Doctor Who #951: Listen

"Question: Why do we talk out loud when we're alone? Conjecture: Because we know we're not."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.13 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor hunts a hidden creature that may or may not exist. Clara may have a future with Danny Pink.

REVIEW: An impressive experiment that, like the Doctor's Not-Where's-Wally book, doesn't actually have a monster in it. It's treated like a monster story, but each and every manifestation of the Doctor's "perfect hider" has a reasonable explanation attached (often times, the Doctor is just keeping the myth alive because he so wants to believe it). We could call it the "secret origin of the Doctor", in a sense, exploring the paranoia-inducing nightmare that (perhaps) inspired his escape from Gallifrey, and taught him how to tame his fear. Too much time alone has made the memory resurface in this incarnation of the Doctor and it's become an obsession. The 12th Doctor's metaphorical education proceeds apace; his mission treated as a research project; the TARDIS acting as an open classroom (books, a blackboard, etc.). And of course, Clara is the teacher, evaluating the work and asking the questions, not because she's the dense companion, but because she's testing the Doctor's theories and conclusions.

It may be the origin of the Doctor, but it's really Clara's show. In addition to being the teacher, she's the substitute Doctor (a theme we've been following since the season opener), able to pilot the TARDIS now using a gooey open brain panel on the console (would you be surprised if I told you it's been there since The Snowmen?). When the show surprisingly takes us to the Doctor's childhood - adding more meaning to the events of The Day of the Doctor, no less - she gets to play the Impossible Girl again, having an impact on the Doctor's life (and proving in her dialog that she does have memories of that experience), becoming the "monster under the bed" AND a sort of muse of courage, imprinting values on the young Gallifreyan ("Fear is a constant companion" is a great line). (And if you want to go completely nuts, think about it, there's an echo of her everywhere in time, helping the Doctor, so if he feels like he's being watched, that's ALSO her.) In that touching moment, she literally becomes the mother figure she's been to him since the start of the season, and treats him no differently when she walks back into the TARDIS. "Do as you're told" has never been so lovingly said. Clara is also mother to Danny Pink, another person she visits in his childhood and on whom she imprints herself, possibly creating his whole identity as a soldier. AND it looks like her relationship with the adult Danny is meant to go somewhere, because she meets someone who can only be her own great-grandson, humanity's first time traveler, Orson Pink (I'll keep any spoilers for episodes down the line in the Theories section).

Between the wonderful Galiffrey sequence, the tension and creep factor of every scene in which the "Hidden" are meant to be present, the dialog that swings in and out of nursery rhymes, and the wacky TARDIS stunts (Doc on top, underwater, etc.), the Danny-Clara stuff never really had a chance. The various attempts at this one date are strictly "Coupling awkward", at least until Pink gets angry at Clara and shows his real self. He's stronger than he's seemed, won't be lied to (uh-oh) and won't stand for shenanigans (double uh-oh). And yet, everything points to their being made for each other. Their scenes together are amusing, especially if you like a good double-entendre, and Clara and her smart mouth are always entertaining. If some of these bits are weaker, it's because the rest is so interesting, touching, creepy, funny... I love the Doctor's "dad skills", the toy soldier braver than the rest for lack of a gun, the sound design, the lighting - have I mentioned how I love the way the lights go round and round while the TARDIS is in transit? Well, I do! - the Doctor sipping a stolen coffee cup, fear as a superpower... everything really.

THEORIES: [Spoilers can't be helped in this section] So how can the TARDIS go to Gallifrey 2000 years in its past when it's not even supposed to be in our universe? Unless it is? If Missy is a Time Lord, how did she get out of the timelock? Answer: Gallifrey is already out, just as she will later claim. That means it's accessible to the TARDIS again. But the Doctor can't go back and time to meet himself, and all visits (except in multi-Doctor stories) have been in a "Gallifreyan present". Except the Doctor isn't driving the ship, Clara is, and she isn't bound by his timeline. She can meet Time Lords out of order even if he presumably (still) can't. Since it's established with the visit to Danny's childhood that the TARDIS can follow Clara's timeline and jump tracks into another who's shared her life, it stands to reason it can also jump tracks into the Doctor's. Alternatively, it's Impossible Girl stuff and her timeline actually intersects the Doctor's naturally. She "existed" in the Doctor's childhood and so can bring the TARDIS there. Well, that's as maybe. The other big question this episode poses, in light of later episodes, is whether Orson will ever be born. Or is Clara pregnant by the series finale, and we just don't know it? If she doesn't have kids with Pink, this whole timeline collapses, which would be a real shame. I'm sad to say later events actually damaged my enjoyment of this episode as the Orson elements became "what might have beens".

REWATCHABILITY: High - The season's stand-out episode, offbeat, clever and heartfelt.


Madeley said...

Not sure I'd discount Orson as a might-have-been yet. There's still the Christmas special to go, and for better or sometimes worse Moffat doesn't usually just let things go.

Loved this episode for all the reasons you've listed. In keeping with the theme of subversion in this series, Moffat is ALSO subverting himself. He's taken all the things he's known for- sing-song nursery rhyme fairytale monsters, a "gimmick" attribute (Don't blink! Look away and you forget the Silence! Just LISTEN!), an everyday occurrence with sinister connotations (Dust particles are monsters! Statues are monsters! The thing under the bed is a monster!)- and made us think, oh here we go, Moffat's greatest hits.

But it turns out there's no monster at all. It's a masterful play on our expectation, even as he does indulge in a signature callback that lends significance to an earlier story- who knew he was going to do somethign to make Day of the Doctor even better, with even deeper emotional resonance?

Thing to note going forward: the toy soldier doesn't have a gun, and is the boss. The Doctor says he doesn't take orders. Important themes that will show up again.

I genuinely feel this series is all the things I was excited for when I heard the Moff was taking over, but didn't get during the Smith era.

Anonymous said...

"Lungbarrow Farm" has such a nice ring to it.

This episode also speaks nicely to how the Doctor is a very vulnerable man, no matter how intimidating his eyebrows may be.

LiamKav said...

My wife was two minutes ahead of me in figuring out where Clara was at the end of the episode. I remember getting proper chills when I realised.

Ryan Lohner said...

This was quite a marvelous surprise. One oddity of Moffet's time running the show for me is that, except for The Eleventh Hour, all the best episodes are the ones NOT written by him personally. Until we got to this one. I puzzled over why this would be for quite a while, and the answer I came up with is that we're finally seeing him play to his strengths again.

Moffat seems to just not be cut out for telling long-form stories. His idea of them is simply to make a Jenga tower, piling one complication after another on top of each other with no end in sight, until the whole thing collapses and it's impossible to remember which piece goes where, so you just don't care anymore (I really can't believe how well that metaphor fit). But give him a simple one-off story where he just has to be creepy and witty for an hour, and he's fantastic. That's what made his episodes under RTD work, and that's what we get again here.

Madeley said...

Ryan- YES. I agree with your assessment of Moffat's short and long-form abilities 100%. The Jenga analogy is absolutely spot on. See also his Jekyll miniseries- given a handful of episodes he excelled, but too large a canvas like an average Who series and he can't seem to handle the sprawl.

Cradok said...

Oh boy, I get to be the dissenter again, but only slightly this time. I loved most of this episode.

Loved Clara, except for the dinner scenes, where we're not really supposed to like her. Liked Danny for the dinner scenes, especially calling Clara out on her pretty poor behaviour. Loved The Doctor nicking the cup. Loved the 'monster', if there really was one - I feel that even though it's explained away, that it doesn't really mean there wasn't actually a monster. Or maybe it does, and I like that. Loved Clara under the bed, starting the whole thing.

But. I didn't like the speech Clara gives the child Doctor. The Impossible Girl I was fine with - mostly, I didn't like the 'stealing the TARDIS' bit - because that was why she was created, to tell that story. And I didn't mind her being the one to change the Doctors' minds in the special, that would have been the same whatever companion, that's part of their role in the new serieses. But on top of that being the one to put him on his course to begin with? Didn't like that.

Still, a huge step up from the first three episodes for me.

Siskoid said...

Cradok: I see that less as a retcon (i.e. "it was her all along") and more like she now contributed to it. It would have happened anyway, with a few details different (like now he's obsessed with a nightmare).

Cradok said...

Oh, yeah, I know there's a whole bunch of reasons and explanations for why it could work, I just don't like it.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

I agree with the majority of your analysis, Siskoid, and found this to be a highlight of the season, but quibble on one point (an argument I've had a number of times before). I don't think this episode distinctly says 'there is no monster,' but the far more daring 'it's not important if there is a monster. There MIGHT be... you have to make up your own mind.' Like the end of Total Recall or Inception, it doesn't provide an answer, but leaves you to provide your own. There is a rational explanation attached each time to give you an out if the 'there is no monster' option is the one you choose to believe in... but enough left unexplained for you to 'believe' (in the X-files sense) if 'there is a monster' is the option you choose. I think the ambiguity is even bolder, and more intriguing, than the 'there was never anything in the first place' twist... and this is coming from a guy that HATES ambiguous endings and wants to know the 'real' answers for endings like those above, but loved this one. But I strongly think this was the intent- a 'you choose' statement, rather than a definitive 'there wasn't' statement- albeit, if that is the case, it's something that very few others I've spoken to have picked up on. (Cradok, you get me! :-) )

Either way, I thought the way that the monster became irrelevant, the significance added to Day of the Doctor, and generally the overall mood and feel of the episode were utterly stellar. And as I mentioned in another comment, I thought Danny's 'How many wells' speech was a really strong piece of writing, and a great commentary on the post-Iraq world's view of soldiers (as well as the show's) and the unfair stigma often attached to them.

Siskoid said...

It's not quibbling. I fully embrace the ambiguity (because I like that kind of thing anyway). But if you ask me to choose, I will say there was no monster. I think the story is more coherent thematically and literally if there isn't. You're free to think the opposite, however, which is definitely part of the charm of Listen.


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