After 'The Rings of Akhaten' I wasn't expecting much from this episode, so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be excellent. At first, I thought we were in for a bog standard Scooby Doo style run around, but somewhere along the way it transformed into a glorious sci-fi/fantasy tale of love lost, love found, mortality and pooper scoopers.
According to Neil Cross' interview in SFX: 'I wanted to evoke in the core audience, and especially kids of about nine to twelve-years-old, the feelings that I used to get when I watched Doctor Who at that age, which was essentially terror.' Especially the nine to twelves? What a total bastard—I would have been terrified by this episode at that age! I wasn't that happy with it at my age and I'm currently in my mid 500s (give or take many, many centuries.) But the atmosphere was undeniably effective, helped by the Caliburn House setting, candle lit interiors, and great use of shadows. Which only goes to prove that it's not so much what we see that unnerves us, but that which we almost see.
This was the first episode Jenna filmed for the series, which probably explains why she seemed a little more cautious than last week (although admittedly ghosts provide a different psychological challenge to Ice Warriors.) For her maiden outing, I think she did well. I particularly enjoyed her swapping hilarious/endearing facial expressions with Matt. I also liked Clara's realisation that every time they travel outside of her era, she's either dead or in a state of non-existence. (I'm using 'non-existence' and 'death' to describe both ends of the spectrum, rather than as a specific comment on life after death.) In the context of the story, the ghost metaphor was spot on.
But the Doctor's also a ghost. His travels take him to points in time both before and after his natural lifespan, occasionally necessitating that he inhabit the same space as a prior/latter incarnation. (Sometimes several at once.) And Time Lords can die, too. He's just had longer to come to terms with his own mortality. Yet none of this diminishes his importance in the grand scheme of things any more than it does Clara's. Was his comment that Clara was a 'mystery worth solving' directed at her specifically, or to mankind in general? Regardless, it was clearly enough to get Clara's brain working. Surely she must realise by now that the Doctor's interest in her goes beyond mere companionship? Maybe it's time for the Doctor to come clean.
Yet Clara's evidently normal. Emma confirmed it, which leaves us back at square one. Well, not quite. The TARDIS holographically trash talking Clara at least confirms that the TARDIS does indeed have a problem with her. Plus, it locked her out—again! The question is: why? I really enjoyed the TARDIS stuff tonight: from the Doctor drawing our attention to the missing umbrella rack (the furniture of choice for many a past Doctor), to the ringing of cloister bell prior to the TARDIS flying itself into the pocket universe, to the expansion of the TARDIS' holographic voice interface. And it was nice to see Sexy talking again, even if she was wearing Clara's face. (Maybe even because of it.)
Emma's exchange with the Doctor towards the end of the episode felt like an appeal for him to notice Clara. Was she trying to make him see what she perceived to be obvious? (Thus returning the favour.) Or was it simply an enthusiastic affirmation of Clara's normality? There were clearly loose parallels between the Doctor/Clara and Alec/Emma, but outside of wanting to 'solve her' (not a euphemism), does the Doctor feel anything for Clara? Obviously, there's friendship—his casual arm around her shoulder is proof of that—but what are we to make of its rapid removal after the Doctor finished waxing lyrical about aliens in love? Did he simply become hyper-aware of the intimacy of the gesture, or was he shocked by the reaction his own story elicited?
The characters of Emma and Alec were so well sketched out, I almost wish they were recurring characters. The combination of his survivor guilt and her natural timidity made for a perfectly awkward relationship, beautifully portrayed by Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine. Emma reaching for Alec's hand, only to have him pull away, was a lovely moment, as was Alec revealing that he'd taken up ghost hunting in an attempt to reconnect with the people whose deaths he'd caused. Unfortunately, his ghost busting obsession was preventing him from connecting with real people—specifically, the lovely Emma Grayling.
Thankfully for all concerned, it was a situation easily remedied. Determined not to let history repeat itself, it made absolute sense that Alec would balk at the idea of using Emma to save Hila. Thankfully (for Hila), the greater good eventually prevailed, but not before Alec managed to blurt out his true feelings. The familial link between Emma and Hila was a nice touch, too. Neil Cross worked hard at making every detail of this episode count—nothing felt wasted—and I liked that Emma and Alec didn't kiss. Holding hands seemed more in keeping with the fragile nature of their painfully slow to develop relationship. A full blown snogfest would have been too much.
Speaking of too much, what about that ending? Did they really need to give the monster of the week a back-story all of its own? It did feel a little tacked on, but I suppose it gave the unnamed monster in the Pocket Universe both motivation and depth. I'm not sure I totally bought that it was just pining for its mate, however. It definitely laughed at the Doctor's terror. But nice message that just because something looks ugly on the outside, it's not necessarily ugly on the inside. It was ugly, though. Good grief! Only a mother could love that thing. And it's equally hideous other half, obviously.
After a solid but unmemorable start to the second half of the season, this felt like a step in the right direction. The story was full without feeling cluttered, was stuffed to the gills with Classic Who references, the story went places I wasn't expecting, and the plot had more twists and turns than a snake with a broken back. My favourite episode of the season so far.
—The minutiae of this episode was compelling to watch: from Clara smiling at the thought of the Doctor's big chin, to the Doctor looking for the ghost inside a teapot, to Clara giggling at the Doctor's 'pants on fire' comment. The little things between the big stuff really make episodes for me.
—Whisky is the 11th most disgusting thing ever invented? According to the Doctor Who Facebook page, there's a lot of stuff in the next few episodes relating to the 50th special. Which means I'm starting to ponder the potential significance of even the most glib comment.
—Emma's 'don't trust him, there's a sliver of ice in his heart' comment was reminiscent of Graham Greene's 'splinter of ice' comment from his autobiography 'A Sort of Life'.
—Too many Classic Who shout-outs to mention, but I'll run through a few: the ringing of the cloister bell (RotD), the Eye of Harmony (TDA), the Pocket Universe (TCT), a mysterious stately home (GL), and the blue crystal from Metabelis 3 (TGD).
—We all know what having a 'big chin' means ------------
—The Doctor's pockets are full of crap. (Maybe even literally, should the situation demand it.)
Doctor: 'No! Not in here. How do you expect her to like you? She's soaking wet. It's a health and safety nightmare.'
Doctor: 'Are you coming?'
Doctor: 'To find the ghost.'
Clara: 'Why would I want to do that?'
Doctor: 'Because you want to. Come on.'
Clara: 'Well, I dispute that assertion.'
Clara: 'Dare me.'
Doctor: 'I dare you. No takesy backsys.'
Doctor: 'Ignorance is... what's the opposite of bliss?'
Doctor: 'Yes, yes... Carlisle. Ignorance is Carlisle.'
Doctor: 'We're going 'always'.'
Clara: 'We're going always?'
Clara: 'That's not actually a sentence.'
Doctor: 'Well, it's got a verb in it.'
Doctor: 'Every lonely monster needs a companion.'
Four moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.