Listen. You don't need to worry about this episode removing the mystery from the Doctor. That final sequence, in which we finally, unexpectedly find ourselves in a barn on Gallifrey, under the bed of a crying boy who will one day become the Doctor. Yes, we've learned a little more about the Doctor's life. That's not the erosion of mystery, that's the addition of depth.
Listen. You don't need to know whether or not there was a monster. That's not a loose end, not a vital piece of information that is necessary for your enjoyment. That is mystery. We keep questioning after the episode has ended. Questioning what we have learned about the Doctor, and whether or not he was right to be searching for a being that is perfect at hiding. Is there something hiding under our beds, or has the long voyage through the universe simply compounded the Doctor's innate fear? We'll probably never know, and that's good.
I do not understand the fans who are gnashing their teeth because we never got a confirmation of the existence, or otherwise, of the monster. Leave the viewers questioning; it's oldest trick in the book, and one of the most effective. It's hardly any different to the rightly lauded Midnight, another episode in which the nature of the monster was left completely unexplained. (Hey, for all we know, it's the same creature.) We have more questions this time, of course, but that's what makes it all the more effective.
This is Moffat doing what he does best. Not Moffat by numbers, but Moffat doing his most Moffat-est work. It's hard to credit, at first, why the Doctor would be wondering about being who can hide so perfectly when he has already encountered the Silence, but then, he probably would have forgotten, wouldn't he? Sure, this is Moffat reusing old tricks, but using them to such profound effect that it hardly matters. There's a theme running through this season, concerning the Doctor's decisions and judgment. After all this time, is his judgment failing? Have the age old fears he's been living with all along really taken their toll? Or is there really something hiding in the shadows? Personally, I think the darkness is just getting to the Doctor, but who knows? Moffat loves his misdirection. Perhaps this will be followed up. Or perhaps it really was just some seriously creepy kid hiding under the blankets.
Listen is, for all the fannish quibbles, is the most positively received episode so far this year. It balances the teatime horror of the Doctor's ghost story with Clara and Danny's deeply awkward romance. Moffat uses his experience with sitcoms such as Coupling and Chalk to craft a painful first date. It's a less comfortable meeting of farce and fear than this episode's closest precursor, the superlative Blink. Danny and Clara simply aren't as likeable or believable as Sally and Larry. Clara is strikingly insensitive at times; perhaps hanging around with this new Doctor is rubbing off on her in bad ways. Danny is understandably sensitive about his background, but comes across as brittle. It's hard to see these two lasting.
On the other hand, the remaining sequences are perfectly done. At first, we find ourselves accidentally in Danny's childhood, unexpectedly under a different name and at a children's home. In another example of excellent child casting, Remi Gooding makes a completely convincing younger version of Samuel Anderson, and sells Rupert's uncomfortable night terrors brilliantly. Capaldi is astonishing in this scene. He manages to be both terrifying and reassuring, his stand-out speech to Rupert a highlight of the episode. “Fear is your superpower” is the message for the episode, and the truth about the Doctor's ongoing fight against the monsters. Yet this scene still has time to defuse the tension with a laugh (the Where's Wally exchange being funniest moment in the episode), before cranking the tension right back up with the shape under the bed.
So, with Dan the Soldier Man, the Doctor and Clara influence Danny's entire life. They then explore his future, his probably descendant Orson having been flung to the end of time in an atmospheric sequence where the Doctor steps too far. Much like his first self back on Skaro, he potentially endangers his companions for the chance to explore something alien beyond the horizon. Or perhaps it really was just the hull cooling that spooked him and he nearly asphyxiated for nothing.
With Clara influencing the TARDIS through the disturbingly biological-looking telepathic interface is a clever touch, and with the Doctor explicitly removing the safeguards we are allowed to visit areas we normally wouldn't. The Doctor specifically states that they shouldn't go so far into the future, but he never gets to make same comment on the past. Like the Doctor influenced Danny's development, Clara influences the Doctor's. Too far? Perhaps. Doctor Who fans are notoriously precious about their favourite character, but making Clara the most defining element throughout the Doctor's life might be stepping a little far. Yet this is perhaps Clara's strength as a character. Being so generic a companion might give her the potential to become something archetypal. Regardless of where he is taking the character, Moffat has crafted the most beautiful scene between Clara and the young Doctor. She even drops in one of the Doctor's most famous lines, from his very first story. It's a wonderful moment. It's a surprising insight into his childhood. I never envisioned him in any kind of agrarian background, or that he would have to choose between the Time Lord Academy and the Gallifreyan army.
As a cheap episode with barely more than the core cast, Listen relies on the strength of its script, direction and performance. It has the guts to scare children, and to defend itself for this approach. It even makes us question the nature of the Doctor himself. What are the fans so scared of?
Links: Several old lines are quoted, or at least paraphrased, in this episode. Already mentioned is the first Doctor's line from the very first story, “Fear makes companions of us all.” There's also a reference to “never cruel or cowardly,” said by the tenth Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, and originally attributed to Terrance Dicks. Finally, there's “Sontarans! Perverting the course of human history!” shouted when the Doctor wakes up. This was previously shouted by the fourth Doctor upon waking up – his first line, in fact.
We see two other incarnations of the Doctor in this episode; John Hurt as the War Doctor, in a clip from The Day of the Doctor, and an uncredited boy as the Doctor's young self. This is presumably the young first Doctor who will grow up to look like William Hartnell (unless he'll actually grow up to look like Christopher Barry).
Orson arrives on the last planet at the very end of the Universe. The Doctor has travelled to the end of the universe before, notably in Utopia, but this is, admittedly, a very broad timezone. If this is truly the last planet, it is presumably even later than Utopia, which was set on the still, barely, habitable planet of Malcassairo.
Threads: That sparkly jumper Doctor? Not a good choice. I don't like Clara's dress either. Orson wears a spacesuit identical to the ones from Sanctuary Base in the 42nd century. This is either an anachronism, or he's just wearing the one the Doctor pinched.
Loom vs Womb: You know what would damage the mystery of the Doctor? Explaining that he was woven as a fully-grown adult and writing a whole novel about his family and childhood. This and other recent episodes seem to have finally put the ideas put forward in Lungbarrow to bed.
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