One of the great hopes I had for series 8 of Doctor Who was that we’d see the show step back from its plot-heavy storytelling of recent seasons, and focus more on exploring the characters. With a new Doctor (and especially with THAT actor playing him), I hoped Steven Moffat would seize the great opportunity before him: the opportunity to craft stories that are less about what the Doctor does, and more about who he is.
But I thought it too much to hope for an episode as inspired as “Listen.”
Maybe I should have aimed a little higher…
“Listen” was promoted as a scarer, as another “Blink,” as the kind of episode that would send you behind your sofa. And it succeeds quite well at that. But those scares work, and work so well, because they’re grounded in a story that is at heart a character study, an exploration of what we fear and how that shapes our nature.
To listen is the heart of true communication. Communication is the heart of this episode. And perhaps only Doctor Who could get away with growing that heart from a first date gone horribly awry.
But that’s where it all really begins, as Clara and Danny finally have that drink. It starts off well enough, in that awkward, charming way the British seem to have perfected. But once Clara carelessly touches on Danny’s soldier past, it gets very uncomfortable, in that awkward, squirming way the British seem to have perfected.
(There’s a wonderful thing that Moffat, director Douglas Mackinnon, and the show’s editor[s] do in the way this scene is structured. When the date’s going well, you get only pieces of the conversation. But when it goes wrong, you see and hear nearly everything. The more Danny and Clara say to one another, the less they’re truly communicating. It’s a subtle and effective signal that what’s about to happen will matter.)
Of course, the moment Clara makes it home from that disaster, she finds the Doctor waiting for her. As we’ve already seen in the episode’s prologue (another tour-de-force monologue by Peter Capaldi), he’s had a little too much time on his hands, and he’s been talking to himself a little too much. But that’s the thing: he doesn’t think he’s been talking to himself at all.
Twelve has a theory. He thinks the nothing we’re talking to, the thing under our bed we all dream about, is real. And in that classic poke-it-with-a-stick tradition, he means to test that theory. So he connects the TARDIS to Clara’s mind, meaning to find the source of humanity’s collective nightmare.
Of course, since Clara’s mind is still on that failed date, things really don’t go to plan. But what becomes a waking nightmare for the characters becomes an emotional adventure for the audience. A journey that takes us from past to future. A journey that explores and questions what we fear, and what our fear can make us do. And after an unexpected revelation, it’s an act of compassion, an act of simple communication, that saves the day.
I won’t say any more about what happens in the episode. I well might have given too much away already. But the beauty of “Listen” isn’t in what happens. It’s in HOW it happens, and how that affects the characters. It’s in seeing them try to understand one another, and themselves.
Moffat’s script is some of his finest work in years, even better than “Deep Breath.” Free of the timey-wimey plotting that has often marred his work in the past, it explores its characters in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. And the actors just RUN with it. Samuel Anderson delivers on the promise of “Into the Dalek” with a performance that’s charming, angry, hurt, fearful, and very very human.
Jenna Coleman just keeps getting better with every episode. For me, Clara was never truly engaging until after her mystery was revealed (in “The Name of the Doctor”) and the Impossible Girl became possible. Since then, Coleman has continued to develop her into one of the series’ most important characters. More than any other companion, Clara has become “our” character – the one we relate to, the one through whose eyes we understand the Doctor.
If Coleman is the means by which we understand him, then Peter Capaldi is the means by which we empathize with him. And that’s something I’m still trying to get my head around. Since I fell in love with this show, I’ve rooted for the Doctor. I’ve questioned him. I’ve even feared him. But I don’t know if I’ve ever truly felt for him the way I have in Series 8. There’s a melancholy in Capaldi’s performance that feels completely new to the character. But after “Listen,” it also feels like something that’s always been there.
Before the season began, the buzz was that we’d see a much darker Doctor. But I’m beginning to realize that Twelve is no darker than any of the incarnations before him. It’s just that the series is exploring aspects of the character that have only been hinted at before. The alienness. The gulf that divides him from humanity. The loneliness. The Doctor is a lost soul now. Maybe he always was.
And that’s what makes Clara more important than ever. She was the one person who was there in the Doctor’s darkest hour (a moment that’s recalled in “Listen,” to powerful effect). She was the one person who brought him back to the light. And now, she’s the one person who has the power to do it again.
Because she’s learning how to listen…
Thank you once again for following along. Until next time…