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Doctor Who: “Listen”

Wow, I really, really liked this episode. That’s four Doctor Who episodes in a row I’ve liked. Is it possible season 8 is the uptick in quality that many of us have been craving since the mostly awful seasons 5-7? I mean, I even liked “Listen” despite its divisive and controversial ending, which I will get to. But it’s hard to talk about this episode without getting into spoilers, so…


Where to begin? There is an incredibly well-done feeling of dread and mystery that hangs over the entire episode, although there isn’t much in the way of a plot. Clara tries to go on a date with Danny Pink while the Doctor investigates a mystery that has apparently always bothered him: What if you’re not alone when you think you are? He wonders if there is such a thing as a creature that is perfect at hiding — forgetting, it seems, his recent adventures with the Silents, alien beings with the power to make you forget you saw them the minute you look away. Sounds like they’re pretty perfect at hiding to me! But whatever. What follows is, I think, an extraordinary episode in which the existence of this creature is put to the test but never proven. In fact, each time we see a possible trace of it, there are plenty of other explanations for what might actually be happening. Because it’s Doctor Who, I choose to believe there might indeed be such a creature, but the episode leaves it ambiguous, which lends the entire thing just the right atmosphere.

The rest of the episode is taken up with Clara’s attempt at a first date with Danny. It’s awkward — neither one is good at conversation — and ultimately doesn’t go well. The angst is contrived, but I still found myself enjoying the date scenes quite a bit. I think Samuel Anderson and Jenna Coleman have good chemistry. There’s a dip into the future that seems to hint that they will get together and start a family, and I’m good with that.

Also remarkable in this story: There is no villain. The creature, if it exists at all, is never given a moral alignment. It doesn’t appear to want to hurt anybody, but its presence — again, if it exists at all — can be frightening. It’s quite rare for a Doctor Who episode not to have a villain. Ever rarer: No one dies. There are no fatalities, murders, or accidental deaths of any kind in “Listen.” The episode is an experiment in atmosphere and ambiguity rather than a plot-driven adventure, and I thought it worked very, very well as such.

Are there problems? Yes, and most of them are issues familiar to anyone who has been watching the show during Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner and head writer. For instance, yet another established plot line is dropped as quickly as the Doctor forgetting the Silents have already answered the question he ponders at the start of the episode. In this case, it’s Clara psychically interfacing with the TARDIS a number of times with no trouble whatsoever. But remember just last season when the TARDIS didn’t like Clara? Actually tried to lock her out and not function for her? That seems to be over, with no explanation as to what it was all about. Just…dropped. The Doctor insults Clara’s appearance again. While I fully understand it’s supposed to be a mixture of good-natured ribbing and the Doctor’s own obliviousness, these moments are starting to feel mean. Given the penchant Moffat has shown for sexism in his characters and their interactions, the more this happens the more it worries me. Clara, meanwhile, admires herself from behind during a quick bit of timeline crossing, just like Amy Pond did in the webisode “Time,” because in the Moffatverse women are very concerned with whether or not they look sexy.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone when I say that Moffat likes to return often to the well of his own making and draw out the same tropes each time: Don’t blink. Don’t breathe. Don’t turn around. There’s yet another creepy but utterly unnecessary nursery rhyme. He loves to have his characters meet other important characters as children — so far, he’s done this with Amy, Clara, River, Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and Kazran Sardick in “A Christmas Carol” — and “Listen” is no exception. Here, Clara gets to meet the very young Danny Pink, and unintentionally sets him on his path to become a soldier. Clara also meets and influences another important character as a child at the end of the episode, and that’s where the controversy stems from. Because the little boy she meets is the Doctor, on Gallifrey.

This is problematic on a number of levels. Topmost, the TARDIS should not be able to travel to Gallifrey at all, since it’s time-locked after the Time War. But even if the Moment managed to untime-lock Gallifrey permanently in “The Day of the Doctor,” instead of just temporarily so the Doctors could converge in that barn, Gallifrey is now frozen in time and tucked away in another dimension. So how did the TARDIS even get there?

It’s also problematic on a much deeper level. Sometimes Moffat seems to approach Doctor Who like a bad fan fiction writer. He insists on explaining things that don’t need explanation or that the program has left purposely vague (“The TARDIS makes that noise because you’re driving it with the emergency brake on, har har!”). He gives the Doctor the coolest wish-fulfillment girlfriend ever, one who only shows up occasionally for adventuring and sex, but puts no other demands on his life so he can continue traveling as much as he likes and flirt with other women with no consequences to their relationship at all. But perhaps most troublesome is his determination to shoehorn his own mythology into the 50-year-old, established mythology of the show. He did this with the Gallifreyan splinter Clara in “The Name of the Doctor,” who tells the Doctor which TARDIS to steal for the most fun, thereby altering the Doctor’s own origin story and the TARDIS’s take on it as presented in “The Doctor’s Wife.” He did it again with the War Doctor in “The Day of the Doctor,” an extra regeneration no one knew about that throws off the count as we knew it to be, so now the Ninth Doctor is now actually the Tenth, the Tenth is actually the Eleventh, etc. And he does it again in “Listen,” because what Clara tells the young Doctor essentially inspires him to become the Doctor we know. Had the Doctor not encountered Clara, who knows what would have happened? And that’s a big problem, because it removes much of the Doctor’s agency from his own life. If he is pushed toward the path rather than choosing it for himself, the Doctor’s character is lessened as a result.

Another reason this doesn’t sit well is because it validates the sneaking suspicion a lot of us have that the Doctor’s companions can’t just be regular people anymore, they have to be Super Special. Amy is Super Special because she’s the Girl Who Waited and could reboot the universe just from her memories. Rory is Super Special because for a time he was a plastic Roman who became the Boy Who Waited for the Girl Who Waited. River (not technically a companion, but still) is Super Special because she has mutant Time Lord powers, is Amy and Rory’s daughter, and is brainwashed to kill the Doctor. Clara is Super Special because she’s the Impossible Girl who exists all over his timeline, and now she’s singlehandedly responsible for the Doctor’s biggest life choice (and apparently Danny Pink’s, too.) There’s a reason why Donna is my favorite companion of the new Doctor Who, followed by Martha. Neither of them are Super Special, they’re just awesome.

And yet…the scene on Gallifrey works, at least narratively. For once, Moffat’s timey-wimey nonsense has been earned for a change, and makes both tonal and narrative sense, instead of simply being tacked on. Watching the scene, I was right there with it. It was only afterward that I started to rebel against it, but not even all that much. I believe my criticisms of it stand, but so does the scene itself. A lot of fans were upset about it, and rightly so, for all the reasons I mentioned, and yet I wasn’t. Not really. Mostly, I just want to know how the hell it can be Gallifrey!

One quick bit of Doctor Who neepery before I finish. When the Doctor regains consciousness and snaps at Orson Pink, “Sontarans perverting the course of human history,” that’s actually the first line the Fourth Doctor spoke upon returning to consciousness after regenerating, a reference to the 1973 Third Doctor serial “The Time Warrior.” Actually, in “Listen” it’s a double reference to both “The Time Warrior” and the Fourth Doctor’s first serial, 1974’s “Robot”!

And one last thing. A question, really. What was under the covers of Danny’s bed? Was it just another child from the group home he lived in, or was it the creature the Doctor was looking for? We see it out from under the covers only briefly, and not in focus. It looks to be the size of a human child, but there is definitely something…wrong about it. Something not quite human, I thought. So what was it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

4 responses to “Doctor Who: “Listen””

  1. Bev Vincent says:

    It’s the Doctor’s hypothetical creature, unless his hypothesis is wrong, in which case it’s one of the other kids from the home. It’s Schroedinger’s child.

  2. R. Francis Smith says:

    Made myself comment here instead of on G+ for Robert’s sake:

    I liked it a lot, while not disagreeing with any of the issues. Because here’s the thing: Doctor Who’s “canon” has never made much sense. (How many times has Atlantis been destroyed? I keep thinking they should destroy it again in the new series, just as tradition.) So I’m okay with not worrying overmuch about it IF it’s in a good cause — and I agree that it was, here.

    Time travel and Gallifrey, in particular, is a hot mess forever. Can one take a TARDIS to Gallifrey’s past at all? Well, no. Except yes, sometimes. Except no, because now it’s time-locked. Is its entire history time-locked? Who knows, because Gallifrey’s history apparently isn’t accessible. Except when it is.

    Here’s a fun example for you: the Valeyard was the prosecutor in Trial of a Time Lord, except oops, he’s a being from the Doctor’s future, and thus has effectively interacted with the Time Lords in what is their past for him (I started to say came to Gallifrey, except I guess ToaTL actually happens off-Gallifrey?) Ugh, Doctor Who canon.

    So yeah, I decided to just shrug and enjoy it on its own merits. I liked that they allowed Clara her impact on the Doctor’s past without resorting to ImpossibleGirlness, indeed. I didn’t really feel like she made his decisions for him — just reassured him in a bad time. Does that mean if she hadn’t been there he would have been paralyzed by fear and not followed his, if you will, destiny? I say no, because if the answer is yes, it’s a causality loop anyway. (I choose to believe that Danny would have, well, become Dan the Soldier Man anyway, for the same reason.) That could be viewed as making it irrelevant, except when is comfort irrelevant? It’s an emotional episode, not a time mechanics geekery one, or that’s how I prefer to see it.

    Oh, here’s another reference, by the way: when she says “Fear makes companions of all of us”, that’s a reference to the very first Doctor Who story — a lovely line in its own right, as it more or less initiates the idea of the Doctor’s companions as a thing (as Ian and Barbara, having been basically abused by him, have to figuratively go back to back with him and Susan so they don’t get killed by a bunch of cavemen who are, in truth, pretty scary in their way.)

    This season likes CHARACTERS instead of MACGUFFINS, and is really seeming to often be a love letter to the history of the show, much like the 50th special was (and Smith’s final special wasn’t, being basically a big explosion of macguffins to tie off some of those plotlines you mention.)

    Oh, last comment: I also wince at the comments about Clara’s appearance; I think it is meant to be a nod to Four’s tendency to insult his companions (and everyone else handy), particularly when he became impatient, which was often, but… calling Harry an imbecile is one thing (for instance, it was usually relevant to something Harry actually did), but calling a woman fat or whatever is, as you say, just mean. And cliche. I actually preferred his remark about her being controlling and vain, because I can at least make an argument for it, and it’s not quite so obvious (he didn’t say “bitchy” or the like and make it about uppity women, I don’t think.)

    In summary: I think Moffat, despite his veneer of ignoring everyone’s comments always, has absorbed some criticism and is trying. He’s not succeeding all the time, but he might be doing his best. And if so, well, good on him. It’s resulting in some good Who.

    • Nick says:

      You know I hold the new DOCTOR WHO to a higher standard than the classic series. I’m pretty sure we’ve had that discussion before. So while I can overlook all the Atlantis contradictions from 40 years ago, I would be less able to do so now. And rightfully so, I think.

      I’m not too worried about canon, either, but I do feel like Moffat is inserting Clara a bit too much into everyone’s timeline, most egregiously the Doctor’s, but also Danny’s, which is creepy considering they’re dating.

      Re: Gallifrey, the entire planet’s history is time-locked. This was made implicitly clear in earlier seasons. Otherwise, the Doctor would just go back and see everyone and maybe tell them to shoot left instead of right next time, etc. Instead, it’s all locked off. Skaro should be too, but “Asylum of the Daleks” seems to say otherwise. (Actually, Skaro shouldn’t exist anymore after the Doctor blew it up with the Hand of Omega in “Remembrance of the Daleks.”)

      So far, I am enjoying this season so much more than the last. Capaldi is amazing, his rapport with Clara is a thousand times better than Smith’s was, and Moffat seems to be actually trying to have things make more sense now. He’s still dropping plot lines from previous seasons left and right, and there’s still some of that troubling sexism bubbling under the surface, but it feels like he’s pulling his shit together, finally.

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