I had, on first viewing, originally liked Listen, but have since found it to be really abstract. It centers on the idea that no one is every really alone with something possibly always lurking beside us. It is not about the something that fear, but rather fear itself.
According to The A.V. Club review:
“Listen” could only ever be a 12th Doctor story, for no other Doctor would be honest enough with himself to allow his obsessions to consume him, even if he still can’t bring himself to admit why. All the previous Doctors allowed themselves to be distracted from that insane curiosity at the core of their being; some by the bonds they forged with their companions, some by an idealistic belief in some grander mission, and, in the case of the other barking mad Doctor, by the desire to have fun. Capaldi turns in a suitably fearless performance, reaching his obsessive crescendo as he prepares to meet whatever is waiting for him at the end of the universe. But he layers in more subtle manifestations of his compulsion, playing the Doctor that much more distracted and bored by humanity than he is usually. Even in his most accessible moment, when he tries to comfort Rupert, he’s colder and more calculating in his advice than we’ve come to expect from the Doctor. He’s not telling Rupert that fear is a superpower because he wants the frightened child to feel better, but rather because he genuinely believes that’s what the boy needs to know. As “Listen” ultimately reveals, that’s the Doctor’s great ongoing mistake, all because he can’t bring himself to admit that he too was once scared for no good reason.
Let’s step back for a moment, because “Listen” accomplished something that’s damn rare for Doctor Who these days: It showed me something I hadn’t seen before. Never mind that Doctor Who has been running for 51 years (or 34 seasons and a TV movie, if we want to get technical). The new series alone is now in its eighth season, and it’s only the constant turnover in casts and creative teams that distracts us from the fact that eight years is a long, long time for any show to run. We’re comfortably past the hundred-episode mark, so it shouldn’t really be surprising that it’s harder forDoctor Who to feel fresh, to surprise its audience. I really liked both “Into The Dalek” and “Robot Of Sherwood,” but those both felt of a kind with previous episodes; the former made no secret of its “Dalek” influences, while the latter was a particularly swashbuckling take on the pseudohistorical adventure. And yes, “Listen” counts several past episodes as influences, a point I’ll get to in a moment, but its tone is what sets it apart, what makes it feel unlike any other Doctor Who story I’ve seen. This is a meditative, reflective episode, one unafraid of exploring the negative space and wondering whether monsters are only really there because we so desperately need them to be. This is the kind of story that requires a Doctor capable of sitting still, and that, eight years into the new series, is a definite novelty.
But it’s the little moments that tend to stay with you, and the one random yet indelible image I can’t shake from “Listen” is of a dazed Clara walking away from her second failed attempt at a date with Danny Pink and back into the TARDIS. As Clara herself says, this is a surreal sequence, the absurdity of it all brought out both by Douglas Mackinnon’s subtly off-kilter direction and by the shell-shocked expression on Jenna Coleman’s face. It’s a powerful moment because it cuts right to the essence of an idea that Steven Moffat has explored throughout his era, and arguably as far back as “The Girl In The Fireplace”: the clash between real life and Doctor life. This is where the decision to make Clara a companion who does not travel permanently with the Doctor really pays off. The new series has explored the private lives of its companions before, in some cases in far greater detail than we’ve seen with Clara, but the show has never before been able to just have a companion go on a date. When previous episodes have explored such contrasts—think “The Power Of Three,” another Mackinnon-directed episode—ordinary life could only really be viewed in big-picture terms, as that giant amorphous clump of existence that took shape only when the Doctor wasn’t looking.
Clara and Danny’s date, on the other hand, is a discrete slice of normality, and that again allows “Listen” to focus in a way that the show wasn’t really built to do during the 11th Doctor’s tenure. Employing the same non-linear storytelling we saw in “Into The Dalek,” the episode basks in every element of exquisite awkwardness. For those few minutes after the opening credits, “Listen” is pure relationship drama, exploring how the pair’s obvious attraction to one another is not yet enough to bridge the vast divide in their experiences and perspectives. Danny’s first appearance only had time to establish his soldier past in the broadest of brushstrokes, and “Listen” brings specificity and sensitivity to that backstory. Samuel Anderson nails Danny’s angry, flustered monologue about digging all those wells, as he conveys the sense that Danny has recited that speech countless times, even if just in his head. What Steven Moffat’s script and Coleman’s and Anderson’s performances bring out is the all too relatable experience of a fight that happens for no discernible reason, as these are two people—romantically inclined or otherwise—who are desperate to make peace with each other but who keep making it worse with every renewed effort. There’s some pitch-perfect cringe comedy to be found here, particularly when Clara tries to remember just who at the school told her Danny’s real name, but there’s also such a recognizable humanity to these scenes that isn’t always present in Moffat’s scripts.
I mention Danny’s real name, which is something Clara only knows about because the Doctor takes her on an inadvertent tour of Pink—and maybe Oswald—family history. This is the other side of that juxtaposition between real life and Doctor life, as Clara is left to wonder just how much of her own destiny she is being given casual glimpses of, and just how much of said destiny is of her inadvertent creation. “Listen” doesn’t even vaguely hide the fact that young Rupert is going to change his name to Danny, but the episode finds a clever, heartbreaking twist when it reveals that Clara—with quite a bit of help from the Doctor’s psychic “dad skills”—is the person who implanted “Dan the soldier man” in the boy’s subconscious. As has so frequently been the case this season, “Listen” draws heavily on Clara’s experience caring for children, as she quickly bonds with Rupert and attempts to make him feel better about his fears. It also sets up a crucial parallel with her subsequent scene in the barn, making it clear that she comforts the crying Gallifreyan not because Clara exists only to comfort the Doctor—a sense one could occasionally get last season—but because she can’t resist getting involved and helping whenever there’s a crying child. She’s like the Doctor that way.
Returning to the scene at the children’s home, it’s another example of how this season has benefitted from slowing down the pace of storytelling. In previous seasons, Doctor Who moved at such a breakneck pace that those kinds of character moments became mechanistic, just another item on the narrative checklist. Here, Clara and Rupert are given time to talk, not as characters en route to the next plot beat in a horror story, but as two people trying to forge a connection. That focus on emotion instead of suspense makes it all the more terrifying when that mattress suddenly sinks. The old tricks feel new again, if only because “Listen” isn’t primarily concerned with the coolness of those tricks.
In examining this episode’s creative DNA, it’s not hard to see its thematic forerunners. Creatures that have evolved perfect hiding are just the latest Steven Moffat monsters that represent primal childhood fears; at first glance, they sit right next to the clockwork droids, the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, and the Silence. There are times in “Listen” where the echoes of past stories become particularly strong: The outpost at the end of the universe recalls “Utopia,” the unseen monsters owe a debt to “Midnight,” the children’s home in Gloucester is like the Silence-infested orphanage in “Day Of The Moon,” and the stranded time-traveler (and the episode’s general spookiness” is borrowed from last year’s “Hide.” The reason “Listen” still feels fresh, despite all those influences, is that it is a progression of the ideas raised in those earlier stories, not a remix. For instance, if “Midnight” gave us a story where the nature of the monster was beside the point, then “Listen” gives us one where the existence of the monster is essentially irrelevant. That the entire threat exists only in the Doctor’s head isn’t just a possible explanation, but the most plausible one. On that level, the narrative parallels have their uses; the Doctor’s conversation with the night watchman about disappearing coffee mugs might recall Canton’s interrogation of the addled Dr. Renfrew, but the episode expertly—and hilariously—deflates the tension when it’s revealed the Doctor just stole the coffee.
This goes back to a point I originally made in my review of the Farscape episode “They’ve Got A Secret,” a story that turns on how the characters lie to themselves and to each other: “Characters in science fiction don’t lie, they create continuity errors.” For a science fiction show like Farscape or Doctor Who to hang together, the audience needs to be able to trust what it is told, particularly when the limited production budgets mean it’s not always possible to show everything one might want to see. We’re so conditioned to take characters’ pronouncements as gospel truth, because to doubt them would risk the entire damn story imploding. Go back to the scene in Rupert’s bedroom; once the initial shock of the sinking mattress wearing off, what sustains the suspense of the scene? Clara asks the obvious question about whether anyone has entered the room, and Rupert assures her that no one has. And the audience’s natural instinct is to trust implicitly the word of a terrified child who is already convinced monsters are under his bed. That’s insane, but it’s understandable. After all, Doctor Who has just spent the last decades telling us that monsters are real; the mere presence of a scared child is sufficient proof of a monster’s existence.
If this were the only point “Listen” had to make, then it would still be a fine episode. But what elevates it is the recognition that core premise of so many of Steven Moffat’s earlier scripts was incomplete. Previous scripts have told us that it’s okay to be scared because the monsters are real, and because fear can be harnessed and put to use in saving oneself from those monsters. The Doctor makes both of those arguments over the course of “Listen,” as when he comforts Rupert with the promise that fear is a superpower, then distinctly discomforts him with the harsh truth—at least from the Doctor’s perspective—that he’s never going to be safe anywhere. But “Listen” arrives at a far simpler, more mature truth: It’s okay to be afraid because there’s nothing inherently wrong with being afraid. Fear is an emotion, and the Doctor’s impulse is to respond to fear with rational arguments. But emotion and reason are not opposites; rather, each exists along its own separate spectrum. The presence of monsters cannot justify fear, because that implies their absence removes the justification.
“Listen,” at long last, recognizes the value of fear on its own terms. It’s appropriate that Clara, a companion whose best moments have been defined by her ability to overcome her own terror—think her interrogation of Skaldak in “Cold War,” her confrontation of the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath,” or even her more mundane anxieties about her date with Danny—would be the one to offer such a tribute. It’s a gutsy move to actually go back to the Doctor’s childhood; the decision to keep the young Gallifreyan in silhouette, with only his hair and feet even briefly visible, is an acknowledgment that the episode risks compromising one of the show’s great enduring mysteries. But then, Steven Moffat has been quietly building to this scene for almost a decade; think of the 9th Doctor in “The Empty Child” saying he knows what it’s like to be left out in the cold, or of Reinette seeing the 10th Doctor’s lonely childhood in “The Girl In The Fireplace.” The Doctor didn’t run away from Gallifrey because he fitted in perfectly, after all, and this night—one of many, apparently—spent cowering in fear is just the beginning of the journey that led him to discover courage. After all, courage would be unnecessary in the absence of fear, and kindness cannot easily exist without either of them.
At its heart, “Listen” is an act of compassion toward the Doctor. Previous episodes have examined and analyzed the Doctor’s foibles, shining the spotlight on the flaws in his character that make him so much more fascinating than some boring old hero. But what far fewer stories have done is seek to understand the Doctor. It’s easy to sympathize with the Doctor when he’s being a bit of a bastard, but that’s generally a question of balancing the scales: Yes, the Doctor is in the wrong in this given situation, but he’s so often in the right that he can be cut some slack. But it’s far harder to empathize with the Doctor, because that requires us to understand the Doctor as just another person. Russell T. Davies, for all his success bringing out the emotional realities of the companions’ lives, had a tendency to keep the Doctor at arm’s length, relying on Christopher Eccleston’s and David Tennant’s acting to bring out otherwise unspoken emotions. Steven Moffat is more interested in exploring the Doctor, but generally in terms of his unique status as the universe’s greatest legend. Here, however, a particularly alien Doctor is revealed to be driven, at least in part, by the fears and dreams that haunted him eons ago. That’s not everything we need to know about the Doctor, for no one can be so easily reduced. But “Listen” is just about the most honest exploration of the Doctor we’ve seen in 51 years. That it does all this without judgment, but rather with love and understanding, is what makes it special. It’s what makes it Doctor Who.
“Listen. This is just a dream. But very clever people can hear dreams. So please just listen. I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anybody ever tell you, fear is a superpower? Fear can make you faster, and cleverer and stronger. And one day, you’re going to come back to this barn and on that day you are going to be very afraid indeed. But that’s OK. Because if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly, fear can you make you kind. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark so long as you know it’s OK to be afraid of it. So listen. If you listen to nothing else listen to this. You’re always going to be afraid, even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion. A constant companion always there. But that’s ok, as fear can bring is together. Fear can be bring you home. I’m going to leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.”
On Clara: For both young Rupert “Danny” Pink and the young Doctor on Gallifrey, Clara acts in a manner of a surrogate mother.
This has had a tendency to crop up in the Moffat Era as suggesting there is power, and value, in being (even, a potential) mother. For example, in The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe, Madge Arwell is shown on several occasions to express power within motherhood.
Later on, Madge Arwell becomes the lifeboat for the Androzani Forests, for a very particular reason.
Doctor: Madge? Are you all right? Talk to me. Madge, can you hear me?
Madge: Yes, I can hear you. I’m perfectly fine, thank you.
Doctor: Fine? You’ve got a whole world inside your head.
Madge: I know! It’s funny, isn’t it? One can’t imagine being a forest, then suddenly one can. How remarkable.
Doctor: You’re okay. She’s okay.
Madge/Queen: She is strong.
Madge: Ooo. That wasn’t me. This is all really rather clever, isn’t it?
Doctor: She’s strong. She’s strong. Ooo, stupid me. Stupid old Doctor. Do you get it, Cyril?
Doctor: Lily, you do, don’t you?
Doctor: Course you do. Think about it….
…How else does life ever travel? The Mother ship.
At the conclusion of the story, Madge encourages the Doctor to visit Amy and Rory.
In The Snowmen, the Victorian Clara was the Governess to Francesca and Digby Latimer.
During Nightmare in Silver, Angie and Artie Maitland, whom Clara babysits, are taken on to a trip to the moon in the future. The children, of course, gets caught up in a return of the Cybermen. This is when Clara calls them “my children,” even though she is not their mother.
Brains: With respect, ma’am, we ought to be hunting the creature.
Clara: The only reason I’m still alive is because I do what the Doctor says. Can you guarantee me you’d bring back my children alive and unharmed? [Brains shakes his head] I trust the Doctor.
Captain Ferrin: You think he knows what he’s doing?
Clara: I’m not sure I’d go that far.
Also during Asylum of the Daleks, Amy reveals to Rory at the Dalek Asylum that she “can’t give him” children because of “whatever” was done to her at Demon’s Run.
Amy: How can you say that?
Rory: Two thousand years, waiting for you outside a box. Don’t say it isn’t true, you know it’s true. Give me your arm. Amy!
(Amy slaps Rory.)
Amy: Don’t you dare say that to me. Don’t you ever dare.
Rory: Amy, you kicked me out.
Amy: You want kids. You have always wanted kids. Ever since you were a kid. And I can’t have them.
Rory: I know.
Amy: Whatever they did to me at Demons Run, I can’t ever give you children. I didn’t kick you out. I gave you up.
Rory: Amy, I don’t
Amy: Don’t you dare talk to me about waiting outside a box, because that is nothing, Rory, nothing, compared to giving you up.
Rory: Just give me your arm. Let me put this on you. Just give me your arm!
Amy: Don’t touch me!
Rory: How long can we wait?
Amy: The rest of our lives.
In Kill the Moon, both the desire to have children, and the potential for putting children in danger is brought up.
Finally, in Death in Heaven, a deceased Danny Pink returns a young boy whom he killed in war, instead of himself, to Clara, leaving this young child essentially in her care.
Unfortunately, this sort of plot device still hinges on a woman’s ability to reproduce, just like the mystical pregnancy (see Feminist Frequency‘s #5), and doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.