Sunday, 14 September 2014

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I’m one of those Doctor Who fans who believe that Steven Moffat’s running of the show has not been up to scratch as of late. Plot arcs have been over-convoluted and pointless, female characters have been poorly and inconsistently characterised, and episodes have often returned to the same, repetitive tropes. The thing is, he used to be one of Who’s most loved writers. A Moffat episode in the middle of a Russell T Davies-led series was the episode everyone looked forward to, with the low-key but spine-chilling Blink becoming one of the most loved episodes of all time. Perhaps feeling the pressure of keeping the whole series in control, Moffat signed himself up to write Listen, the fourth in the current series starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, aiming to write a “chamber piece” free of plot arcs and harking back to the success of Blink. In fact, in the latest Doctor Who Magazine, Moffat claims to have written Listen “out of an entirely selfish desire” because he’d “like to prove that [he] can actually write”.  As it happens, it turns out he can indeed still write, and Listen is an astonishing reminder of that fact.

Listen is not at all a conventional Doctor Who episode, as is clear right from the pre-titles sequence, in which the Doctor paces around the TARDIS, theorising as to whether we’re ever truly alone, or whether someone or something has perfected hiding. This isn’t an episode where a civilisation is invaded by aliens and the Doctor dives in to save the day. This is the Doctor left alone to think. Capaldi’s Doctor is less action hero and more eccentric professor; intellectual, esoteric, distant, willing to whisk Clara away from everyday life, in need of not a friend but a guinea pig for his grand experiment across time and space. Flashing a demented smile, this Doctor asks Clara what’s under her bed, in pursuit of a ubiquitous nightmare (I personally don’t recall ever having that nightmare, though I did have a similar one involving Darth Maul hiding in my cupboard).

Diving into Clara's timeline in search of Darth Maul this nightmare creature, the Doctor lets her guide the TARDIS, leading them to encounters with scared young Rupert Pink in a Gloucester children’s home, scared pioneer Orson Pink at the end of the universe, and a scared young Time Lord in a very familiar barn (to those of you saying “but how’d she get to Gallifrey?”, I say – ah, fuck it, science happened). This journey does take in a lot of Moffat’s oft-used tropes – fear borne of the everyday, the child version of the regular, the nursery rhyme – and it’s a shame that they are seen as Moffatisms, because, whereas they may have grated in previous episodes, here they are used to perfection, every one becoming atmospheric and meaningful. The Doctor’s theory about this perfect monster plays on all types of fears of being alone in the dark – there’s something under the bed, where are those footsteps coming from, there are noises in the pipes, and so on – while cleverly retaining the ambiguity by planting an alternate explanation for everything – it could just be another kid under the sheets, it’s the hull cooling. You’re kept wondering if you’ll see this perfect monster, but any actual reveal would be disappointing, and the true resolution is much richer. Fear itself is the enemy in Listen. The perfect monster that haunts us all, and the superpower that builds us. It’s a theme that Moffat writes beautifully, purified.

And it’s a theme that is linked carefully with the series regulars, through Clara’s repeated return to her disastrous date; a date that is the domestic counterpoint to the grand terror, and the catalyst that sends the TARDIS to the past and the future of Danny Pink. I’m enjoying the build-up to the inevitable Doctor/Danny conflict, and here we get to see some of the inherent similarities between the two. They’re both shaped by fears, by lying awake at night, by being the outsider. A fear that, albeit with a little push from Clara, turned them both into soldiers. Broken soldiers. The recurrent motif of the toy missing the gun is lovely, as is the moment where Clara describes it as “a soldier so brave, he can keep the whole world safe”, the Doctor looking on disapprovingly in the background. The difference between the two is that the Doctor makes clear his current hatred of soldiers, whereas Danny is much more defensive. It can only go wrong when they finally meet… 

Exploring Clara’s relationship with Danny, getting to the heart of the Doctor’s fears, and making children across the world shit themselves, Listen packs a hell of a lot in, but it’s perfectly paced. It travels to the ends of the universe, exploiting simple fears in both domestic and sci-fi settings, while taking the time to build tension and terror in its long and suspenseful scenes, all linked in neatly with the framing story of Clara’s date; at once fluid and languorous, never convoluted. It’s Moffat’s best script in a long, long time, and it’s an episode full of lovely, dark touches. Director Douglas Mackinnon does a great job at building atmosphere, making even the TARDIS itself haunted, steam rising from its vents as the Doctor questions if he’s alone. There’s a beautifully creepy soundscape, which, appropriately given the title, creates all the best scares – banging on the hull, creaking of the bed. It’s an episode to be watched in the dark. And, while Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson are great, Peter Capaldi shines, masterfully leading us through his investigation, increasingly vulnerable as we realise the truth. He’s haunted. Angry. Alien. Broken. 

“The deep and lovely dark, you’d never see the stars without it”, says the Doctor, urging Rupert to look away towards the vast starscape, cleverly mirrored in the Doctor’s jumper. Listen is Doctor Who at its deepest, loveliest, and darkest.


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