Aired 13 September 2014
A Doctor Who writer/producer has a choice of two distinct paths to go down with the programme, either to offer standalone stories that focus on the moment or to offer a bolder tapestry that changes both past assumptions and future trajectories for the titular hero. While his choices have not always been met with undivided praise, Steven Moffat has continued to tread the latter path with a grand and confident pen, and ‘Listen’ is undoubtedly one of the boldest tales yet.
‘Listen’ has a lot of highlights throughout, but it is the final fifteen minutes or so that are always going to the point of discussion. Without explaining how it is possible (isn’t Gallifrey history time-locked?), Moffat takes the Doctor and Clara back to the barn first seen in ‘The Day of the Doctor,’ this the thousands of years into the past when the Doctor himself is a child. While the young Doctor himself gets little screentime, mostly sobbing alone in the bed, it’s the background dialogue that really sets the scene apart. The implication seems to be that he is in some sort of children’s home, but the voices explain that the Doctor does not want to be a soldier, will never go to the Academy, and will never become a Time Lord. The theme of the Doctor becoming a soldier and his mistrust of soldiers has, of course, been explored almost since the beginning of the programme’s long run. In another bold move, Moffatt again inserts Clara into a key point in the Doctor’s life as she is responsible for furtively calming him down at this moment. This moment, in essence, serves as the stimulus for the entire episode as Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor opens the tale by pondering if anyone is truly ever alone.
Clara is continuing to become the driving force of this series, at times essentially taking on the role of Doctor herself. Just as she chose the destination in the previous ‘Robot of Sherwood,’ she actually takes control of and directs the TARDIS in ‘Listen’ through use of the telepathic circuits. Aside from landing at the Gallifreyan barn, the TARDIS also follows Clara’s thoughts and lands the Doctor and her right at the end of time, whereupon they come across Colonel Orson Pink. The strong insinuation here, then, is that he is a descendant of Danny Pink and Clara’s, and it’s fitting that those two share their first kiss by episode’s end. As with any good story, though, ‘Listen’ manages to brink up some new questions and consequences, and it will be interesting to see how Danny responds to Clara knowing the name ‘Rupert’ and how the mystery of Danny’s days as a soldier continues to unravel.
One of Moffat’s greatest skills when coming up with new threats for the Doctor is playing on the intrinsic fear of simple situations. In ‘Listen’ the senses of not being alone, of hearing things when there should be muted stillness, and even of things lurking under the bed, are all woven together. This is one of the few Doctor Who stories without a true antagonist, but the excellent direction choices of Douglas Mackinnon, fresh camera angles, a tense score, and even the simplicity of a blanketed figure all serve to maintain the necessary anxiety and apprehension. The pace is much slower than many recent episodes, but that decision serves to emphasize the characters in the moments exceedingly well.
Capaldi again anchors the proceedings at hand with an arresting performance as his Doctor continues to soften a little bit at time, but it is ultimately the script itself that explores a previously untouched time for the Doctor and seems to offer a future for Clara and Danny that steals the show. Inevitably, not everyone will agree with the decision to portray these events, but ‘Listen’ certainly offers its ambitious revelations with confidence.