Since taking over Doctor Who in 2010, showrunner Steven Moffat has been preoccupied with writing the “big” episodes—season openers, finales, Christmas specials, and so on—which have dwelled on major turning points in the Doctor’s life. This year, he deliberately reserved a slot in the schedule where he could tell a small-scale story filled with the kind of creepiness he displayed during the Russell T Davies era, with episodes like 2005’s “The Empty Child” and 2007’s “Blink.” Rather than simply duplicate his past successes, though, “Listen” combines the two approaches—big and small—to produce the best episode of the season so far.
“Listen” grabs your attention right from the start, with the opening shot of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) sitting and meditating on the TARDIS roof as it rotates in space, leading to a pre-titles teaser that consists entirely of the Doctor talking to himself, setting out the premise of the episode. He’s mulling over the concept of a race of creatures capable of “perfect hiding”—creatures that are constantly near us, but never leave any real evidence of their presence. He looks through records of recurring dreams (or are they dreams?), which includes the startling image of a hand reaching from under a bed to grab an ankle. His investigations will take him and Clara (Jenna Coleman) to a children’s home in the 1990s, and later to the end of the universe itself, with the thought that after all other life is dead, these shadow-creatures will finally show themselves.
Unusually, the Doctor is driving the story from the start, rather than landing somewhere and finding an adventure, and Capaldi takes full advantage of the center-stage opportunity. His Doctor is turning out to be a less comforting presence, driven by his own concerns and only distantly interested in those of the humans he encounters, even his companion. Making the Doctor more “alien” is a risk that backfired in the classic series, when it was tried in the mid 1980s, but at the moment Capaldi is successfully evoking the irascibility of William Hartnell and Tom Baker. He also gets to show a different side in this episode, as he forms a rapport with the child Rupert (Remi Gooding), telling the boy how to cope with his fears. Unnecessary are the repeated jabs at Clara’s weight and appearance, which would be very unpalatable if they weren’t so patently ridiculous (being directed at the obviously attractive Coleman) and if Clara didn’t give back as good as she gets. The intent is clearly to establish a contrast with the previous Doctor’s relationship to Clara, but the point has now been quite sufficiently underlined.
Since her “impossible girl” mystery was resolved last year, and especially since the new Doctor arrived, Clara has blossomed as a character, and Coleman has been given a much greater range of material to play. Clara is still striving to keep the two strands of her life separate, and so the weirdness of her adventure with the Doctor is interwoven with her disastrous first date with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). Coleman and Anderson have great fun portraying these two people who are obviously suited to each other, but keep tripping themselves up thanks to mutual nervousness. Clara can’t stop herself from making wisecracks about Danny’s soldiering background, which evidently contains some painful memories we’ve yet to see. Her twitchiness around Danny certainly isn’t helped by the fact that she finds herself interfering in his earlier life—and she realizes that, thanks to her and the Doctor’s visit, the boy Rupert will grow up to become “Dan the soldier man.” Then, again thanks to the Doctor plugging her in to the TARDIS’s telepathic interface, she gets to meet what is apparently her and Danny’s descendant, Colonel Orson Pink (also played by Anderson, in a rather unconvincing wig)—a pioneer time traveler whose ship malfunctioned (echoing a plot point in last year’s “Hide”) and left him marooned at the end of the universe.
Appropriately for an episode called “Listen,” sound design plays an important part. In the two long “creepy” sequences, in the children’s home and in the timeship, the show’s usual lavish incidental music is replaced by long stretches of silence or spooky ambient noises to excellent effect. Also effective is the way Moffat is carefully ambiguous as to whether the hypothesized creatures exist at all; the Doctor manages to come up with mundane explanations for every manifestation, leaving it open as to whether the menacing unseen presence was simply fear itself.
But then the totally unexpected twist occurs as, thanks again to Clara’s connection with the TARDIS (as the Doctor says, “Some idiot turned off the safeguards”), we pay a visit to the Doctor’s childhood. Clara’s moment of horrified realization that she’s interacting with the Doctor as a boy is wonderfully played, as is her quick thinking in convincing him that it’s just a dream—turning the whole story into one of Moffat’s patented loops of cause and effect. No doubt some will be aghast at Moffat flirting with pulling back the curtain on a part of the Doctor’s past that should remain shrouded in mystery, but it’s worth it for the superb revelation of the significance of that random barn that John Hurt’s Doctor found in last year’s anniversary special. With the sweet final sequence of Clara calming the boy’s fears, with words that she previously heard from the Doctor himself, what threatened to be just a shaggy-dog story turns into something inspired.
Next Week: The Doctor and Clara find themselves forced to take up bank robbing, in “Time Heist.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: A difficult decision, since there really isn’t a story like this anywhere in the classic series, but I’ve decided to go with the first Doctor Who story ever shown, 1963’s “An Unearthly Child.” The introductory episode is justly famous, but the following three, where William Hartnell’s original Doctor and his companions are stuck in the Stone Age and desperately trying to escape, are often unfairly dismissed. They do, however, feature the very first occasion when the Doctor shows empathy toward his human fellow travelers, a moment which also provides “Listen” with its final evocative line: “Fear makes companions of us all.”
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