We were wrong. THIS is the best episode of Series 8 so far! Lee ponders what keeps The Doctor awake at night.
There aren’t many writers in Doctor Who who actively seek out the “budget” episode in the series. Throughout the show’s history, there is always a story where there is very little money left to put anything grand on screen. The results have been mixed with some being very good but others being incredibly bad. For this series, Steven Moffat actively sought this challenge like he did so successfully with 2007’s “Blink.” With “Listen,” he gave us one of the best episodes that modern Who has ever had.
What does The Doctor do when he doesn’t have a world to save? Well, he goes looking for something to solve, of course! Proving that, deep down, he is like us in many ways, our Time Lord is haunted by a nightmare he has had since childhood. In a universe so massive, are we ever truly alone when we go to sleep? What is that monster underneath the bed? The premise, set brilliantly by the opening monologue, was certainly intriguing.
Well, his nightmare turned out to be Clara! The Impossible Girl affected The Doctor’s timeline in little ways once again. However, this time she made sure he didn’t know it was her. “Listen” plays up to this moment so well; that fear you can feel but will never know the cause. The tension from the unknown is put on screen so perfectly and creates a chilling sensation one could only get from watching it the first time around.
At its heart, it is Moffat using tropes he has utilised so successfully before. Childhood fears provided great material in episodes he wrote before his time as showrunner. It is him writing as a father through Clara. She is there to care for her boys in their time of need; the two soldiers who are better when they don’t have to point a gun. The mirroring between the two characters only serves to thicken the story before the two finally meet. Put simply, every little aspect of the episode displayed Moffat at his wondrous storytelling best.
“Listen” added something new to the mythology of The Doctor, too, by traversing his distant and most recent history. The line “Fear makes companions of us all” harks back to the very first story when The First Doctor said those words in “100,000 BC.” Now, we saw that incarnation as a boy, scared inside the barn he would always return to when fearful, as The War Doctor did in “The Day of The Doctor.” Hopefully, children know at home that it’s okay to be scared sometimes. It can be used to drive a person to greatness. It is always a joy when new layers are added to a character you think you know by now.
That is certainly the case for Danny Pink who gets quite the exploration here. His real name being Rupert before he changed it through Clara’s “timey-wimey” suggestion (as well as his soldier career choice). Moffat loves using her for predestination, which is a lot of fun, but some will be fed up of him employing it again and again. His building of Mr. Pink is different to anything we have seen in the series, and it is enjoyable to watch the character unfold in this Coupling-merged-with-Who fashion. He’s likeable, socially-awkward, shy, and a good man trying to get by. Of course that’s why Clara likes him!
Samuel Anderson also plays Orson Pink. A future descendent of Danny and, seemingly, Clara as well, he is the first human tester of time travel and ends up literally at the end of existence. This apocalyptic stuff felt a bit like “Midnight,” another fine episode about fears.
I have written Clara’s name a lot in this review, because she is surely the stand-out star of the episode. This series has seen the writing put her at the forefront of everything so far. Jenna Coleman has stepped up brilliantly, too. She plays the hero of the piece very well. The tear-inducing monologue at the end was so sweetly delivered. I fear there will be some who disapprove of it becoming “The Clara Show” at times, but the series was set up this way. The Twelfth Doctor needs her help. Why else would he keep going back to take her places? It only makes you wonder what he would be like without her. You get the feeling that this will be explored in the very near future.
Clara’s expansion doesn’t mean that Peter Capaldi misses out here. He is still playing the role with an old school thrill he has possessed for many years as a fan. He had his comedic moments (the “Where’s Wally?” question concerning a book with no pictures was notably hilarious), a lasting image of The Doctor sat atop the TARDIS whilst in flight, and that new Scottish anger when shouting at Clara to get to safety. The fear on The Doctor’s face was genuine and Capaldi got it spot-on. I am not so sure about the sudden recurring insults aimed at Miss Oswald, though. I feel this is a continuation of the mistaken boyfriend scenes of “Deep Breath.” Clara doesn’t take them seriously, so I guess we shouldn’t either. I loved the starry shirt, though!
“Listen” encapsulates everything about the first third of the Twelfth Doctor era. There’s big ideas explored in a standalone budget beautifully. It was Doctor Who without the guest stars and the standard sci-fi adventure. It was different for all the right reasons. The writing was top notch and Douglas Mackinnon’s direction was excellent. In future “best of” lists of modern Doctor Who, this one surely has to be up there with “Blink.” With eight episodes remaining, it’s going to be tough to top this one.