Scientist and Empathic Assistant 

d: Repressed Scientist is lying about his past, origins, name etc because of terrible unspecified things he did during a war; Repressed Scientist's Empathic Assistant is attracted to Repressed Scientist but can't say so.

e: Solution to monster is to take a risk, reach out to it with your feelings, bring her home, etc.

f: This is also the solution to the other monster.

g: Solution to scientists is to take a risk, reach out with their feelings, etc etc etc. 

h: Solution to the Doctor and Clara would be....

This formula was established in Season 1, and yes, I suppose I am about to say that New Who isn't as good as it used to be. The formula worked at the beginning of the Doctor Who revival because the backstory was only gradually unwinding: we didn't know which bits of the Doctor Who "universe" had been carried over into New Who, and we didn't know what this new Doctor was going to be like. So, in Episode 2, "The End of the World", Rose see the earth destroyed, which turns out to reflect the Doctor's own situation  — which we didn't know about  — of having witnessed the destruction of his own planet. Similarly, the threat in "Dalek" — one Dalek, last of its kind, not even a proper Dalek, alone in the universe — reflected the Doctor's situation, which we were only just getting the hang of, being the Last of the Time Lords. It also introduced us to the idea that this Doctor has a bad side and revealed that the Time Lord's adversaries in the Time War were the Daleks.

But seven, or really eight, or actually arguably nine, seasons on, there is nothing about the Doctor left to reveal. There is a big tease going on about his True Name, but you can bet that this is going to be more or less a clever trick. So each week, we have a monster that ironically reflects the fact that the Doctor is, like, cosmically lonely, looking for love, the last of his kind, has a potential dark side, carries the weight of the universe on his shoulders, I've seen so much, I'm sorry, jammy dodgers, I'm so very sorry... Things which it is really not worth symbolizing because they are now just taken for granted facts. Huge fantasy artifices are being constructed in order to tell us things we already know and which weren't particularly interesting in the first place.  


Toilets are not, in themselves, particularly funny; but a skilled comedian like Ben Elton or Geoffrey Chaucer can make an adult laugh at a toilet joke. But if you want to make a child laugh, you don't need to bother with the joke. Just saying the word "poo" is enough. Similarly, a skilled story teller can construct a story about a  haunting in such a way as to scare an adult. But if scaring kids is your thing, you don't need to worry about the story: at a particular age, they seem to be just programmed to find ghosts scary.

See also: clowns. 

I wonder if the whole New Who project has been hog-tied from the beginning by a misunderstanding of what it means to find a TV show "scary". Being afraid of the Daleks (because they might kill you) is not the same as being afraid of a ghost (because it shouldn't exist). But that is different again from being afraid of a story with a ghost in it, or a story with a Dalek in it. Mr C.S Lewis asked us to consider how we would feel if someone told us that there was a lion in the next room; and compare it with how we would feel if someone told us that there was a ghost in the next room. He also said that growing up in Ireland, he had met people who honestly believed in both ghosts and fairies, and who were un-bothered by the former but terrified of the latter. 

If I were in an old house and heard unexplained banging noises and felt drops in temperature, I would probably think that there was a burglar in the building, or that the boiler was about to blow up. And that might "frighten" me, because being beaten up and having hot water poured over me are not things which I particularly enjoy. But that's not what we are talking about when we talk about being "scared" by ghosts, and that's why grown-up ghost stories are relatively unlikely to involve creaky floors, clanking chains, and things with sheets over their head that go woo-woo. The ghost story that actually "frightens" us is the one where we are unexpectedly visited by an old friend, have a drink with him, and find out a week later that he's been dead an buried for six months. Physical danger frightens us; ghosts creep us out. Somewhere in between is the weird yucky feeling we get in the presence of snakes, spiders, dead bodies and Nigel Farage.

Hide is heavily trailed as being a "scary" Doctor Who story. It isn't remotely creepy or uncanny, and the monster is less dangerous than the one which nearly set off a nuclear war last week. It is constructed on the the assumption that I am eight years old and will be sent into paroxysms of delighted horror every time a grown up says "!". I'm not and I wasn't and I don't, as matter of fact, believe I would have been. I had far more nightmares about nuclear war than I ever did about ghosts. Thank you, again, Mrs Thatcher.

The first quarter was pretty well done; but it was a pretty well done episode of the Sarah-Jane Adventures, rather than a pretty well done episode of Doctor Who. It seemed to be running through the standard tropes of ghost stories (it does indeed show every sign of being a dark and stormy night) and going nowhere very interesting with them. Mr Scott and Ms Raine (who my mother tells me features prominently in a popular TV show about babies) turn in good performances as the Repressed Professor and his Beautiful Empathetic assistant, always assuming that you believe that "she's- not-worth-risking-a-single-hair-on-your-head-for-not-to-me" is the sort of thing an actual human being might say. 

I liked the idea that the Professor has become Obsessed with ghost hunting because of the people he killed during the war, although this seems to rather take for granted that "inexplicable apparitions" and "post-death survival" go together like "metaphor" and "perfunctory". (Surely that's what superstitious natives think? Serious Paranormal Investigators know better.) I liked the confrontation between the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS, shoehorned into the script though it undoubtedly was. I don't buy the idea that, because the Doctor can travel forward in time to a point where any given person has already died, every person is, from his point of view, a ghost. I'm not even sure what that means. There is a very nice episode of Sarah-Jane in which Rani is sent back in time by a man with a funny hat and meets Lady Jane Grey. There is no expectation that she should be less engaged with her new friend's tragic situation because, from a certain point of view, she's already been dead for five hundred years. I thought that the use of the TARDIS to get at the explanation for the ghost was quite fun: I like the idea that the entire history of the human race is, for the Doctor pretty much just a short detour and a minor subplot. 

The noise about pocket dimensions made no sense at all, and to be honest, I had very little idea what was supposed to be happen during the last twenty minutes. I sometimes complain that Doctor Who has offered us a reasonable "magic" solution to a situation, and overlaid it with an unconvincing scientific gloss. This one I couldn't even follow as magic. The Doctor needs some weird equipment and the Repressed Obsessed Professor's Beautiful Empathic Assistant because the TARDIS can't go into the pocket dimension except at the very last minute when Clara persuades it that it can. Oh well.

The monster that was chasing Future Lady around the blasted heath was genuinely alien, and the dreamlike quality of those sequences were about as close as we got to "scary" in this "scary" episode. Did you notice that it was credited as "the crooked man"? Would anyone like to bet folding money that the episode was going to be called "the crooked house" write up to the very last minute?

The final 30 seconds are one of those times when my jaw drops and I find it impossible to believe that I am actually watching Doctor Who. Or, indeed, anything that has been put together by a professional writer. Lots of writers, I guess, change their mind about how their story should end in the process of writing it. Most writers go back and do a second draft and put in foreshadowing and clues and stuff. But Doctor Who is the bestist and most wonderfullest and most seriousist bit of proper grown up drama on television, so there's no need to bother. "It's not a ghost story, it's a love story." You're just not trying, are you?

I pretty much stopped taking the episode seriously during the scene when the Doc and Clara were by themselves in the music room, and there was a scary cold spot and a scary banging. (The episode therefore scores a weak 33% on the Ril/Moff Scale.)

"I know I'm a teeny tiny bit terrified" says Clara "But I'm an adult. There's no need to actually hold my hand". 

"Clara" says the Doctor "I'm not holding your hand", whereupon they scream and run down the stairs.

I grant that, on the fifth viewing you find out that there is a reason for this. It seems that the genuinely horrible monster chasing Future Lady is not genuinely horrible at all, but merely looking for a lover, and presumably holds hand with Clara across the dimensions because he's lonely. But at this point in the story, it feels less like something out of a ghost story and more like something out of a pantomime. In the, er, quintessentially splendid "Ghost Light", Ace was scared of Gabriel Chase because it freaked her out when she was a little girl. ("Ace tells the Doctor about her worst nightmare" explained the Radio Time "So he takes her there.") In the also pretty good "Satan Pit", the Doctor claims to be unnerved by the devil creature but because the idea of something coming from "before the universe" doesn't fit into his world view. Here we have two people who kept their nerve on a nuclear sub when an alien was about to blow up the world screaming like two kids on a ghost train pretending because they think they are in a room with ghostie. 

So. A ghost which isn't frightening, wrapped up as a metaphor for stuff we already know, with a more than usually meaningless magical-science explanation.

And it's "MET A BEE LIS" not "MET TEB A LUS"


Ken Shinn said...

In all fairness, that "I'm not holding your hand" moment is an homage to a similar - but, it has to be said, much more powerful moment in Robert Wise's "The Haunting".

Gavin Burrows said...

I found one of the weaknesses of this episode to be an inconsistency of tone. It seemed unsure whether it wanted to be genuinely scary or just a cartoony dash through all the Scooby Doo tropes. Actual-spectral-scary-stuff doesn't go well with people running round an old house going "waaaaaah!"

Of course with 'the Chase' they couldn't decide whether that was an actual haunted house or not. I expect that proves something or other.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ken: actually, it's a reference to Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, on which the Wise movie was based. I read it years and years ago, and the "Who's hand was I holding?" moment is still the one that sticks in my mind.

Tynam said...

It's interesting to consider how this episode might have been different if the guest scientist had been (as the author intended) Quatermass, rather than an allusion.

It's disappointing to consider that it might not have changed much.

It's telling that the most original character interaction is between Clara and the TARDIS.