Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink/Colonel Orson Pink); Roger Goodman (Reg, the Night Watchman) & Remi Gooding (young Rupert “Danny” Pink)
Here There Be Spoilers.
Attention: We interrupt your normal internet session for a special Whovian gush-fest concerning the 4th episode of the 8th series of Doctor Who entitled “Listen.” For the next 2,000 words, non-geeks are advised to hold their noses because the musk of praise is going to get a bit thick.
Stephen Moffat has had to take a lot of badgering from his fan-base in the last few years, much of it justified. As a writer, Moffat could do no wrong when Russell T. Davies was running the show; his episodes during that era – The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink, Silence In The Library & Forests Of The Dead have all become classics. Since taking over the show in 2010, Moffat has provided some good episodes and interesting story arcs, but has also often been the father of plot points that don’t seem to go anywhere, mysteries that are never fully explained, and inconsistent character development. Since beginning the eighth series, Moffat has been on a good, steady keel, giving us the grand opening episode Deep Breath and one-upping himself with Into The Dalek, co-written with Phil Ford. After last week’s somewhat disappointing swashbuckler Robot of Sherwood (written by Mark Gatiss, but green-lit by Moffat), I felt that old sinking feeling again, one that I haven’t felt since the Doctor, Amy and Rory went to visit a town called Mercy (and that lasted until the two of them got touched by an angel one last time). It was with some degree of trepidation that I approached the episode titled Listen. An hour later, I sat stunned on my sofa with my mouth hanging open; Listen is the best episode of the current series of Doctor Who thus far and one of the best episodes for the program that Moffat has ever written.
The setup for the story is almost too simple for belief: the Doctor, alone and thinking deep thoughts, postulates an interesting theory – the reason why people speak aloud even though they know they are alone is maybe because they suspect that they’re not alone after all. He further imagines the existence of a creature that is an expert at hiding, that such a creature would be virtually unknown since it could always resist detection. He imagines that these are the creatures that surreptitiously move objects around when you’re not looking (on a personal note, I’d like to appeal to the one living in my house to please return the book of stamps it absconded with a week ago). When the Doctor thinks he’s stumbled onto some actual proof that this creature exists (a message on his chalkboard that he claims not to have written), he decides to find Clara to help him get to the bottom of it all. Clara is currently finishing up a bad date with Danny Pink, her handsome colleague from the Coal Hill School and isn’t really in the mood to chase down a creature that, for all she knows, the Doctor simply invented out of a whiff of dubious logic. However, the Doctor insists that the creature is related to the dream that nearly everyone has had where they get out of bed and feel something grabbing their ankle. He wants to visit the moment Clara had that dream as a child to find out what, if anything, caused it. As usual, they take a bit of a wrong turn, but the three places that the TARDIS ends up reveal new aspects of our three main characters that we, as an audience, had absolutely no idea we were going to be learning. Wasn’t this going to be just a simple scary episode?
Moffat does a great job luring the audience into the episode, considering that the short and sharp pre-credits sequence (unlike the flabby sequences we’ve been getting during the last few years) is simply the Doctor talking to himself (it certainly doesn’t hurt to open with the visually arresting image of the Doctor meditating on the TARDIS’s roof!). The Doctor’s reasons for getting Clara involved make perfect sense (something that wasn’t true for the otherwise great Into The Dalek episode); he needs to trace someone’s timeline back to the moment of the monster-under-the-bed nightmare. It’s a wonderful reversal (and a thwarting of the audience’s expectations) that Clara’s childhood is the only character’s childhood that we don’t get a look at (and considering that the eleventh Doctor already did some time traveling through Clara’s early years makes a further backwards traipse less interesting). Instead, we’re treated to the childhood fears of our two male characters – Danny and the Doctor. To a certain degree, Clara’s visit to young Rupert’s (he wasn’t called Danny then) room in the orphanage might be a bit reminiscent of Rose traveling back in time in Father’s Day (2005) and meeting the five year-old version of her future boyfriend Mickey, but the sequence in Rupert’s room is tight, scary and even gives us a glimpse of Clara’s gift with children (after she checks under Rupert’s bed for monsters, she says “You know what is under here… me” before playfully scampering underneath). We’ll remember this moment later on when Clara finds herself under another child’s bed… and imprints herself on that child’s memory in a way she never intended.
Before we crawl under that other child’s bed with her, it is worth noting the less-than-usual structure this episode presents; by the time the Doctor presses his finger against Rupert’s forehead, sending him to sleep and bringing his story to an end, regular viewers might start scratching their heads a bit since we’ve had a nice little adventure in the TARDIS which seems to now be over just as we’re getting to the twenty minute mark. At this point, Clara asks the Doctor to take her back to the scene of her of her disastrous date with Danny just minutes after she walked out on him. This would be a cute ending to an episode… if there weren’t another twenty minutes to fill. But the date goes wrong a second time, this time Danny is the one to walk out, and Clara is left with a man in a spacesuit trying to get her attention. The fact that we are going to find ourselves taking two more unexpected trips in the TARDIS before the final credits roll keeps what might be a jaded fan base on the edge of their seats before they finds themselves behind the sofa. We may not get to see any of Clara’s childhood in Listen, but there’s a very good chance that we get a glimpse of her distant future when she meets Colonel Orson Pink, Danny’s great-grandson (and hers as well?). It’s a wonder that Clara’s head doesn’t explode with all the revelations that are paraded in front of her understandably surprised eyes. And at this point, we believe we’re finally going to find out about these shy creatures that the Doctor seems to have stumbled upon… but no. We have one more stop to make, and it will break your heart.
With the Doctor injured and unconscious (and something apparently trying to get through the TARDIS doors), Clara uses the TARDIS’s telepathic controls to put some space and time between them and the end of the universe. But she finds herself in a strangely familiar barn and there is a crying child in a bed up in a loft. Hiding under the bed, she overhears a couple’s conversation that leads her to the realization that the weeping boy is none other than the Doctor. And if that weren’t planet-shattering enough, the boy starts to get out of bed to investigate the TARDIS and Clara instinctively grabs the child’s ankle, thereby revealing herself to the monster under the Doctor’s bed and the cause of this whole strange affair. The Impossible Girl has struck again, this time imprinting herself on his life as the great fear of his life. And this is where Clara’s gift with children (seen with Rupert as well as Merry in The Rings of Ahkaten) comes into play: drawing on the words that the Doctor used on Rupert to calm him, Clara tells the boy who will become the Oncoming Storm that, while fear may be his constant companion, it will make him strong and good. It is one of the great touching moments of Doctor Who, one those moments that makes you love this show and its writers for reaching so deep within themselves and, devoid of cool creatures and sonic screwdrivers, holds a mirror up to our own faces: we’re afraid to live, afraid to fail, and fear is our constant companion, but if the Doctor can live with his fears (and let’s face it, he’s got a lot to be scared of – have you ever tried to reason with a Dalek?) then maybe we can too. When Clara impulsively hugs the cringing Doctor a bit later, we not only feel the cementing of their relationship (she was, if only for a moment, the Doctor’s nanny and is now proud of the man that he’s become) but we want to join in. This episode worked hard to get to that hug and it deserves that moment of affection.
On top of all that, this episode has both scares and laughs. In the laughs department, the Doctor is always quick to express a quizzical quip at Clara’s human foibles (observing her vanity mirror: “You’ve got three mirrors… why not just turn your head?”) or to express his failure to grasp certain aspects of human culture (he admits that he’s wasted years looking for Wally in books that aren’t part of the Where’s Wally series). The scenes of suspense are the best we’ve seen in a long time: the creature on Rupert’s bed, the thing at the spaceship’s door, and the myriad of hands reaching out of the darkness to grasp at lone and shaking ankles all twist the anxiety up and make the viewers’ hearts skip a beat or two. Most wonderful is when the script leads us to proof of the creatures’ existence only to shortchange us, as when Reg the Night Watchman discovers his mug of coffee missing – apparently stolen by the hidden creatures – only to reveal a moment later that the Doctor has stolen it himself; the Doctor seems to be inventing a few scares for the viewers at home, as if he knew he was being viewed by fans across the globe.
This isn’t a perfect episode. I was left wondering how a man in an orange spacesuit could wander into a restaurant and attract the attention of only one person (Clara) and why Clara was so reluctant to tell the Doctor that she was dating Danny Pink, which would’ve explained all his questions as to why the TARDIS homed in on Rupert and Orson. And yes, I do realize that there is a similarity between this episode’s concept of “the perfect hiding creature” and the two iconic monsters that Moffat has introduced to the Whoniverse: the Weeping Angels (which revert into inert stone statues when viewed) and the Silence (which wipe themselves from your memory when you look away from them). Critical articles of this episode have been barking about how Moffat had already introduced two perfectly good hiding creatures and have taken umbrage at the fact that the episode may not have had any creatures for the Doctor to fight in the first place. I find all of these points (including the observations concerning the Angels and the Silence) to be perfectly valid nitpicks. They exist… and they don’t dampen my enjoyment of the episode one iota. And as for whether there really was a creature under Rupert’s bed sheet or lurking outside Orson’s escape hatch, I prefer to think that there might have been something there, but not necessarily what the Doctor was looking for, but I may be wrong. Maybe we’ll find out more later on or maybe not; this is one instance of a dangling plotline that I don’t find infuriating (which is not my usual response). What I walked away from Listen with was a deeper understanding of the Doctor’s character and a positive message for all those children out there watching the show from behind the sofa: it’s alright to be afraid.
So concludes the gush-fest. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled internet session.