This week’s Doctor Who tries to fool you into thinking it’s a ghost story, with all the spooks and predictable gender roles such a story would demand. But it does get back to speculating on Clara’s true nature and throws in a lot of things that could be seen as evidence of her connection to Rose. Don’t believe me? Well, read my post.
It’s 1974: Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling are setting up all sorts of spooky equipment in spooky Caliburn house on a spooky night. They are ghost hunters, trying to contact the spirit of the house, with Emma serving as the communicator. One close encounter later and a lot of fiddly instruments going fiddly later, there is an ominous knock on the door. You should know who this is by now, surely?
The Doctor and Clara have just popped by for a look-see, so welcome to another episode that doesn’t give us any hints as to whether Clara is officially traveling with the Doctor yet or just on day trips. A quick check of other seasons with a new companion shows that we’re usually waiting until midseason to get any kind of return to present Earth to get a sense of a new companion’s extended cast, but still, I’m impatient to see more of Clara’s adopted family. Maybe it will give her character something unique among companions, other than that she is a “mystery” for the Doctor. Which would be great, because unwittingly being a “mystery” is not actually a personality trait.
So, Professor Alec Palmer, ghost hunter, former spy and very repressed about it. Emma Graling, the professor’s companion/assistant (or equipment, as the Doctor so insensitively puts it), an empathic psychic. Palmer owns the house because he wanted to help the legendary ghost that lives within, using Emma’s abilities to communicate with it and Palmer’s instruments to objectively record their work. The ghost is the Caliburn Ghast, the Witch of the Well, whose presence is accompanied by a dreadful knocking. She’s been calling out to Emma since they arrived, and yes, they’ve looked for a well and found none. Palmer is adamant that he “will not have this stolen out from under me,” and yes, he does say “me” and not “us,” excluding Emma, without whom he would be unable to work. The Doctor tells them the ministry sent them in and Palmer relents, and honestly with the connections the Doctor has this could actually be true. At this point the episode is unwilling to tip its hat in either direction.
After that exposition, the Doctor and Clara go wandering to have their own ghost sighting, towards the music room, the heart of the house. As an audience we’re even less certain than Palmer and Emma why the Doctor is here. To Clara, he maintains that it is his love of knowledge that drives him, but we all know Rule #1. Back at the ghost hunters’ base, they have a discussion about Palmer’s recently-revealed-by-the-Doctor secret past in espionage (he told Emma he’d been a POW), and then the episode ramps up the sexual tension between them, which is a strange transition from talking about how a woman’s friend and professional superior has been lying to her, but okay. Palmer is not getting a lot of sympathy from me. I guess I’ll never make a good empath.
Clara and the Doctor reach the music room and their heebie jeebie meters start acting up. I mean that metaphorically, by the way, they don’t have actual heebie jeebie meters. This is Doctor Who, and I feel like that’s an important thing to point out. The Doctor finds a cold spot, draws a chalk outline around it, and then they move on. Then things get very ghosty! The ghost hunting instruments go nuts, the chalk outline starts smoking, very, very big deal knocking happens, the entire house gets colder, the windows frost up, and Clara’s candles go out. Emma: “She’s coming.”
The Doctor and Clara freeze to talk about how they are unnerved, and she tells him he can stop holding her hand. But, surprise, for once he’s not! They bolt like teenagers back to the ghost hunting base, where a strange, round reflective object has appeared and is spinning so fast that cracks begin to spiderweb across it from the middle. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Emma sees a woman in the woods, reaching out for her, crying for help. The spinning thing disappears dramatically and “HELP ME” gets written on the wall in smoke and fades.
Cut to Clara and Emma making tea, recovering their nerves, and talking about relationships; while the Doctor and Palmer do ghost hunting work and talk about Palmer’s work. Yes. This is really the level of stereotypical gender role supporting that this episode gets up to.
Donna is not impressed.
Emma is not sure that Palmer is really interested in her, since when you can sense the emotions of others like they were your own, it is easy to confuse your own affection for someone else’s. Clara tells her his love is obvious, “sticks out like a big chin.” This raised my eyebrow, because all this episode has shown us so far is a severely repressed intellectual and a younger woman without whom his work would be impossible. I’m not saying that there couldn’t be love under there, I’m just saying that if you can’t tell the difference between repression and indifference, then Palmer’s a person who needs to work out his own drama before getting anybody else tangled up in it. If this had just been chalked up to “Emma is a psychic and can sense, objectively, that he cares for her even though he doesn’t show it” I’d be completely on board, but she just admitted that she can’t. This episode’s writer, Neil Cross, has said that having to communicate the history of a “complex relationship” between Palmer and Emma was “quite tough.” Personally, I don’t think he managed it. Palmer is too repressed to show any sign of affection towards Emma, just hesitancy to connect with her, and when he does become protective of her, it contradicts other, just as firm actions and statements he makes earlier in the episode, which keeps his protective impulses from seeming supportive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Clara asks what Emma’s professional psychic opinion says about the Doctor, and she says “Don’t trust the Doctor. There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.” Remember this.
Sensing there’s something more to this than just ghosts, the Doctor and Clara take a trip in the TARDIS. Clara brings up how the TARDIS has been a total jerk to her all season, including right now, when it shuts the door in her face. Clara asks for an umbrella stand to put their wet umbrella in. The Doctor says he lost it, is too distracted to find it, and then scolds Clara for dripping water inside the TARDIS, blaming her for the TARDIS’ dislike of her. They visit four different time periods of the location of Caliburn house, from the dawn of Earth to its death, during which the Doctor scolds Clara about touching the console, moving, and breathing in ways that the TARDIS doesn’t like.
Only then, after Clara realizes she’s watching the Doctor wander around and take pictures of the Death of Earth, does he ask her “what’s wrong,” as if he hasn’t just been an enormous ass. Naturally, their conversation is only sort of about how he’s being a dick. “To you I haven’t been born yet,” Clara says, “and to you I’ve been dead a hundred million years. To you, I’m a ghost.” Alright, I thought, now this is some meaty stuff. “We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing. What can we possibly be?”
The Doctor’s answer: “You are the only mystery worth solving.” Doctor. Clara is not your Manic Pixie Dream Human who’s going to help you get over the Ponds. You need to actually tell her, specifically, why you’ve invited her to travel with you. Her first encounter with you was all about how you know her from somewhere but she doesn’t know you. The fact the show wants us to believe Clara is super smart and capable, but that it hasn’t had her grill you about why you think you know her and why you spied all over her childhood is becoming problematic.
The TARDIS makes it back to 1974, and we get our first glimpse of something creepy and crawly and nobbly lurking in the house. The Doctor reveals the results of his photographs. Turns out they’re not dealing with a ghost: the Witch in the Well is a pioneering human time traveler named Hilla Turkurian who crash landed in a pocket universe attached to our own. The pocket has been collapsing for eons of our time, but only minutes of its time. The Doctor explains all of this with illustrative balloons, which is genuinely the best. During those few minutes Hilla has been running from… the creepy crawly Crooked Man that’s lurking in Caliburn house!
The Doctor explains that Emma has to save Hilla.
As the Doctor assembles a mad, Doctor-ish contraption involving blue crystals, Palmer, having easily assimilated the idea of time travel and having dragged Emma out here to the house to investigate threatening ghosts for him using her abilities, is just now trying to dissuade Emma from doing something dangerous with her empathic powers. Instead of Emma being insulted that he has only started to feel this way as soon as her abilities are being used for something that isn’t about him (we could also read this as Palmer abandoning the rescue of the Witch of the Well as soon as she is no longer a passive lost damsel but an adventurous woman who can be blamed for her own predicament), the romantic tension gets ramped up. Remember guys, the way to show you love a lady is by only telling her she should be more careful when she’s about to do things that weren’t your idea. Emma, however, is ready to work for the Doctor (did you remember the thing I told you to remember?), despite the fact that she thinks he should not be trusted.
Then the Doctor explains that the machine he’s put together will amplify Emma’s power to allow her to make a link between our universe and the pocket one, like “a pooper-scooper.” After this explanation Palmer still feels the need to ask asks “what exactly is this arrangement,” but I was reeeeally hoping he’d say “what exactly is a pooper-scooper.” Oh well.
As the Doctor straps on a harness connecting cable, connected to a winch, Emma asks him if this will hurt and his answer clearly terrifies her but is played for laughs. When Emma begins to call the connection into being, the reflective round thing appears again, shatters, and disappears in a flash of white. This is the well of the Witch of the Well: a wormhole. The white light emits a great wind, like all proper dimensional portals should, and the Doctor rappels down into the pocket universe and leaves the harness in order to look for Hilla. He’s on a small patch of forest, suspended and surrounded in, well, lets call it cosmic foam, or raw chaos, or some other such appropriate scifi fabrication. He and Hilla manage to connect, but they’re both being chased by the Crooked Man. The Doctor has some trouble finding the harness again, and so with great effort and showing considerable discomfort, Emma manages to manifest a house in another universe to guide them. Still, by this time the Crooked Man is gaining fast, and the Doctor is busy barring the door when Hilla gets drawn back up into our universe.
As Emma screams aloud in pain, the rift closes with Hilla on the good side, and the Doctor trapped. The manifested house disappears, and he is left alone in the forest with the Crooked Man. Clara insists that Emma must reopen the rift so they can rescue the Doctor. Palmer tells her Emma can’t possibly, while cradling an obviously spent Emma, so Clara yells at him again and runs for the TARDIS. As soon as she leaves, Palmer begins trying to peptalk Emma into opening the wormhole again. Forget what I said before guys, only encouraging your lady to do things when it was your idea or other people browbeat you into it does not work. “You gave me a reason to be, Emma,” he tells her. That’s nice. It’s also the kind of statement that can be really manipulative when said by somebody who should have worked out their issues before being with someone.
Martha can’t fucking believe this guy. And she knows a thing or two about being in love with guys who really need to deal with their problems before inflicting themselves on other people. Emma puts her blue crystal helmet back on, and she, Hilla, and Palmer link hands in a circle.
Meanwhile, Clara reaches the TARDIS, which naturally won’t let her in. A hologram Clara materializes behind her, and explains that it is the TARDIS Voice Visual Interface, or TARDISVVI, I suppose. It says it’s chosen the only form in its database that is someone Clara esteems.
Clara and the TARDIS snipe at each other as Clara tries to convince it to vworp over into the pocket universe, a very dangerous place for a TARDIS, because draining vortex core dampers blah blah wobbly blah, and eventually the TARDIS opens its doors and they go spinning off into the wild dimensional yonder. At the same time, everybody in the house manages to open the rift.
Meanwhile, the Doctor gets in his contractual talking-frankly-to-the-monster monologue with the Crooked Man, and drops the episode’s name. He dares the Crooked Man to attack him, so it does, and the TARDIS shows up just in time to clobber the heck out of it, lets the Doctor hop on its side, and they all zip back through the rift just before, with a final series of horrible screams, Emma loses control and it closes. Everybody thanks their lucky stars, with high fives even, as she sobs in pain. I really would have liked a shot of her, like, recovering enough to smile and join in the rejoicing, but we don’t get it, we just focus on the Doctor happy and victorious.
Everybody is preparing to go their separate ways, and the Doctor wants a word alone with Emma, and she turns the tables on him by being the person to finally ask him, no, for reals, why did you show up at this mansion to hunt this ghost. The truth is the Doctor was here for Emma, a powerful empath. What he really wants is her opinion on Clara. Emma says he’s traveling with “a perfectly ordinary girl,” which you’d think she’d feel a little uneasy about, since, as mentioned earlier in the episode, she thinks the Doctor is untrustworthy and has an unfeeling core to him.
Just before he and Clara jet off, the Doctor reveals that Palmer and Emma are Hilla’s ancestors, so they have to get together now, or paradox. “But time can be changed!” The Doctor explains that some points are fixed, because in this episode it is convenient for some points to be fixed, unlike last week. Then all of the sudden the Doctor has one of his Doctor epiphanies and realizes the twist ending of the episode: there isn’t one Crooked Man. There’s a Crooked Couple! Because “every lonely monster needs a companion.” He asks a “tiny favor” of Emma, to put herself through more unimaginable pain so that they can rescue the monster who tried to kill him and reunite the guy with his companion. End episode.
The gender representations in this episode really bugged me, in case you couldn’t tell, and Emma and Palmer’s relationship was only part of it. The parallel of a smart, assertive, man who keeps secrets from his subordinate-despite-being-completely-capable female counterpart was mirrored in nearly all of the character pairs. Why did all the lonely monsters in the episode have to be male, and all the companions female? What if Palmer had been the technician hired by infamous psychic Emma Grayling to help gather objective proof of something that her abilities, not respected by the scientific community, had always told her were true? His repressed feelings could have been painted as part of an awe and respect for her as his boss and a leader in the field, his concern as genuine worry without the fact that his reputation rides on her abilities to throw doubt on the motivation of his actions.
I don’t think Moffat’s Who has a good grasp on gender roles or any sensitivity to gender stereotype, not because Steven Moffat himself is sexist, but because I think he has very little idea how to write women, which are two different things. I also don’t really enjoy “ranting” about it, but it can’t really be avoided with Hide. The central theme of this episode’s cast of characters, “lonely monsters” and their companions, would have been way, way less problematic if, oh, any of those pairs had consisted of something other than a man and a subordinate woman. Despite the majority of those women being either just as capable, or, in the case of Emma, worlds more powerful than the man she is described as the “companion” of. The alien in the forest, the “lonely monster” is aggressive, a hunter, an attacker; while its companion does nothing more sinister than hold someone’s hand. Additionally, companionship is reciprocal, you know. Yet Palmer isn’t named as Emma’s companion any more than the Doctor is named as Clara’s.
To sum up what we’ve possibly learned this episode about Clara, we still don’t know if she is traveling with the Doctor full time, but we at least know he’s working on her mystery (although the fact that Clara herself didn’t stop to wonder why they’d come to this specific time and place is annoying, and should have been addressed). There’s a lot of speculation out there that Clara is going to somehow connect to Rose, and, well, we sure just got an entire episode about being trapped in a parallel universe, didn’t we. Clara and the TARDIS gets a little callback, though now I wonder why the Doctor isn’t examining the TARDIS’ dislike of her a bit closer because, seriously, the TARDIS has never not liked a companion this much before. Maybe she knows something you don’t, Doctor. For the brief moments with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS this episode, it almost seemed like he was deliberately ignoring how difficult his ship is being to his new companion. Perhaps we’ll get some resolution on this issue in next week’s episode: “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.”