Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 4, “Listen
September 13, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
To anyone who’s really clever, the concepts of fear and bravery are inextricably linked. True bravery isn’t the ability to shut out fear; it isn’t the capability of walking into danger unafraid. No, true bravery is shown by what you do when you’re afraid. Bravery isn’t bravado—it’s what you have left when all your bluster fades away, when there’s nothing and no one left to impress. It’s what you have with you when you’re alone in the dark, and you hear a noise you’d love to think isn’t knocking, even though deep down you know it is.
We’ve seen true bravery before this season. In “Deep Breath,” we watched Clara facedown the clockwork man, even as she was terrified she was about to be killed. She acknowledged her fear, and she continued on in the face of it. We’ve also seen bravado give way to bravery as Robin Hood’s façade showed itself to be more than mere puffery. Doctor Who is a show filled with bravery, brimming with people who risk their lives day in and day out to save others, to learn more, to be better, or just for the sake of an adventure. That also means it is a show full of fear, crowded with monsters lurking under the bed, in the corner of your eye, in the darkest recesses of your subconscious, the parts you never let yourself wake up—the places where the nightmares reside.
As a Doctor Who writer, Steven Moffat is consistently fascinated with turning the basics of childhood fears into fodder for episodes. The Weeping Angels come to life if you look away. The Vashta Nerada are lurking in the shadows. And something just might be hiding under your bed. Moffat is also fascinated, occasionally to his detriment, with The Doctor himself, with all of the Time Lord’s intricacies, complexities, defenses and weaknesses. Generally, Moffat separates these two ideas a bit (episodes like “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Eleventh Hour,” and “A Good Man Goes to War” are character studies of The Doctor, while episodes like “Blink” and “The Impossible Astronaut” are more concerned with childhood fears), but “Listen” combines both of these things. “Listen” is an immediate classic, a story about what scared The Doctor when he was a child, and how that continues to reverberate from a ramshackle barn on Gallifrey to the end of the universe itself.
This episode is also a near-perfect showcase for Capaldi, giving The Twelfth Doctor his first definitive adventure, and feeling at every step of the way like the mad man in the box has begun to figure out just who he is now that he’s sporting a new brogue. Most episodes of Doctor Who would work with any incarnation in the role. Sure, there are quirks and line readings that may be unique to the current incarnation, but a story like “Robot of Sherwood” could have been done with Jon Pertwee, just like “Into the Dalek” could have been played by Christopher Eccleston. The Doctor is, after all, the same man in different forms, so it makes sense that most of his stories could be played by any of them. But every once in a while, at least a few times in any era, an episode arrives that becomes epochal for the current incarnation, a story that tells you who this Doctor is and that would feel wrong in the hands of any other incarnation. For Peter Capaldi, I think “Listen” is one such story.
“Listen” is the story of The Doctor’s obsessiveness, of his foolish, reckless, idiotic desperation to know everything there is to know, to never be wrong, to never be in the dark. The episode brilliantly plays off of the distinct possibility that there is no monster, not this time. We get hints here and there that things have gone wrong, that something is out there, but always, there is another explanation. If “Listen” is telling us it is ok to be afraid, that fear can be a superpower, it is also showing us that The Doctor can be afraid. The Doctor has plenty in his life to be afraid of. He is hounded throughout time and space by the universe’s most ruthless, relentless, and dangerous foes. But sometimes, The Doctor is just alone. Sometimes, it’s just a little spooky to be standing in even the safest places with no one around for comfort or company. Sometimes, it’s dark. Sometimes, even The Doctor is afraid for no good reason.
The Twelfth Doctor has shown himself to be more honest, less reliant on affectations (though he still has some, to cover for the things he isn’t ready to admit), and standing there, opening an air lock at the end of the universe, he gets very close to admitting that there is no reason for him to push this particular button, besides the fact that it’s there, in his face, and he doesn’t know what will happen next. The Twelfth Doctor hates not knowing. He would rather risk his life than remain in ignorance. Even if there is nothing to learn. Even if he is just chasing shadows to the place where shadows fade away. This Doctor is more easily distracted than others. His TARDIS is lined with books and chalkboards. He’s always taking notes, chasing down lines of thought, trailing off as his mind searches for synaptic connections it hasn’t yet made. After millennia of running, that can be quite a search, and The Twelfth Doctor is less interested than his predecessors in distracting himself with ephemera while the calculations run in the background. He wants to be in on the action. He wants to be holding the chalk.
For the first time in a while, “Listen” felt like a Doctor Who episode that was really trying something different. From the elliptical editing of those early scenes as Clara regrets her evening with Danny, to the way the episode constantly feels like its dancing around the edges of a standard Who adventure, “Listen” is trying to do something that many episodes claim to be doing, but few achieve: something new. This is an episode where the monsters are in our head, where they exist because we can never quite admit that sometimes, we’re afraid of nothing. We’re better than that. We have to be.
The date sequence constantly threatens not to work, only to pull back from the brink. I don’t really buy Danny and Clara’s chemistry at this point, but I do buy the way they invest in their fight, cutting deeper and digging further into holes as they go. Each ostensibly wants to get back on good terms and continue having a first date, but they somehow manage to keep pissing each other off just enough to throw things further into disarray. It’s the type of conversation I’ve had several times before, and a small slice of emotional reality, depth, and complexity that Doctor Who rarely achieves. The subplot about Clara’s dinner with Danny felt like Doctor Who for grown ups, a rare, fleeting idea that has always been more a fantasy than a reality. It flirts with falling apart, but keeps it together in the end. It could have sunk the episode. Instead it helps it to soar.
This is also a timey-wimey episode that doesn’t feel overly concerned with just how cool all these structural gimmicks are. In Moffat’s earlier stories, there is often a sense that the puzzle box is the point, that this cool twist or that great reveal is really what’s kept everything spinning this whole time. Not so for “Listen,” where Clara learns some earth-shattering, heart-breaking, and exciting things about the course her life is going to take, but those revelations stay at the corners of the story. Clara will marry Danny. She is the one who instilled the idea of “Dan the soldier man” in his head (with help from The Doctor), the one who gave him the heirloom their great-grandson will carry to the end of the universe. This is a story about The Doctor, but it’s also a story about Clara. It manages to be both without ever fully seeming like either. Because ultimately, “Listen” is a story about us.
It is a story about fear, and what fear means. We try to hide our fear. We try to bury it within us. Even when we’re alone, we feel that fear is weakness. The Doctor argues that fear is a super power, and that alone is a good moral for this story. But “Listen” takes it further than that. Fear is an inherent part of us; it’s something we will always carry with us. It isn’t what you’re afraid of that matters. It’s what you do with that fear, how you use the anxieties you carry with you into the world, how you let them shape you and how you shape them. In Doctor Who the monsters are real. But “Listen” shows you they don’t have to be. What matters is what we do with the concept of monsters, with the fear that is baked into our very DNA. It doesn’t matter whether the monsters are out there. All that matters is what you do with what you have inside yourself. It can be scary, but scary is ok. Because it can also be something wonderful
- “Question: why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: because we know we’re not.”
- “Why do you have three mirrors? Why don’t you just turn your head?”
- “What are you doing in here?” “You said you had a date. I thought I’d better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home.”
- “How long have you been traveling alone?” “Perhaps I never have.”
- “Just hold on tight. And if anything bites…let it.”
- “Isn’t it bad if I meet my younger self?” “It’s…potentially catastrophic.” “So why did you bring me out here then?” “I was still talking. Needed someone to nod.”
- “What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a super power.”
- “What’s that?” “What kind of explanation would you like?” “A reassuring one?”
- “Fear makes companions of us all.”
“Listen” is trying to do something that many episodes claim to be doing, but few achieve: something new.