Doctor Who takes as its premise a very simple inquiry: what sort of creature is lurking under the bed?
Let’s bitch it out…
While I haven’t reacted quite as negatively to S8’s episodes as TVAngie (who’s taking this week off; she’ll be back next week), I too have had difficulty making an emotional connection to our new Doctor. Tonally these first few episodes have felt like an awkward fit. A friend of mine suggested that the Who writers are still trying to figure out how to write for Peter Capaldi, and last week’s adventure in Sherwood forest proved that they’re not quite ready to let go of Matt Smith’s fun and zany Doctor.
I think that these concerns are one of the reasons that I enjoyed ‘Listen’ as much as I did. I had seen some advance (non-spoiler) reviews that indicated the episode was a return to form for the series: a dark, twisty little gem in the spirit of ‘Blink’, the insta-classic from the Ten days. I don’t know if I would go quite that far (moving bedspreads aren’t on par with the introduction of the Weeping Angels), but ‘Listen’ is a smart, freaky little outing that wisely keeps the focus on Capaldi, Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara and gives new Whovian Samuel Anderson something more to do.
Thus far, the biggest complaint that TVAngie and I share has been that Twelve lacks his own defining characteristics beyond being old and crotchety. ‘Listen’ seems to play with this idea, while simultaneously reinforcing it. The Doctor repeatedly barks at Clara, even telling her during the “last planet in the universe” climax that she has to obey him if she wants to travel with him. And yet he’s also much more playful and socially inept in this episode, suggesting that the writers (and perhaps Capaldi) have discovered that a dose of cluelessness is the best way to take the edge off of the snark. Clearly that’s the intention behind the repeated comments about Clara’s looks and make-up; the Doctor appears to have adopted a fatherly sternness with his companion that matches their visual age discrepancy.
While the Doctor drives the initial inquiry behind the nursery rhymes about monsters under the bed, this is very much a Clara episode. After complaining endlessly last season about the “Impossible Girl” storyline, it seems that Who writers (and showrunner Moffat) have listened and given Clara a great deal more character and urgency this season. Not only is it Clara who ends up directing the TARDIS to its respective destinations in the 90s children home in Gloucester and the last planet, our current companion ends up playing a massively significant role in the closing moments of the episode. While ‘Listen’ ends up being all about how the Doctor processes fear, the revelation (which seems destined to divide fans) that Clara travelled to his childhood at a crucial moment in his development cannot be understated. Not only is Clara responsible for his fear of the dark, she is the one who defines the Doctor’s approach to traveling with her speech about fear as a constant companion and how it can be used for good (Side Note: We can debate whether she deserves credit for this since she’s repeating the Doctor’s own words back to him in the comments below).
In addition to this, ‘Listen’ takes some big steps forward with the character of Danny Pink. The pair of school teachers make good on their verbal agreement to go out for a drink and promptly have two terrible dates. I’ll admit that the first argument didn’t make a great deal of sense to me and I was bothered that Clara felt the need to apologize during her redo date (how would she have known he was sensitive about his days as a soldier?) The second instance, involving her accidental mention of his real first name – Rupert – felt a little more organic, albeit the argument still felt a little manufactured. These conversations felt particularly informed by the conventions of Hollywood rom-coms and less like real-life dates to me. I’m hopeful that now that we know this pair will time-travel and have children together their relationship will be a little less cliché.
Where ‘Listen’ really shines for me is in its well-executed set pieces. The opening monologue by the Doctor is a bit awkward because it feels like he’s breaking the fourth wall (I know, he was demonstrating his own hypothesis by speaking aloud to no one in particular), but once he and Clara land at the school, the tension and the atmosphere really take over. The stand-out is the moment that Clara and young Rupert emerge from the bed to discover a shape under the sheets. It made me recall the creepy foreign film The Orphanage, which similarly managed to wring chills out of a child covered in cloth (Side Note: Let’s just admit that kids in general are scary, shall we?). In these instances – and to a lesser degree the last planet in the universe scene – it feels like the return of the best of Doctor Who: a lovely balance of smart sci-fi / horror, taunt action set pieces, and intriguing characters and historical worlds.
Fingers crossed that this is the beginning of a renaissance for S8.
- Perhaps it’s just advance knowledge that SPOILER Coleman is leaving the series in the Christmas episode, but ‘Listen’ kinda/sorta feels like the beginning of the end for Clara. We’re beginning to get a sense of her “post” time travel life (with Danny) and she’s played a hugely instrumental role in the Doctor’s life. Where else does she have left to go? END SPOILER
- Love it or hate it, but Clara’s big speech to the Doctor when he’s a child feels like a real Amy Pond moment, doesn’t it?
- Classic Who callbacks that I caught: the return of the blank ID.
- Apparently Clara likes names that begin with O. Clearly we’re meant to assume that Orson is Clara and Danny’s great-grand child, which pairs nicely with the first Clara ancestor we met back in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’: Oswin.
- Your mileage may vary but the Dan the soldier toy figurine felt particularly hamfisted to me. Did not enjoy that.
- Did JJ Abrams direct Clara’s speech to the young Doctor? Because that was a ton of lens flares.
- Finally, I must be getting old because when we were first introduced to Orson, I could have sworn I heard Awesome Pink, which clearly would have been a waaay better name…
- Danny (proving to be an awkward date when Clara says she likes fast men): “I might go straight to extras”
- Doctor (when Rupert insists Wally isn’t in every book): “Well that’s a few years of my life I won’t be getting back.”
- Clara (seeing herself walk away): “Is that what I look like from the back?” Doctor: “It’s fine.” Clara: “I was thinking it was good.” Doctor: “Really?”
- Doctor (when Clara sees Captain Orson Pink): “What’s going on with your face? It’s all eyes. Get them under control.”
Your turn: do you agree that this was the best episode of the new season? Was this a secret Clara episode? Were you taken aback that Clara ended up playing such a significant moment in the Doctor’s life? Are you excited to know that Danny and Clara end up having children? Did ‘Listen’ scare you? Sound off below.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 8pm EST on BBC America