Series 8, Episode 4
Doctor Who rarely does exactly what it says on the tin. (Exceptions include “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” which is pretty much…that.) The “Listen” trailer promised a lights-on-all-night ghost story, but the actual episode offered ghosts of a different stripe. The Moffat-penned story is, more than anything, a meditation on fear – the great motivator.
Fear drives the episode from the very start. In a a beautifully directed monologue, the Doctor wonders if natural selection has developed a creature with the perfect ability to hide. Hypothetically, “alone” might be a false concept. Hypothetically, the creeping discomfort we feel when we think we’re alone might be a response to an actual presence. He frames it as a opportunity for a cold and scientific investigation, but Clara sees the Doctor’s new pet project for what it really is: he has succeeded in totally freaking himself out. (“How long have you been traveling alone?”)
In an effort to lure the unknown entity To Catch A Predator-style, the Doctor locks the TARDIS onto Clara’s timeline. Or at least he thinks he does. But one should never underestimate even the most self-assured singleton’s ability to dwell on a bad date, the Doctor and Clara end up outside the West Country Children’s Home, under the window of one Rupert Pink.
Rupert is trying to sleep but feeling a little antsy. And who can blame him, an orphan living in a drafty mansion in the middle of nowhere? While the Doctor does his digging, Clara – as is the companion’s job – takes control of the human element. I’m thankful the script didn’t drag out the reveal that Rupert would one day grow up, change his name to Danny, join the Army and then the ranks of Coal Hill School’s fine educators. Clara realizes it straight away, and it’s very sweet to watch her comfort the even more vulnerable version of the man she just stormed out on.
The most frightening episodes of Doctor Who – nay, of anything – are the ones that build on universal fears. Or in the case of Weeping Angels, create them. The events of that night in Rupert’s bedroom dig right into our terror of the unknown. It’s a truly scary scene. Once again, Doctor Who burns a mundane yet undeniably creepy image onto our brains. (And provides us with a very simple method to make our Whovian pals crap their pants.)
What in the damn hell is under there? I’m desperate to know, only it doesn’t actually matter. On my second watch, I squinted my eyes and concentrated on the form over Clara’s shoulder as it stood and dropped the blanket. It’s…a thing. “What’s that in the mirror or the corner of your eye?” It’s usually nothing. Correction: It’s fear itself.
The Doctor explains the scientific benefits of fear to little Rupert in a speech that once again justifies Capaldi’s casting. He can be flippant about his “dad skills” all he wants, but the last of the Time Lords is always going to know how to relate to kids. At least, when he feels like it. For the rest of the time, he’s got his “carer” to keep him in line.
Detractors of this episode and others like it often complain about Moffat “showing off” with these circular developments. But beyond the taking this whole time travel concept out for a walk, this story also raises some intriguing questions about how these people became who they are. A kind, beautiful girl shows up mysteriously in Rupert’s room one night and tells him about “a soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun,” but can still “keep the whole world safe.” Scrambled memory, we’re told. But look who ends up building wells and freeing villages 20 years later. Heroes aren’t born on Doctor Who. They’re made.
And no less than a hero would be worthy of Clara Oswald. Seems like Danny and Clara are pretty much a done deal, though the Doctor magnificently misses the trick. Something to ponder: was their relationship a self-fulfilling prophecy? Would Clara have gone to Danny’s door if she hadn’t met Orson and learned about his funny old great-grandma with the time travel stories, or would she have avoided him in the halls? I’m still not convinced that Clara needs a love interest, and I hope that their relationship becomes less a carbon copy of Amy and Rory’s as it develops. But Samuel Anderson is lovely in the role. Cleaning up his somewhat forced conflict with Clara leaves him wide open to clash with the Doctor, who won’t be pleased that Dan the Soldier Man’s “prospects” include boot camp and an automatic. He’ll come around. Dad skills.
Committed to maintaining the illusion that he’s still operating out of objective scientific interest, the Doctor follows this mystery to the end of the universe. There he finds a connection of Clara’s who he’s sure to more readily accept. Orson Pink is a pioneering time traveler who was stranded in his maiden voyage, as it were. (And stranded in the “Waters of Mars” spacesuit, because we’ll never be allowed to forget that trauma.) They swing back over to Clara’s second failed take on her date with Danny to pick her up, and then the Doctor promises to return Orson home. After one night of “refueling.” At the end of time of space. In the silence. With the menacing note scrawled on the hatch. Remember how I talked about the silence? Replace that with unexplainable noises. (“I always thought there was something in the pipes.” “I did too.”)
“Listen. This is just a dream. Very clever people can hear dreams, so please, just listen. I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is alright, because didn’t anyone ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster, and cleverer and stronger and one day, you’re going to come back to this barn and on that day, you’re going to be very afraid indeed. But that’s OK. Because if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind.”
The Doctor pretends not to understand Clara when she asks him if he’d had the nightmare he postulates that all humans have had. Showing weakness is still one of his fears. And we can work on a list of the others – it’s a long one, and that’s okay. The little boy in the barn fears being forced into a life he doesn’t want for himself. Later, he fears becoming as proud and singleminded as the Time Lords have become. He fears being responsible, and walking away equally so. And he fears being alone. It’s a good thing too, because his friends have always been the best of him.
If I had only one word (and not 1500) to describe this episode, I’d go with elegant. It’s a character study, perfectly packaged and with few seams showing. Jenna Coleman has risen beautifully to the much-improved writing of Clara. Their chemistry gets better with every episode. The wardrobe department outdid itself with the Doctor’s sparkly sweater and Clara’s first-date LBD, as bold and unique as she is. There was even some extra love for the Classic Who fans. Clara echoes the first Doctor when she tells the crying child that “fear makes companions of us all.” Or maybe the first Doctor echoes Clara when he gives that same speech to Barbara. Maybe he heard it in a dream once and carried it with him.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- My one plot hole issue with “Listen” is this: How did Clara know that the barn the Doctor escaped to at night would be the same one he took The Moment to in the 50th? Seriously, if you have a theory, please share it. This is making me crazy.
- “Why do you have 3 mirrors? Why don’t you just turn your head?”
- “Just hold on tight. If anything bites, let it.”
- What would the Doctor have actually done if Clara did bring Danny home on that first date? Someone fic it.
- Return of the psychic paper!
- This is the second time Clara has had to ask not to be informed of the date and circumstances of her death.
- “What’s going on with your face? It’s all eyes.”
- A few of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas reference a Gallifreyan nursery rhyme, that might be the source of some lifelong fear of the dark:
“Zagreus sits inside your head
Zagreus lives among the dead
Zagreus sees you in your bed
And eats you when you’re sleeping.”
Gallifrey is a fucked up place.
What did you think of “Listen,” Whovians? Kim will be on next week to walk us through “Time Heist” and the return of Missy, this season’s big bad. Until then…sleep with the lights on.