What’s always made Doctor Who unique as well as enduring as a television show is its ability to constantly reinvent itself. From season to season, decade to decade, Doctor Who is allowed–no, expected to be something entirely different. Last week was a funny, charming romp in the past with Robin Hood and his Merry Men. This week we’re forced to face one of our oldest fears – what’s that under the bed?
“Listen” is the first episode written by showrunner Steven Moffat that wasn’t a season premiere or finale, big anniversary special, or a two-parter. This episode is a one-off, where whatever the arc of series 8 is with Missy and the Promise Land doesn’t factor in at all. And it was good, delivering some of the best frights on Doctor Who since “Midnight” or “Blink.”
What made the scares so effective this time around was the simplicity of them. While there are genuinely scary moments in “Listen,” there’s not actually a monster to speak of, but rather a clever use of sound to prey on our imagination (again reminiscent of “Midnight”). Besides, as any good horror aficionado knows: less is more, and often, whatever it is we can imagine as hiding in the dark or under the bed is much scarier than what we’d actually find there.
However, since the episode’s resolution basically reveals there wasn’t ever a monster to begin with, some will likely call it a cop out. And they aren’t entirely wrong. I mean, what actually was in the room with The Doctor, Clara, and the young Rupert Pink? Was it just another kid playing a prank? If so, what a weirdo.
Speaking of weirdos, could Clara and Danny’s date have gone any worse? Those two cannot keep it together when around each other. It must be love… or at least procreation because Clara and Danny’s future timelines are genetically linked. Meeting Clara’s descendant, Orson Pink – a dead ringer for Danny – pretty much confirms this, and I wonder how having that kind of foreknowledge will affect their budding relationship?
For an open and closed, one-off of an episode, “Listen” sure did follow a complicated timeline. This episode traveled as far into the future as the end of all life in existence and as far in to the past as The Doctor’s childhood. Yup, somehow Moffat still managed to stick in a big, revelatory whopper about The Doctor’s past, even finding a way to tie in with “The Day of the Doctor.”
The Doctor’s childhood is rarely ever touched upon in Doctor Who, and in fact, not much about The Doctor’s life is known before he chose to steal a TARDIS and run away. What we see in the last minutes of “Listen” is the earliest we’ve ever seen into The Doctor’s timeline, and just who’s there–Clara! She’s been all throughout his timeline already, impacting his life more than any companion before, but here we see she had a very intense and formative effect on him at a young age.
She’s also the source of The Doctor’s obsession with our shared fear of something hiding under the bed, and the scene in where she grabs the child Doctor’s ankle from under the bed was a great way of revealing it.
Now, all of this will likely be tough for everyone to swallow. And like so many of Moffat’s grand ideas, it’s absolutely full of holes. (Just how did the TARDIS travel back in time to Gallifrey when that planet is timelocked?) But what it shows us about The Doctor, about how he learned to face his fears after finding strength in being scared, gives us new insight into his character. We learn that The Doctor was separated from his parents at a young age, and it seems always detested being ordered around, never wanting to be a soldier. Plus, that barn the War Doctor chose to use to unleash The Moment wasn’t just any barn.
Performance wise, “Listen” was the best so far. Peter Capaldi excels at giving The Doctor this mad, slightly unhinged quality and his opening scene where he’s talking to himself needed just that. In fact, this episode should make us a little concerned about The Doctor’s mental well-being considering he was imagining the threat from the very beginning.
Though it’s Jenna Coleman who steals the show this week. Clara took to time-traveling like a fish does water and she’s the first companion in recent memory who has always handled uncertainty with great composure. In “Listen,” she’s juggling meeting her date as a little boy, meeting her future great-grandson, and traveling again in The Doctor’s past all like pro. And all without The Doctor ever really understanding the entirety of what’s happening! If her deception of the Sheriff of Nottingham was just a taste of how capable Clara can be as a companion, than this episode proved she’d be pretty good at playing Doctor, too.
“Listen” is assured to be a divisive episode, but it can’t be said it wasn’t often frighteningly fun.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9pm on BBC America.
Watch a preview of next week’s episode – “Time Heist”: