“Question – why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture – because we know we’re not.”
After last week’s love-it-or-loathe-it comedy episode, this week saw Doctor Who back on more familiar ground with an outright horror story. The show’s always traded on an ability to scare small children, and in the post-2005 run, arguably nobody’s been better at that than Steven Moffat. Before he became showrunner (and subject to vitriolic brickbats from those who disliked his style), his episodes for Russell T Davies traded on being ‘the scary ones’ – The Empty Child, Blink, even Girl in the Fireplace, with its organ-harvesting clockwork droids that hid under children’s beds.
So many of Moffat’s horror concepts have traded on the stuff of children’s nightmares that it was perhaps no surprise to find us back with things under the bed this week. But this was dramatically a more complex scare story than his earlier ones, which revolved monsters with a gimmick and/or a catchphrase. Indeed, while many have compared this episode to Sapphire and Steel’s enigmatic adventures, for me the strongest resemblance was to Russell T Davies’ similarly enigmatic Midnight, for me his best episode.
As in Midnight (and Sapphire and Steel), the nature of the threat in Listen is never clearly explained. In fact, the episode ends with no clear resolution as to whether there even was a threat (though if not, just what was that barely glimpsed figure hiding under little Rupert Pink’s bedsheet?).
That kind of ambiguity in the script meant that, for the episode to work, it had to be steeped in atmosphere, and performed with conviction. Director Douglas MacKinnon very much achieved the former, with some very long scenes nonetheless filled with heart-stopping tension – the scene in Rupert’s bedroom, and the gradual opening of the hatch in the spaceship, were subtle set pieces in which you couldn’t be sure what, if anything, was happening, and yet you were holding your breath anyway. Has there ever been a scarier moment in Who than when Clara and Rupert were under the bed and suddenly something sat on it above them? Or the unsettling sense of danger when the Doctor breathlessly exclaims, “Imagine a thing that must never be seen – what would it do if you saw it?”
As to the performances, central to the unsettling atmosphere this week was the Doctor himself, and this played very much to the strengths of Peter Capaldi’s sepulchral features and dour persona. We’re still getting to know this new Doctor, and this episode enlarged on previous hints about the fragility, and fallibility, behind the seemingly powerful, arrogant exterior.
Capaldi’s performance was central to all this, setting the episode’s stall from the very beginning with a spooky monologue almost in the style of classic Gothic horror, as he pondered the possibility of creatures who had perfected the art of hiding – “How would you know such a creature even existed?” Indeed, Hide might have been a more apt title for the episode – had it not been used for a similarly spooky story in the previous season.
Capaldi’s doom-laden monologues, often almost direct to camera and therefore the viewer, were a frequent feature of the episode, which ambitiously chose to examine the very nature of fear itself. It was made very clear early on that this Doctor very much lacks that rapport with children so central to his predecessor, as he completely lacked the empathy with Rupert Pink that Clara found so easy. And yet, his speech explaining that fear is almost a superpower (crucially returned to by Clara later on) came across very much as the perfect reassurance to a scared child who’s just had a nightmare. In typical Moffat style, it was implied that the genesis of that view was inspired by Clara herself, repeating his own words back to him as a scared child. And while I know many fans find the frequent references to the show’s past a distraction, the William Hartnell quote, “Fear makes companions of us all” has never been more apposite. Along with the idea that, just maybe, that too was inspired by Clara.
Since The Name of the Doctor retconned Clara into the entirety of the show’s continuity, annoying many fans, those fans may be less than pleased to know that she’s now been present in the Doctor’s life since before he even became a Time Lord. Well, tough. That was a touching scene that was also cleverly done in the further details (more hints, really) it gave about the Doctor himself, continuing Moffat’s quest to deconstruct his hero. So not every Gallifreyan becomes a Time Lord (which we sort of knew), but the Doctor’s prospects of doing so were so remote that, as a scared, sensitive child, he was contemplating joining the military.
Given his recently-displayed strong antipathy to soldiers, that was a revealing little detail. If you’ve been having trouble sympathising with this more intimidating incarnation of the hero, it was yet another, more overt, glimpse at the insecurity behind that sometimes unlikeable exterior. It also played into the apparently gradual introduction of new companion Danny Pink, who did join the military – as we now know, in standard timey-wimey fashion, probably because of Clara’s inspiration.
Despite settings spanning different planets and literally billions of years, this was a claustrophobic script, both in terms of atmosphere and its very small number of characters. The only characters in it were the Doctor, Clara, Danny (two versions thereof) and Orson, who was himself more of an extension of Danny’s character. So in fact this episode featured barely more than the regular cast (the only others being the caretaker at the children’s home and the younger version of Danny, who was still meant to be the same character). That made it reminiscent of another story from the show’s very earliest days, which has a very similar atmosphere – the budget-saving Edge of Destruction, in which all the major characters, steeped in paranoia, turn against each other at the behest of an unknown force.
Each of the characters here got a fair share of the limelight (which should please those who worried that the Doctor was rather sidelined in favour of Robin Hood last week). In keeping with the rather slower, more contemplative feel of the show this year, the introduction of Danny Pink is being done quite gradually, over several episodes, and we’re learning a little more about him each time. After Mickey, Rory, and even Captain Jack, he seems a very different style of male companion – the traumatic past alluded to in the army that haunts him makes him (probably intentionally) quite a bit reminiscent of the Doctor himself when we met him in the form of Christopher Eccleston.
Danny’s presence also heavily signifies that this Doctor is not going to have any sort of romantic relationship with his female companion, meaning that his and Clara’s endearingly awkward courtship now forms the romantic subplot that seems a necessity of the show since its 2005 return. I imagine some fans would rather have no such relationship in the show at all; but if we are to have one, this one seems to be being played with more subtlety and complexity than of late. It also seems to refute the frequent criticism that Clara is a cypher with no life outside of her involvement with the Doctor; though we only see her life outside the TARDIS in snapshots, it’s clear that she has one, and that it’s developing. But how long for, I wonder? This is the second time this season (the other was in Deep Breath) that the script has alluded to her future death (“of which I don’t need a preview, thanks”). Is something on the cards, or is this just a standard bit of Moffat misdirection?
It’s clear from the start that the whole story comes about as a result of the Doctor, essentially, being bored. Travelling alone, he’s focused his gaze inward, and perhaps unconsciously, chosen to investigate and rationalise one of his own childhood fears. Every Capaldi episode so far seems to have shown us, in one way or another, that this Doctor is very fallible, possibly more so than his predecessors. There was no reference this week to the mysterious Missy, or the ‘Promised Land’, but I wonder whether the accentuation of the Doctor’s fallibility is something else that will feed into the shows’ ongoing plot arc.
I enjoyed this story very much, as a welcome return to the style of classic scare stories the show’s been doing so well throughout its history. It was well-written, well-directed, well-played, and even Murray Gold contributed to its strength, with an unusually subtle, understated score that steered clear of the usual orchestral bombast. And yet, I think it’s going to be seen as rather a curate’s egg of a story (much like Edge of Destruction in fact) for its ambiguity and lack of resolution. I have no problem with that myself, since it seemed very much intentional.
I also felt there was a lot of substance here, in character terms, that nicely complemented the deliberate attempts to scare younger viewers. For me, Listen felt like a good balance between a classic Robert Holmes frightener and the new show’s greater dramatic complexity. We come out of this knowing a little more about Clara, about Danny, and about the Doctor himself – and not all of it is good. A more focused Moffat episode than Capaldi’s rather sprawling introduction, and all the better for it. Scary, thought-provoking and cleverly played, I think this is probably the best Capaldi episode yet.