‘There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.‘
– The Doctor, ‘The Moonbase’
‘You see, all those years ago when I began..I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then…I went to Skaro.‘
– The Doctor, ‘Into The Dalek’
This is the spoiler-filled review of ‘Listen’, if you haven’t seen the episode though you may want to consider Geoff’s excellent post here: http://sfcrowsnest.org.uk/doctor-who-listen-by-steven-moffat-tv-review/. If you’re happy to proceed then pin back your ears, but don’t look under the bed.
First things first, I’ve never had that dream. I’ve had scary dreams before but never one where something grabs me from under the bed. This is mainly because I’ve spent most of my time sleeping on a bed with drawers underneath it, but I digress. This is a story about the Doctor getting it wrong and Clara putting it right and on the way doing some good. It’s also the best bits of Steven Moffat, handily distilled into forty-five minutes.
The director Doug MacKinnon picks up very quickly that this is a ghost story. The music is softened. The sound becomes as important as the visuals. The lighting is eerie. Clara even comments on this as Orson Pink’s ship cools down, jokingly attributing it to the gloomy new Doctor. The scene with the thing under Rupert’s blanket (and it definitely is ‘something’, even if just another kid playing a prank) is handled with all the dread appearance of the ghost in Jonathan Miller’s ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ while also touching on ‘Don’t Look Now’ or any post-‘Ringu’ Japanese horror movie you care to mention. Even locations such as ‘ West Country Children’s Home, Gloucester, mid-90s’ conjure uncomfortable reminders of Fred West. The meeting with the home warden is tense and then expertly deflated when you realise the Doctor has stolen his coffee mug, also the Doctor’s expert diversion into his confusion over ‘Where’s Wally?’
Consider then MacKinnon also has to balance this with the tale of Danny and Clara’s disastrous date. Clara and Danny’s amusing inability to be civil to each other makes you wonder how much lager and wine did they consume to take so much offence at either’s comments? The Doctor and the TARDIS act like an inadvertent Ghost of Christmas Future, Clara should persevere with the date because her own great-grandson depends on it. Both Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson, in dual roles, played this burgeoning relationship with sensitivity. It certainly made more sense than Amy and Rory losing their baby daughter and not really being upset by it until about six months later.
As for the Doctor, he probably has a right to finally succumb to paranoia. Nearly every time he lands the TARDIS somewhere, there are monsters to be fought. It makes sense that on his travels he arrives on Skaro and realises the monsters are real and therefore his nightmares are, too.
‘Listen’ explores the long-term psychological damage that the Doctor has incurred, not counting the Ninth Doctor’s own post-traumatic stress of the 2005 series. Is it any wonder therefore he believes there are things hidden waiting to come out and get him? Clara successfully instils some much needed bravery into the young Doctor on her encounter in the barn, but she doesn’t necessarily ‘invent’ him. She arguably plants the ankle-grabbing dream in him. He may well have had it before, but importantly, reassures him in the same way the Doctor was able to reassure Rupert about being scared.
Thus Steve Moffat presents his version of another aspect of the Doctor’s personality, he is driven by deep-seated childhood fears. While the temptation is to brand the exercise one of armchair psychology, it actually serves to confirm what we’ve seen develop in the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. He brings the rationality and curiosity, Clara has the emotional intelligence and common-sense. Both are brave. People claim it’s unfair to compare a show like ‘Doctor Who’ to ‘Game Of Thrones’ or ‘Breaking Bad’ with their adult themes and longer seasons, where protagonists are given more room to breathe, but this series of ‘Doctor Who’ has done wonders for its lead characters. They have depth and they are developing.
This is though a revisit of tropes for Steven Moffat, but arguably done more tightly and with more subtlety, almost as if he’s had seven series to perfect this sort of thing. Picture the Vashta Nerada being equally as real as they had been imagined in ‘Silence In The Library’, what if ‘Name Of The Doctor’ had seen Clara’s own interaction with the Doctor handled with the same sensitivity as it is here?
‘Listen’ deserves its place in the Moffat canon alongside ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl In The Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. Yes, there are more things under the bed, more things in the corner of your eye, more nods to ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ than may be respectable, but ‘Listen’ does it all more compactly than many before it.
Apart the Moffat ‘Top Trumps’ aspects to the episode, there were once again more nods to the past. ‘Never cruel or cowardly’ recalled ‘Day Of The Doctor’ and just as much as the War Doctor’s cameo did, the words also found in Moffat’s ‘Comic Relief’ special ‘The Curse Of Fatal Death’. The Doctor’s instant-sleep finger was seen in ‘Survival’. The brilliant orange spacesuit still lives, the new series’ equivalent of the ‘Earthshock’ helmets. Orson’s even said ‘SB6’ on it, so presumably it is the one the Doctor wore in ‘The Satan Pit’, stored in the TARDIS. It also went to the end of the universe in ‘Utopia’ where the last planet was called Malcassairo. Interestingly, the humans were trying to get to a place called ‘Utopia’ but instead end becoming the Toclafane. Perhaps ‘Utopia’ is the ‘Promised Land’ that the robots are trying to reach in this series?
Overall, then ‘Doctor Who’ continues to be highly impressive. The tropes Moffat uses maybe causing some contempt-breeding familiarity among longer-term fans, but I would argue each episode should be judged on its own merits as we progress. So far, series 8 is therefore, in my opinion, very good indeed.
© John Rivers 2014
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Doctor Who: ‘Listen’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04hynt7/doctor-who-series-8-4-listen
Doctor Who Extra: ‘Listen’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p026dxnx/doctor-who-extra-series-1-4-listen