2 years, 8 months ago
|You mean the episode isn't about taxidermy?|
It’s April 20th, 2013. Duke Dumont is at number one with “Need U (100 Percent,” with Nelly, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and the Wizard of Oz Film Cast also charting. Wonder how that happened. In news, two bombs are detonated at the Boston Marathon, killing three people. One of the bombers is arrested a few days later - the other is killed in a police firefight. Everyone is far angrier about this than the explosion of a storage facility in Texas owned by the West Fertilizer Company, which killed fifteen people, and was due largely to corporate negligence and not angry teenagers. Weird how that works.
On television, meanwhile, we have Hide, which, within the context of Season Seven, begs to be read as the definitive haunted house story. But what does this mean? The haunted house, as a symbol, speaks of the decay of history. The haunted house is always a mansion: a monument to opulence and privilege. And yet it always marks the places where that privilege has rotted away and become twisted. This rot is, inevitably, caused by history: by some event that cannot be moved past. A haunting, in other words, is caused by a past event that is at once the end of a historical progression (inasmuch as all that can follow it is its own anguished reiteration) and nevertheless buried beneath the historical progression that happened anyway.
In a previous discussion of haunted houses, we identified the image of the lens - a geometric figure created by two arcs - as crucial to understanding history within Doctor Who. The haunted house, then, is a cracked lens - a figure created by one complete arc (history’s progress) and a broken arc (the traumatic event). Where the usual lens of history serves as a vision that entombs history between the twin poles of start and finish, the haunted house suggests a lack of completion - it suggests that history eventually peters out and collapses inward, becoming a festering wound.
And yet it also has to be noted that Caliburn House breaks the rules of haunted houses. There is, in fact, no historical trauma to be had. The ghost, far from being an object from the past, is in fact, a time traveller from the future. In this sense, the completed arc of the haunted house’s broken lens is in fact absent. But in another sense, the lens is still cracked - its just that the broken part is not the progress into the future, but the idea that events are rooted in the past. None of the causes of Caliburn House’s haunting have actually happened. There is no past moment to be stuck on. Indeed, nothing is stuck at all - the haunting is not a repeated trauma, but a single moment that plays out over the entirety of history. The definitive haunted house story, in other words, doesn’t actually have a haunted house in it.
Except that it does. Or, at least, it has a cracked lens, an image that appears within Hide in three senses. First, it appears literally in the form of the gate between the two universes. Second, it appears in the form of the viewer’s gaze when they look upon the Crooked Man and his twisted form. And finally it exists in terms of the narrative’s structure, which does not quite have an ending, but which instead runs slightly past its ending, grafting on a quick extra adventure that it then suddenly cuts short without completely resolving. And so we have a haunted house story that contains no haunted houses as such, but that is instead itself a haunted house.
What, then, is its ghost? What haunts Hide? In a factual sense, the answer is Nigel Kneale, whose play The Stone Tape is an obvious inspiration for Hide. Indeed, in its original conception the story was to team the Doctor up with Bernard Quatermass, but this was dropped for copyright reasons, and Quatermass’s character became Professor Palmer instead. This would have been a strange mash-up. In many ways, Doctor Who has always been a response against Kneale. For Kneale, the universe is a fundamentally terrifying and malevolent place, with humanity a desperate and fragile flame in the furious dark. Doctor Who, on the other hand, sees the universe as a place of vast and essentially limitless wonder, with humanity existing as a vessel for experiencing that wonder.
Hide, clearly, wants to end up on the Doctor Who end of things. The fact that the quasi-Quatermass figure falls in love in a story that proclaims love to be the sole exception to the universal rule that everything ends speaks volumes. It doesn’t just reject Kneale’s worldview, it nicks his most iconic character and converts him to Doctor Who’s ideology. It’s beautifully cheeky in this regard.
And yet there’s still more to this - some underlying knot we’ve not yet unpicked. Love, we are told, is the sole thing that doesn’t end. And yet the rejection of endings - of the second point of history’s lens - is more associated with the haunted house. A haunting, after all, is itself the rejection of endings - of the idea that an event must simply happen and be over. A haunting is nothing save for an endless repetition. And so when the Doctor proclaims this to not be a ghost story but rather a love story, within the rules of the story itself, he’s not even made any sort of distinction.
But this sort of contradiction seems oddly essential to the story. Consider, after all, a supremely basic question: why is the story called Hide? Nobody hides within it, after all. Hiding is neither the solution nor the problem. The word “hide” appears once, late in the story, when the Doctor is addressing the unseen Crooked Man: “What do you want? To frighten me, I suppose, eh? Because that's what you do. You hide. You're the bogeyman under the bed, seeking whom you may devour.” But this is, ultimately, untrue. This is not what the Crooked Man does. It is not what the Crooked Man wants. The only other equivalent word to appear is “hidden,” which comes up earlier: “The most compassionate people you'll ever meet, empathics. And the loneliest. I mean, exposing themselves to all those hidden feelings, all that guilt, pain and sorrow and…” Certainly there hidden feelings in the story, or, at least, it’s not an absurd thing to bring up.
But this in many ways makes the title stranger. The fact that it exists in the imperative would, after all, suggest that the episode is endorsing hiding. And yet inasmuch as it’s about hiding, hiding would seem to be a negative thing. Just as the story is unable to quite reject the logic of a ghost story in favor of that of a love story, it is unable to actually speak out against hiding one’s feelings. One is reminded of the idea of haunting in a Derridean sense - of rejected meanings that endlessly lurk at the edges of speech, enabling deconstructive readings.
Which brings us to the big thing. Somewhat astonishingly, when this first aired and I was discussing it with Mac Rogers in the course of notching my first-ever byline for Slate, both he and I managed to completely miss the fact that the machine the Doctor builds is called a “psychochronograph.” This is, of course, the great ambiguous shout-out to TARDIS Eruditorum. I mean, it’s probably just a coincidence. Certainly just a coincidence. Really, the odds that a random episode of Doctor Who included a deliberate nod to my blog are essentially nil.
And yet the structure of it is so utterly compelling. A circle of clocks that serves to amplify psychic powers. It is difficult not to recall Evil of the Daleks and its time machine of mirrors and static electricity, that worked on the premise that you could repel an image out of a mirror and into reality. In both cases, we seem to have a technology of symbols - something that is magic, not in the lazy sense with which things in genre fiction that are not easily explained with pseudoscience are often called magic, but in the sense of working according to the actual logic of magic, whereby representation and object are inexorably, fundamentally linked.
But perhaps more importantly, if this story is going to be haunted by the irreducibility of ghosts and by its inability to reject hiding, why shouldn’t it also be haunted by me? It makes sense, after all. TARDIS Eruditorum has always, by dint of its inspiration, been tacitly allied with Moffat-era Doctor Who. It exists because I had something of an excess of fandom for Season Five, and has been written entirely under the Moffat era. That has always influenced its sense of what Doctor Who is. And so it’s almost inevitable that once it got far enough into the Moffat era it would find itself lurking at the edges. Indeed, one can readily construct an analogy between this blog’s relationship with Doctor Who and Hide. This blog exists in the future from all the Doctor Who it covers, and yet reaches back and haunts the entire thing.
From this perspective, however, the Moffat era comes to complete our lens, anchoring Doctor Who between two points: An Unearthly Child and the Moffat era. Grandfather Teleology strikes again. Hide, in this respect, becomes the epitome of Doctor Who - the most absolute and basic representation of what TARDIS Eruditorum views the program as being. This is not quite a bad thing. It is, after all, quite a good episode. But it’s a strangely simple thing. There’s not much to it - a sequence of twists and reveals such that the entire episode and haunted house turn out to be a puzzle box, collapsable into a single explanation. It’s capable, even entertaining, but strangely singular.
No. Better to break the lens. Given the choice between the shattered glass of history left to rot and the idea that we could ever be contained in a single, definitive identity? The cracked lens, every time. In that regard, then, Hide is the epitome of what we do here, not because it encapsulates it, but because it serves as the break - as the crack. As the strange point of singularity that warps the view, so that we may pick up Doctor Who and peer through it. This is, after all, the point of psychochronography. To reorder history. To give us an alternative perspective on the story of how we got to be like this. Psychochronography is a cracked lens.
And this, perhaps, is the truth of the story’s title. The thing that is secretly hiding within this story. It’s in the truth of how the house works, and how it has always worked. It’s not haunted by the past, but by the future - the unknown resolution that will spider backwards through the glass of history, skewing and warping all previous visions. It’s haunted by all the things we do not know we are the history of. In this regard, it’s worth again looking at Ghost Light, from which we got the idea of the lens, and recalling that what disrupted the absolute fixity of the mad god’s history was the possibility of imaginary and impossible creatures. And perhaps also recalling the adage from The Mind Robber. “When someone writes about an incident after it's happened, that is history. But when the writing comes first, that's fiction.” Or, to put it another way, all imagination is the future.
Which brings us at last to this notion of definitive takes on things, seemingly so central to this, the Movie Posters season, and the vital thing we ought realize about the notion of the definitive: the sole reason to have a definitive take on something, in the end, is so that you can do a weird variation on it later. That’s the point of the definitive, when it comes to Doctor Who. No, more than that. That’s the point of Doctor Who: to be a cracked lens with which to look on definitive things.
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