Sunday, 14 September 2014

DOCTOR WHO, 8.4 – 'Listen' • three shades of pink

Sunday, 14 September 2014

"Fear makes companions of us all."
DOCTOR WHO's often at its best when delivering quiet, disconcerting ghost stories. Steven Moffat delivers one of the best with "Listen"; a weird, conceptual episode that ultimately explores The Doctor's (Peter Capaldi) fear of the dark, sense of isolation (he's introduced sitting Zen-like atop his TARDIS in space), and preoccupation with a pet theory about why people talk to themselves when they're alone. Do creatures exist that forever lurk around us, unseen, evolved to hide?

It's another story that fits into Moffat's fondness of extrapolating monsters and ideas from fundamental human fears, or physical limitations and psychological quirks ('don't blink' becomes 'don't turn around').

"Listen" focused on a common nightmare of 'monsters under the bed', poised to grab your foot if you step onto the floor, and spun an undeniably messy story propelled by The Doctor simply wanting to answer a lifelong question. Naturally, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was dragged along for the adventure across Space and Time, but unexpectedly her date Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) became a bigger player than expected. Or, rather, his great-grandson Orson did; a greying time-traveller whose first mission went haywire, resulting in him arriving at the End of Time—where he's the only living entity left, and thus a target for the 'hidden things' that have been living amongst us for aeons.

I'm not for one second going to say "Listen" wasn't a head-scratcher at times. It was built entirely on The Doctor suddenly deciding to investigate a hitherto unmentioned mystery from his childhood, and the way the story involved three generations of Pink's wasn't entirely successful, but it developed such a rich mood that I can forgive a great deal. This was the first episode perfectly moulded to Capaldi's darker incarnation of The Doctor, as it was slower and more intelligently handled. It felt like a Moffat story from the Russell T. Davies' era, when his time and talent wasn't being stretched so thin. Moffat pretty much admitted in Doctor Who Magazine that he intended this episode to be a refutation of growing claims he's lost his touch, and that his imagination has started to outgrow his ability tell a good, sharp, character-driven, scary story.

I've already heard it said "Listen" is close to rivalling "Blink" as a classic, but I wouldn't go that far. It lacked the beautiful simplicity of that beloved nu-Who instalment, but it was certainly a great episode. If only for the joy of the moment Clara visited The Doctor as a little boy on Gallifrey, in the barn the War Doctor (John Hurt) returned to in "The Day of The Doctor", and established a beautiful link to the first ever episode ("An Unearthly Child") by revealing William Hartnell's quote "fear makes companions of us all" was him repeating something Clara whispered into his ear!

I also liked how the young Doctor (or whatever his name was back then) was essentially a Luke Skywalker-style farm boy, not expected to become a great Time Lord. As if that's a profession, not the name of an alien race. It's a moment of interesting mythology enrichment, but I'm sure it's going to rub a few people the wrong way. Shall we just refer to his kind as Gallifreyan now? That would actually make more sense. I've always felt the Time Lord moniker was stupid, because what were they known as before they invented time-travel? It's like humans suddenly being called the Internal Combustible Engine People.

I also like series 8's treatment of Clara more and more. She's becoming a favourite companion now, and not just a beautiful hanger-on. She's a key part of every week's storyline and more of an audience proxy, which hasn't felt true of the show since Rose Tyler's days. Samuel Anderson also comes across very well as Danny Pink, who's an interesting mix of contradictions (proud, tetchy) and closely tied to Clara without really knowing why—although it's a bit weird he doesn't remember her and The Doctor in his bedroom as a boy, right? That would have been a very memorable evening!

Oh, and it was genuinely scary at times. The sequence of various bad sleepers getting a pale hand wrapped around their ankles probably gave a lot of children the heebie-jeebies on Saturday night (you're welcome, parents of the world), and there was a brilliant sequence with The Doctor imploring Clara and Rupert to not turn around and face a strange entity obscured by a blanket, standing right behind them. The Doctor's "fear is a super-power" speech was also mesmerising, and Capaldi seemed to be relishing the juicy material here. This hour suited his crabby, dotty Doctor right down to the ground, and he's actually the first modern incarnation to feel right at home in his TARDIS—which is being filmed and utilised a lot better in series 8. Love the upper decks with old-fashioned paraphernalia, and how the staircases are edged with dusty books.


  • Interesting to note Clara felt pain when trying to remove her fingers from the TARDIS psychic controls. A reminder the TARDIS isn't supposed to like her, which hasn't really been mentioned since the early episodes of series 7?
  • It feels very obvious that Clara and Danny must get together and have children, meaning Orson was Clara's great-great-grandson, but is it too obvious? It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume we're being led up the wrong path, and Moffat has something stranger in store for us.
  • The old man The Doctor met at the children home was played by Robert Goodman, who also appeared in "The Trial of a Time Lord" and "Nightmare of Eden".
written by Steven Moffat • directed by Douglas Mackinnon • 13 September 2014 • BBC1

Next time...