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Doctor Who: Listen (Review)

Are you making conversation?

I thought I might give it a try.

Listen is an episode important in its unimportance.

It is the first non “event” episode credited to Moffat as a solo writer since The Beast Below. Every episode credited exclusively to Moffat since The Beast Below has been a premiere or a finalé or two-parter or a special of some description. Listen is the fourth episode of Peter Capaldi’s first season, following a celebrity pseudo-historical written by Mark Gatiss. It is an episode that is about very little. There is a lot of talking, and a lot of sitting, and – as the title implies – a lot of listening. It is utterly unlike any other episode of Doctor Who ever produced.

doctorwho-listen17

Midnight in the TARDIS…

Listen has a central mystery that it refuses to resolve, a wealth of lovely character moments, and just the faintest trace of Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stuff. As with a lot of Moffat’s writing for the show, Listen is packed with little details that seem to exist to drive fans wild, but which make a lot of sense for those willing to relax and go with it. It is fascinated with negative space, with the characters ruminating on how questions are more important than answers, and how nothing can be more defining or revealing than something.

It is an episode that feels very much in touch with the mood and themes Moffat era. In keeping with Moffat’s style since he took over the show, Listen is a lesson in the art of misdirection.

doctorwho-listen6

Chalking it up to a title drop…

In many respects, Listen can be seen as a clear statement of purpose from Steven Moffat. It is an episode that touches on many of the writer’s pet themes and big ideas, while remaining divorced from the year-long arcs or byzantine plots associated with his tenure as executive producer. In fact, the episode’s biggest nod towards the season’s larger arc – the reveal of Orson Pink and the implication that he might be related to Clara – seems like something of a red herring in light of the events of Death in Heaven.

Watching Listen, quite a few comparisons suggest themselves. It shared a similar mood with Blink, and a central monster that feels like a logical expansion from those featured in The Impossible Astronaut. However, Listen feels a lot closer in spirit to something like Gridlock or Midnight. It is the show’s executive producer writing a fairly unimportant script for the season in question, but one that hits on many of the themes and ideas important to their tenure overseeing the show.

Time for reflection...

Time for reflection…

Running a show like Doctor Who is time-consuming. Managing everything involved in a show like this is tough.  They tweak all the scripts, manage the year-long arcs, handle the day-to-day production of the show. Time and energy are precious. As such, showrunners tend to focus on the episodes that are “important.” So Davies and Moffat tend to cluster their episodes around the start and end of the season, particularly in seasons that introduce new Doctors. Davies infamously wrote eight of the first thirteen episodes of the show, something that almost killed him.

More generally, while trying to balance all of the duties and obligations that come with running a show like this, the showrunners will assign themselves episodes that have a very clear functional purpose. The first and last episodes of a given season will typically be written by the showrunner, along with the Christmas (and any other) specials. These are episodes that tend to stake out ground for the year ahead, setting up or winding down long-running plots, tying a bow around the show.

"No hugging! No learning!"

“No hugging! No learning!”

Every once in a while, a showrunner will sign their name to an episode that is not meant to be important – an episode that is not going to alter the status quo or advance the central arc or change the very meaning of the show. Instead, they can be fun. Chris Carter would really cut loose on his stand-alone episodes of The X-Files like Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle or Improbable, enjoying the freedom of just writing a standard episode of show he had created and defined. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ira Steven Behr loved writing divisive comedy episodes.

Watching these episodes, free from the sort of structural burdens that define episodes typically handled by showrunners, the viewer gets a sense of what is important to the writer even beyond the sheer mechanics of putting all the pieces in place or getting a script in front of the camera. Gridlock and Midnight hone in on some of the big recurring themes of Russell T. Davies’ writing, about the way that the individual interacts with society. Listen does something similar for Steven Moffat, exploring his vision of Doctor Who distinct from large series-spanning plots.

Well, that explains why he always leaves the TARDIS open...

Well, that explains why he always leaves the TARDIS open…

As such, Listen hits on some of the writer’s core themes. “Kids like being scared of Doctor Who,” Moffat has argued in the face of criticisms that the show is too scary for youngsters. “It doesn’t horrify them, it doesn’t petrify them, it’s just an enjoyable thrill. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of adrenaline.” Indeed, before the writer took the job of showrunner, his scripts were considered the scariest that show had ever produced. The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink. These stories gave nightmares to children of all ages.

In fact, Moffat seems to spend a significant amount of time wryly winking at the audience, producing monsters that are likely more terrifying to the audience at home than they are to the characters in the story. The Weeping Angels are the only Doctor Who villain the audience cannot defeat by hiding behind the sofa. The image of a Weeping Angel becomes a Weeping Angel. The Silence seem to be able to edit themselves into and out of narratives. The Dream Crabs from Last Christmas are conjured from the idea of a Dream Crab.

Also terrifying...

Also terrifying…

Listen is a glorious tribute to fear. “Let me tell you about scared,” the Doctor advises Rupert. “Your heart is beating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower. There is danger in this room and guess what? It’s you. Do you feel it?”

After all, fear is inevitable. It has always been inevitable. People have been afraid of different things throughout history, but they have always been afraid of something. To deny that fear is to lie to oneself and to everybody else. “Fear is like a companion, a constant companion that is always there,” Clara suggests, and she’s right. If it isn’t terrorists, it is random urban violence; if it isn’t nuclear holocaust, it is invasion; if it isn’t unemployment, it is disease. No matter its form, fear is inevitable. What you do with that fear is up to you.

Chalk it up to a mistake...

The write stuff…

“Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly,” Clara assures the Doctor, offering a lesson that might stay with him. “Fear can make you kind.” That is a pretty optimistic and hopeful sentiment. After all, the Doctor wakes up from a nap ranting and raving about monsters who are “perverting the course of human history.” These monsters under the bed are just abstract fear and anxiety given a literal form. Everybody has face a similar fear. “Everybody dreams of something under the bed.”

And, yet, there is something beautiful about it. Staring out the window the children’s home, the Doctor describes the darkness as the “deep and lovely dark. Cannot see the stars without it.” It is a very thoughtful and optimistic statement. Moffat has suggested that fear can be something wonderful and magical. It can – if used wisely – lead people to do great things and make important decisions. To dismiss fear absolutely is reject an essential and vital part of the human experience. Listen is a gloriously romantic tribute to that aspect of the human experience.

Unarmed and dangerous...

Unarmed and dangerous…

The hypothetical monster at the heart of Listen is perhaps the quintessential Steven Moffat monster – a monster so ethereal and abstract that it may not actually exist at all. A lot of Moffat’s monsters are defined by absences and negatives. The Vashta Nerada hide in shadows and empty spaces, unseen. The Silence edit themselves out of history, existing in the space between memory – or the cuts in an episode of television. The Weeping Angels can only move when nobody is watching. What you cannot see is more terrifying than what you can.

In Flesh and Stone, the Doctor suggested that the image of an angel becomes an angel, making the Weeping Angels the ultimate self-perpetuating monster. Last Christmas does something similar with the Dream Crabs. There is no difference between thought and reality. What about the hypothetical monster at the heart of Listen? If the image of an angel becomes an angel, does the idea of a monster become a monster?  The idea of a monster that is completely and utterly unverifiable seems perfectly in keeping with Moffat’s style. This is a monster defined by its own absence.

Surveillance...

Surveillance…

Travelling to the end of the universe, the Doctor discovers Orson Pink. Even now, at the end of it all, there are still monsters. The Doctor remarks that Pink is “afraid of the dark, but the dark is empty now.” However, the dark can never be empty as long as there exists somebody to perceive it. As long as we can project our own anxieties and fear into that darkness, there will always be monsters. There will be monsters until the last light goes out in the universe. As long as the last man lives, he will carry those ghosts with him.

Into the Dalek confirmed that the Doctor only discovered himself in contrast to the Daleks. The Daleks have been around since the show’s second story, helping to define the concept of “monster” for Doctor Who. Although Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational television programme for youngsters, it is now impossible to imagine Doctor Who without monsters. Listen is effectively an episode about how the Doctor carries those monsters with them. Even if they do not actually exist, it does not mean they are not real.

Get on board...

Get on board…

Listen is fascinated with the arbitrary distinction between dreams and reality. The TARDIS becomes a vehicle that isn’t powered by mechanics or rational thought, but can be wired into Clara’s subconscious. The TARDIS allows the Doctor and Clara to travel into her own dreams. It suggests an elasticity between dream and reality, a sense that the concepts are not as absolute and separate as they might seem. (After all, Robot of Sherwood allowed the duo to meet Robin Hood.)

Of course, this leads to perhaps the episode’s most controversial sequence. Of course, “controversial” is a relative term. It will be controversial among a certain class of Doctor Who fan: the people who write massive long essays about the show; the people who read massive long essays about the show. You and I, basically. The segment of the audience that may take exception to the idea of Clara visiting the young Doctor in the barn and providing comfort and moral support as he sleeps, perhaps inspiring and directing him towards the life he would eventually choose.

Little boy Pink...

Little boy Pink…

Certain fans will react strongly to that sequence. Certain fans will treat it as blasphemy. Certain fans will accuse Moffat of trying to re-write the show’s history to give priority to his own version of events. One can almost imagine Moffat smiling, wryly, as those pages print – imagining the very minor hornet’s nest that he has just kicked. “Those few dozen people on the internet are going to have a fit when they this play out,” you almost imagine him muttering as he sips a cup of coffee and prepares for the table-reading of Deep Breath.

It is worth noting that this season has paid rather close attention to the show’s origins. Into the Dalek made explicit some of the key subtext of The Daleks. In fact, even as elements of fandom will accuse Moffat of riding rough shot over the series’ history, Clara’s observation that “fear makes companions of us all” is actually a clear homage to An Unearthly Child. It is very clear that Steven Moffat knows and appreciates the history of Doctor Who. Considerable effort has been made to pay respect to that history.

In-console-able...

In-console-able…

Of course, to the vast majority of viewers, it is just a very clever sequence. It is a way for the show to explicitly incorporate time travel into the Doctor’s own history. The Doctor is never a character who has lived his life in a linear fashion. It makes sense for his future to intrude and overlap on his past. As much as the Doctor is a character who claims to have absolute control, he is as subject to the whims of time as an body else. The TARDIS takes him where he needs to go, not where he wants to go.

For those viewers who do get worked up about it, it is worth noting that Moffat is hardly breaking new ground here. Although certain elements of fandom might claim that the Doctor’s past is a big mystery, other showrunners have put their own spin on it before. The Doctor’s past is highly malleable, and it always has been. To claim that the show has a tight continuity across its fifty-year run is as crazy as to suggest that it has always been the same show. The Doctor changes, just as his past does.

doctorwho-listen5

Baseless fears…

After all, the Time Lords and Gallifrey did not exist for the first six years of the show’s run. They first appeared in The War Games, and had changed dramatically by The Three Doctors or The Deadly Assassin. Details change and shift over the show’s history. How much regeneration changes the Doctor varies from writer to writer. Russell T. Davies presented it as a metaphorical death, while Douglas Adams had Romana burning through regenerations as she tried on bodies. The Doctor’s basic competence with the TARDIS has been known to shift between production teams.

For Doctor Who, continuity is malleable and flexible. That is part of what makes the show so utterly and completely compelling. There is no need to identify the mysterious female character who appears in The End of Time, just as there’s no need to account for the absence of the Watcher from every regeneration episode that isn’t Logopolis. Things change and shift as the show needs them to. That is part of what makes Doctor Who so fascinating as a long-running television show.

Hold on, there!

Hold on, there!

There is a very serious argument to be made that Doctor Who does not have a continuity of which to speak, which paradoxically suggests that it has the largest possible continuity. One of the recurring motifs of the Moffat era is the sense that absolutely every story has happened in one form or another. Victory of the Daleks can introduce the Daleks from the Peter Cushing movies; Night of the Doctor can confirm that the Eighth Doctor tie-in stories actually happened; Time Heist can feature a flash of Abslom Daak; Kate Stewart can pop over from a fan video production.

As a franchise, Doctor Who has an incredible amount of history to draw on across a wide variety of media, but also the freedom to completely ignore that history. It will never require a “reboot” like Star Trek, because the show has never really had a single linking thread outside the idea of “a mad man and his box.” Except that time Pertwee went box-less for a few years. And those times that people like Moffat and Capaldi insisted that the mad person need not be a man.

doctorwho-listen1

Those who like the idea of the Doctor being inspired by a paradox will incorporate it into their own personal canon; those who don’t will be able to ignore it once Moffat leaves the show. That sequence works very well within the context of the Moffat era – which has largely been about paradoxically tidying and expanding the world of Doctor Who at the same time. That small sequence towards the end of Listen feels like it plays into that. It fits beautifully in context, even if in twenty years it may look as odd as Romana’s regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks.

At the same time, that canon is subject to radical revision at short notice. Nothing can be taken for granted. In the last twenty minutes of The Time of the Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor is revealed as the final and thirteenth incarnation of the character – something revealed almost as quickly as it is dismissed. John Hurt was a secret version of the Doctor that nobody knew about until he appeared. The Doctor lies, and that means that anything the show has ever said can be thrown into question. Anything else is just history re-written.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

Those are two utter fascinating forces at play in Moffat’s Doctor Who – two competing impulses simultaneously assuring viewers that everything counts and nothing counts. Listen is a gleefully cheeky bit of television as it offers a scene that fits quite beautifully within the context of Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who while seeming as incongruous as the revelation that the Doctor’s name is “theta sigma” or that he might secretly be “the Other” or that he is half-human or any other possibility that has been floated over the years.

In the end, that is what Listen is about. It is an episode about ambiguity and mystery. It is a show about how things will keep moving and changing, even when there is no resolution or closure. The bulk of Listen has the Doctor investigating a mystery that he paradoxically does not want to solve. It is a show about unanswered questions and mysteries, and about the competing responses to them. At the climax, Clara urges the Doctor to allow some mystery to remain. “Don’t look where we are. Take off, and promise me you will never look where we’ve been. “

Toy soldiers...

Toy soldiers…

Moffat’s writing has been criticised for being obtuse or overly complicated, and Listen seems like a defence of his storytelling style. It is essentially a mystery that resolutely refuses to provide a clear answer. What was underneath Rupert Pink’s bed sheets? We saw enough to know that it probably wasn’t another child. Alone in the TARDIS at the start of the episode, the Doctor creates a puzzle for himself, a riddle that he cannot answer. It is a question that is designed to be unsolvable.

After all, there was a creature that was perfect at hiding, nobody would ever be able to verify that it existed. Listen talks a great deal about fear of the dark, and negative space – what we do not know, and what we cannot know. Appropriately enough, lot of Listen is left unspoken or unsaid. It is a story about how those dangling questions and unanswerable riddles can stay with us. Does the Doctor really want to know what is behind that door at the end of all of time and space? Would he really want to know the only mystery left in the universe?

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

There’s a weird paradox in the way that audiences process stories. The thrill of the mystery exists in direct competition with the desire to resolve it. Once we have answered the question, there is nothing left. It is often more fun to speculate or to contemplate than it is to know. It is those questions that drive the Doctor on, the thought that there is always something more to know. Mysteries and absences and darkness that are waiting to be filled, but never can be.

In other circumstance, that might seem like an existential nightmare – to know that there is so much that can never be know. Instead, Moffat suggests that it is thrilling. There is always more; more to know; more to explore; more to discover. When the Doctor complains that he can’t find Wally, Rupert Pink explains that Wally simply isn’t in that particular book. “Well, how would you know?” the Doctor teases. “Maybe you just haven’t found him yet.” It is a good joke, but also a telling one.

No mean feat...

No mean feat…

It is best to travel hopefully. “Home, the long way round,” as the Doctor reflected in The Day of the Doctor and teased in Deep Breath. That is, in essence, Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who in a nutshell. It is an unapologetically optimistic world view, one that stands out in an era where cynicism and darkness seem to be taken for granted in popular entertainment. Listen is a very upbeat and hopeful piece of work. The night is dark and full of wonder, to paraphrase Doctor Who‘s heir to the Hugo Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation.

Interestingly, Listen suggests that the Doctor and Clara might actually be looking for us – for the audience. The Doctor imagines an entity that would be completely imperceptible to him. Pondering what such an entity might do, the answer presents itself. “Listen.” Given that every episode of Doctor Who exists as an audio recording, despite the loss of some videos, it feels like quite a pointed suggestion. All that audience members can do to some of the Hartnell and Troughton adventures is “listen.”

Our man Pink...

Our man Pink…

The Doctor ponders his mysterious conceptual monsters. “How would you detect it, even sense it, except in those moments when, for no clear reason you choose to speak aloud?” he asks himself. Of course, characters in fiction tend to speak out loud to themselves in order to articulate their thoughts for the audience. The Deadly Assassin is a particularly infamous example, with the Fourth Doctor talking to himself for the benefit of the camera. It is an act that makes perfect sense within the realities of television production, but little sense in context.

Over the course of Listen, the Twelfth Doctor seems to be on the cusp of figuring out his own nature as a fictional character, imagining the show’s viewers as monsters. As Clara begins to buy into the Doctor’s paranoia, she starts to notice these convenient plot elements as well. Watching the action outside the TARDIS, she is frustrated that the image flickers at a particularly vital moment. “Always when it’s important!” While Dark Water has fun with the idea that the Doctor does not spot the approaching cliffhanger, here the Doctor and Clara flirt with self-awareness.

To the ends of the universe...

To the ends of the universe…

Listen is also interesting for its character beats amid all these big philosophical statements about the nature of fear. Listen presents the Doctor as a character compelled to push his ideas to the logical limit – an egomaniac who is just about skilful enough to pull it off. The opening scenes on the TARDIS are delightfully atmospheric, presenting a character so disconnected from the world below him that he has to invent a monster so that he might chase it. “How long have you been travelling alone?” Clara asks him, and it seems like an important question.

More than that, Listen sets up a number of interesting parallels between the Doctor and Danny Pink. In many ways, the two are quite alike; this adds an interesting dimension to the relationship between Clara and Danny. Listen explicitly links them through the “Dan the soldier man” toy that Clara passes between them, but episode suggests a number of other parallels. “You shoot people then cry about it afterwards?” Clara teased Danny in Into the Dalek. Here, the man in the barn remarks, “There’ll be no crying in the army.”

"Sure, just park it anywhere."

“Sure, just park it anywhere.”

In fact, Listen positions the Doctor and Danny Pink as counterparts, linked at the beginning and (after a fashion) the end. The scene in the barn suggests that the Doctor grew up in a similar environment to the children’s home housing Danny. “If you can hear me, you’re very welcome in the house, with the other boys,” the woman offers. The Doctor is disappointed to discover that Orson Pink has beaten him to the end of the universe. “Robinson Crusoe at the end of time itself. The last man standing in the universe. I always thought that would be me.”

This does a nice job setting up the animosity between the Doctor and Danny. The Caretaker has the Doctor upset that Clara would date Danny ahead of Adrian. Adrian very clearly represents the romantic Eleventh Doctor – “the man who forgets” – in contrast to the cynical and world-weary Twelfth Doctor. Danny serves as a reminder of who the Doctor is, rather than who he would like to be. The implication of Listen is that the Doctor might have lived a life more like Danny if he had not become a Time Lord and stole a TARDIS, and so the Doctor resents that reminder.

Sticking her fingers in it...

Sticking her fingers in it…

Listen also finds room for some nice touches with regards to Clara. As with foreshadowing the rivalry between the Doctor and Danny, Listen seems to point towards the second half of the season in its characterisation of Clara. Here, we get a sense that Clara is very much addicted to the TARDIS and the freedom it represents. At the end of time itself, the Doctor orders Clara back to the TARDIS while he confronts whatever unknown evil lurks beyond that final airlock into the great void.

“Why are you still here?” the Doctor demands, angrily. Clara responds with the stock companion dialogue for any scene like this, “Because I am not going to leave you in danger!” The Doctor is having none of it. “Then you will never travel with me again, because that is the deal!” he warns. Clara is quite upset and angry, but she does retreat back to the TARDIS. The implication is that Clara would be willing to let the Doctor risk his life alone before losing access to the TARDIS. This makes a nice contrast with her confrontation early in Dark Water.

Fine, dine!

Fine, dine!

Listen is a fantastic piece of Doctor Who, and a wonderful piece of television.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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2 Responses

  1. Very insightful review.

    I have to admit I didn’t love this episode. Partly because I have serious issues with the rather patronising, self satisfied way the show and characters treats Dan Pink and ‘soldiers’. It all feels very smug of Moffat, in a navel gazing, Guardian columnist sort of way to lecture the viewer that a soldier might be a person too. Very fine but not all of us needed that lesson, or to be struck repeatedly about the head about it.

    (It doesn’t help that Samuel Anderson is a wooden and uncharismatic actor playing an unlikable part – short of sheer looks it is hard to understand what Clara sees in him.)

    As for Clara meeting the Doctor as child I’ll be honest and say I groaned with dismay. Clara is already the Impossible Girl; does she have to be involved in every aspect of the evolution of the Doctor?

    • I can see that head-beating-over-re-soldiers thing, but it’s nice to have a slightly more nuanced version of soldiering than we got in the Davies/Tennant era, which was “guns are bad, but sometimes you just have to kill an entire race; but guns are bad.” After so long of arguing that the Doctor isn’t and can’t be a soldier, it’s worthwhile having a “… he kinda is” or at least a “… not that there’s anything wrong with that” added. (And it’s interesting that Capaldi’s costume and general appearance seems to evoke Jon Pertwee, the Doctor who perhaps most obviously was a soldier, to the point where the show even suggested that he received a salary for his work with the military.)

      Regarding the Impossible Girl, I don’t mind it so much. It’s odd. The “Rose is so special” stuff in the second and third seasons really turned me off that character, but I’m reasonably okay with Clara being the archetypal companion. Perhaps because the rest of the show doesn’t seem to bend around Clara as awkwardly as the second and third seasons bent around Rose. (Which is particularly frustrating, given she wasn’t even in the third season, but her absence was the third lead character for a lot of the season.)

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