‘Listen’, by Steven Moffat, is a return to the scarier side of the Doctor Who universe. Its premise is that we are never alone and that we are right to be afraid when the hairs on our neck stand on end, when we hear a creak in the night or fear the monster under the bed. A whole generation of children may never sleep again.
Reminiscent of the horror film ‘The Orphanage’ this story plays with what has a rational explanation and what might be the supernatural. At the same time it allows the story to explore how Clara, Danny Pink and the Doctor each deal with fear.
Visually interesting with a stirring ending this is another classic from Moffat.
Spoilers From Here On In!
The teaser for ‘Listen’ neatly establishes the sense of wonder and dread of the story. As the Doctor conjectures that there might be a species with perfect skills at hiding we are treated to some impressive visuals of the Doctor meditating on top of the TARDIS floating above Earth, observing fish at the bottom of the ocean and the TARDIS interior looking very eerie with its dark shadows and flashing lights.
The Doctor’s theory is seemingly confirmed when someone writes ‘Listen’ on one of his many chalk boards when he is alone in the TARDIS.
Clara, meanwhile, is just returning from a disastrous first date with Danny Blue. Similarly to ‘Into the Dalek’ we flashback to those events as Clara deeply regrets her actions in the present.
Samuel Anderson, as Danny Blue, works well in these scenes, continuing to make his character sympathetic and integrate himself into the main cast. The date scenes also show that Clara can be just as tactless as the Doctor, continuing to bring up Danny’s past as a solider as a negative.
Clara is soon distracted from her non-existent love life as the Doctor whisks her away to prove that we are never alone. A montage shows that everyone, throughout history, have the same dream of something being under the bed, including Clara.
Slaving her to the TARDIS telepathic circuits they attempt to home in on the night she had that nightmare only for her to become distracted by her thoughts of Danny. They end up at a West Country Children’s home in the 90s, where they encounter a young Rupert Pink (he’ll change his first name later).
The Doctor’s meeting with the care taker recalls similar scenes in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. Tension is built as the Doctor identifies the weird things that most other people would explain away; talking to yourself, a coffee cup moving, a television turning off on its own. All indicate that there is something else there.
In Rupert’s room Clara finds the young boy is scared that there is something under his bed. To show him that there is nothing to fear she encourages him to climb under it with her only for something to lie on top of the bed.
These scenes, in which we know that there is something there but not what, work best in the episode. It preys upon that fear of the unknown, in which our imagination suggests the most horrible possibilities.
Capaldi has another good scene here, switching between the Doctor extolling the virtues of fear with false bravado to calm Rupert only to drop the facade and impress upon his companions the importance of not looking at whatever is hiding under the bed spread.
Realising that the Doctor’s has influenced her date by giving young Rupert a dream of being Dan the soldier man, Clara returns to restaurant to patch things up with Danny. Yet again her mouth runs away from her as she lets slip that she knows he was originally Rupert.
Before she can explain an astronaut appears, beckoning her into the kitchen. The astronauts appearance is strange and dreamlike, moving in slow motion and seemingly not being noticed by the other diners. Visually it is a nod to ‘The Impossible Astronaut’.
Following the figure into the TARDIS she finds out he isn’t the Doctor but Danny Pink’s great grandson, Orson Pink (who just happens to look exactly like an older Danny). He is a pioneer time traveller who ended up at the end of time.
The pink glow of the lonely planet Orson found himself on is eerily beautiful. The silence and emptiness successfully conveying that the Doctor, Clara and Orson are the only beings left alive. However the Doctor quickly identifies if that is the case why has Orson kept the airlock locked?
On the pretence that the TARDIS needs to recharge before they take Orson home the Doctor persuades them they need to stay one more night. His hope is that the mysterious hidden race, with everyone else dead, will finally make their presence known.
There is some nice build up, as Doctor and Clara wait to see if he is right. The rumble of the ship, the sound of metal shifting and banging. The Doctor offers a reassuring rational for all the sounds but there is always the possibility that it is also the sound of the unknown race approaching.
As the airlock starts to spin open on its own it is revealed that the reason for all of this is that the Doctor has to know. He is willing to face danger to find out the truth and willing to end his relationship with Clara if she doesn’t let him.
Clara and we the viewer never see what might be on the other side of the door. The TARDIS view of the exterior is too distorted and then the air shell is breached, threatening to blow the Doctor into the vacuum outside.
Orson overcomes his fear to rescue the Time Lord. With the Doctor unconscious and the TARDIS cloister bell ringing Clara attempts to pilot the vessel using the telepathic link. They land in a barn, which Clara investigates.
A small boy cries beneath a bed sheet and the approach of two adults forces Clara to hide under his bed. While in hiding it is revealed the boy is the Doctor, apparently set for a life as a soldier as he is unsuited for the Academy.
Once the unidentified adults leave the boy is disturbed by the Doctor yelling for Clara. In an attempt to prevent the boy from leaving his bed to investigate she grabs his leg, thus proving to be the origin of his particular nightmare.
The final sequences, intercutting between what Clara told the boy and her conversation with his older self in the TARDIS summaries what has been learnt about the nature of fear and how it affects people.
Clara has come to the conclusion that there isn’t a hidden species. The Doctor just imagined them to explain away his own fear. She has come to the conclusion that fear can be a positive. Not just for the physiological changes that occur, which the Doctor outlined before, but that it can bring people together.
This adventure has brought her closer to Danny, knowing that Orson is potentially part of her future. It has brought her closer to the Doctor, understanding more of who he is and in return she has brought the Doctor closer to his companions.
It is likely that the young Doctor exiled himself to the barn because he was didn’t want others to see him so afraid about his own future. Here Clara plants the seed that having companions means that you can be frightened together and take strength from that.
The premise of this episode is weakened by the fact that we’ve already been introduced to the Silence, a race who are perfect at hiding and can be with you even when you think you are alone. Still, the idea is scary.
There is enough room for there to be multiple explanation of what occurs. While the Doctor’s nightmare has an explanation why do so many other people have similar experiences? If it was just another child trying to scare Rupert in the children’s home how did they get in without making a noise?
The revelation that so much of it is due to the Doctor is foreshadowed. Not only does Clara point out the ‘listen’ on the chalk board is in his own writing but in the children’s home he is the one who takes the care takers coffee and gets into Rupert’s room without them noticing.
It was nice that not only does the scene in the barn tie into ‘Day Of The Doctor’ but the very first Doctor Who story with the line ‘Fear makes companions of us all’. In many ways this episode gets to the heart of the series, using fear to bring the audience together and allowing us to share the experiences of the main characters.
This another episode in this season that seeks to define the 12th Doctor. Clara associates him with a soldier who is so brave he doesn’t need a gun. He is someone who actively seeks out the most frightening things in the universe just so he knows that they exist.
Yet he is also flawed. If there never was a monster then the Doctor’s own fear was consuming him. Clara questions how long he has been alone, suggesting that without someone the Doctor is his own worst enemy.
While Clara continues to develop it shows that she is also flawed. As much as she’d probably like to blame the Doctor for disrupting her life she demonstrates she can do that on her own. With Danny she is quick to judge but resents his assumptions.
Her saving grace is that she can recognise and make amends for her own mistakes. Clara has grown into her role as a teacher. With patience and understanding she can educate others, including the Doctor.
‘Listen’ is the perfect example why less is more. The monster you don’t see if far more terrifying than any makeup or CGI creation. The episode uses the darkness to contrast with the bright moments in the characters lives.