Well wasn’t that something to behold?
“Listen” is one of those episodes that many will have a hard time finding enough superlatives for. This taught, atmospheric slice of suspense and borderline sci-fi fright fest achieves a lot in 45 minutes but is one that will no doubt have people talking about it for a while for good or for bad. The final 10 minutes left a lot for fans to either scratch their head over or throw a table out the window for but there is no denying it’s that kind of reaction that drives the best kind of commentary in Doctor Who.
The focus here is on what The Doctor does when he is bored and as we soon find out from the pre-title monologue he digs deep for a discovery. He chooses to answer one of the biggest questions of humanity: are we alone in the universe? It’s funny to think of a time traveling alien to ask this question but everyone wonders about their shadow, the silent passenger that makes the hair stand up on the back of their neck like some hot breath is coming from behind you. This is an idea that only Steven Moffat can concoct and we don’t need to ruffle through the past seasons to show other examples like this, you all know them well. What works here much like the current Doctor himself is the minimalist approach of the horror this week. No monsters just a lot of great camera angles and mood lighting and I don’t mean the Doctor’s own which seems to follow him now. Douglas McKinnon really did a bang up job shooting this week’s episode and it won’t be the last time we see his directing this season (I believe next week’s “Time Heist” is his too).
A story like this emphasizes that monsters aren’t always needed because every day fears can eat away and frighten with ease. But, it is debatable if there was an actual threat beyond being afraid this week. Was there a threat outside the airlock all along? All signs point to no and that might piss some off but the idea is that we all fear being alone surrounded by the unknown because it makes the mind wander into things that aren’t probably there. This doesn’t explain what exactly was on Rupert’s bed earlier in the episode but that scene for me was all about building suspense with or without The Doctor’s comfort to not just the companion but the viewers. The Doctor’s speech about being afraid as a superpower was great once you realized that he isn’t doing it to comfort Rupert he is doing it because there is genuinely something to be afraid of it.
If there was anything to be expected this week it was some solid performances with Capaldi and Coleman — as both really delivered some whirlwind performances. This is a story that only someone like Capaldi could pull or to be precise only the Twelfth Doctor could deliver. This Doctor is truly insane in many aspects and while I did complain about how they keep jumping personalities each week with him this week felt definitively like what I think the Twelfth Doctor is all about. The idea of the Doctor’s pursuit of knowledge comes from being afraid all of his life whether he shows it or not was a great idea. What scares the Doctor and how does he cope with it? Any other Doctor probably would have been rather upfront about it or masked it with some other distraction but it is the focus here. He masks his fears with curiosity which was a rather dangerous mix this week in the whole airlock scene. He was borderline insane in his pursuit and it almost cost him his life despite Clara trying to intervene in his choice. Coleman once again gives another whopper of a performance playing teacher and caretaker to the Doctor’s storyline while trying to fix her own troubles with Danny (Samuel Anderson) which gives a proper balance of strength and flaw in Clara.
While the Doctor conquers the great mysteries of the universe Clara and Danny must conquer the unfortunate slings and arrows or maybe errors of a first date. Danny Pink is slowly being fleshed out but as usual with all Moffat characters as of late he is still just dropped into the situation with no rhyme or reason to his feelings and playing off Clara they make it seem like she is being intrusive and uncaring and that he is far too abrasive. I’ve heard of bad first dates but this is definitely a nightmare and both actors make you wince and cringe at every wrong thing that is done. Samuel Anderson gets the best of both worlds as Danny and as his descendent Orson Pink, the first human to time travel that is stuck at the end of the universe. Besides pulling off a horrific wig with gusto, Anderson really brings Orson to life as Clara fights to reveal her connection with his past and shows the legitimate fright of living in a universe filled with silence…or is it really that silent? Lots of ghosts out there as the Doctor explained.
It’s the Clara/Danny storyline that I would say my first and well, probably main quibble with this episode comes into play. Besides the fact that I can’t understand why Clara keeps hiding fromo The Doctor about how she is connected to Danny, the fact that she clearly is part of the Pink timeline from his ancestor’s stand point, says a lot about where we are going. Must we set up such a cosmic web this quickly? Once again a companion’s natural plane of existence is interwoven into a complex storyline and it almost sucks the fun out of watching these two build a possible relationship — because we can tell they are heading for one that will have great impact on their future. We get a nice balance here between watching Clara in the real world and in the world of The Doctor but this plot development keeps her firmly locked in the Doctor’s universe which is a shame because I love seeing her balance out both lives in the same way Amy and Rory did back in “The Power of Three.”
Of course, there is that scene in the last ten minutes that is probably sending a lot of people through the roof right now. Sadly it is a scene that hurts the proceeding 35 minutes that work so well. From the moment the barn scene played out I saw the minds of millions turning into a mix of befuddled and enraged. I didn’t take issue but I can see why it would. The idea of a companion from The Doctor’s future planting the idea of being afraid in his head at such an early age wraps a lot of continuity into a big old sheet. We never go back that far with The Doctor and we always assume that anything aspect of his life prior to stealing the TARDIS comes from him. So having something like a companion from the future influencing The Doctor that much may be a bit frustrating but then again this is Clara the impossible girl who has dropped herself into every part of his timeline and has seen all his faces. What’s one more going to hurt? I feel very mute about this particular plot point because I didn’t find myself bothered as much as I was intrigued, especially once Clara drops that the barn in question here is the barn from “The Day of the Doctor” that the War Doctor visits. That puts a lot of history behind something as simple as a barn but I wonder if we will see it again after this episode.
However, for me this is not the focus here nor should it be. This is about the myths, the evils and the fears that drive a man destined to always do good by his actions but don’t always reach that point. We get the Doctor at his most vulnerable and revealing here and that comes at the expense of him really not being the focal point of this episode despite being in it constantly delivering bang up bits of dialogue with menace and glee. “Listen” is going to divide the show’s audience greatly into camps of lovers and haters and that is fine because what works best for Doctor Who is when it creates commentary both positive and negative. For now this is the best episode thus far in this Doctor’s run and one of the best ones overall in quite some time but it is by no mean perfect.
Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.