The Doctor and Clara arrive at Caliburn House in 1974 to assist Professor Alec Murray and his psychic assistant Emma Grayling in their investigation into an ages-old apparition known as the Caliburn Ghast – who in fact is distant descendant Hila Tacorian, a pioneering time traveller from centuries hence trapped in a pocket universe where time moves at infinitesimal speed.
A mystery wrapped inside a ghost story wrapped inside a love story
This is not a ghost story – it’s a love story.
Following on from the retro feel of last week’s Cold War, Neil Cross‘ second script (his first being the widely derided The Rings of Akhaten) has even more of a retro feel to it, giving us a sci-fi twist on a traditional ghost story which could easily have been written for any of the first four Doctors. It treads a fine line at times between genuine scares and Scooby Doo moments – Clara’s chirpy “Ghostbusters!” in the pre-credits teaser being a joke as lame as it was predictable – but overall this turns into a tautly-written, beautifully directed piece which combines both the ‘ghost’ and sci-fi elements neatly as well as balancing action and introspection, giving us a pair of supporting characters in Murray and Grayling who hold a mirror up to our two principals to reveal further depths to the Doctor/Clara mystery without giving too much away.
Initially, Cross’ tale rolls out a host of familiar ghost story staples: a creepy and atmospherically dark manor house, random banging and thudding, characters wandering around holding a candelabra, unexplained cold spots, a message appearing temporarily on a wall. This, combined with an accomplished performance behind the cameras by director Jamie Payne, whose use of light and colour palette to bring both Caliburn House and the misty forest of the pocket universe to life is matched by excellent judgement of pace to shoe-horn the more introspective, talky bits in and around the action sequences without ever feeling clunky.
The two supporting characters also come across as well-drawn and three-dimensional, and both are brought to life by subtle, understated performances by Dougray Scott and Call the Midwife‘s Jessica Raine. Alec Palmer is in many ways a human version of the Doctor – a brave man with a brilliant, inquisitive mind, haunted by the memory of those he has sent to their deaths in times of war and hiding those horrors behind an innocuous mask (claiming that he was merely a POW during World War II). Emma Grayling is his faithful long-time assistant – there’s a short but cute riff early on about the distinction between ‘companion’ and ‘assistant’ – who so obviously carries a torch for him, much as Rose, Martha and (briefly) Amy did for the Doctor.
The final piece in the puzzle which makes this episode work is Matt Smith‘s performance, as he flits from child-like glee at the discovery of a toggle-switch – and you can tell from the TARDIS control consoles that this Doctor is very much an analogue kind of guy – to visible fear when being pursued by the Crooked Man in the pocket universe. It is not often we see the Time Lord genuinely afraid for his life, but Smith sells it with utter conviction.
The Doctor and Clara
In the episode’s coda, we learn that the Doctor came to 1974 not to meet Murray but to tap into Emma’s psychic skills to shed some insight into the mystery of Clara. But all she can offer is that she sees Clara as just an ordinary girl. Is this genuine, or is she concealing the real truth because she distrusts the Doctor? After all, she had earlier told Clara, “Don’t trust him. There’s a sliver of ice in his heart” – an echo of “The Doctor lies.”
Certainly, Emma’s warning is enough for Clara to see the Doctor in a different light, as she watches him travelling casually from the beginning to the end of Earth’s life cycle to solve the mystery:
To you I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead a hundred billion years … To you I’m a ghost – we’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.
To which the Doctor’s response – “You are the only mystery worth solving” – is equally apposite to both Clara as an individual and the human race as a whole.
There’s also a further allusion to the Doctor’s capacity for ruthlessness which we have seen several times this season – his treatment of Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, his willingness to condemn Jex in A Town Called Mercy, his apparent lack of care for Miss Kizlet’s fate in The Bells of Saint John, being told he has the smell of a soldier in Cold War – as he responds flippantly and dispassionately to Emma’s question about how much pain the amplification of her psychic powers will cause. This is surely heading somewhere – but where exactly?
And as for the Doctor’s twice-stated assertion that, “The paradoxes resolve themselves, by and large” – is this a signpost to the solution of the mystery of Clara Oswald, and potentially the fate of the Doctor?
- “I do love a toggle switch.” (I have to agree.)
- In attempting to come up with the opposite of ‘ignorance is bliss’, Clara comes up with ‘ignorance is Carlisle’. No, I have no idea why, either.
- Another riff on the theme of 11 Doctors as Clara states, “Whisky is the 11th most disgusting thing ever invented.”
- The return of the Tenth Doctor’s spacesuit, as first obtained in the two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.
- To amplify Emma’s psychic ability, the Doctor uses a blue crystal from Metebelis III, first seen in a Third Doctor story, The Green Death. Although I thought the Doctor only ever had one crystal (which he stole) that he subsequently gave to companion Jo Grant as a wedding present. Did he sneak back at a later date and nick another?
- The Doctor’s low-key “Geronimo!” as he launches himself into the wormhole.
- At a moment of great personal peril, the Doctor stops for a moment and breaks into a grin as he realises that the unknown thudding heard in Caliburn House was in fact the Crooked Man hammering at the walls of the pocket universe.
- The TARDIS sounds its cloister bell, which is only rung at times of grave peril for either itself or its occupants, as the Doctor becomes trapped in the pocket universe. It’s the fifth time we have heard the bell during the Eleventh Doctor’s time, the previous occasions being his first appearance in The Eleventh Hour, The Curse of the Black Spot, The Doctor’s Wife and The God Complex.