Listen gets off to a cracking start with a montage of Peter Capaldi alone on screen in various locations. As pre-credits scenes go it’s one of the best ever (I feel a future article idea forming in my head) with the Doctor meditating on top of his TARDIS in space before telling us all about how there may be monsters out there that we can’t see or even perceive as they have evolved perfect hiding. The idea is screaming for the Doctor Who treatment, especially from Moffat, and seeing it happen is a nice welcome addition to the series. Now that Capaldi’s fully established, it’s time for The Peter Capaldi Era to start throwing scares at us.
DOCTOR: Listen! Question. Why do we talk out loud when we know we're alone? Conjecture. Because we know we're not. Evolution perfects survival skills. There are perfect hunters. There is perfect defence. Question. Why is there no such thing as perfect hiding? Answer. How would you know? Logically, if evolution were to perfect a creature whose primary skill were to hide from view, how could you know it existed? It could be with us every second and we would never know. How would you detect it, even sense it, except in those moments when, for no clear reason you choose to speak aloud? What would such a creature want? What would it do? Well? What would you do?The date between Clara and Danny is awkward to watch but THAT’S THE ENTIRE POINT! I said last time in my review of Into the Dalek that I have trouble believing these two would go the distance as a couple and now we get to see this in action and my initial doubts are proved right. The date goes badly when Clara comments on Danny’s soldier past prompting his rant about the good he did with the authority afforded to him in that role before insulting her back and her storming off. Anyone who’s ever had a date go badly, especially with someone you may genuinely love, can relate to that. The dialogue is believable, the actors Coleman and Anderson deliver their lines well and even their lack of chemistry is an advantage to the scene in making the failure of the date believable. Full marks to Moffat, no problems so far.
But there’s no time to dwell on that, there’s a trip in the TARDIS awaiting! The Doctor has got the idea into his head about the perfect hiders and now wants to investigate the concept of creatures under the bed. This too is a concept that has Doctor Who written all over it so the fact that this hadn’t been explored so far is astounding. Mark Gatiss’s best episode yet, Night Terrors, addressed something similar, but that’s about it – until now. The Doctor has the belief that everyone who ever lived has had the same nightmare of monsters grabbing you from under the bed and now he wants to visit the first time Clara had that nightmare and find out. Then we have Clara think of Danny so that the telepathic circuits go to the wrong place and we meet Rupert Pink.
What follows is pure nightmare fuel as Clara and Rupert hide under his bed – Clara’s maternal instinct kicking in – only for something unseen to sit on it. A creature that hides under Rupert’s blanket and starts approaching them both from behind as the Doctor begs them not to look at it. The hairs standing up on the back of their necks, the thing under the blanket hidden from view by some brilliant camera angles (good work by director Douglas MacKinnon) and the Doctor’s instructions not to look all make for one of Doctor Who’s scariest setpieces in its long history, and one that will stand the test of time. It’s utter genius and the strength lies largely in its simplicity. No effects, not much music, not much lighting, just the immensely high quality of writing and acting.
Exactly what it is under there is left ambiguous – The Doctor suggests it could be another kid messing around but that’s the best explanation we get – and that’s a good thing. Occasionally I think it’s okay to leave questions unanswered so long as it doesn’t become common practice. I must also praise the way this scene makes it so the Doctor sets Rupert on the course that will make him the man he is when Clara knows him by the name Danny.
Scrambled his memory. Gave him a big old dream about being Dan the soldier man.After that we have another Clara and Danny on a date sequence (which is another disaster) before meeting Orson Pink. Who is he and why does he look like Danny? He mentions a great-grandmother who talked about having adventures and has the same soldier figurine as Rupert/Danny, which he claims is an old heirloom. As well as that, he’s connected somehow to Clara’s timeline. What Orson provides is a vision of a future that, come the season finale, Clara can now never have. He’s somehow a time-traveller himself to the end of time.
Orson is the last being left in the universe… yet he’s scared of the possibility of staying there another night. His spaceship has a warning to himself in it telling him DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR and at night there are sounds banging on it. Maybe there’s just nothing out there and it’s only the pipes making that noise – but what if it’s not? More ambiguity done right and I love it! Then there’s a great Doctor moment, as he demands Clara and Orson return to inside the TARDIS. This is serious and he won’t let them anywhere near whatever it is before he is rendered unconscious by it.
But the best bit of all is what comes next: Clara reuses the telepathic circuits to get away and leave, and she ends up in a barn. There’s a boy asleep on a bed and she startles him. She hides under his bed and it’s here that the twist to end all twists comes. The implication is that the boy is just Rupert again but then we (and Clara) hear two people talking…
MAN: Why does he have to sleep out here?The boy on the bed is THE FIRST DOCTOR!!! This reveal is just stunning but it gets worse when he steps out of bed and Clara grabs his leg. She was the monster he was investigating!!! The entire barn scene is simply mind-blowing as we witness Clara inspire the young Gallifreyan to become the Doctor.
WOMAN: He doesn't want the others to hear him crying.
MAN: Why does he have to cry all the time?
WOMAN: You know why.
MAN: There'll be no crying in the army.
MAN: Don't pretend you're not awake. We're not idiots.
WOMAN: Come and sleep in the house. You don't have to be alone. If you can hear me, you're very welcome in the house, with the other boys. I'll leave the door on the latch. Come in any time.
MAN: He can't just run away crying all the time if he wants to join the army.
WOMAN: He doesn't want to join the army. I keep telling you.
MAN: Well, he's not going to the Academy, is he, that boy? He'll never make a Time Lord.
Seeing the Doctor in his childhood was a tricky one to pull off – how do you do this without destroying the mystery? – but Moffat wisely declines to show us more than his forehead, hair and lower-legs. This certainly helps and avoids ruining the mystery, so that’s fine by me. Plus anything that further distances the mythos of the show from “The Other” (google it) gets an A+ from me. Yet this scene generated a polarising reaction from the fans. Most of us reasonably can say that showing us a child version of Hartnell’s Doctor is a no-go area but as I’ve outlined above Moffat doesn’t let us see any distinguishing features so he gets away with it. No problems there! The issue many took was with including any reference to the Doctor as a child at all. Apparently this is “Not Allowed” and crosses the line.
Give me strength…
What’s wrong with having Clara meet the child who will become the Doctor? She’s already influenced him throughout all his lives and I don’t recall seeing anyone take issue with that. That’s because that reveal was crucial only for one story arc in only half of a season and not relevant to what came before and after. It was done to tell that story arc and that’s it. Similarly, here, meeting him as a child is relevant to this one single standalone story and that’s all there is to it. So what’s the problem? If you watch Listen and choose to hate it purely on the basis that the Doctor is shown as a child I have only five words to say to you: Grow the f**k up already!
Sometimes my fellow fans make me feel mortified, just by association.
“It’s the Doctor as a child! Worst episode ever! 0/10! Moffat must go! Bring back RTD!”
All in all then, Listen gets it right on every level: Moffat shows his ability to scare us better than he ever has before (move over Blink!) and delivers a timey-wimey plot that’s not too complicated for its own good, Capaldi gets to be both menacing and hilarious at the same time, the Danny/Clara relationship is believably flawed and relevant to the story, the Doctor gets some addition to his backstory, Clara’s status as one of the greatest companions ever is secured by what we see here and there’s also an impromptu trip to Gallifrey. But more than any of that, Listen is also basic. There’s virtually no music or special effects, just pure acting and writing combining to achieve a level of perfection no other Doctor Who story ever can hope to come close to.
I could sit here until time has run out and still wouldn’t be able to find even the tiniest most nitpicky of problems with it. Listen is perfect. Go watch it again right now.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.