Writer: Steven Moffat.
Director: Douglas Mackinnon.
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson.
It’s always an anticipated episode when Doctor Who does scary. While remarkably little about this episode came out in the run-up to it, the trailers certainly promised a great deal of chills and shivers, and any episode by current showrunner Steven Moffat has approximately a 70% chance of having something suitably horrifying in it. This is one I was looking forward to immensely, make no mistake about it. Did it live up to my own hype?
Well, reader, just sit back and ‘Listen‘.
WARNING: THIS ONE IS DEFINITELY GOING TO HAVE SOME MINOR SPOILERS IN IT. SORRY, BUT IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO TALK ABOUT WITHOUT THEM.
The episode has one of the most striking opening sequences in recent Doctor Who memory. The Doctor, striding around his TARDIS and taking one of his customary lone trips, speaks aloud to himself, both for the benefit of the audience and to set up the episode’s plot. He’s got a theory, he explains to the air. Why is it that we talk to ourselves when we’re alone? Why is it that sometimes we put something down, and then can’t find it where we left it? Is it just our own odd little habits, brief flashes of forgetfulness…or something more? “Evolution,” the Doctor discusses as he writes down his thoughts on his chalkboard. There are beings that are perfect for killing, there are beings that are perfect for fleeing…what if there are creatures that are perfect for hiding? Even if there are, how would anyone know? The Doctor yells to his seemingly-empty TARDIS console room, inquiring as to what the perfect hider would do. His chalkboard answers him by displaying one single word in his handwriting (or is it?): “LISTEN”.
So begins the episode, and it doesn’t let up throughout. Without a doubt, ‘Listen‘ is one of the most cleverly-written tales in a long time, a tight plot woven throughout with incredible ambiguity. Fear of the unknown is the theme of this episode, and it makes itself present in a marvellously-subtle way. The nagging sense of unease the viewer feels from the get-go never quite goes away until the very end of the story (and perhaps not even then), in a manner that rather reminds the viewer of Russell T. Davies’ ‘Midnight’, I found. It’s an episode that will unnerve you, that’s for certain. Many of the Moffat greats are in this episode: an unnerving concept for the Doctor to strive against, a great deal of time travel twists, and some brilliant moments of character development. This is an incredibly rare example of a story that will leave the viewer questioning it for quite some time, no doubt, as the situation is perfectly balanced for both points of view on it. Is there a monster or isn’t there? ‘Listen’ isn’t telling, and I love it for that.
Also featured in the episode, of course, is the blooming relationship between Clara and Danny Pink, who makes a much more full and proper debut in this tale. He and Clara…aren’t doing particularly well, to put it lightly. Clara’s seemingly-uncontrollable mouth and Danny’s lack of social skills make their first date an extremely awkward proposition, and even some slight TARDIS intervention by the Doctor aren’t enough to help with it, not entirely at first. There’s a lot more related to Danny in this story than one would think at first glance, however, but I won’t go into that too much, they’re rather impactful moments indeed. Suffice it to say, however, there are some very interesting twists in that particular tale, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where the show goes with it.
In terms of character development, as I’ve mentioned, this episode has a lot of great scenes. The Doctor himself continues to show us just how different he has become with this new regeneration, calmly pacing his TARDIS and idly theorising about potential monsters as little more than a thought exercise that he elects to run with, perhaps beyond the point of sanity. It’s quite fascinating to get such a glimpse at the Doctor’s inner thoughts, and even more fascinating to see what happens when the Doctor gets caught up in those inner thoughts. He’s as methodical as ever, that said, and doesn’t reveal too much about what he’s thinking at once to Clara or anyone else, which is very true to character, of course. Clara in this episode shows, I think more than ever, that she has learned much from the Doctor, one great teacher passing on his knowledge to another teacher in turn. The one scene of the episode that I believe everyone will be talking about (but I won’t discuss for spoiler’s sake) is the key here, as it largely involves Clara repeating appropriate things that either the Eleventh or Twelfth Doctors have said to her at some point to a certain character that will also not be discussed, creating a beautiful and emotional moment that will definitely shine as the standout part of ‘Listen’. Nonetheless, the relationship between Clara and the Doctor continues to fracture, the cracks that were hinted at in last week’s ‘Robot of Sherwood’ widening noticeably in this one, particularly in one segment, and I imagine that’s only going to keep happening week by week.
Performance-wise, this episode continues Series 8’s trend of non-stop excellence. I believe that Peter Capaldi has well and truly settled into his monumental role now, and has does so with aplomb. His unique character tics are becoming more evident, from his calm and considered speech to the Doctor’s still somewhat-irascible nature, even his hand gestures when he speaks. His Doctor has crystallised now, and I imagine is constantly endearing himself to ever more of the fanbase day by day. He’s the Doctor through and through, there’s no doubt about it. Jenna Coleman is still giving the best performances she’s yet given as Clara, and gets several marvellous scenes in this episode, particularly when dealing with Danny on their dates. After so much time travelling in the TARDIS, it’s almost bizarre to see her as a normal person, and I don’t believe that Clara recalls how to be one either, something which Coleman plays up very well. Meanwhile, this episode gives us a much greater look at Samuel Anderson, and he shines throughout. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Rory to an extent, but still very much bringing his own character to the table. ‘Listen’ gives him a lot more range to play with, and he succeeds excellently. I’m very eager to see more of Danny Pink in the future, that’s for certain.
All in all, ‘Listen’ is quite simply one of the most tightly-written and clever episodes of Doctor Who that you could find. It’s an exercise in writing ambiguous situations, ambiguous conflict. It builds up and pays off in equal measure. It’s intense, it’s scary, and it’s thought-provoking all at once, all balanced out by another ever-welcome dose of Peter Capaldi’s screen-shatteringly flawless performance as the Doctor. It’s not entirely perfect, but any minor faults are so minor that they’re not particularly worth mentioning whatsoever.
It’s pure Doctor Who at its best, plain and simple. 10/10