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Anniversary Week: Listen Review

Episode: Listen
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Starring: Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink/Orson Pink, Remi Gooding as Rupert Pink

“I remember the first thing I said about this year’s run is: ‘I’m going to do a chamber piece, with no money, in the middle, because I haven’t done one in ages and I’d like to prove that I can actually write.'”
– Steven Moffat on Listen, Doctor Who Magazine #477 (Aug 2014)

Steven Moffat is, and always has been, my favourite Doctor Who writer. Not only does he have the whole ‘kids behind the sofa’ thing down to a tee, but throughout his time on the show I’ve been captivated by his ability to blend complex, imaginative storytelling and relatable characters with sharp humour and real emotion, resulting in stories that never fail to either thrill, shock or move me.

Series 8’s Listen does all three. Although some parts have proved divisive, Listen has largely gone down well both with fans and critics (coming top in our own Series 8 poll), is Peter Capaldi’s favourite story of his first series, and has even earned Doctor Who its first Bram Stoker nomination for achievement in horror and dark fantasy writing.

For me it’s also a highly welcome return to the lower profile ‘Moffat episodes’ we’ve lost in recent years in favour of the obligatory series openers, finales and specials that come with being in charge of Doctor Who. Yet this is only one of the many reasons I’m so fond of this episode and consider it one of the best, not only from the past ten years, but the entire history of the show.

“What if the prickle on the back of your neck is the breath of something close behind you?”

With the absence of specific plot details in pre-broadcast interviews and trailers it was difficult to know what to expect coming into this episode (leaks, what leaks?). One thing we were promised was that Listen would be scary, and it delivers – I often lament being a member of the ‘no-Who’ generation, but this is one story I’m rather glad I didn’t watch as a child! Longer, quieter scenes than we’re used to in Doctor Who create plenty of space for vivid horror imagery like hands shooting out from underneath beds to take hold in the darkest corners of our minds. Douglas Mackinnon’s expert direction only serves to enhance the feeling that there’s always something lurking just out of sight, whilst Murray Gold’s gorgeous music ebbs and flows throughout, sensitively underscoring tension and emotion in equal measure.

What binds these elements together, however, is Peter Capaldi’s riveting performance as The Doctor. No longer is he Matt Smith’s twinkly, offbeat madman in a box, but instead one of an entirely different sort, as his desperate need to know the truth behind what he believes is a universal dream quickly turns into a dangerous obsession that almost ends up costing him his life. It’s hard to believe at this point we were only four episodes into Capaldi’s first series as in Listen it feels like he’s been playing the role for years, and for me this was the story where his slow-burn Doctor finally began to slot into place. It’s no coincidence that this happened at a time when we learned a bit more about what scares the Doctor, which it turns out is not that far from what scares us too.

It’s also perhaps just as well that we didn’t know what was to come, as Listen excels at subverting any expectations we might have had of either Moffat’s usual style or the story itself. Tapping into our everyday fears, for instance, is a theme which has long been associated with Moffat’s writing – movements out of the corner of your eye, or horrors hidden in the shadows – so the concept of monsters lurking under the bed, whilst chilling, feels like it’s in much the same vein. Equally familiar is the idea of creatures capable of perfect hiding, especially as we’d by this point recently seen the Doctor re-encounter both the Weeping Angels and the Silence (in The Time of the Doctor). Add in a creepy children’s rhyme, meetings out of order and some awkward relationship comedy and Listen was almost on track to becoming the most Moffat-y of all Moffat episodes.

And yet somehow it’s not. Moffat’s use of his tried and tested tropes, far from being repetitive or hackneyed, is in fact inspired. Through them we’re well and truly lulled into the assumption that the Doctor is onto something as always, and that it’s only a matter of time before he finds the creatures he’s so fervently looking for. The eventual revelation that the monsters might not always be real – just as Wally isn’t there to be found in every book – is one that is not only unexpected as a result, but for that exact reason makes more of an impact.

“A soldier who’s so brave he doesn’t need a gun can keep the whole world safe.” 

One aspect of Moffat’s Who I’ve always been drawn to is the way in which he uses time travel within his stories. After all, if I ever were fortunate enough to have access to a TARDIS I know I’d be tempted to use it for so much more than travelling to different time periods (although I’d be lying if I said there wouldn’t be some of that going on as well!). It’s not all fun and games though, so I love both that Listen explores the potential of time travel to its fullest, and that it never lets up on the ramifications that it could have.

In the case of Danny Pink these are some pretty huge ramifications, and to be frank it’s alarming to see just how cavalier the Doctor is with time travel in this story. Giving young Rupert Pink his dream about being ‘Dan the soldier man’ happens in the blink of an eye yet alters the course of Danny’s whole life, an event which only makes the Doctor’s later dismissive treatment of him in future episodes all the more maddening. This could also be, of course, because Danny’s just so likeable; with only one previous appearance under his belt by this point, Samuel Anderson does an excellent job at balancing Danny’s endearing awkwardness and charm with his obvious inner turmoil whenever his time in the army is touched upon.

What’s even more impressive is that Anderson pulls double duty in Listen. The differences between Orson Pink and Danny are clear, though, and his story – a pioneer time traveller from the not-too-distant future who overshoots his target and ends up stranded at the end of the universe – could almost be an episode in itself, Doctor Who‘s own take on Fredric Brown’s Knock:

‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door…’ 

The very fact of Orson’s existence is, and perhaps forever will be, shrouded in mystery, but what’s so interesting is the effect it has on Clara. As the oblivious Doctor forges on, it’s up to her to put the pieces together, and it’s intriguing to see the Impossible Girl struggle with the consequences of tampering with someone else’s timeline for a change. Like us, Clara also makes the assumption that Orson could well be a descendent of her and Danny, but of course at this point she doesn’t have the knowledge we now have of Danny’s fate. Does she, then, go on to pursue a relationship with Danny purely because she wants to, or is it also because – like creating her copies by jumping into the Doctor’s time stream – she feels she has to, otherwise how else could Orson happen?

“Well, he’s not going to the Academy, is he, that boy? He’ll never make a Time Lord.”

The other potentially life-changing event of this episode, of course, happens in the final ten minutes in a remote barn somewhere on Gallifrey. It’s a scene which is fair to say has split fans, with those against it claiming that surely it’s nothing short of arrogance for Moffat to think he can impose on us his idea of what the Doctor’s childhood was like. It is called Doctor Who, after all, so doesn’t that ruin the mystery that’s so intrinsic to the show?

Except what do we really learn? We see the young Doctor was lonely, a bit of an outsider, but it’s hard to believe a boy who grew up to steal a TARDIS and run away from his home planet was ever completely content with life to begin with. We’re never told outright who the man or woman in the barn are, nor the circumstances of the young Doctor’s home life. We only catch mere glimpses of the boy in the bed, all silhouettes and mops of hair and that lovely shot of his eye with stars reflected within it, stars that he would one day seek out for himself. And who’s to say he wouldn’t have done that anyway, even without Clara’s influence?

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Clara does make an impression on the Doctor. As a nanny turned schoolteacher Clara has a natural empathy with children, so it rings so true to her character that she would go to comfort a lonely, crying child. In an extraordinary twist, however, this puts her in a position where she inadvertently becomes the cause of his bad dreams despite the best of intentions. It’s a fascinating dilemma to see Clara tackle, reflected in Jenna Coleman’s wonderfully multifaceted portrayal as she runs the gamut of emotions from confusion, to shock, to the compassion that Clara has in spades not just for young children, but for the Doctor himself.

At least some of the words from Clara’s moving speech stay with him right up to the point he finds himself in a prehistoric forest with his granddaughter and a different pair of teachers from Coal Hill, informing them that ‘fear makes companions of all of us’. Nor is this the only time in the young Doctor’s future that’s alluded to – that jaw-dropping moment (sorry) when we realise we’ve seen this particular barn before leads to the incredibly poignant realisation that, faced with a decision no one should have to make, the War Doctor would and does seek solitude and comfort in the same place he did as a child. These references are so important as, at a time when we’re still getting to know the Twelfth Doctor, they are a much needed reminder that he is still the same person he has always been.

“What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower.”

Ultimately, Listen is about fear of the unknown. There are those who aren’t satisfied by the ambiguity present throughout the story, and frustrated by the lack of a clear-cut resolution. It’s precisely this, however, which makes Listen so thought-provoking for me, not to mention admire such bold and confident storytelling which intentionally leaves spaces in the story for the audience to fill in themselves.

For it is absolutely intentional. It’s essential to note that, although we’re not given definitive answers, we are always presented with more than one potential explanation for everything that happens. The Doctor could just have written on the blackboard himself and forgotten; the figure under the bedspread could just be another child playing a prank; the knocking on the airlock door of Orson’s ship could just be the hull cooling. Or it could all be down to the same unknown, hidden creature. Or even different creatures each time.

It’s the not knowing that’s frightening, and Listen shows us how this type of fear can affect people. In Listen fear of the unknown is the impetus which pushes the Doctor to go searching across time and space for the nightmare that’s been with him since childhood, the barrier which Clara and Danny find themselves having to tackle before they can form the beginnings of a relationship, and the reason why Orson, all alone at the end of the universe, still keeps the door locked.

Fear makes companions of us all, and it does this in so many different ways. For some of us it’s fleeting, only rearing its ugly head when things go bump in the night. Some of us are scared of specific things, like spiders or clowns or public speaking. Some of us actively seek out the adrenaline that comes with fear through horror movies, rollercoasters or skydiving. Those of us who have more intense, long-term relationships with fear know that fear can be debilitating, can make us feel isolated or feel like a failure for not being able to beat it. And fear, in my experience, is always spoken about as something that should be beaten, or conquered, or overcome.

“The deep and lovely dark. We’d never see the stars without it.”

Which is why Listen means so much to me. When Clara says that it doesn’t matter if there are monsters under the bed, it validates even the most irrational of my fears, and when she says that fear makes companions of us all I no longer feel alone with my own. When the Doctor tells Rupert that there’s nothing wrong with scared, that scared is a superpower,  I believe him, because it’s the Doctor who’s saying it and if there’s anyone who would know, it’s him. And also because if the Doctor’s sat perched cross-legged on top of the TARDIS urging you to ‘listen!’, you listen.

Steven Moffat describes Listen as a chamber piece. Now, Doctor Who is a show that thrives on big, bombastic symphonies. Running down corridors and saving the universe has been its bread and butter for over fifty years, and it’s really good at it. The show would never have survived so long, however, without a full and varied repertoire, so to my mind the chamber pieces are just as important.

And this particular chamber piece is a gentle, soulful adagio; slow and measured, it takes its time to weave together beautifully subtle harmonies whilst virtuosic performances from Capaldi, Coleman and Anderson prove that, in the hands of the most accomplished of composers, a small selection of instruments can have the power of a full orchestra.

Just like with any piece of music, not everyone will connect with Listen. Some will find it too discordant for their liking, and that’s fine; the beauty of Doctor Who is that not every story has to work for everyone, and it’s so easy to just skip to another track. As for me, Listen most definitely hits all the right notes, and whilst I’ll carry on enjoying the symphonies as I always have done, I know this is one of those pieces I’ll keep coming back to listen to over and over again.