Hello Whovians and DAPs-devotees, and welcome back to the Doctor Who Review. “Are we alone?” seems like a silly question to ask of a television show famous for its companions and ever-expanding cast of aliens. The real question is “Are we alone ever?” Why do people all have the same dream of not being alone, with hands reaching out from under the bed, and why do we so adamantly argue that it is all a dream? Between dreams and denial, the Doctor seeks to find this constant companion and will go to the ends of time and space to do so. With eerie knocks and cold breath, this episode will make the hair on the nape of your neck stand on end. Warning, spoilers ahead!
The Doctor is no stranger to soliloquy, as we open to him pacing around the TARDIS muttering to himself. Or is he? This time, the Doctor openly wonders why he, or anyone for that matter, talks aloud to when no one is around to hear it. Perhaps it is because there is someone there, always seeing but never seen, always listening but never heard, never making itself known until now. What is becoming known is just how involved Clara is in Danny Pink’s past, present, and future (not necessarily in that order), as she and the Doctor delve deeper into the mystery. Together they seek to find what goes ‘bump’ in the night, but the only way to find out is to listen.
Horror movies have less atmosphere, tension, and genuine fear than this episode of Doctor Who. While I haven’t always been a fan of Moffat-only episodes (in which he doesn’t have a co-writer to add perspective), he does truly phenomenal work in setting the mood of unease in both the Doctor and the audience. The lighting, sound design, and music marry together to create a more haunting experience than most direct-to-Netflix slasher films ever dream of achieving; it’s reminiscent of Series 7’s ‘Hide,’ improving upon what it did right and fixing what it did wrong. While ‘Listen’ asks more questions than it ends up answering and may leave the viewer feeling a little cheated out of a nicely wrapped-up ending, the journey through a genuinely unsettling plot is worth it.
If Capaldi’s prowess as the Doctor wasn’t made apparent by the past three episodes, then it is abundantly clear here. Whereas Matt Smith’s best scenes were bouncing off of his companions and costars with enthusiasm and glee, Capaldi is serving as a tour-de-force on his own in his soliloquy. While we caught a glimpse of his ability to carry a scene on his own in “Deep Breath” in talking both in his sleep and a mostly one-sided argument with a homeless man, ‘Listen’ gives him ample time away from others (at least as far as we know) to really show his acting chops. While both Smith and Tennant’s strengths were drawing out the best of their companions, Capaldi’s is drawing out his own strength in scenes that still captivate the audience.
Clara is already proving to be one of the best, most well-developed companions in years, even if most of her positive character development has happen in the past few episodes. While she is far from perfect, as we see in two accidental slips of the tongue to Danny Pink (more on him next), she admits to faults freely without coming off as preachy or holier-than-thou. Jenna Louise Coleman also continues to bring sincerity to the role of being a teacher when she deals with children (or in some cases, a very immature child-like Doctor) acting reassuring and caring. In last five minutes of the show, her wisdom and warmth shine through when speaking to a very special young boy (even with the disclaimer above, I can’t spoil this twist to who he is), telling him that it is okay to be afraid and that fear is a constant companion that can make you stronger. While this sentiment was said earlier in the episode by the Doctor, it comes off as far more genuine from Clara and draws the audience in.
Danny Pink is also being drawn in to Clara, as we see much more of him in this episode and learn more about both his past and future. Samuel Anderson continues to bring a wonderfully endearing awkwardness to his character that is both sincere and relatable. On his first date with Clara he goes through a wealth of emotions without flying off the cuff or seeming to be spread too thin; he carries each action and reaction with believability, which hasn’t always been easy to find in a Doctor Who episode (see: Maid Marian from last week’s episode ‘Robot of Sherwood’). It doesn’t hurt that Anderson and Coleman also have a natural chemistry, not only hormonally but intellectually as well. This would have been enough on its own, but he goes a step further when playing Danny’s future great-grandson Orson Pink. While he doesn’t entirely shake off the awkward nature of his role as Danny, he does bring a certain amount of wisdom and geniality to the role of Orson.
The key element of this episode is perhaps one of the strongest aired on television in recent years, not only on Doctor Who but in all series: it’s okay to be afraid. While the theme is far from unique, the way Moffat writes both Capaldi’s and Coleman’s response to fear that makes it so grand and effective. The Doctor knows that Everyone is afraid, whether of a boogeyman under the bed or of something else, but fear can serve as a superpower – it makes you stronger, faster, and more alive as adrenaline courses through your veins. Clara meanwhile maintains that fear can be a companion, bringing people together and making us strong in the face of it. For an episode that brought very real chills to my spine, it ends on a heart-warming note.
‘Listen’ is the antithesis of last week’s ‘Robot of Sherwood’ – it is dark, unsettling, and even a bit scary. Also unlike Sherwood, it has substance to it; whereas last week was a bit of fluff and fun, this week brought sincerity and a message that resonated with audiences. It may not be the cheeriest episode of Doctor Who, but it makes the show take itself more seriously than I have seen in seasons. And while the ending may not be as neat or tied up as some would like it to be, ending on more of a metaphorical note than a literal one, it has more thought put into it than I would have honestly thought Moffat capable of alone. So grab a nightlight and a blanket to enjoy the episode – on second thought, forget the blanket, you’ll see why once you watch ‘Listen.’