President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That appears to be what was zipping around Steven Moffat’s brain when he wrote this week’s Doctor Who episode, “Listen,” directed by Douglas Mackinnon. It’s an episode all about being too afraid to function, or possibly to realize the truth of what’s going on, and one that raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer, and answers questions we didn’t know we’d asked (but were glad we did). This episode boasts a very small cast, but very big ideas, a lot of creepiness, and a lot of “probably”s that are PROBABLY true. Every series, I think, needs a good ol’ creepy ghosty scary episode and, as Alicia Lutes aptly pointed out, “Listen” had a lot of Series 7’s “Hide” all over it, and that’s not at all a bad thing.
“Listen” begins with the Doctor talking to himself, something we know he does and have seen him do quite a lot; this time, however, he ponders WHY he does it, and if possibly he isn’t talking to himself and that when people think they’re talking to themselves they’re actually talking to a thing that’s hiding just out of sight, something that follows everyone around at all times. That’s a pretty terrifying thought, but certainly one most if not all of us have had. That’s why we’re afraid of the night, or of spooky old houses, or of forests, or of etcetera – because MAYBE someone or something else is there with you. Probably it isn’t, but maybe it is. Moffat’s made a lot of generally mundane things quite scary (like statues, silence, the dark, robots…errr), but now he’s actually decided to make nothing scary. NOTHING, the concept. It’s terrifying.
Clara, meanwhile, has finally gone on her date with Danny Pink, and boy howdy does it not go well. Danny’s very touchy about having been a soldier, and doesn’t appreciate any kind of offhanded comment about his having killed people in the line of duty, nor does she appreciate being lumped in with all the other people who do make stupid jokes like that. It’s all a bit of a mess, so she’s more than happy (or less than willing to argue too hard) when she returns home to find the Doctor and the TARDIS waiting for her in her room. He tells her his hypothesis and asks if she’s ever had the dream (or not a dream) where you think someone’s in your room, so you sit up quickly and then something grabs your ankle from under your bed. According to him, everyone has. That seemed like a flawed premise to me, but by time you get to the end of the episode, we find out it IS a flawed premise, but one with a reason behind it.
In order to get some empirical evidence, the Doctor has Clara plug herself into the TARDIS’ psychic goo flanges to go back to a time she remembers it happening in her own past. She’s not supposed to get distracted but she can’t stop thinking about Danny, and they end up in Gloucester in the ’90s in front of a children’s home. She’s never been here, but immediately she sees why her mind brought them all: a little boy in the window, named Rupert Pink, afraid of being alone. She goes up to see him and make him feel better while the Doctor asks the caretaker (under the guise of being an inspector) whether strange or creepy things happen. The building’s always creepy at night, isn’t it?
Clara tells Rupert there’s nothing to be afraid of, because the only thing under the bed is her, once she goes there. She beckons Rupert (who IS Danny, let’s face it) to come under with her…then something sits on the bed. Luckily, the Doctor’s there as well and whatever it is on the bed is hiding under the bedspread. The Doctor then gives Rupert a very lovely pep talk about fear being a super power that scary things just don’t have. This was such a great moment for the Twelfth Doctor and one of Capaldi’s defining scenes so far. He’s been nothing but great in these kinds of scenes and I just think he’s shaping up to be a wonderful, complex, and actually quite easy to like Doctor, despite the “darkness” we’ve seen within him.
The three stand looking out the window while the Doctor tells the thing to leave. He thinks that if something had a “perfect” ability to hide, for someone to look at it would be catastrophic, so better safe than sorry. Now, this PROBABLY was just another boy in the home playing a prank, but can anyone be sure? Clara gives him a toy from a box of soldiers which she calls the boss, the one who goes into a battle without a weapon because he’s the bravest (while Mackinnon focuses on the Doctor in the background…great moment) and the time travelers leave. Clara gets the Doctor to take her back to the restaurant, just moments after she left and things with Danny seem to be going well again, until she lets slip that she knows his name is Rupert. He doesn’t like being lied to, but she can’t even make up a story because someone in a space suit is beckoning her back to the TARDIS.
It’s not the Doctor, it’s someone who looks AMAZINGLY like Danny. It’s Orson Pink, a time traveler from 100 years in the future. The Doctor found him through searching Clara’s time stream again (clearly something’s going on between the Oswalds and the Pinks). He’s been stranded on the Last Planet in the Universe, a desolate rock with nothing, no life, no sounds, no anything. And yet, even though there is truly nothing out there, Orson has been terrified of the night because he thinks something might actually be out there. The Doctor has Orson and Clara wait in the TARDIS while he opens the lock and lets whatever’s out there in. But he gets his head knocked and almost gets sucked out the airlock, but Orson saves him. With the Doctor unconscious and something outside (or maybe it’s just the air settling), Clara uses the psychic circuits to take them somewhere else.
They arrive in a barn or stable and she follows the sound of a small child crying. She assumes it’s Rupert again, or Orson, but when people arrive, she hides under the bed. They talk about how he’ll never be a good soldier if he keeps crying, nor a good Time Lord. WHAAAAAAA?!?!? Clara has somehow gone to the Doctor’s childhood on Gallifrey (which doesn’t REALLY make sense given that Gallifrey is hidden somewhere in another universe, but I’m willing to overlook that). She realizes it’s her being there that causes the Doctor to fear the dark, and dreaming, and being alone. She tells him it’s a dream, gives him the same speech as he gave young Rupert, and then says a line Hartnell says in “An Unearthly Child” all the way back in 1963 – “Fear makes companions of us all.” We also see a glimpse of the War Doctor walking with the Moment back to this very stable, clearly a place where he felt safe.
“Listen” is a truly wonderful episode that only makes sense once the whole thing is completed, like the best of Moffat. Everything we thought was scary actually WAS the “probably” we all tell ourselves to make us feel better. It was another little boy under the comforter; it was just a dream about someone under your bed; it was just the Doctor being scared of being alone and in the dark. It was all there. So often, Doctor Who takes things every little kid fears and says, yes, it actually is something scary; here, Moffat tells the audience that being scared is normal and it doesn’t always point to a real danger, that being afraid is a badge of honor and can help you become brave, and that admitting you’re afraid can be the bravest thing of all. Such a lovely episode.
Oh, and I didn’t mention yet this time out: Jenna Coleman is SO FRIGGING GOOD! My God, they’ve just been giving her cracking things to do and she’s been delivering to the Nth degree. She’s great great great. I so look forward to see where the Danny/Clara storyline goes but mostly I look forward to where she goes as a character, because right now she’s easily my favorite companion of the new series. Yeah, I said it.
Next week, we have a heist… in a bank… having to do with time… and a weird Not-Ree-Yees alien creature and Keeley Hawes looking stern librarian. “Time Heist” is next week, written by Moffat and Stephen Thompson and directed again by Mackinnon. Have a gander!
And let’s talk about “Listen” below! Did you like it as much as I did?