TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Listen” (08.04, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

“Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: Because we know we’re not.”

While the Doctor’s speech about evolution in the teaser is rather inaccurate (Evolution doesn’t “perfect” things. It’s a messy process that is only concerned with getting “good enough” results. There are, unsurprisingly, no “perfect hunters.” There is no reason to expect “perfect hiding” as a result. One would expect good camouflage, which of course does exist.), the science-based horror opening is probably the best teaser in the series’ history.

Moffat always says that this is a series “meant to frighten children.” What frightens more children than something under the bed? And this episode suggests that there really is something under the bed. The Doctor is suddenly, inexplicably obsessed with the idea that there is something that avoids being seen at all costs, the “perfect hider,” and that it’s the sense that such a thing is present that leads to fear of the dark (even though the Vashta Nerada were already presented as an explanation for that in “Silence in the Library”), fear of what’s under the bed, and talking when there isn’t anyone there.

“You know what’s under there? . . . Me!”

In the end, when it’s revealed that Clara gave the Doctor the nightmare and sent him on this chase, we don’t know whether to think that they’re real. While it’s explained that the incident in Rupert’s room could have been just another kid under a bedspread, it seems rather unlikely that it is. We get a fuzzy glimpse of it after it takes off the bedspread and it really does not look human–it looks like some sort of goblinoid creature. It also seems awfully heavy for a human child. And it seems to arrive in the room awfully quietly considering that Clara and Rupert are under the bed and should have heard essentially any arrival possible. The opening of the door to Colonel Pink’s ship is also rather inexplicable without some sort of creature like what the Doctor is postulating in the opening.

It’s the same type of ending that makes The Usual Suspects (Brian Singer, USA 1996) such a complex experience even on repeated viewings–the ending that renders what came before entirely questionable and completely unexplained. It’s difficult to know what we’ve learned from this episode, because we don’t really know what’s happened. It’s a level of intricacy that’s beyond what Doctor Who typically employs.

Part of the reason that complexity works is how well this episode is tied together. The Doctor gives Rupert a dream that apparently influences him to become Dan the Soldier Man in the same way that Clara gives the Doctor the dream that sends him on this chase. Clara tells Rupert that she’s under the bed and then it turns out that, in the Doctor’s case, she is in fact under the bed.

“Clara, you must have seen it–you’ve got eyes out to here!”

The relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara has been a very interesting development. One of my favorite Doctor-Companion relationships ever was between the Fourth Doctor and the first Romana, a fellow TIme Lord who ridiculed the Doctor for being old, being old fashioned, not knowing how to use the TARDIS properly, and constantly flying by the seat of his pants instead of using the tools he has at his disposal. Her sarcastic edge took some pomposity out of the Doctor and made him more enjoyable for it. Donna Noble had a similar relationship with the Tenth Doctor.

However, Clara and the Twelfth Doctor are now playing out an inversion of the same idea. The Doctor is an egotist obsessed with his own cleverness and intelligence, so Romana made fun of him by saying that he isn’t actually as smart as he thinks. Clara is an egotist obsessed with her own attractiveness, so the Doctor says things like, “it’s fine” describing her backside and, “she has such a wide face, she needs three mirrors!” His attacks on her vanity make her easier to accept, and they provide us with some excellent humor.

Peter Capaldi’s performance is a big part of making this work as well. The great Neil Gaiman tweeted recently that he “feels younger and younger, where [the Eleventh Doctor] felt so old,” and that description is (unsurprisingly–I mean, it did come from Neil Gaiman, after all) very apt. His egocentrism and picking on Clara have a childlike quality in that they seem to come more from not understanding what could possibly be bad about them than any malice. And his palpable joy at discovering anything unusual, no matter how frightening it may be, also betrays his inner alien-ness.

Unfortunately, Jenna Coleman really isn’t up to playing across from Capaldi. She’s not awful, but there are certainly times when she seems artificial, like when he was slaving the TARDIS to her subconscious and she seemed to be changing her reaction by the sentence based on what the Doctor wanted her reaction to be rather than on what Clara’s reaction would in fact be. I’ve tried to avoid being too negative about her performance, because I think she’s had a difficult task with a character who has not been well-defined, but I think Moffat and company have given her some definition to work with this season and her performance still seems confused.

“What kind of explanation would you like?”
“A reassuring one.”

What really makes this episode work, however, is its use of tension. Breaking Bad, of course, set the all-time standard for tense television, because it understood that tension means telling us that something is going to happen and then just waiting. Most shows and films don’t understand that waiting is what actually creates the tension. But this episode of Doctor Who definitely understands, giving us powerful minutes of inaction like waiting for the child Doctor to step out of the bed or Clara and Rupert’s rather inane conversation under the bed.

Overall, this was a fantastic episode. Jenna Coleman’s performance wasn’t great and the ending went on a bit long, with the last few minutes really being more than we needed, but everything else was so good that it was forgivable. It’s been a while since Steven Moffat has written a truly amazing episode–long enough that I didn’t really think he had it in him–but this one can stand alongside the best in the series.

Notes

  • “Waiting? For what? For who?” Ricky Watters laughs.
  • It’s weird that Clara always seems very young to me. Jenna Coleman was born exactly one year after I was.
  • “Do you have your own mood lighting now? Because really the accent was enough.” I really don’t know what that means. It’s rather funny anyway, and Capaldi’s reaction is hilarious, but I think that joke requires some understanding of how the English view the Scots that I just don’t have.
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2 thoughts on “TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Listen” (08.04, 2014)

  1. Pingback: TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “In the Forest of the Night” (08.10, 2014) | Crowd of Full Pockets

  2. Pingback: TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Death in Heaven” (08.12, 2014) | Crowd of Full Pockets

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