No campy fight scenes between slave workers with dishware and weak, unintelligent robots in this episode. Writer Steven Moffat has gone for a more introspective look at the Doctor for the fourth episode of season eight, “Listen.”
At the start of the episode, the Doctor is sitting atop his Tardis, meditating about the possibility of a hidden species that’s always in the background and always unseen, the monsters under the bed that every person has been scared of and has dreamt about at some point. He paces inside the Tardis, writes out his thoughts on a chalkboard (what we can probably safely assume has been the thing he has been obsessed with for the past few episodes) and questions himself in the tense, uneasy silence of the Tardis: “Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone?” He questions what a hidden species would do after years of silence and evolution, and puts down the piece of chalk, only to turn around and discover the answer written on the chalkboard: “Listen.”
Meanwhile, Clara and Danny are having an awkward first date, during which time the fact that Danny was a soldier comes up again and both parties get offended and flustered and Clara leaves in a huff. The Doctor picks up the visibly distressed Clara—but don’t worry, he’s totally insensitive about it and more focused about his quest to find the monsters under the bed, in keeping with his asshole personality.
Clara and the Doctor talk about the dream everyone seems to have at some point—the dream of being grabbed by someone or something under the bed. In order to find the origin of these bedtime beasties (which would be both a great episode name and a great band name, FYI), the Doctor has the Tardis dip into Clara’s subconscious. (…Wait, didn’t the Tardis have a beef with Clara just last season? I guess it got over that?) Unfortunately, Clara can only focus on her date with Danny, so instead of the Tardis taking them back to her childhood, it takes them to the children’s orphanage where a young Danny Pink (née Rupert Pink, poor guy) is living. Clara meets young Danny, who’s terrified of something under his bed.
To show him he has nothing to fear, Clara and Danny get under the bed—but then a mysterious someone or something sits on the bed and hides under the sheet (Danny insists no one had come in through the door, so they both freak out, like you do). The Doctor shows up and, assuming he has found one of the “monsters” he is looking for, instructs them all to look away from the creature and allow it to go away for their safety. It briefly creeps behind them, Brainy-style, then disappears.
The Doctor, in a perfect example of what would be bad parenting if by some horrible mistake someone let this Doctor be a parent, tells Danny about the power of fear and then says even though they are now safe from the creature, no one is ever really safe. Clara goes into maternal/teacher mode and takes out Danny’s toy soldiers, lining them up against the edge of the bed, reassuring him that his plastic army will take care of him. Then the Doctor touches his finger to Danny’s forehead, making Danny fall asleep—because the Doctor is apparently a sith lord who can scramble memories and put people to sleep?
Clara goes back to her date with Danny, and they have yet another bout of awkwardness before Clara gets called back to the Tardis by someone in a space suit, who turns out to be Col. Colson Pink. Colson resembles Danny, except he rocks a fro. The Doctor had picked up Colson at the end of the universe, on the last planet in existence. Colson, who turns out to be a time traveler himself, was sent ahead to the future but went too far and ended up stuck alone at a base on the last planet in existence for six months. The Doctor agrees to take Colson home, but insists they stay one more night camped out at the end of the universe in the most depressing slumber party ever. Colson insists they don’t, because he’s clearly frightened of something that comes at night. Still, the Doctor is adamant about finding out what exactly Colson is frightened of. We find out Colson—who has Danny’s toy soldier and says it’s a family heirloom—is related to Clara, so we know she and Danny must eventually get together and have some babies.
Clara begs the Doctor to just get his old wrinkly butt in the Tardis (paraphrasing of course), but he insists on finding out the truth, even amidst mysterious knocking outside the door of the base. In the process of investigating the possibly dangerous—but surprisingly polite, because, hey, they did knock afterall—invisible beasties, he nearly gets sucked out into space (#smoothmoveasshole). Colson saves him and drags him back into the Tardis, but the Doctor is knocked out.
Assuming whatever invisible creepy crawlies are still out there, Clara and Colson try to find a way to navigate the Tardis out of there. Clara tries to drive the Tardis with her subconscious again, and they end up in a very familiar barn—on Gallifrey. She sees a scared little boy quaking in his bed, and it turns out to be great Time Lord himself. She hides under his bed, but then accidentally grabs his ankle as he’s about to get up, and in doing so sparks the Doctor’s obsession with the idea of monsters under the bed. In another moment of sweetness and almost maternal understanding, Clara comforts him and alludes to what he’ll do in the barn later (return as the War Doctor, John Hurt, and use the Moment to stop the Time War) and tells him the importance of fear: “Fear is like a constant companion, always there, but that’s ok because fear can bring us together, can bring you home.”
“Listen” was certainly a nice change from last week’s helplessly corny “Robots of Sherwood” episode. Since the episode premiered, it seems as though everyone on the Interwebs has come out in praise of it, saying it is one of the best Doctor Who episodes the show has seen in years. To some extent, I agree. This was a good episode that started off in Moffat’s familiar territory but made everything new, allowing us to have a really smart, well thought-out exploration of the Doctor’s fear.
This episode really had all of Moffat’s narrative favorites. The silent, hidden creatures recalled the Angels and the Silence, among others, and the grim and tense tone of the episode was reminiscent of those episodes in the series as well. Then there was the Doctor’s meddling in multiple points of a person’s timeline (although to be fair, it was all Clara’s doing this time, basically molding Danny into the person he’ll be and even affecting future generations). And there was the Doctor’s obsessive curiosity, even in the face of danger.
But as much as this episode had elements from many episodes we’ve already seen, there was also something new. There was a quiet, contemplative tone to this, one we don’t see in this show very often. In every episode of “Doctor Who,” there is always action, always the Doctor coming to the rescue. And sometimes there’s a peek into the Doctor’s darkness, but we never get to dig too deep because he won’t even allow himself to go to that place. But you could tell this episode was a different case. When have we ever seen the Doctor meditate? When has the Doctor willingly sought to dive into the dark aspects of his personality? But that isn’t to say that the Doctor had the willingness and/or awareness to delve into the parts of himself that are sculpted by fear in this episode—in fact, he was still pretty oblivious to it all on a certain level. Clara has seen many sides of the Doctor already, and in this case, she saw a side that no doubt he has kept even from himself: the vulnerability of a child, the development of fear.
Now, this may partially come from my unwavering contrariness and deep-seated cynicism, but I did have just enough reservations and questions regarding the episode to warrant my hesitance to praise it to the extent others have thus far:
1) Surprise! There wasn’t even a real antagonist in this episode. How many times has that happened in the history of this show? No aliens? No monsters? No robots? To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that the antagonist didn’t exist. Sure, the message of the episode only works if the antagonist isn’t real, but that still presents questions about what we did see throughout the episode. What was under little Danny’s sheet? Who wrote “Listen” on the chalkboard? Who was banging on the door to the base at the edge of the universe where the Doctor sat waiting for these invisible monsters? If they were just manifestations of the Doctor’s fear, then why did the other characters have the same experience? I find it hard to imagine that the mysterious sheet monster (which, if we’re going to give the episode the benefit of the doubt, could have been one of Danny’s friends playing a joke on him, a possibility the Doctor mentions but clearly rejects), invisible chalk-writer and end-of-all-things door-knocker were all totally fabricated or exaggerated. Perhaps it was Danny’s friend, perhaps the Doctor did forget that he wrote “Listen” on the chalkboard, and perhaps the knocking was just the sounds of the ship, but we’re not quite sure, and I felt like I was kind of left hanging there.
2) Clara goes to Gallifrey. As in the Gallifrey that is time-locked and trapped in another universe because of the War Doctor’s use of the Moment in “Day of the Doctor.” This seems to have broken some rules of the Whoniverse. We did see some Gallifreyan action with the tenth and eleventh Doctors, but only because of some timey wimey weirdness involving alternate universes and rifts in time and space. So when did it become as easy to just pop over to Gallifrey as it would to pick up some Dollar Menu fries at McDonald’s?
3) What the hell is up with the Doctor body shaming Clara? OK, again, we get it. He’s an asshole. But he’s also an alien who’s as old as dirt! So since when does he notice an Earth female’s body? And make inappropriate commentary on it too! It’s not funny. It’s just awkward. Listen, Moffat, everyone already thinks you hate women, which you probably do. So making your main character constantly shame his female companion is not a good look.
4) Now that we know Danny and Clara will get together for sure, it’s going to be more difficult for Moffat to keep us invested in their painfully awkward attempts to date. Perhaps he’ll get onboard the Tardis and the Doctor will find himself having adventures with another married couple—although no one can compare to the Ponds, mind you. Either way, there’s going to have to be a lot more from the Danny and Clara front, but we’ll see what Moffat has in store.
5) Was this episode in any way connected to the larger storyline with Missy and the Promised Land? We can probably assume the things the Doctor was writing on the chalkboard for the last few episodes were related to this monsters-under-the-bed theory. But if that’s true, because it was built up for so long, it feels like this one episode can’t be the end of it. It’s hard to imagine that Moffat actually wrote this episode independent of the bigger story. Don’t get me wrong—it’d be a nice change, especially because, as I’ve said, Moffat’s big reveals don’t always pay off—but just makes me suspicious because all of the other episodes of this season so far have consistently alluded to Missy/Promised Land.
Still, this episode was full of great scenes and really had an engaging message. The Doctor’s a mystery to Clara, to us loyal viewers and even, to some extent, himself; however, it’s always a special treat when we get some new insight into the Time Lord.
Next week, the Doctor plays a game of cops and robbers in “Time Heist,” wherein he must steal from the most dangerous bank in the universe. Check back in next week for my recap and review!