September 14, 2014

Doctor Who: "Listen"

Last night I had a dream, or some kind of a waking episode - I'm not entirely sure what it was. Basically I could sworn there was somebody just outside my house, trying to get inside. Of course there was nobody there, and it happened in that weird sort of fugue state where I'm still not entirely sure if I misinterpreted a noise outside, or made one up entirely inside my own head. I figure these sorts of middle-of-the-night moments happen to everybody.

Obviously Steven Moffat does as well, because this morning I watched his latest episode of Doctor Who and was startled to find it focusing on precisely the same thing. And, in typical Moffat fashion, it asked the question: what if there always is somebody there?

"Listen" is a horror episode, which is a pretty significant jump from the outwardly silly comedy of "Robot of Sherwood" last weekend. It's written by series producer and head writer Steven Moffat, and it delves into very familiar territory to much of his earlier writing. It's beautifully staged and written, and very well acted, yet while praising it there's also no denying that it revisits an awful lot of things that we've seen before.

The idea of the monster that's not there when you look at it has been used twice by Moffat already, in both "The Eleventh Hour" and "The Impossible Astronaut", and it's arguable that a third trip to that same creative well implies that he's running out of ideas. It's presented in a much more insidious fashion here: we see the Silence, and we see Prisoner Zero. We don't get to see whatever is lurking in the shadows in "Listen". We don't even get to find out if there's something there or not.

So instead we get a 40-minute exercise in growing paranoia. There might be something hiding behind all of us, all the time. It might kill us if we look at it. On the other hand, we - and the Doctor - might be seeing shadows and jumping at nothing. The episode runs pretty much its entire length on the fence, and by its conclusion - rather brilliantly I think - it still refuses to pick a side. Perhaps it will be picked up again in the future. Perhaps we will never hear of it again. Personally I prefer the latter: it's a bold hour of television that poses an unsettling question and then just leaves the answer to fester.

This is a very low-budget episode, with a cast of only five including the leads, and Moffat writes it cleverly so that the limitations of its scale really don't matter. In fact he manages to stretch it remarkably far. We travel from 2014 to the early 1990s to the end of the universe to who knows when, and Moffat still manages to tell it with the smallest of speaking roles. Douglas MacKinnon directs it all incredibly well, particularly the early scenes of Capaldi's Doctor talking to himself (or is he?) inside the TARDIS.

Of course Moffat's reliance on past tricks doesn't stop with the invisible monsters. The episode is packed with non-linear storytelling in moments of romantic comedy (taken straight out of Coupling), complex time-travel shenanigans, blatant character foreshadowing, and deliberate poking of parts of Doctor Who that conventional wisdom says should never be touched.

The episode's climax is, I expect, going to be remarkably divisive. We see the Doctor as a child. We see Clara comfort him, and arguably set his entire adult life on its way. It's beautifully and lyrically written, but should Moffat be freely making such massive additions to the character's back story? Should we see that back story at all? This episode fleshes out the Doctor's life more than any story since "The Sound of Drums" - or possibly even "The Deadly Assassin". I personally don't have a problem with it, but I can see legions of upset fans as good as marching on BBC headquarters, and on many levels I can see their point.

I'm intrigued by all of this foreshadowing - assuming it is foreshadowing - of soldiers, and the Doctor's discomfort with them. It came up prominently in "Into the Dalek" and it rears its head again here. I do wonder where it's all going to go by season's end.

Peter Capaldi delivers his best performance yet, and Jenna Coleman genuinely surprised me. She's getting better every episode this year, and I'm almost on the verge of actually liking the character. Almost. Samuel Anderson is also very likeable in the dual roles of Danny and Orson Pink. I'm keen to see where this story goes next.

Before it was broadcast, this episode was widely touted as the series' next "Blink": a staggeringly inventive and bold episode, creepy as hell and brilliantly clever. It's not that, and thanks to Moffat's revisitation of numerous old themes it's nowhere close to as inventive, but it's still an absolutely fantastic hour of television.

Four episodes in, two good, a quality ratio of 50%. I really hope the season isn't going to keep see-sawing like this for all 12 weeks.


  1. The Doctor's impossible girl, who has been with him since the beginning, turns out to have been with at the very beginning?

    Any fan who wants to protest that sort of storytelling needs to take a long, deep breath and actually think for a moment...

  2. The cynic in me (okay, that's nearly all of me) did notice that, like 'The Doctor's Wife', this seemed to be one of those episodes written to be made as cheaply as possible, to the degree that I wondered whether the monsters remained invisible primarily to save money after wasting so much on 'Robot of Sherwood'. That said, I think your review is spot-on.

    1. It is apparently the cheapest episode of the season, deliberately written to allow other episodes to have more outlandish sets and visual effects.

  3. A good story will beat special effects any day. Perhaps the BBC should half the special effects budget.


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