This week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Listen,” was destined to stir up controversy. Some people were bound to be upset that we visited the Doctor’s childhood; others were sure to become enraged that Steven Moffat had the audacity to insert himself into “An Unearthly Child” by making it that the first Doctor is quoting something that Clara said to him. Add on to this the “was there a monster or wasn’t there” debate (I’m on the no monster side), and opinions were sure to be divided. While I didn’t think this was the greatest episode of all time, I thought it was a very good one, and there was a lot to admire.
Unusually, this episode was structured as a series of vignettes, each depicting a character or characters dealing with fear. While the vignette structure worked, I felt that it left the episode feeling a bit disjointed. The driving force of the story is the Doctor trying to find out why we sometimes feel and act as if someone is there, even though we know there’s no one around. He eventually settles on the answer being linked to the dream that people often have of someone hiding under their bed. Running parallel to this story is one involving Danny and Clara on a disastrous first date. The Doctor is waiting when Clara returns from her date, hoping to use her memories of having the dream to find out what is, actually, under the bed. However, due to Clara’s preoccupation with her date, they end up visiting a young Danny Pink (here called Rupert) who is having the dream, followed by a visit to one of Danny’s descendants, a time traveler lost at the end of the universe.
This episode, and, in particular, the visit to the Doctor’s past at the end of the story, further develops our understanding of this Doctor. Once again, he proves himself to be quite stubbornly fixed to his ideas. He becomes obsessed with his theory about a creature who can hide perfectly and he is willing to risk just about everything to prove that it is correct and solve the mystery. Seeing him as a small, frightened boy shows us that the Doctor can be afraid too. The moment with Clara is also likely the moment in which he discovered how to be brave, resulting in him growing up to be the Doctor that we know. We also see how much he respects and has faith in Clara, despite the barrage of insults he seems to constantly hurl at her. He listens to her at the end of the story and leaves without asking any questions, a trust that I think very few Doctors would have placed in their companions. Furthermore, I feel that Capaldi’s Doctor, even though he has become more alien, is less god-like. This season we have seen that he can be afraid, and he can be wrong. However, as “Robot of Sherwood” proved, he is still a hero, despite his flaws.
This episode also featured some interesting developments for Clara. Her interactions with Danny show us that she is not perfect. Perhaps due to all the time she spends with the Doctor who is almost impossible to offend, she tends to blurt things out that end up hurting Danny’s feelings. After her comment about teaching children to shoot somebody and then cry over it didn’t go over so well, she probably should have known better than to causally make a joke about him saying he wants to kill someone . I, however, think that her and Danny’s problems (and overreactions) were showing another kind of fear; they were both afraid of getting close to somebody, so they let their fear drive them apart, which shows another aspect of the theme for the week.
However, this episode still displays many of Clara’s positive traits,such as her compassion for children in need and her overall cleverness and bravery. At this point, Clara and the Doctor are more like equals that any other pairing I can think of, except for perhaps Barbara and Ian with the first Doctor. In some ways, Clara and the Doctor have switched roles this year. He is the more mysterious, unknowable one, while she often takes charge and is the logical one. She is the one who solves the mystery of what’s under the bed, not the Doctor.
The main strength of this story, however, is its structure; it’s a story that I’m still trying to unpack. There are many examples of parallels and foreshadowing. This story seems to suggest that the Doctor and Danny Pink have some similarities in dealing with childhood fears, and in aspiring to be a man who is so brave, he doesn’t even need a gun to fight (clearly shown by Clara giving each of them the broken soldier toy). There is also the Doctor searching for Wally (or Waldo, as he was known in the U.S.) in a non-Where’s Wally book; I thought this was a reference to the Doctor who is searching for monsters in a monster-less story. An example of foreshadowing is when Clara tells Rupert that she is what’s under his bed, which foreshadows the fact that she literally becomes the monster under the Doctor’s bed. The more I watch the episode, the more examples I catch.
The only scene that I felt might not aid the story was the monster under the blanket scene. It was the scariest scene in the episode and well shot, but it seemed to lean towards their actually being a monster, which, as I will explain in a moment does not support the theme as I saw it.
I felt that the theme of the episode was that everyone is afraid, but fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Through the various stories, we see that everyone is afraid at some point, and there is nothing that they can do about it. However, fear can unite people, it can give you “superpowers,” and, ultimately it is your fear that makes you brave. As the first Doctor said, fear is your “constant companion,” so you’d better learn to deal with it. And, despite the Doctor’s attempts to explain it, fear is, by it’s nature, illogical. Sometimes, you will feel fear, for reasons that you can’t explain away, no matter how hard you try. If you don’t face your fear it can become a “monster,” particularly if you are alone. Still, no matter what you do, you have to accept that fear is a part of life for everyone.
Overall, I appreciated the episode more than I enjoyed it. It has all the trademarks of a Steven Moffat penned episode (the concept of time being central to the story, the exploration of a bigger idea, the intricate plotting and structure, the mix of tones), except that I found it lacking in the one aspect that Moffat is usually very strong in: emotion. This episode didn’t emotionally engage me. Usually, if nothing else, Moffat’s episodes hit all the right emotional notes, but this one left me a bit cold. While the structure is great and the story unique, my emotions were never really engaged. While it certainly an episode that has lingered in my mind, it doesn’t reach the heights of “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” or “Blink.” Or maybe my expectations were just too high. If this were written by another writer, would I have ranked it higher? I guess time will tell if my opinion shifts. It does, however, continue this season’s run of solid episodes. Let’s see if next week’s can make it five in a row…