Contains spoilers for the episode.
One of Steven Moffat’s undoubted strengths as a writer is to reject preconceptions and to fearlessly go wherever his instincts as a writer tell him to. While it’s worked to huge acclaim on Sherlock it’s an approach not without its risks, as consistently confounding your audience’s expectations while also demanding they follow you on this unfamiliar path can throw up resistance and ultimately even hostility. And if there’s an episode of Doctor Who that demonstrates this most clearly it’s this week’s “Listen” which at times seemed to actively seek to rile both casual viewers and long-term hard-core fans of the show alike.
For the former group, “Listen” must have been a very strange watch – especially at prime time on Saturday evening surrounded by glitzy celebrity talent competitions and quiz shows. Less a mainstream family drama and more of an experimental psychological stage play, “Listen” eschews conventional narrative for mood and atmosphere through a series of connected vignettes where you have to really work hard to figure out exactly what’s going on if you’re to make sense of it. And things are little better for the latter group, the hard-core Who fans, who won’t have seen 50 minute this off-the wall since 1963’s “The Edge of Destruction”/”The Brink of Disaster” two-parter and who will have been even more provoked by the final five minutes in which Moffat once again inserts himself (via his companion character Clara Oswald) into the very core mythos of the show. Along the way, Moffat does something that is keenly uncomfortable for fans of the show: he takes our hero, the Doctor, and deconstructs him, taking him from all-powerful Time Lord to someone as vulnerable and as human as the rest of us. Outrageous!
No wonder the reaction to the episode was so mixed. Those who liked it really liked it, while those who hated it were apoplectic with fury because the show hadn’t delivered what they felt it should have done, that Moffat hadn’t had the decency to keep himself within appropriate bounds. I can kind of understand that having been off-side with Moffat’s approach myself on many occasions in the past; but at the same time Moffat’s audacity to dive in and find new directions for the show are what give it renewed life and vitality. To merely do the same thing time and again, or to stick within the established rules of the show without ever seeking to expand them, is to make Doctor Who an inert museum piece doomed to irrelevance. “Listen” makes it clear that this will never be allowed to happen under Moffat and that the show will always be trying to reinvent itself and find new things to try each and every week – whether you like the end result or not.
At the heart of “Listen” is the question of what obsesses the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) when he’s alone in the Tardis with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Does he go a little stir crazy? Does he start hearing things that go bump in the night? And if so – what does he do about it, when he has a time machine and the whole of time and space at his disposal to allow him to investigate? And what might he find when he dives down that rabbit hole in search of answers that exist only in one’s own psyche?
If Tom Baker’s era is at times very much a riff on Hammer House of Horror genre tropes, then “Listen” gets its inspiration from a very different source in the form of MR James’ celebrated stories (“Whistle and I’ll Come to You” in particular comes to mind.) Here, monsters and ghosts exist only in one’s own subconscious but are in many ways all the more terrifying as a result, as you can never outrun the demons in your own head. This is why “Listen” is exceptionally scary for children and adults alike: Doctor Who has long been criticised for being too terrifying for children, but that’s to miss the point that kids are actually very good at recognising that the bug-eyed monsters and aliens and robots on the screen aren’t real at all. The appearance of a Sontaran or a Dalek becomes a sort of safety valve for children, a subconscious sign and confirmation that what they’re seeing is just TV make-believe and they can enjoy being scared knowing that it’s not real.
This story denies them that safety valve and instead takes something that we all half-believe in already – that there are monsters under the bed and lurking in the shadows of a darkened room – and rather than saying “it’s okay, there’s nothing there” tells us the absolutely opposite: the monster really is there, and it really is out to get us. Moreover, the show’s usual second safety system – that the heroic Doctor is there to save us – is also taken away in “Listen” as it’s revealed that he’s just as scared and powerless as we are.
Of course the episode does ultimately provide tools of a different sort to fight this fear. Rather than telling us to place our trust in the Doctor, Moffat instead gives us words than we can use ourselves to fashion our own self-belief and courage so that when we’re alone in the dark at night we’re able to summon up our superpowers that allow us to emerge safe and triumphant in the morning. And if a few tears of fright are shed in the process, well that’s okay too – it happens to the best of us. Even Time Lords.
Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you. Do you feel it? Do you think he feels it? Do you think he’s scared? Nah. Loser!
It’s a powerful and stirring message to take away, although it’s not altogether immediately obvious that this is what’s going on in “Listen”. In fact it takes a couple of watches to really figure out how the whole thing hangs together, and Saturday night viewers aren’t known for that sort of dedication to what they’re expecting to be a light entertainment show. In fact this is a very dark entertainment indeed, with much of the incredible strength of the episode coming from its eerie and chilling atmosphere that makes you think it would have been better to broadcast it just before midnight on Christmas Eve to get the full effect.
There’s some lightness of course: Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) nightmare first date with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is a welcome offset. But this is no mere B-plot aside to the main story, since Danny is woven very tightly indeed into what follows, which is essentially a three-person chamber piece examining each person’s emotional make-up in at times uncomfortably intimate detail. You know an awful lot more about every one of them than you did when you started, which is no mean feat when one of the characters involved has been on television for 50 years and we thought we had a pretty good fix on him already. The whole thing would only work if we got top-notch, career-best performances from all involved – and fortunately we absolutely do, including first-timer Remi Gooding as a completely believable young Danny.
For all the dizzying originality of the show it’s surprising that there’s an awful lot of (over?) familiar Moffat tropes on display at the same time. He had the (clockwork) monster under the bed in “The Girl in the Fireplace” for example, while the idea of something that can’t be glimpsed directly and seen only out of the corner of one’s eye was used in “The Eleventh Hour” and was further developed upon with the characters of the Silents – it’s sort of the flip side of the concept of the Weeping Angels where the rule is you have to look, that you mustn’t look away or blink. Fairytales and nursery rhymes were a dominant theme of Moffat’s first season as Doctor Who showrunner and form a key element of this story’s mise-en-scène too.
Whats that in the mirror?
In the corner of your eye?
Whats that footstep following?
But never passing by?
Perhaps the lot is waiting,
Perhaps when we’re all dead.
Out they’ll come a slithering,
From underneath your bed.
In fact the previous story that this reminded me of the most wasn’t actually a Moffat effort at all, but rather the most Moffat-esque story that his predecessor as showrunner, Russell T Davies, wrote. That was the season four episode “Midnight”, which was equally as dependent on sound and atmosphere as “Listen”, and just as much a small chamber piece with no big monster reveal or easy explanations. It’s one of my all-time favourite modern Doctor Who stories since the 2005 relaunch, right up there with Moffat’s seminal “Blink”, and while I don’t think that “Listen” comes close to equalling those two masterpieces it’s nonetheless not too far off that level.
What holds it back is the feeling that as with so many stories of the Moffat era it’s not a standalone piece with a single clear idea and narrative like those other tales. The development of Danny Pink and his relationship with Clara (not to mention the massive teasing hints that may or may not point to their future together) coupled with the way that Clara not only influences the development of this Doctor’s character but all the way back to William Hartnell’s incarnation in his very first serial mean that this all really only makes proper sense and feels anywhere near complete and cohesive if you’re fully aware that you’re watching one small middle outing in a long and epic story. In other words, the script’s own towering ambition and evident cleverness prevents “Listen” from being a classic story in its own right, and ‘merely’ makes it a contribution to the show’s overall greatness instead.
In some ways “Listen” feels like it’s the small gem of an spin-off idea that germinated in Moffat’s mind while he was writing all those big 50th anniversary shows last year. In “The Name of the Doctor” we were told that Clara injected herself into the Doctor’s timeline in order to save him by being present to add a nudge here or a word there, but that all broadly happened ‘off-stage’ with the odd exception, such as her key interjection in the barn in “The Day of the Doctor” which set the Doctor on a different path other than wiping out the Time Lords. Here though in the final minutes of “Listen” we get to see a more full-bodied example of what Clara was likely up to all that time, since it’s her words here to the Doctor at a critical point of his life that help shape everything that the character eventually becomes. Without her, there would likely never have been a Doctor in the first place.
This level of importance in the Who backstory for Clara is seen by some hard-core fans as evidence of Moffat’s overwhelming arrogance in rewriting the show’s mythology in his own image – but it’s not. Moffat is doing what all great writers do by taking events that we thought familiar and peeling the layers back to expose new and startling truths that we never anticipated. Done right, it adds depth and resonance to the entire body of work as a whole, enriching it and rewarding the audience as a result. If you’re open to it then it’s one of the most profoundly satisfying feelings that great literature can ever manage to provide.
And those last five minutes of “Listen” are just something out of reach of normal writers and everyday television programmes. The way the end plays out – from the minute that Clara steps out into the darkened barn – is just some of the most sublime drama you’ll ever see. Not just the writing, but also the performances, the direction, the editing and the music – it all comes together in one of the most spellbinding and perfect sequences I think I’ve ever seen, as close to perfect as I can imagine a TV show being.
The sad thing is that I know many people – probably as much as half the audience – will not have held faith through the first 45 minutes which were admittedly difficult, challenging, at times wilfully obtuse and even self-indulgent. These are the road blocks that Steven Moffat puts up, the sentinels that discourage the ‘unworthy’ from approaching so that only the true fans after Moffat’s own heart can get to the glorious Promised Land of the payoff. I’ve been on the wrong side of this sort of quest before (sorry, but I still harbour ill-will towards “The Angels Take Manhattan”) and know what it feels like to be on the outside looking in; but this week I was able to listen, and I heard. And it was glorious.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Fridays on BBC Three and available on BBC iPlayer. A ten minutes ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer on on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is now available as a standalone release on DVD and Blu-ray.