Disclaimer: In 2013 I reviewed the second half of Series 7 for The Hairy Housewife and fully intended to do the same for Series 8 last year. Unfortunately, it proved impossible. Life and work and caring responsibilities called and at my lowest point, I was about five episodes behind everyone else. After speaking recently with Gemma, she thought it would be cool for me to do a re-tread of Series 8 to tide blog readers over until Series 9 airs. So that’s what’s happening. Every week I’ll re-watch and review an episode for this blog. Feel free to join me! Oh, and there will be spoilers.
This is the sort of episode that reminds me why Moffat is showrunner and deserves to be. This is the sort of episode that makes me think that 50 years from now, Who fans will look back on his work on Who as maverick and genius. Listen is that good. Listen is that brilliant. The story is a return to familiar Moffat territory – the monster hidden in the corner of our eye, blink and you’re gone, turn around and the mystery vanishes – this time though, Moffat spoofs himself whilst waxing philosophical on the nature of fear and why humanity harnesses it. The episode follows two story trajectories: that of The Doctor trying to find the unfindable monster and Clara and Danny trying to move forward in their relationship. It’s hard to summarise the episode without giving everything away for those who haven’t seen it, so be warned, here be entirely meta and spoilers.
The episode begins with meditative Doctor, thinking atop the TARDIS in one scene, studying the animal kingdom in another, using his trademark white chalk to make conjectures and propositions to the audience. There are perfect hunters and perfect defenders, but why is there no such thing as perfect hiding? The Doctor tells us, sending shivers down the spine, that we’d never know if there was a perfect hider because evolution would make it so we’d never see them. With one final piece of logic he asks the audience and ‘the perfect hider’ ‘what would you do?’ as the chalk rolls on the TARDIS floor and the words LISTEN appear. This opening was the moment I decided I ‘got’ Twelve and not only did I ‘get’ him, I damn well liked him a lot. High praise indeed given how much I loved Eleven. Twelve is a thinker and a philosophizer and prizes logic and reason over emotion. It is important to note this. It matters later. For Listen is ultimately two parallel stories that play into each other: the story of The Doctor and his fear of an unsee-able alien and Clara and Danny’s fear of embarrassment and awkwardness in advancing a relationship. Ultimately, the episode claims that both fears are unfounded, but not that those fears are unimportant. Instead, both The Doctor and Clara needed to listen to their hearts rather than their heads.
Then there are seeds of themes which continue throughout Series 8. The soldier thing rears its head again, but this time, it is both Clara and Danny who make assumptions about the other: Clara about Danny’s need to assert to her that he dug 23 wells (as though telling her washes out his guilt) and Danny judging Clara as the lofty, left-wing teacher predisposed to see a violent soldier. The soldier theme ruins their first date and Clara leaves in a huff after harsh words are exchanged. Luckily, The Doctor has called Clara to the TARDIS to deal with his own monsters (presumed to be more than figurative at this stage) because he realises all humanity has the dream of a hand grabbing a foot from under the bed and he can use TARDIS technology to get to that point. This in turn seeds another series 8 plot point, again for Dark Water. Some people criticised Dark Water for the sheer out of character-ness of The Doctor believing that there was a heaven that could be reached by his TARDIS. I never thought he believed it and Listen proves why. The Doctor grins manically when the TARDIS lands after Clara is linked telepathically and says, ‘that’s good. It worked.’ This Doctor suggests mad things not expecting anything to come of them. He’s surprised when fairy stories come true. The final seeded theme for series 8 is the return of Clara Who as the audience and Doctor’s teacher. It is she who tells a frightened Rupert that dreams are called dreams because they are not real. It is she who tells Rupert that clever people can hear dreams. It is she who tells Rupert that an injured soldier can be the best kind of soldier.
Listen is a unique episode in the history of Doctor Who: a story where there is no alien, there is no monster of the week. The only monster is fear itself and Clara, The Doctor and Rupert turn their backs on it (the boy under the covers) even as The Doctor reminds us why fear matters:
Lovely dark… you’d never see the stars without it.
You need to be afraid to be really brave just like you need to be sad to understand happiness.
The gang haven’t quite learnt the lesson yet. Clara tells Rupert a bedtime story about a plastic soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun to keep the whole world safe, which makes her realize that Danny deserves a second chance. She begs The Doctor for a second chance, but on the date with Danny, she’s too afraid to tell Danny the truth about her time travelling ways and this time it’s him that walks off in a huff. There is no common language. Fear is winning.
And now we get to the reason why, as great as this episode is, it can’t be named as the greatest of all time because the rest of the story relies on two things:
1. The appearance of Orson Pink requires people to watch the whole series and invest in characters beyond a stand alone episode. It is still unanswered who Orson Pink is – is he a descendant of Clara’s child by Danny, is he a descendant of the Afghani boy who presumably was adopted by Clara post Death in Heaven or is he an indication that Danny isn’t definitively dead? The answers could affect the way we view Listen in the future.
2. The final scenes with references to John Hurt’s Doctor, the end of The Time War and The Doctor’s early life have more emotional resonance if you’ve see the 50th and/or know something about The Doctor in classic Who.
I think you could, however, make a case for this episode being one of the greatest Who episodes for fans of the show ever written. This part is why:
The Doctor: What’s that in the mirror? In the corner of your eye? What’s that footstep following? But never passing by? Perhaps they’re all just waiting, Perhaps when we’re all dead. Out they’ll come a slithering, From underneath your bed.
Clara: Did we come to the end of the universe because of a nursery rhyme?
Yes, Clara, yes you did. And later:
What if there was nothing? What if there was never anything? Nothing under the bed, nothing at the door. What if the big bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s just afraid of the dark.
The Doctor cried as a child and was told he’d never make a soldier or the Time Lord academy. He proves his people wrong because he uses fear, even if only subconsciously, to drive himself forward. This story isn’t about aliens and monsters. It’s about fear: fear of committing emotionally to another person, fear of the dark and of dreams, fear of soldiers and of death, fear of the past, fear of listening to the heart because when you do listen, uncomfortable truths may well be found. And that’s OK, Moffat tells us, in frankly, one of his most touching and beautiful moves yet. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed and nothing in the dark, as long as you know it’s OK to be afraid of it. Listen becomes philosophical in a way that Doctor Who seldom is.
Clara’s end speech overlaid by images of people finally learning to listen (The Doctor to Clara, Danny and Clara to each other) is one of the most beautiful endings to any Doctor Who episode I’ve ever seen. I can’t have been the only one who had tears down the cheeks by the time Clara said:
Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger. And one day, you’re gonna come back to this barn, and on that day, you’re going to be very afraid indeed. But that’s okay. Because if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind…
There was something moving and beautiful about Clara moving towards Danny to kiss as she said in voice over that fear was a constant companion. In fact, I’m out of words for just how profoundly moving the final moments of Listen are. I’ll leave you with the final lines instead, words to perhaps live by beyond a TV show:
So listen. If you listen to nothing else, listen to this: you’re always going to be afraid, even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like… a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that’s okay. Because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.
Listen: 11/10 inky stars