This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Human beings were not built to agree with each other. Films, television programmes, books, theatre: they all serve to make life more interesting, to throw up the differences between us.
Yep, you can spot where this is going a mile off.
“Do you have your own mood lighting now, because frankly, the accent is enough”
Listen is an episode of Doctor Who that’s going to have as many detractors as it does passionate advocates. And whilst Doctor Who has shown us the youth of Gallifrey in the past – think back to Russell T Davies showing us the young version of The Master – it’s still likely to be the last ten minutes of Listen that dominate most of the post-show debates. It’s a shame in a way, as there’s plenty to chunter about in the 35 minutes before that. Whilst Steven Moffat uses some familiar tricks from his locker here, there’s quite a lot to get your teeth into right throughout Listen.
For whatever criticisms are aimed at him, there’s little doubt that Steven Moffat as a storyteller is bold, often extremely so. He’s got ideas as to what he wants to do with Doctor Who, and – against a backdrop of not always unanimous acclaim – he continues to tread that path. By the time he moves away from heading up Doctor Who, his stories will have been woven into a large part of the history of the show.
With Listen, an impressive episode (ofetn hugely so) with a few problems, he goes right back over 1000 years into the timeline of the Doctor himself, as well as to the end of time itself (or does he?). We find ourselves back in the barn we saw in Day Of The Doctor. More to the point, we see the Doctor as a small child. He’s talked about, clearly not by his parents (Russell T Davies had also hinted at the Doctor’s mother back in The End Of Time), and the strong implication is that he’s in whatever in Gallifrey counts as a children’s home (which raises interesting questions about the history of the isolated barn itself).
It’s the dialogue that’s of real note. We learn that the Doctor doesn’t want to be a soldier, which suggests someone wants him to be (his resistance to soldiers comes up again later when he tells Clara that he doesn’t take orders, and we suspect this isn’t the last we’ve heard of his soldier-aversion this series). Then we learn too that he’ll never go to the Academy, and he’ll never be a Time Lord. Meanwhile, he’s sobbing under his covers, scared and alone.
Who calms him down? Clara, who adds an appearance right near the start of his life to the occasions that Steven Moffat has already integrated her into the Doctor’s own timeline. In fact, if the catalyst for the episode is Capaldi’s Doctor being by himself, pondering whether you’re ever alone, then maybe it’s Clara who’s put that feeling into his head, right from a young age.
“Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel and cowardly. Fear can make you kind”
Is your head hurting yet?
But that’s not all. Then we come to Danny Pink. A random person can never walk into modern Doctor Who with no pre-existing ties to the lead characters, and we get very strong hints that Colonel Orson Pink – Samuel Anderson, on his third Doctor Who appearance, yet already let at the ageing make-up and fake facial hair – is a grandchild or great-grandchild of Danny and Clara.
That would explain why, when Clara puts her hands into the squelching telepathic circuits of the TARDIS, that it’s a Pink that’s arrived at. That it’s presumably her descendant. By the end of the episode, Clara and Danny have shared their first kiss. Unless we’re widely off target, it will not be their last. There may be at least one fumble in the future, too.
The episode leaves some complications for the pair to unravel, though. Danny will surely take more interest in how Clara knows the name ‘Rupert’, and Clara might just pick up on Danny’s early-episode off-kilter moment, where he brings up digging wells and saving a village in his soldier days, and how nobody talks about things like that. If that’s what they don’t talk about then, what do they talk about? Danny’s soldiering past contains at least one secret we’ve not yet learned, but one Clara is likely to discover.
“A soldier so brave, he doesn’t need a gun”
It would be fair to say that if you’re looking for underpinning themes to this series, then Listen seems to have them in no short supply. And that’s with Missy not getting a look in.
It’s interesting, because Steven Moffat had hinted in interviews, going into Doctor Who’s 51st year, that the onus was to be more on looking forward than going back. That after the ‘Of The Doctor‘ trilogy in 2013, we weren’t going to be digging into the Doctor’s own past so much. To be fair, he’s been open in the past about how you shouldn’t believe him on matters Doctor Who, nor did he specifically rule it out, and you have to say that his latest venture is ambitious.
Listen, after all, goes to the core of some of the Doctor’s own fears. We’ve seen before what happens to the Doctor when he travels alone, but Listen deals with what happens when he travels alone and has nothing to do. It’s clearly a dangerous combination, and the tone is set – for this contrasts heavily with Robot Of Sherwood – by an introspective monologue that Capaldi expertly delivers at the start of the episode.
“I’m against the hugging”
The thing is, though, we can’t help but come back to Clara. Once again, she’s effectively taking on the role of the Doctor as we know it in this episode. She’s the one shooting backwards and forwards in time (controlling the TARDIS, even), whose sage words bring things to some kind of closure. She does a speech near the end about fear that could be and effectively is addressed to the young Doctor, to Danny Pink, and also to the Doctor we know now.
The plan with series 8 was clearly to evolve the character of Clara, something Jenna Coleman has taken to with aplomb, but a third of the way through, she’s effectively the lead at this stage, as the 12th Doctor continues to thaw. Will this continue? Will she continue to be the grown up? And while we’re asking questions, will the very young Doctor be just a one-off? Or are we heading back to the Day Of The Doctor barn again soon? It’s a nice set, to be fair.
There are some other things about Listen that deserve a word or two as well. One of Moffat’s skills when coming up with his Doctor Who monsters, albeit a trick he’s used a few times now, is to go back to simple stuff that naturally startles and scares human beings. So, the things that lie in the corner of your eye. The notion of don’t blink, or hold your breath. That sort of thing. Here, he focuses on the noises when there should be silence, and whatever creatures lie under the bed.
It really works here, and part of the credit for that should go to returning Who director Douglas Mackinnon, who puts in exemplary work. For one other thing we were promised about this series of Doctor Who is that we’d get longer shots and a little less rushing around. Listen is a strong example of that.
Grounding one scene in particular in horror cinema’s constant teaching that less is more, Mackinnon – aided by some excellent Murray Gold audio work – really generates the creeps. Whether it’s hands grabbing the back of ankles, shot from the floor, or the centrepiece fright when a mysterious blanketed figure appears on a bed, this is the creepiest Doctor Who has been in a while. Remember Midnight, where we never actually saw the foe, and were left doubting its existence to a small degree? It’s a similar drill here, arguably, but wanton proof that keeping things astonishingly down to earth can sometimes deliver huge, huge chills.
It’s all the better because Moffat doesn’t give all the answers. Monster moral of the story: you can have all the make-up and prosthetics in the world, but sometimes, another trip to the Edinburgh Woollen Mill is enough to give you the willies.
“I don’t take orders, Clara”
In the build up to Listen, several people had been declaring that it’s a vintage episode of Doctor Who, with some lovely superlatives being bestowed upon it. For us? It’s another strong episode, with some first class moments, but with one or two slight frustrations. It’s buzzing with ideas, recycles a few others, and has some really wonderful moments. Yet it’s a tangled web of interesting ideas, that doesn’t always hold together, albeit one that still made us glad that someone had had a go at pulling such an ambitious story together.
That it boasts another excellent performance from Peter Capaldi at its heart you more than already know. That it’s already, by the time you read these words, likely to be causing some kind of internet meltdown is guessable too. But at its very worst, Listen is the kind of episode that it seems impossible to get nothing out of, and is testament to a show that can push in wildly different directions on a weekly basis. We’re still a long way from having a duff episode in series 8.
Next up to the plate? That’d be Time Heist, penned by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat, with Douglas Mackinnon directing once again. Early signs? It looks a whole lot of fun…
Our review of last week’s episode is here.
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