04 “Listen” (Doctor Who series 8) [SPOILERS]

doctor who peter capaldi

I blogged only last week on the kind of Doctor Who episode I prefer. Arising from the admission that I don’t much care for the “romp through a primary school history textbook” type of episode, I laid on the table that:

“[The] next episode looks dark, haunting Doctor Who-style horror. Which is my favourite flavour of Who. I’m hoping for something weighty, some blend of psychological and philosophical. I’m hoping for “Blink”. I’m hoping for “Midnight”.

This week’s episode is called Listen, and the teasers which have been running for the last week certainly suggest it is cast in that sort of mould. It has been six years since “Midnight”, though, and seven since “Blink”. Can “Listen” be a return to that sort of magic?

So Listen starts with the Doctor in (and on…) the TARDIS talking to himself. Or, rather, musing on why people talk to themselves, and whether they are in fact ever alone. Taken with the idea of the perfectly hidden creatures (we’re forgetting the Silence at this point I think, pun not intended) constantly accompanying everyone, he whisks Clara away from a disastrous date with Danny Pink. The journey of investigation takes them to Danny’s childhood, the end of the universe and one character’s distant past.

What shines through this is horror (and science-fiction, of course) by ideas. It is indeed the same thing which I loved about ‘Blink’ and ‘Midnight’, and it resonates with the idea of the horror of the unseen. The Doctor’s ill-defined creature is just that, ill-defined. Is it something which he has made up? Or is it something real, and terrifying?

That is the nexus of the episode. The thing with the likes of ‘Blink’ and ‘Midnight’ is that there was quantifiably something there. Here Moffat doesn’t give us that luxury. The creature in the shadows — or under the bed — might be nothing more than nocturnal imaginings, but they might be something far more terrifying.

The clever bit here is how the concept is tied up with personal relationships and some of the best character building I’ve seen from Doctor Who in a long time.

When they visit the 1990s care home in which an infant Danny (then called Rupert) lived, the interaction that both the Doctor and Clara show with the child are touching, particularly the Doctor’s speech about fear as a superpower.

The parts at the end of the universe felt a little…rehashed (anyone remember “Utopia”/”The Sound of Drums”/”The Last of the Time Lords”?). Adding another character in place of Danny Pink was interesting though, suggesting that we’re onto another Impossible Girl thing whereby versions of a person crop up again and again. Weirdly, I feel slightly easier about this than I suspect I should. I get a sense that it is going somewhere this time.

The climactic scene, though, was what really won me over. Moffat, when he tries, can really write, and this was an example of it. Clara’s accidental meeting with a child Doctor, grabbing his foot from under his bed and unintentionally inspiring the “nightmare” thread which links the elements of this episode. She also gives back to him the fear is a superpower speech, forming a surprisingly neat and coherent time loop, and another piece in the Time Lord puzzle.

Moffat is, in my opinion, a flawed writer. But he has also written some of my favourite episodes of the series, and I do think that this ranks amongst them. Devoting whole episodes like this to exploring its central character so intimately is something I wish the show would make more of. Capaldi’s gruff performance really does bring it to life; and it still sparkles with humour, particularly his gentle quips at Clara’s expense.

Yep, this is the Doctor I want to be watching.

Closing thoughts:

  • It’s a nice touch, I guess, but who exactly was still asking “Why a barn?” in regards to the War Doctor and ‘The Day of the Doctor’?
  • I saw a few people tweeting that they thought Doctor Who had lost its way and become too scary. I distinctly remember my mother’s tales of hiding behind the sofa from cybermen and daleks when she was a child…
  • So, the “thing” in Rupert’s bed, was that just someone playing around trying to scare him? If so, you have to think they would quickly feel out of their own depth when two adults turn up and start spouting nonsense. Did the Doctor traumatise two kids in the course of this episode?
  • Who is betting that the “thing” which apparently wasn’t a “thing” is revisited in a later episode and turns out to be a very definite “thing”. It’d be the Weeping Angels all over again…
  • So, if Clara visited the Doctor as a child, does that mean that the TARDIS landed on Gallifrey? I thought Gallifrey was still lost? Or is that only post-Time War? And is the Time War no longer time locked? My head hurts…

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