Well now… that one’s going to cause opinions. With that in mind, let’s just jump straight into talking about episode four: ‘Listen’.
Following the broadcast of our most recent adventure with the dear ol’ Doctor, critics and fans the world over dusted off their old superlatives and began juggling them with such care-free abandon that you’d think the metaphysical circus had come into town. Albeit an overly-enthusiastic and not-terribly well-trained one, but who cares when the episode is heralded as the greatest thing ever. Dear sweet weeping Jesus have we ever seen such televisual magnificence, they cry. I peer over my book at the uncontrollable masses, tut, and return to my novel. I mean, yes it was a pretty damn good episode, but calm down there, would you?
Head Who honcho, Steven Moffat, has openly described this episode as the result of The Doctor’s wild imagination when he’s not trying to fix a sticky, spacey situation and as such could be considered the ‘small, personal one’ for this series. That said we do have a lot of overlapping time shenanigans and trips to spooky boarding houses, the end of the universe and the darkest recesses of the psyche. That’s probably about as small and personal as Doctor Who is allowed to get these days. Funny thing is though, it really is.
For an unspecified amount of time after our last adventure with Clara and The Doctor, the Time Lord in question has been rolling around an idea in his head like some kind of deranged psychological Katamari, a notion based off of a dream/nightmare everyone has had at least once: what if we’re never alone? What if there’s something designed so perfectly to hide, that we’re almost never aware of it apart from that nagging sensation we get. You know the one. The prickling on your neck. The weird sounds in the night. The shadows you swear you saw move.
You’ve got to hand it to Moffat, he can tap into fear like a Canadian maple syrup farmer. The fact he does this in tandem with Clara’s first real ‘date-but-not-a-date’ with Danny Pink is at once oddly juxtaposing but also really grounding. I’m obviously not the first person to say that Clara’s been the most fleshed out of all the modern companions since Billie Piper, and it would be highly derivative of me to claim that this episode really shows off Jenna Coleman’s acting chops as well as the undeniable importance of Clara to The Doctor. It would be derivative, but it’s also bloody bloody bloody true. Clara showing off her caring, nanny-ish virtues to a young Danny Pink (who they accidentally go visit) and to a very young, very impressionable Gallifreyan boy crying in a barn (who is also accidentally visited) will go down as some of the show’s most tender and stirring moments.
That said, Clara wouldn’t need to be so supportive and caring if it wasn’t for The Doctor’s attempts to unravel our fear of whatever it is that’s out there, which as I said at the start of the last paragraph is farmed for all its trouser-browning worth. The two most notable, exceptionally-executed scenes of this being the thing in little Danny Pink’s room, lurking under a bed spread and when we meet Earth’s first chrononaut (I think that’s what they’re called, if not then it should be, it’s a time-traveller basically) Orson Pink, yes, a relative, who ended up at the end of the universe, but terrified of the outside. But if everything’s dead, then what the heck is out there? Why so scared?
Ultimately we never know what’s going on and that, methinks, is what could cause the greatest backlash to this episode. Whilst the unknown is used as a great tool in this episode, it also does rub against the idea that the whole episode was just the result of an old man’s paranoia. If there really isn’t anything out there, then what was in Danny’s room, let alone the voice at the end of the universe? As much as we dear fans of Doctor Who can live with the personal message of being okay with feeling afraid that follows us throughout the episode, I can’t imagine the cursory viewer would be okay with things just being left annoyingly half-explained.
Another thing that needs prodding with the critical stick is the whole sense of tone, as in this episode felt like three separate episodes happening simultaneously with fairly conflicting senses of tone happening at once. Not that these scenes are bad when they occur, it just seems like too many: we’ve got Clara’s adventures in awkward starring Danny Pink and an interrupting Time Lord, there’s also the exploration into the terrifying unknown of what there is out there under the bed and behind the shadows and finally we’ve got our wonderfully-phrased reassurance that it’s okay to be scared. Because each of these branches works well it’s not so much of an issue, but the change of pace from irreverent to scary to calming feels a bit peculiar in retrospect. But I guess that’s Doctor Who for you.
You can never let it be said that Doctor Who doesn’t play fast at loose with its own pacing, as the first few episodes in this series have taken us from high adventure to personal exploration to creepy-spooky to the unraveling of our jumpers made from neuroses. Listen is something completely different again, and handles it’s moment to moment incredibly well, as well as wonderfully relating it’s story back to the 50th anniversary episode The Day Of The Doctor. We get a great exploration of how The Doctor functions, as well as how Clara’s future may pan out, and all the while wrapping us up in the nature of fear. It may not explain everything, it may not have any relation to the overarching story of The Promised Land and the mysterious Missy, and it may attempt to grapple one too many tales, but Listen is the kind of great television that Doctor Who is capable of when it’s not trying to save the universe from spooky-butt aliens.
I know I said a few articles ago that Doctor Who shouldn’t try to be a naval-gazing self-reflexive study of its characters and concepts, but when it’s done as well as Listen was I GUESS I can let it slide. For now. Just try and balance it out with an episode about a bank heist in space or something, okay Doctor Who? Oh wait, that’s next week isn’t it? Well played, sir.