What scares the Doctor?
Ghosts of the past and future crowd into the lives of the Doctor and Clara: a terrified caretaker in a children’s home, the last man standing in the universe and a little boy who doesn’t want to join the army.
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Listen.
Peter Capaldi (The Doctor)
Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald)
Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink/Orson Pink)
Remi Gooding (Rupert Pink)
Robert Goodman (Reg)
Written by: Steven Moffat
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Gifs by: J-Ru
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It’s fall in the United Kingdom, which means it’s time for the annual Philip Hinchcliffe-esque “let’s scare the hell out of Britain” episode of Doctor Who.
Listen is Steven Moffat 101, with all the usual timey-wimey aspects one would expect from a Moffat script along with one plot point that can either be considered absolutely brilliant or a plot hole you could pilot a TARDIS through. Add to that a final 10 minutes that overshadows the proceeding 35 and Listen might be the most polarising episode of Doctor Who in a very long time. There is no denying, however, that all 45 minutes of this story are top-notch, specifically the fine directing and great performances by a more minimalist cast.
The Doctor asks a very simple question to himself. “Why do we talk to ourselves when we’re alone?” The answer? “Because we know we’re not alone.” Enlisting the help of Clara after a disasterous first date with her fellow teacher Danny Pink, the Doctor explains that, throughout history, humans have had the same dream; alone in their bedrooms, with something under the bed waiting for them. The Doctor and Clara travel back in time to a point in her history where Clara has had that exact dream…except, thanks to Clara thinking about her date during their time jump, it’s not her having the dream. It’s a young Danny Pink. And, indeed, something is under his bedspread waiting for him…
For good or for ill, Steven Moffat’s scripts try to come at Doctor Who from a different angle. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances saw what would happen if, just once, everyone lived. Blink introduced a new villain that only struck if their victims looked away, while The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon saw villains who were forgotten as soon as their victims looked away. And he took the Time War and the end of the Doctor’s regenerative cycle head on in the Name/Night/Day/Time of the Doctor episodes. Listen is classic Moffat, combining the fear of something unknown as the driving force of the story with focused characterization on the story’s players. His script mixes in plenty of tense, suspenseful moments, such as the scene with Clara under the bed or the Doctor explaining the “rational” causes for all the noises being heard at the end of the universe. There are very few “jump” scares and “boo” moments so much as a slowly building sense of dread that the actors sell VERY convincingly.
And the highest compliment I can give Moffat for Listen is that he gives the characters time to develop a little bit. We see how Clara and adult Danny fumble towards a relationship, we see Clara’s teacher side come through when talking to young Danny, we see the Doctor and time-traveling Orson feel each other out, and the conversations feel natural and not at all rushed. The smaller cast helps as short-term characterization has always been one of Moffat’s strengths as a writer. As a whole, however, the episode’s various scenes seem very rushed and disjointed. It moves from scene to scene quickly, one plot point rolling right into the next without giving the viewer a chance to breathe. The overall narrative is there, but it goes from “date night” to “children’s home” to “date night” to “the end of the universe.” This quick movement really prevents the episode from coming together. There’s no chance for that “spark” to catch and ignite the story and make it truly brilliant.
Samuel Anderson plays two parts in this episode; Danny Pink, ex-soldier and current school teacher, and Orson Pink, Earth’s first chrononaut/time traveler. Now, as Orson Pink, his relative, Anderson nails the confusion about who his rescuers are and his eagerness at getting the hell home. I’m a little unsure about Danny Pink right now. There is a sort of chemistry between Pink/Anderson and Clara/Coleman that’s getting a bit lost in the “they’re meant to end up together” plot that Moffat seems to be weaving. It’s forced, but it’s not forced. The “ex-soldier” narrative, I’m very unsure about. I’m willing to give it a little longer, but when almost every comment and reaction seems to be about his military service, it goes from characterizating him to overshadowing everything else about him. There’s probably a secret in his past, beyond digging wells and saving villages, but I’m just not invested in his story as of yet.
The scene where Clara comforts the young Rupert (to be re-named Danny someday) Pink is another feather in Jenna Coleman’s cap. After a series of being little more than a puzzle for the Doctor to solve while she pined for him, Clara Oswald has become one of my favorite companions of the revival. This episode, in the future, should be held up as the answer to the question “why does the Doctor need a companion?” She easily proves to be not only his equal, but his other half. Where he’s cold and honest, she’s warm and compassionate. He mocks her putting plastic soldiers around Rupert’s bed even as she consoles the young child. And in the very end, when the Doctor is scared the most, Clara is the one who who gives him words of comfort and hope. Her part in the Doctor’s past was done so much better than the “insert/Rotoscope her into scenes from the Doctor’s past” we got during the lead-up to The Name of the Doctor. Instead of coming off as “a special snowflake,” Jenna Coleman’s performance is simply one of a caring human being. The viewer isn’t being told Clara is being awesome; instead, Clara is just BEING awesome. And it’s nice that the usual “timey-wimey” stuff happens naturally and it isn’t called attention to in a heavy-handed manner. Clara has an effect on Danny Pink’s life, and that’s the story I’m interested in seeing from her point of view.
Capaldi firmly puts his stamp on the Twelfth Doctor in this episode with a great performance. One of the opinions I’ve seen about the relationship between the Doctor and Clara has been that the Doctor consistantly insults and belittles her, while she gives back just as good as she gets. A lot of people have asked why Clara would continue to travel with a man who is mean to her. On one hand, such bickering isn’t new to Doctor Who. Six and Peri were a Doctor and a companion who seemed to have nothing in common even as they saved each others’ bacon amidst sniping and put-downs like good friends always do. But to go a little further down this rabbit hole, the first eight incarnation of the Doctor spent his life running from Gallifrey and a society he didn’t fit in to. The War Doctor burned down that society for the good of the whole of reality. The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors spent more of their lives burdened by the guilt of Gallifrey’s destruction. This is the first Doctor in over 1200 years who has no burdens, no traditions to uphold, no society to run from even as it beckons him home from time to time. All the Doctor has is himself and the TARDIS. He has no responsibilities to himself or anyone/anything else.
Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t a dick. Capaldi’s Doctor has no filters.
Regeneration “fixes the flaws” in the last incarnation, as a rule of thumb. Eleven was one of the more “human” Doctors, integrating himself into Rory and Amy’s lives, becoming a roommate in a flat for a brief period of time, and spending 200 years among the residents of Christmas to save them from the galaxy’s most ruthless aliens. All that was a burden, whether or not the Doctor felt it. The Twelfth Doctor, on the other hand, has shown himself to be one of the more “alien” races, and with that, most social norms and concepts of politeness go out the window. When he’s telling Rupert that being scared is his superpower, he’s not trying to be reassuring for Rupert’s sake. The Doctor was being reassuring to defeat the monster behind them. The Doctor’s not trying to be mean or hurtful, he’s just seeing things as they are and either can’t take the time or won’t take the time to sugarcoat things.
As for his performance in Listen, Capaldi does a fantastic job of an extremely clever man looking for a solution to a problem that may be there…or may NOT be there. What happens when people get bored? They find something do to. In the case of the Doctor, he hits the metaphorical hornet’s nest just to see what happens. He goes from curious at the children’s home to obsessed at the end of the universe because he has to know the answer. It’s not enough to prove that he’s right; along the way, he HAS to solve the puzzle. But as the ending shows, maybe the problem was never there at all and the Doctor simply made it up. He went looking for something that was never there. It could have been a Monster A-Go-Go style ending, but Capaldi sells it for all he’s worth. He was wrong, he made a mistake, and he was willing to accept that mistake.
With that said…WAS there something there? While it is nice to see the Doctor be wrong (someone that smart, they can be that wrong once in a while), that doesn’t change the fact that something or someone WAS under Rupert’s bedspread and stood behind him, Clara, and the Doctor. There WAS something at the end of the universe knocking on the door to Orson’s time-ship. Or, WAS it just a change in atmospheric pressure? Was it an alien or a monster under Rupert’s blanket, or one of his fellow housemates playing a prank and wondering why the hell Rupert was having a party in his room? To some people, it’s the ultimate cop-out or a huge plot hole that ruins the episode. To me, however, not knowing if there truly was a monster or not falls into the same vein as what the Doctor saw inside his personal hotel room in my favorite Eleven episode The God Compelx. We don’t know what he saw, and we could argue it until the end of the universe (Steven Moffat says it’s one of the time cracks, I say it’s eleven bodies hanging from a noose with the twelfth one waiting for him), but not knowing makes the episode better. And not knowing the truth, whether or not the Doctor simply courted trouble OR ended up overlooking/avoiding it, simply adds to the mystery of this new Doctor.
Now, the final ten minutes. I will come right out and say it – I’m wary of anything resembling an “origin” story for the Doctor, and this includes going back into his childhood . For over 50 years, his existence prior to An Unearthly Child was barely touched upon, save for comments about his poor academic record from Romana and a few back-and-forth pieces of dialogue with the Master. This video sums it up much better than I ever could.
Listen isn’t an origin story. We still don’t know anything about the Doctor’s childhood that we didn’t know before, save that he would sometimes sleep in the barn, didn’t want to go into the army (which will probably tie into Danny Pink’s story later in the season, a friend of mine wagers), and that the barn meant enough to him that it was where the War Doctor was going to use the Moment to end the Time War. The third one is a nice reveal, the second one is barely a surprise, and the first one is nothing more than flavor text. Clara whispering into his ear some of the things he would later say during his travels, I can buy it, but it’s more from Jenna Coleman’s performance than Moffat’s writing. Again, it’s delivered casually, soothing words to a frightened child, not a catchphrase stamped into the side of an anvil being dropped on the viewer’s head about just how important the Impossible Girl is. My biggest sticking point is how, once again, it felt seperated from the rest of the episode, a key moment in the Doctor’s development that’s only tie is that Clara grabbed his ankle at one point from under the bed.
I enjoyed Listen. The ambiguity of the “monster” and the performances by Capaldi and Coleman were above board, but it was, to use a phrase, “timey wimey” in terms of narrative flow and structure. It’s a very good episode, maybe the best so far this season, but I’m hesitant to call it one of the best of all time.