TV Review: Doctor Who – Listen (S8, E4)

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Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Screenwriter: Steven Moffat
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman & Samuel Anderson

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N15qtDfix78]

What is fear? Is it rational or irrational? Is it based on our experiences or a lack thereof? When we lock the doors and turn out the lights, what is it about the walk from the landing to our beds that we find so terrifying? Are the monsters in the dark real or are they simply the inventions of a frightened mind?

Amongst all the bluster, the timey-wimey manipulation and the attempted poignancy of Steven Moffat’s “Listen”, these are the questions that truly matter. They’re also the questions, in typical Moffat fashion, that go unanswered, though for once that is of immense benefit to the unnerving story that Moffat has crafted.

“Listen” is a real rarity in Doctor Who canon in that it doesn’t boast a monster or villain with whom the Doctor must battle. Or, rather, it might do, but whether it does or not is irrelevant. “Listen” deals not in the tangible but in the abstract; fear, in all of its forms, is the enemy, irrespective of whether or not the Doctor’s theory – that we are never truly alone and that we are constantly accompanied by a creature that has perfected the art of hiding – holds water or not.

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Unlike the first three episodes of this series, “Listen” is an intimate and genuinely chilling affair. It riffs off the same ideas as Moffat’s earlier classic “Blink”, yet it manages to take things a step further still in that the monsters not only don’t move when we’re looking at them, but they might not be real at all. Every suggestion that there’s something lurking in the dark is dismissed with a rational explanation, and Moffat leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not there is anything to fear but fear itself. This might sound like a cop-out but for once it works. Moffat feeds both possibilities with just enough evidence to make them plausible, thus making “Listen” one of the most personal episodes of his tenure to date.

As always – and I’m getting a bit bored of saying it now – Capaldi is the star, and he dazzles whenever he’s on screen. I bought into his Doctor about halfway through “Deep Breath”, but every week he does something else to impress me, and I see no signs of him slowing down any time soon. Jenna Coleman similarly continues to improve with every outing, and Clara really is beginning to feel like an actual human, as opposed to the emotionless, faceless and characterless “Impossible Girl” of series 7. Admittedly, she is once again reduced to a plot device in the final ten minutes of this particular episode. Nevertheless, it’s such a clever ending, and it fits the tone of the story so well, that I can forgive that…

For me, however, the most interesting element of “Listen” was the development of Danny (Anderson), Clara’s potential “love interest”. We learn a lot more about him this week, and though his oh-so-horrible but oh-so-mysterious past is laid on much too thick for it to feel anything other than contrived, I liked the idea that we learnt more about Danny through his childhood and his future than we did from his present. The episode jumps between a disastrous date between Clara and Danny, in which Moffat is in his Coupling-inflected element, and the Doctor’s determination to find out what, if anything, is stalking him, yet it is in those latter parts of the story, when Danny’s history becomes wrapped up in the Doctor’s adventures, that we learn the most about this new and somewhat annoying (sorry, but he is) character.

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“Listen” has some issues, and the writing once again felt a bit loose in the mid-section of the story, but for the first time in years, Moffat has crafted a complete and intriguing story that doesn’t rely on allusions to some grand arc to see it through. It requires a second viewing, maybe even a third, to really appreciate what Moffat has done, as what initially seemed like plotholes to me turned out to be nothing of the sort. Douglas Mackinnon’s atmospheric direction, which induces trepidation in every frame, even where there is nothing to fear, is simply the cherry on top.

Some people will love “Listen”. Others will hate it. Personally, I thought it was masterful. It was chilling, intelligent and thoughtful, without feeling contrived. It has all the hallmarks of a Moffat story (“timey-wimey”, monsters – or not – based on inane fears, a “Mobius Strip” plot) but I love shit like that, even when it’s done poorly, so this one pretty much had me at hello.

★★★★

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