It's a surreal one. They're doing it subtly, but it gives the episode a dreamlike air that's particularly appropriate for this storyline.
The plot is... something I'm going to try not to spoil, but it's playing with questions of identity, doppelgangers and the like. We begin with a family of three driving off on holiday. There's the mother (Anna Calder-Marshall), her slightly annoying husband (Gary Raymond) and their slightly unnatural eleven-year-old son (Paul Hawkins). It's not that Hawkins is creepy or anything. It's just that he's a child actor. Anyway, Calder-Marshall sees something through the window that I assumed was a scarecrow in a yellow raincoat. I was wrong. It disappears, then soon afterwards is standing by the side of the road as they drive past. It's a man. Rain is thundering down, so they stop to give the poor fellow a lift. This proves to be a mistake and the Hammer House of Horror notches up one of its more startling pre-credits sequences.
What happens after that involves a hospital, a holiday home and paranoia. I could understand not noticing the tricks they're playing with camera angles and perspective shots, but you'd have to be blind not to be struck by the colour scheme. It's like Ingmar Bergman! The hospital is almost entirely white, to a degree that's unnatural even for a hospital. If it's not white, it's black and in a geometrical pattern. Furthermore when our protagonists eventually reach their holiday home, that's had the same interior decorator! However in addition to that, there's lots of red. People will wear red, bleed in red or even quite often have red hair. These are colours that are drawing attention to themselves, pulling us towards the line between naturalism and surrealism. It's fascinating.
Then there's the plot. It doesn't make sense. To be ploddingly literal about it, there are plot holes that I'd be tearing to pieces in a normal episode. However as directed here by Alan Gibson, all this adds another level of paranoia to a world where you can't quite depend on the evidence of your eyes or even on conventional ideas of reality. That's how nightmares work. Impossible things happen, which in itself is scary. This episode isn't so blatant as to draw attention to its plot holes, but it's evoking that kind of atmosphere and it's clear from the visuals that something like that was deliberate.
Things eventually get less vague. We learn what's going on, which inevitably reduces the mystery and puts the episode in a more identifiable genre box, but I like the approach they've taken with it. Even after we've learned the horrible truth, the episode gets more like a real nightmare, not less.
The cast is the usual bunch of British stage and TV actors, all of them perfectly good and almost none of whom I'd heard of. There's Philip Latham, from The Five Doctors and Dracula: Prince of Darkness
, but it took me ages to recognise him behind that beard. It makes him avuncular. Even looking up who else has been in Doctor Who doesn't get us far, with the only others being Anna Calder-Marshall in Scream of the Shalka and Jenny Laird from Planet of the Spiders. Meanwhile Paul Hawkins (the child actor) did a fair amount of acting work right through the 1980s, but then his only other credit is a solitary one in 1999. He's not bad, really, but you couldn't say he had a screen career.
Hawkins's best moment, incidentally, is probably unintentional. I loved his slightly ghoulish interest in the district nurse's attentions to his father's throat, an impression created by his cold-blooded lack of appropriate filial reaction.
This is a particularly memorable story from a strong series. I could imagine having a nightmare like this, although you'd hope it wouldn't last fifty minutes. However there's also something slightly off-putting about this series, which makes its episodes not quite the recommendation you might expect... they lack a human touch. They don't have much warmth. They tend to feel oppressive and bleak, which makes for good horror but might perhaps reduce their appeal to a casual audience. Personally I find them interesting and often more atmospheric than you'd expect even of horror in the cinema, let alone on television, but they're perhaps hard to love. Nevertheless this is clearly a standout episode that could easily trigger a month of nightmares in any child who saw it and would still be remembered into adulthood. It's both an original take on its genre and a fascinating stylistic experiment.