Part of the genius of Season Three’s benchmark “Blink” is how utterly standalone it is, which is why it’s often the go-to installment to show to newbies: The ride can be enjoyed with virtually no knowledge of the Who mythos. “Listen” comes from a different direction; our protagonists are front and center throughout the episode, and far more so than “Into the Dalek,” this feels like a proper introduction to the world of Danny Pink. Whereas “Blink” was about Sally Sparrow and angels that nobody had seen before, this is about the Doctor, Clara, Danny, and ghosts that nobody will ever see.
Perhaps the real difference between the two is where Steven Moffat is as a Doctor Who writer. Back in season three, he was a scribe for hire, likely eager to make another defining mark, but now he’s been the showrunner for five years. Moffat may no longer have any interest in telling a Who story that doesn’t involve the mythos he’s created or is in the process of creating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long he can occasionally churn out an episode this inventive. Surely one of the most unexpected, abstract episodes the series has produced since Moffat took over as head writer, “Listen” is the sort of fare that should have the torch-wielding villagers ceasing their charge…well, until the next episode, anyway. The show can’t tell stories like this each week, or everyone’s kids would end up in therapy.
Fear in a host of different manifestations partly drives the ongoing Doctor Who narrative, but “Listen” posits that it’s been driving the Doctor himself since childhood. It isn’t the first episode to showcase the Doctor facing his fears. Jon Pertwee’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” featured the Doctor regenerating after such an incident. (If you saw the cinematic presentation of “Deep Breath,” Strax cracked a joke about it in the prequel. If not, it’s now available on Blu-ray.)
But the classic series didn’t make a mission out of routinely going there as the new series has in episodes like “42,” “Dalek,” and most recently in last season’s “Hide.” Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe the more godlike and/or removed the Doctor becomes (and he’s rarely been as removed as he is this season), the more important it is to show that in some ways he’s still one of us; that even after defeating every variation of specter and alien the universe has to offer, there are still things that keep the Doctor awake at night.
The extraordinary pre-credits sequence features him ranting about evolution creating a creature whose sole ability is to hide. It’s almost as if he’s jealous of it. He’s like some sort of mad scientist on a mission to find the ultimate truth, going to the Serengheti and the bottom of the ocean to conduct research (finally, he turns to Clara). It is a completely original beginning for a Doctor Who episode. Then “Listen” becomes the most ordinary thing in the world: An awful first date, full of terrible communication and the inability for both parties to just listen. Eventually, the couple will come to an understanding. This is Moffat reaching back to his Coupling days, and there is nothing at all wrong with that, because Coupling made observations and revealed truths about relationships like no other sitcom of its time.
I hope Clara and Danny make a happy couple. The show has quickly forced them onto one another’s path, and now shown us someone who appears to be their great-grandchild (though the episode seemingly stopped just shy of confirming that). After how uncomfortable and sometimes even depressing it was to watch the Ponds navigate their coupling, it’d be refreshing to see great things happen for this pair, but this is Steven Moffat; perhaps I am being naïve.
Can we take some time out to talk about Jenna Coleman subtly becoming one of the great companions of the new series? In her first season, Clara was so encumbered by the Impossible Girl thing that there was little room for her character to grow (much the same happened with Karen Gillan in season five). Starting with “Deep Breath” especially, that all changed. All of this talk about her leaving at the end of the season had better be baseless rumor, because this companion needs to stick around for a while. Coleman’s situation is reminiscent of Elisabeth Sladen’s. Lis did one good season with Jon Pertwee, and then did two and a half brilliant seasons with Tom Baker, and together they made TV history. Clara Oswald has that same kind of potential, and it would be criminal to get rid of her when she’s starting to blossom (just a year ago I was saying they should’ve killed her off!).
People have long said Moffat can’t write women, and many of those accusations can’t really be argued, but with Clara, it feels as though he’s upped his game and tried to create a woman with ideas and thoughts and dreams of her own that have nothing to do with the Doctor or the TARDIS. (It is also helping the show immensely to have such a thoroughly platonic relationship between Doctor and companion.) “Listen” heavily relies on Coleman’s talents; it’s much more her episode than it is the Doctor’s. Her actions and reactions are pivotal to nearly every scene. Capaldi is used sparingly – almost as a sort of Greek chorus - but even in that capacity, he’s at his best yet. If you’re still on the fence about whether or not this guy’s perfect for this role, I shake my head in bewilderment.
The episode’s big set pieces — the first at a boys home in the past; the second in a crashed time machine at the end of the universe; and the third a barn on Gallifrey — are dazzling, each for entirely different reasons in entirely different ways, and probably each worthy of a full analysis. These scenes are played with such intentional vagueness that all we can really do is watch, and then ask the questions that the show isn’t giving answers to. What was on that bed in young Rupert Pink’s room? What was behind that door at the end of the universe? Who wrote “listen” on the chalkboard? Are the monsters real or aren’t they? Is the Doctor at his core just a scared little orphan? That assertion makes perfect sense in light of all that we know of his restless wandering and frequent inability to make lasting connections. Moffat wants us to ponder and reflect. I called “Deep Breath” one of his most restrained and well thought out scripts. “Listen” is one of his most unnerving and poetic.
Odds and ends
- The final line of the episode, “Fear makes companions of us all,” is intentionally similar to a line the First Doctor has in the first Who serial, “An Unearthly Child”: “Fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright.” Per this episode, it seems that in some peculiar way the Impossible Girl is still exerting a great deal of influence over the Doctor.
- My wife said the Doctor reminded her of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein in this.
- Samuel Anderson’s Danny is a wonderful addition. And he was great as Orson, too. Speaking of Orson, I would like to have heard the conversation that led to him exiting the TARDIS and beckoning to the pretty young brunette inside the restaurant outside the ship that just brought him back from the end of the universe, all in full astronaut gear.
- A dazed Doctor at one point says something about the Sontarans perverting the course of human history, which is a reference to the Pertwee story “The Time Warrior.” That’s the first Sontaran story, as well as the one that introduced Sladen’s Sarah Jane. You should see it if you have not (especially if you enjoyed “Robot of Sherwood”).
- The bookcase and chalkboard have paid off handsomely in a short amount of time. These are now defining Twelfth Doctor accessories.
- The Doctor’s obsession with nighttime restlessness is an almost direct contradiction to his bemusement over the concept of bedrooms in “Deep Breath.”
- “Once upon a time…the end. Dad skills!” – The Doctor
- The scenario at the end of the universe, right down to the breathtaking view outside the window, owed a little something to the fourth season’s superlative “Midnight.”
- As the fourth of a twelve-episode season, structurally this is the end of Act I.