We just saw one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who, or one of its worst. And I can’t decide where “Listen” ultimately falls.
It’s an uneven episode of television, juxtaposing tense and imaginative scenes against long, drowsy passages of banal writing. Its ending is magnificent, managing to shock while tying together the emotional journeys of all the characters involved. But it also feels like cheating. Like we didn’t quite earn the peek behind the curtain that we got.
“Listen” is impactful, that’s for sure. But I need to parse these mixed feelings about the episode, as I suspect their origins are grown from being a viewer who is perhaps too familiar with the subject matter. I’d like to end this analysis on a positive note, so we’ll start by getting the bad bits out of the way.
The episode starts off poorly, with the Doctor monologuing at us as he wanders around the TARDIS. Capaldi makes this “mad scientist” affect work for his incarnation of the Doctor—and honestly it’s amazing how small the list of “things Capaldi does not make work” is this early on in the run—but the entire scene was just too authorial for my taste. As the Doctor spoke I could practically see Moffat wandering in front of his laptop, brainstorming the next big new monster for the show. “Let’s see, perfect hunter. Shadows? No, I did that. Oh, what about perfect defense? Oh, the Angels, the Silence… Yeah people are getting tired of them. Ooh, the Silence…perfect hiding, maybe? Moffat, you’ve done it again! Another celebratory bath in malt liquor for me!”
I’ve grown exceptionally tired of opening monologues or voiceovers that explain the premise of an episode, and Moffat has leaned on this a lot lately, in “The Time of the Doctor” and “The Name of the Doctor” specifically. It always comes off as lazy to me, throwing me out of a story before it’s even begun, and when you have a writer like Moffat who repeats elements as often as he does (unseen monsters, sassy ninja ladies, events happening in backwards order, repeated phrasing in order to ratchet up tension, someone saying the words “shut up”) then it becomes even more grating.
It’s entirely possible that I’ve just reached my limit on this kind of thing with the show itself. Russell T. Davies’ reign had just as much voiceover-premise-over-explanation and it was just as annoying. (Rose told us she was dead before we saw it… Rassilon told us about the Master way before we saw either of them…) It’s just that now that we’ve had 9 years worth of shows I’m not willing to let the show runner, whomever they are, get away with it any longer.
It’s that backlog of Doctor Who that puts me at a remove from “Listen.” The show has since provided years of legendary stand-out episodes, with Moffat responsible for the lion’s share of them, and “Listen” competes with them instead of solely this season’s offerings. If I were a newcomer to the show I would be blown away by what we just saw, and would promptly sit all my unconverted friends down to watch how amazing and touching a daffy sci-fi show like Doctor Who can be. Then they’d see! But I could already do that before “Listen” and I can still do that without feeling the need to include “Listen” in that line-up, even as affecting as the episode is.
Because I’d rather not force anyone else to suffer through the interminable dinner sequence between Clara and Danny. I can’t tell whether the two actors have no chemistry together or whether Moffat wrote the scene on an off day because that is not the kind of flat, forced dialogue one expects from the writer of a dating show such as Coupling, a writer who regularly turns phrases on their head in Sherlock and Who, as well. It’s weird that we’re meant to initially side with Clara, despite her shockingly disrespectful comment to Danny. (Who accuses someone of being a killer on their first date?!?) We find out that it’s all set-up for other more important scenes down the line, but that just makes the story frustrating and puzzling until those scenes actually arrive. The Doctor’s opening monologue in the episode is the same way. We find out later why he feels compelled to think about a creature who can hide perfectly, but until then we’re just hoping that someone shows up in a bright orange spacesuit and forces the scene to end so something more interesting can happen.
A lot of scenes in “Listen” don’t quite make sense until the denouement, which leads to what I mentioned earlier in regards to not feeling like we’ve quite earned the right to see the Doctor as a scared little boy. Even for someone like Clara, who has hopped all over the Doctor’s timeline, this is an intensely private moment to witness. Are we sure we want to be here?
Then again, like “Listen” and its standout contemporaries, the end of the episode seems like too private a moment only for longtime viewers of the show. We’ve been through multiple Doctors, a Time War, and so many obfuscations of origin that we can’t even count them all. We truly know the weight of this vulnerable moment in the Doctor’s childhood. And it’s made even more vulnerable because it’s Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor who takes us there. We haven’t seen much, but what we have seen is a man who is guarded and wary of most everything, including himself. This is a momentous piece of himself to share. Equal or superior to Ten’s admission of love to Rose all the way back in Bad Wolf Bay. Equal or superior to Ten’s own anguished rejection of his own death. Private, honest moments with the Doctor are true treasures, rare and wonderful.
So am I putting too much weight on “Listen”? Is that why its flaws stick with me? Is that why I can’t just accept it as a nicely self-contained bedtime story about the Doctor as told by the Doctor? In some ways I’m approaching this episode like the Doctor approaches the Hideaway Monster. The flaws in this episode are real, and I will hunt them to the end of inhabited time in order to expose them.
But in the end, the flaws are just me approaching Doctor Who burdened by the history of my own reactions. The repetition of story structures, the weight of the Doctor’s childhood…these are reactions that I’m adding to the story. I can focus on that breath on the back of my neck, that hand on my ankle…or I can look out the window. I can let the episode portray what it wishes to portray.
Because there’s no question about it, I’ll be thinking about “Listen” long after tonight. It is an exceptional episode of Doctor Who.
- Didn’t we already see mankind’s first time traveler (and the end of a world) in last season’s “Hide”?
- I love the idea that Clara’s family line spawns humankind’s first time travelers. She can’t help it!
- Nice callback to “The Day of the Doctor.” I was wondering if that barn was actually a part of the Doctor’s family’s old estate, or something akin to that. Nice to have confirmation of an emotional connection between the building and the Doctor.
- When do you think Twelve will remember he has to go back to the Time War to help out all the other Doctors?
- I really did want to see the monster. I’m bummed that we didn’t get to, but thematically the monster was always meant to be a distraction. Not something real.
- Even though it is real. Another nicely done twist. The Doctor imagines a monster under the bed and 2000 years later actually tracks down a real creature that matches the characteristics of his fear. It’s a red herring so perfect it’s not even a red herring.