"Question: why do we talk out loud when we know we're alone? Conjecture: because we know we're not."
For this season of Doctor Who, Ross Miller and Kwame Opam will be sounding off on each episode in a series of emails we'll be publishing on the site. This week it's "Listen" (warning: spoilers ahead). Check out our previous recaps: "Deep Breath," "Into the Dalek," and "Robots of Sherwood."
I'm watching the episode for the second time right now. A seriously interesting menace. Great work by all three leads — the Doctor, Clara, and Mr. Pink. Normally I'd rant about major continuity errors or try to talk about other great shows I'm watching, but "Listen" is one of those great standalone episodes that I'll probably watch years later on its own, absent of any season-long marathon.
The episode begins with the Doctor left alone in his thoughts — seemingly more of a trend this season than others. Instead of keeping Clara cooped up in the TARDIS, the Doctor seems to only pick up his companion when needed, which means we get to see a Clara grounded in reality, constantly revisiting a messy date with Danny Pink — née Rupert, which we know because the Doctor and Clara visit a young Rupert trying to solve the mystery of the boogeyman, with both of them nudging along his new "Dan the Soldier Man" name and identity.
Yes, the Pink coincidence is a bit much — the one where his great-great-grandson (presumably) is the last man alive at the end of time — but the episode takes its time to provide enough justification and tie up whatever loose ends. That being said, I'm not convinced Clara is the great-great-grandmother in this case. All it tells me is Pink will be a companion, and he'll find love on his adventures. Maybe it's Clara. Maybe it's some weird alien thingy that only passes down the mate's phenotypes, thus justifying why the two look exactly, exactly alike. Kudos to Samuel Anderson for playing both roles (someone attracted to Clara and a potentially distant relative who is neutral to the Clara, knows a lot about his family's history of time travel, but somehow has never seen a picture of her or notes any similarities to other family members okay I'm rambling now).
So Rupert's prey was probably another kid trying to scare him — he said no one entered the room, but he was also a scared kid hiding under the bed and also the Doctor entered the room unnoticed just fine. The writing in the cold open, as Clara suggests, is probably just the Doctor. And what did the Doctor see when the pressurized door open?
We don't know actually. Could be nothing. Could be a callback later in the season — a large plot device that takes people to the Promised Land. Either way? I ain't mad.
I'm still kind of stunned at this episode. This was Moffat at his best, which is a tough thing to say lately.
Fear is the heart of this episode, even as the show has weaved that theme through the season so far. The Twelfth Doctor facing down a nigh-unknowable enemy that the Doctor himself effectively leads us to believe feeds on our fear. What if there was something that could hide perfectly until the very moment it wanted to be seen? he asks us. The very idea of that sort of gives you the willies right? Really in much the way an enemy like the Weeping Angels creates a powerful sense of dread. I really love that we're left unsure of what he sees when the airlock opens. It can go either way, creating a new enemy that relates to our new Big Bad in some way, or giving us a deep look at what really drives the Doctor to stare the unknown in the face.
But Clara? God bless you, Clara. This was your day. This season has spent about as much time deconstructing the heroism of the Doctor as it has building up Clara as his equal and — here, at least — his better. Nowhere is that more clear as her giving a young Doctor his whole understanding of how fear works and the ability to stand up to it. She (and Danny Pink, who I'll get to in a second) is tied up in the Doctor's life in a really unprecedented way, and we know more than ever that, more than the Doctor needing a companion, the Twelfth Doctor needs Clara. Like. Stay with me. Batman and Robin. That parallel is not going anywhere, kids. This Doctor needs Clara to let him face down the terrifying dark and let him know when there isn't anything to be afraid of.
As for Danny, we can only guess at his importance at this point, but we can now freely assume he's gonna be around for awhile. I'm actually willing to think that Orson might be a descendant of Clara's, since the Doctor makes that knowing line that Danny was pretending to not know who they were. Time travel runs in the family right?
All in all, bravo Moffat. This was the best episode of the season so far.
I'd go so far as to call this one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever. There, I said it. Come at me, people.
I'm still not convinced Moffat can resist the bait-and-switch — that Clara isn't part of the Pink family line, and that she won't succumb to some untimely (pun) fate.
I like that, "deconstructing the heroism of the Doctor." Compared to this season, the themes of the Smith era were always in name only — "the Doctor must be forgotten (but not really)," "the Doctor's name is really important and should never be uttered (but it's okay if it does happen, really)." This season has been less explicit and more demonstrative with its theme (all for the better, I'd say). The Doctor performs acts of heroism but is himself still that scared little kid that never fit in with his own species.
What makes this episode so compelling to me, and not unlike "Midnight" or "Silence in the Library," is that the villain is ultimately never seen. It never needs to be seen, really. What makes "Listen" even more impressive is that we didn't ultimately need a tangible antagonist with a weird name to sell the narrative. Fear itself, the concept, was enough. It wasn't some space dust that caused crazy hallucinations of some alter-Doctor-ego a la "Amy's Choice." It was simply fear... a very human emotion we rarely ascribe to heroes.
The John Hurt archival footage was a nice touch and a callback to the barn (I had forgotten the connection, personally)... but it did lead me to a night of mad Googling and discovering this tidbit from Moffat on why-John-Hurt-why-not-Christopher-Eccleston.
Danny... two episode appearances, a look into his backstory, and a look at his future? I think it's fair to think Danny will be more of a Rory-style companion than, say, Mickey (Rose's ex-boyfriend who later became Martha's beau because... well, that one's the biggest mystery to me).
For you, dude:
I'm down with that. For all its faults, this season seems really invested in incorporating a truly human element to its stories, even if things can get wild and crazy. We've known for ages that the Doctor is fallible, but the stakes have always been so high. Like, say, in "The Day of the Doctor." Here, his humanity can be found in his trying to face a human emotion and grappling with what it means to be this legendary, heroic figure. In that way, the stakes are really the risk of his failing to live up to that legend. When he commands Clara to wait in the TARDIS, when he says he doesn't take orders. He's really talking about who he's meant to be, not who he is. And when he finally acquiesces to Clara and does what he's told, he letting himself be imperfect.
I'm kind of forced to wonder: what would the Ninth Doctor have done with that... something... under Rupert's blanket? The Tenth? The Eleventh? I have a feeling the episode would have been much much different had we gotten a look underneath. Maybe it was a kid. Maybe it was something else. But you can't go around turning people to stone all the time.
It's really at this point that we can finally stop singing Capaldi's praises. He's good. He's really good. But Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson really brought it, and the three of them make for a really powerful trifecta. Especially with regard to Jenna and Sam's chemistry. I'm really excited to see where the rest of this season goes.