So let’s start by this week yet again sets the bar for the most self-referential episode of Doctor Who to date (and I am aware that I did say that just three weeks ago), and for Moffat Who that is saying something. There are almost so many callbacks as to be ridiculous. What’s interesting, though, is the specificity of these callbacks. This isn’t just navel-gazing fanwank of Moffat’s part (although it may be partially that, and I’m sure that won’t stop people of making that claim). It’s not continuity for continuity’s sake. Let’s take a look at the list, shall we?
- Orange spacesuit – The Satan Pit & The Waters of Mars
- “Almost every species has an irrational fear of the dark, but they’re wrong because it’s not irrational” – Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
- Monster under the bed – Girl in the Fireplace
- Missing memories – anything with the Silence
- The Gallifreyan barn and corruption of the Time Lords – The Day of the Doctor
- Time Lord children traumatized by the burden of looking into the Untempered Schism – The Sound of Drums
- The end of the universe – Utopia
- Something knocking on what should be an uninhabited planet – Midnight
- “What’s that in the mirror…” – Family of Blood
- “…or the corner of your eye?” – The Eleventh Hour
- Creepy nursery rhymes – The Beast Below & Night Terrors
- “That’s what you do: you hide” – Hide
- A stranded time traveler – also Hide
- Predestination paradoxes – Blink and lots of other
(And these are just New Who, and just the ones I noticed! Feel free to leave leave others that you noticed from New or Classic Who in the comments.)
These are callbacks to the imagery and concepts of the scariest episodes and monsters of the new series. “Listen” is a meditation on fear, and so Moffat crams in every kind of fear imaginable. I’ve seen this called a “shaggy dog” approach on twitter, and it is that, but it’s also appropriate and inevitable. Moffat has said more than once that Doctor Who “takes place under your bed.” By making the central monster of the episode a monster from the under the bed, and by making sly allusions to every other effectively scary moment of the new series, Moffat makes it clear that this episode isn’t about a monster, but Monsters. It isn’t about a particular fear, but Fear Itself. Every moment of the episode is about fear, from the Doctor’s fear of loneliness, to his fear of the unknown, to his fear of the terrible authority of the Time Lord Academy, to Orson’s fear of the vast cosmic emptiness at the end of time and space, to Danny’s fear of Clara’s rejection, to Clara’s fear of the future, to their fear of intimacy with each other.
This episode comes the closest to outright stating that the role of monsters and fear on Doctor Who is metaphorical. Apart from the pure historicals from the earliest days of the Classic Series, this is the only episode that (potentially) contains no monster/villain/threat of any kind. The entity sitting on the bed (and how great is that reversal? – moving the fear to what’s on top of the bed) may just be another kid in a bedspread. The howling and screeching noises outside Orson’s space station may just be the wind and the hull cooling. The turning door might have been automatically triggered by the Doctor. Every single threat in this episode could be explained away, yet nothing is. As in the similarly spooky “Midnight,” the lack of monster to fight becomes even more terrifying. Honestly, what is more scary? Some weird Doctor Who alien or the prospect that, at the end of the universe, when nothing and no one is left alive, there really is nothing at all. “That’s a hell of a lot of ghosts,” the Doctor muses. Nothing under the bed, nothing in the dark. Does Orson really fear monsters, or does he fear that he really may be all alone after all? Clara suggests the same thing about the Doctor: “What if the big, bad Time Lord just doesn’t want to admit that he’s just afraid of the dark?”
This all culminates, of course, in the climax when Clara finds herself in the same barn from “The Day of the Doctor,” which turns out to be where the boy Doctor lived as a child. So, just to recap, not only is Clara is the original companion (prompting the Doctor to steal the TARDIS in “The Name of the Doctor”) she is also the original Doctor Who monster. Hiding from his adult caretakers, whoever they are, she ends up under the Doctor’s bed.
Clara: Guess what’s under the bed?
In a moment of panic, she reflexively reaches out and grabs the Doctor’s ankle. (I love the wide-eyed look of shock when she realizes what she’s done. You can almost see her cursing herself internally.) It would not be too much of stretch to say that this act traumatizes and marks him for life. It is the origin of the Doctor’s obsession with the foot-grabbing dream (which, I’ll admit, I’ve totally had) and potentially the origin of his obsession with monsters. But it’s also the origin of his heroism. Clara sits next to him, stroking his hair, soothing him back to sleep (she’s really the scariest and weirdest monster ever, if you think about. The poor kid needs therapy after this) and tells him a story. How everyone gets scared, for good reasons, bad reasons, and no reasons at all. What are we so scared of?
Danny: I don’t even know what I’m nervous of.
Orson: My own shadow, probably.
We cut away to Clara hugging Orson, hugging the Doctor, kissing Danny. These strange and difficult men in her life. What is more terrifying than other people? Cut back to Clara and the child Doctor, her teaching him what he’s taught her. “Fear is a superpower… If you’re very wise, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind… Fear makes companions of us all.” (The final sentence is a direct quote from the very first Doctor Who serial, “An Unearthly Child” in 1963, looping us back around to the First Doctor). Even more than dreams, it’s the one experience we can all relate to, even the Doctor. “Fear can bring us together.” Yes, fear is a constant companion, but it can’t hurt you. Allow it to travel with you as your silent partner, let it come and go in peace. It will make itself known only when you need it, to make you stronger, faster, smarter.
Listen to your fear, but don’t look directly at it.
Doctor: Make a promise. A promise you’re never going to look at it.
Clara: Take off and promise me you’ll never look where we’ve been.
Otherwise, you might find that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that might be the most terrifying prospect of all.
The episode itself, of course, is effectively scary. The direction is quiet, intimate, meditative, with dour, blue mood lighting, as Clara puts it, to reflect the Doctor’s doubt. The one real freak-out moment – the figure sitting on Rupert’s bed under the red bedspread, doing its best Sixth Sense impression – ranks up with the great single images in the show. The small, pale, skinny figure lurks ominously right behind their backs, and could plausibly be some weird kid or a slimy alien.
As for the Doctor, Capaldi continues to weave a compelling character, equal parts crotchety and endearing. He’s not into hugging. He’s simultaneously dismissive and protective of Clara. Most of all, he is driven by an insatiable curiosity. Not necessarily to do or experience, but to know. To learn. He surrounds himself with books and chalkboards. He searches every book for Wally, whether they’re Where’s Wally? books or not. He turns off the safeguards off just to see what’s at the end of the universe. He picks up on his rhetorical question and answer method of speech from “Deep Breath,” framing all conversations (even those to himself) as a series of questions and conjectures.
Doctor: Question. Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture. Because we know we’re not.
I love this, because it works on so many levels. The literal: The Doctor suspects the presence of an unseen, hiding monster. The meta-fictional: Television characters are never alone. We’re always watching them. (When we’re not watching, they cease to exist. Donna’s virtual world kids know something about that). The metaphysical: Ghosts. Spirits. Angels. Demons. Gods. God. As the Doctor concludes, if something has perfected the art of hiding, how would you know it’s not there? What’s scarier – something or nothing? The follow-up question: “What would such a being (monster, spirit, audience member) do?” Answer: “Listen.” Just listen.
Like all of the other great scary episodes, “Listen” is also really funny. Moffat channels his previous romantic sitcom experience in crafting this legendarily bad first date, with both Clara and Danny putting their foot in it and offending the other (let’s be honest, mostly Clara). The juxtaposition of the mundane and magical on the show is rarely so adult, but was memorable and effective. Particularly hilarious was the moment when Clara, to prevent Danny walking out, tries to convince him that she’s not weird only to have the Orange Spacesuit walk in and summon her back to the TARDIS with an irritated gesture. The whole episode, in both writing and directing, is surreal and dreamlike, reflecting its subject matter. Boundaries are permeable, lines are blurred and crossed. The Doctor invades Clara’s home and dating life, and then Danny (or his legacy) invades her TARDIS life. The two worlds are in tension yet inseparable. Like all new series companions before her, Clara has wedded her life to the Doctor’s. Unfortunately for them, that usually comes before rather a painful parting of the ways.
I’ve watched the episode three times now, and each time I like it more. Although I’ve enjoyed Moffat’s sprawling and bewildering take on Doctor Who, this was a welcome return to his more intimate scares written during the Davies era: “The Empty Child,” “Blink,” “Girl in the Fireplace”. Like them, it weaves the scares, laughs, and (forgive me) feels into an intricate and beautiful tapestry. Great job, team. Keep it up.