DOCTOR WHO: “Listen”

We go from under the bed to the end of the planet and back again, and a lot of other stuff happens that totally won’t be polarizing at all.

Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: Because we know we’re not.

–The Doctor

First of all: this was the best episode yet this season. It’s not even a close competition. “Listen” might end up being the best episode all season — that wouldn’t surprise me at all, actually. At this point, Moffat’s template is well established: create a threat that relies on a primal fear (darkness, memory loss, creepy statues), add some time jumps, cook to a boil, and distract the audience from paradoxes. This is the formula because it works, and it works best when the show ratchets up the Scary Factor.

And “Listen” is really f-ing scary, but in a way that’s more “Midnight” (a Russell T. Davies joint) than “Blink:” the monster, if there even is a monster, goes unseen, and we instead focus inward — a psychological battle between the worldviews of the Doctor and Clara. Yet as close as the episode comes to that rarefied air, it ends up feeling a little overstuffed; the episode is chock-full of ideas that would have made brilliant episodes if handled individually. But all together? Well…let’s break it down:

1. What’s under the bed? We don’t know! The Doctor (in full nutty professor mode — chalkboards are cool!) theorizes that there is a creature that has evolved to stay perfectly hidden, and only moves when we, in our nervousness, talk out loud to “nothing.” Unlike other Moffat creations, this being goes unnamed and unseen, and we’re left wondering at episode’s end whether it was all just in the Doctor’s head. But while we learn that there was nothing under the Doctor’s bed but Clara (I’ll get to that), there was definitely something inside the blanket of young Rupert Pink. And you know what? It’s great that we don’t know. Too often, especially on this show, the answers fail to live up to the mysteries. Who moved the Doctor’s chalk and wrote on his board? We don’t know! And that’s okay!

(Seriously, Moffat: leave it alone. I know you probably can’t, but I’m telling you to. Do as you’re told.)

But what we do know is that those sequences, as staged by director Douglas McKinnon, were genuinely terrifying. You could tell simply from the pre-credits sequence that this episode was going to be special, but it’s Clara and Rupert’s moment, when something suddenly bends the mattress springs, that sealed it. And it could have been incredibly dumb — it’s just a thing under a blanket, after all — but it’s the way Capaldi plays the Doctor’s fear, by so obviously pretending he’s not afraid, that makes the scene work. He convinces the creature that it is free to leave, and no one will turn around to see it — like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark without the face-melting. Cleverly handled.

2. The end of the world, again? No, it’s not the first, second, third, or even fourth time Doctor Who has journeyed to the death throes of space itself. (“The TARDIS isn’t supposed to go out this far,” the Doctor says of something he has done multiple times.) And before you wonder if the show has run out of angles to take on the concept, we meet the loneliest man in the Universe: Orson Pink, one of Earth’s first time-travelers, who found himself horribly lost. While his relationship to Clara is Big and Important (and, again, I’ll get to that in a second), I was more interested in the Doctor’s professional jealousy — he always wanted to be the last man standing, so to speak, and the thought of Orson spending six months on the bleeding edge of the timeline genuinely annoys him.

And when those “monsters” — banging pipes, or the hull pressurizing, or actual monsters — come a-knocking, the Twelfth Doctor reveals once and for all just how mental he is, how single-mindedly obstinate in the face of someone else’s reason. Orson wants to get the heck off this rock, but Clara, despite her encounter with The Thing In The Sheet, still isn’t convinced there’s a threat at all. It’s a reverse of last week’s “Robot of Sherwood,” as this time it is Clara who chides the Doctor for believing in childish things. But no matter which one of them is right, the Doctor is hell-bent on finding out even if it means his own death. He patronizingly orders Clara to get back into the TARDIS while he opens the door to the outside; “You’re an idiot,” she responds. She’s not necessarily wrong.

3. It’s still all about Clara. At this point, Ms. Oswald might be the most developed companion since Rose, or at least the most significant. After the spine-chilling opening, “Listen” shifts into rom-com mode, as Clara’s date with Danny Pink goes wrong in about a thousand ways, a cavalcade of misunderstandings and Freudian slips that results in both of them storming off in separate instances. Yet we learn this week that that blossoming relationship becomes cosmically charged: Orson Pink, the erstwhile Last Man, is the great-grandson of Clara and Danny. That she has suddenly been given a spoiler (copyright River Song) for her future is not really explored, as there’s simply too much else going on this hour.

Compounding all of this is the very Moffat-y twist that Clara herself is responsible for turning Danny into Danny, as she names young Rupert’s broken toy soldier “Colonel Dan,” more or less incepting him into eventually going through with changing his name. And when she accidentally lets the name “Rupert” slip during her second attempt at the date, he darkens almost instantly, and fumes about her not telling him the whole story. It’s now only a matter of time before he finds himself on board the TARDIS, and hopefully sooner rather than later, because now that we already know the end of the story, why bother going through the motions of domestic drama?

4. And if all of that wasn’t enough…though, honestly, it kind of was, Moffat saves his biggest firecracker for last, returning us to that fateful barn on Gallifrey, where one day John Hurt will try to press a button — but right now, a young boy is crying himself to sleep. It’s the Doctor, of course. Not that, if you’ve been paying attention to every script Moffat wrote during the Davies era, this completely came out of the blue: Reinette (of the Fireplace) saw a glimpse of the Doctor’s lonely childhood way back in Season 2, so it seems Moffat has been waiting to play this card for a long time. And, like many, many other key moments in the Doctor’s life, Clara is magically at the center of it.

Now she has not only helped make Danny who he is, but the Doctor who he is, grabbing his ankle from under the bed (a fantastic moment, I’ll grant, as Jenna Coleman plays that moment of realization perfectly), creating the terrifying memory that drives him almost to his own destruction in this episode. But, having already proven once this hour how great she is with kids, she can’t leave it there — she stays to talk about fear itself, and about courage. She repeats to the young future Doctor the words he would later give to young Danny Pink, a paradox that will make your brain leak out your ears if you think about it for more than five seconds (Moffat pulls this trick ALL THE TIME), but it’s undeniably effective on an emotional level. Earlier, worried about the Doctor’s mental health, she asks him “How long have you been traveling alone?” The answer: “Perhaps I never have.” At the time, it’s creepy, because you’re thinking about monsters. But at the end…well, it’s still creepy, but it’s not monsters, and it’s not even nothing. It’s just Clara. It’s always Clara. Is she a human being, or a plot device? Moffat wants her to be both. [Edited to add: as our own Chase Branch puts it, “Clara is the Littlefinger of the Who-verse,” a statement that nearly made me spit-take.]

Could “Listen” have been an all-time episode if Moffat had kept things very simple, and focused on the monsters, not the end of the world or Clara’s love life, or if he hadn’t gone digging into the Doctor’s past? Perhaps. But I suppose you can’t fault him for ambition; even in the course of writing this recap, my gauge on the hour’s success has evolved. It’s an episode that doesn’t rely solely on thrills or brain-bending plotting, but on the investment in the characters, and a worthy attempt at an emotional payoff. And if “Listen” has all of those things, how can it not be great?

Screw it. Grade: A-

Wibbly-Wobbly Stuff:

  • At last, we know what the Doctor does when not gallivanting around fighting aliens: meditating on the TARDIS’s roof. The pre-credits sequence made me wonder if — like “Midnight” — this would be something of a bottle episode, but the similarities didn’t go that far. I’d really like to see the show try that again.
  • Hey, wow, where did that “telepathic circuits” console come from? So Clara can totally fly the TARDIS now, something that was supposed to be impossible for anyone other than the Doctor and River Song. Way to go (again), Clara!
  • If “Is that what I look like from the back?” didn’t make you immediately think of Hermione Granger, turn in your Nerd Card.
  • Shout-out to Samuel Anderson, who had to play both the developing character of Danny and the bewigged Orson, and scrub all traces of romantic chemistry with Jenna Coleman from the latter. Tough thing to do.
  • Not that the Doctor made it difficult: “Her face is so wide, it needs three mirrors!”
  • Hey, you know what was a singularly great but simple shot? When Clara got up from the restaurant table the second time, and walked towards the camera, which dollied back while keeping on her face for a good 10+ seconds. You might not have thought about it, but it felt directed in a way that DW rarely does — in a good way. A great acting moment made even better by the camerawork.
  • I knew the Doctor had a set of unusual skills (not including his bedside manner, which is awful); “Dad Skills” were not on the list. Is that foreshadowing something? And how do I learn how to do that?
  • “Are you making conversation?” “I’m giving it a try.”

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