Airdate: September 13, 2014
Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Douglas Mackinnon
The Story So Far: Clara has her first date with Danny Pink, while the Doctor chases down the origins of the one universal nightmare. Where might this modest set-up lead? Well, to the Silence at the End of Time… and to the Beginning of All Beginnings.
1. Home is where the “Who” is
I have yet to watch one of this season’s Doctor Who episodes at home on my own TV set. I’ve watched them, respectively, at a crowded tavern in Manhattan, in a hotel room in Washington D.C., at my in-laws’ house, and now, at a co-worker’s apartment. This trend is not about to change, as the next three weekends are going to take me to Atlanta, New Jersey, and Florida. And, of course, the season finale airs while I’ll be at L.I. Who 2. Next time, I’d ask that Mr. Moffat air his show during a less hectic period in my life.
At any rate, the way I perceive an episode at first airing is often influenced by the crowd that I watch it with. One of my viewing companions for Listen was my co-worker’s 12-year-old daughter, who caught the incurable Who bug last winter, and who watched this episode clutching all four of her sonic screwdriver toys (for the record, that’s three more than I own).
So my enjoyment of Listen was heightened by my young friend’s reactions, which veered from joy (at figuring out how Osborn Pink was related to Clara), to terror (at the shape under Rupert’s bedspread, or at the astronaut in the restaurant), to utter emotional devastation (at just about anything that happened over the final 10 minutes). If there were fears that the tween audience, who came of age loving Matt Smith’s Doctor, was going to be left behind by Capaldi’s Doctor… well, you can just forget it. Based on this sample size of one, I can declare with confident authority that the kids aren’t going anywhere.
2. “Looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme”
Listen starts off a a very modest episode. The Doctor starts the cold open in a meditation pose atop the TARDIS, and then works out a mental exercise by speaking directly to the audience (something we saw Tom Baker do quite a bit back in the 1970s, most notably in The Face of Evil and The Invasion of Time). Specifically, the Doctor is concerned with the existence of a creature that’s perfected the art of hiding as an evolutionary skill. As he consults a textbook and (yet again) writes out his thoughts on a chalkboard, we learn that… he is not alone. An unseen companion writes LISTEN on the chalkboard, and sends the chalk clattering along the floor, back to the Doctor.
Meanwhile, Clara looks miserable at home, recalling a first date with Danny Pink that’s gone quite, quite badly. Clara made an unfortunate allusion to Danny having killed before while serving in the military; Danny says that he actually dug wells to bring water to impoverished villagers; a waiter with the worst possible timing attempts to bring them a pitcher of water; and Clara pointedly tells Danny, “Don’t worry, you’ll probably dig for it!” (In short, Clara’s date with Danny goes just about better than 80% of the first dates that I had in the 1990s…)
Obviously, things did not stay so small-scale for long.
3. “The West Country Children’s Home. Gloucester. … The Mid-’90s.”
Waiting for Clara to return from her date, the Doctor parks the TARDIS in her bedroom (“I thought I’d just hide in the bedroom, in case you brought him home”), and attempts to solve another mystery: why does her vanity need three mirrors? “Why don’t you just turn your head?” It’s never quite clear whether the Doctor is actively insulting Clara’s physical appearance, or is merely clueless about whether or not a human female two thousand years his junior is wearing makeup. But he needs her help to investigate a nightmare: “I have a theory… I think everybody at some point in their lives has the exact same nightmare” — a hand reaching up to grab your foot as you try to get out of bed.
Moffat drops a couple of interesting hints in the script at this point: first, Clara suggests that the word LISTEN on the chalkboard was written in the Doctor’s own hand; second, she unsuccessfully tries to get him to admit that he’s had the nightmare himself. Both of these will be important to the story’s resolution.
The Doctor then plugs Clara into the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits (made of squishy organic material), in order to find the precise moment in her childhood when she had that nightmare. Clara, however, is distracted by the ringing of her cell-phone, and the TARDIS instead brings them to… a young Danny Pink, then known as Rupert. An event which the Doctor observes as taking place within Clara’s own timeline …
4. “What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower!”
Clara soon realizes that young Rupert is future-Danny. The Doctor has a creepily disjointed conversation with the Home’s night manager (played by Robert Goodman, an uncredited extra in several 1970s and ’80s class Who serials), flashing the psychic paper and stealing the poor man’s coffee. Clara investigates Rupert’s room by crawling under his bed, to prove there are no monsters there… and then something sits on the bed above them. But it’s not the Doctor… he’s in the armchair in the corner, trying to find Waldo (or Wally, as he was known in the UK), in a non-Waldo book.
This leads to another of Capaldi’s tour-de-force moments, as he delivers an inspirational speech about being scared; merely transcribing this speech wouldn’t do it justice. It’s a brilliant moment for Capaldi, pitching his performance at the young viewers hiding behind the sofa at home, in the same way that Tom Baker did at his best. This speech grows on me every time I replay it. I would even recite it for my four-year-old the next time she’s afraid of something under the bed… but I couldn’t possibly deliver it like Capaldi did.
5. Something under the bed(spread) is drooling
But this begs the question… what WAS that under the bedspread, terrifying little Rupert Pink? The Doctor convinces Rupert to turn his back on the thing and stare out the window instead. Stare out the window into the dark (“The deep and lovely dark. Never see the stars without it”). The… whatever it is… then drops the blanket, and is revealed out-of-focus for a few scant frames, before walking (or floating?) out of the room.
My initial confused impression of the apparition (before freeze-framing it and seeing that it was too out-of-focus to properly discern) was that it was the ghost of the Boy Doctor, whose hair would also be seen (with the rest of him also concealed by a bedspread) later in the episode. But based on the general consensus in my various social media feeds… no, the thing under the blanket actually was just one of Rupert’s young friends at the home, trying to scare him.
My theory is somewhat more appealing, I think: that it’s the Doctor’s own psychic trauma that’s turned him into the source of the universal nightmare (and that would be a very Moffat notion, wouldn’t it?). It would explain why the invisible entity in the TARDIS wrote in the Doctor’s own hand. It would answer the Doctor’s question about what creature has used evolution to perfect the art of hiding — that creature would be the Doctor himself, what with his name being “The oldest question, hidden in plain sight”, and with one of last season’s episodes having been called “Hide”.
6. Danny, Rupert, Orson
After the whatever-it-was leaves the room, the Doctor and Clara (but mostly Clara) help set up a defense barrier around Rupert’s bed, made out of toy soldiers. Rupert, who’s already declared an intent to change his name when he gets older, calls the ‘boss” soldier (the one without a weapon) “Dan, the soldier man”. The Doctor then puts him to sleep with the world’s shortest bedtime story (“Once upon a time… [touches Rupert’s forehead]… the end! Dad skills!” (my co-worker turned to me and said, “I wish I could do that.”) Rupert will sleep, with his memory of that night scrambled, dreaming of Dan the Soldier Man instead, explains the Doctor, who still has no idea who Rupert is. The Doctor and Clara (but mostly Clara) have just created Rupert’s future.
Clara persuades the Doctor to return her to the site of her date with Danny, and she walks back into the restaurant 30 seconds after her younger self left it. But she mistakenly calls Danny “Rupert”, which she’s not supposed to know; and Danny notices that she’s somehow lost her jacket in the last 30 seconds; and she’s then distracted by a beckoning, impossible astronaut. This time it’s Danny’s turn to walk out on the date.
Back in the TARDIS, the astronaut removes his helmet, and we see… it’s Danny Pink, only with much wilder hair. The Doctor explains that this is actually Orson Pink, from 100 years in Clara’s future.
The Doctor: Do you have any connection with him?
The Doctor: Yes, maybe you’re, like, a distant relative, or something?
Clara: H-h-how would I know?
The Doctor: Right. OK. Um, well. [To Orson] Do you have any old family photographs of her? You know, probably quite old and, maybe, fat-looking?
Overlooking the fact that the Doctor is now evidently the kind of person who makes fat jokes, we quickly realize that… Orson is Clara’s great-grandson; Orson himself has heard family legends about her having traveled in time.
This is all bit Calvinist, isn’t? Clara and Danny wind up together… because their first date together is interrupted by the arrival of their great-grandson. For a TV series about time travel, this is an elegant “wow” moment. However, it also removes any sort of free will from Clara and Danny’s eventual relationship.
7. The End of Time
The next major set-piece occurs at “the end of the road, the end of everything, the last planet… the Silence at the end of time”. Orson, from 100 years in the future, was sent off on “the first of the great time-shots… they were supposed to fire him into the middle of next week.”
The Doctor: Look at him now, Robinson Crusoe at the end of time itself. Last man standing in the Universe. Always thought that would be me.
Clara: It’s not a competition.
But, because this is a Steven Moffat story, and because the word “Silence” was dropped with that loud capital-S, as it seems to be in so many other Moffat stories, we learn that, while Orson is the last man standing in the Universe… something else is out there. In a sequence that completely creeped out the 12-year-old in the room with me, some thing knocks on the spaceship airlock (on which Osborn has written, in paint only visible under blacklight (Clara: “Do you have your own mood-lighting now? Because, frankly, the accent is enough!”), DON’T OPEN THE DOOR.
8. The role of Tom Baker’s performance in this episode will be played by…
You don’t show a warning on a door like that without then opening the door. But the Doctor orders Clara back into the TARDIS to face the menace alone; when it does enter, we never quite see what it is, and the TARDIS monitor fizzes out so Clara doesn’t get to see what it is either. Whatever it is, knocks the Doctor unconscious, the third time in four episodes that this has happened to Capaldi. Don’t worry, it happened to Tom Baker in his first 17 serials. Literally. And later, when the Doctor awakens in the TARDIS, he blurts out: “Sontarans, perverting the course of human history!” — the Fourth Doctor’s very first words, back in 1974’s Robot.
9. The beginning of all beginnings
Clara sets the TARDIS for emergency dematerialization, using the telepathic circuits again. She winds up in the loft of a barn, which houses a bed, in which a weeping boy is hiding under the blankets; as grown-up footsteps approach, Clara decides to hide under the boy’s bed. That boy, whom she believes to be Rupert (or Orson), we soon learn, is the First Doctor as a child. The boy’s (we assume) parents enter the barn and angrily debate his future: the Army, or the Time Lord Academy? And Clara’s eyes go super-wide for, like, the 7th time in the episode.
This is a big bit of world-building for Doctor Who. We’ve never seen the Doctor as a child before. We’ve never seen his parents, if that’s who they were, on screen before either, unless you count Clare Bloom’s enigmatic appearances in The End of Time. In the novel universe of the New Adventures and the Eighth Doctor Adventures, the Doctor’s parents were Ulysses, a pioneering Gallifreyan adventurer, and Penelope Gate, a red-haired 19th century Victorian steampunk time traveler (featured primarily in the novels of Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum, and Lance Parkin). That would not appear to be the case in Listen. In the New Adventure Lungbarrow, set in the Doctor’s ancestral home, we learn that Time Lords are born by “genetic loom”, not of parents, and that the Doctor is “born” fully-grown and looking like the 55-year-old William Hartnell. Which is not the case here either. (Check here to see what else we’ve learned about the Doctor’s childhood.)
And then as the Boy Doctor attempts to get out of bed, Clara instinctively reaches out and grabs his ankle… thus triggering his own version of the universal nightmare, the same nightmare that he wouldn’t admit to having had, when Clara asked him earlier …
10. “Fear makes companions of us all.”
The episode ends on a visual montage — of Clara finally coupling with Danny at the end of the worst date in the history of the Universe; of Orson being returned home; of the Doctor intensely disliking the hug he gets from Clara (she has finally accepted him as her Doct0r); and, this is what almost sent my young viewing companion into tears, the War Doctor returning to that Gallifreyan barn centuries later, via a brief clip from The Day of the Doctor.
The visuals are accompanied by a voice-over of Clara counseling the Boy Doctor on fear, as she attempts to soothe the fears from the nightmare that she’s just given him. One Who professional in my social media feeds described this as a “closed loop”: a gorgeous moment where Clara instructs the Boy Doctor on things she’s already learned from his future self. Another decried it as an instance of the show making Clara the Most Important Person in the Doctor Who universe, making it so that the Doctor would never have become the Doctor if Clara hadn’t gone back in time to whisper to him in his bedroom when he was a child.
I’m… somewhere in the middle of these two opinions. Because the Boy Doctor didn’t learn all those lessons when he was a boy. He learned them over the course of the William Hartnell era. The episode closes with Clara reciting a line that Hartnell made famous in The Forest of Fear (Episode 3 of An Unearthly Child). Is that earlier episode cheapened, perhaps, by the fact that it was no longer a lesson that the First Doctor learned the hard way, but rather something he merely repeated from what he thought was a childhood dream?
11. “Listen” will cause debates that last for years
Steven Moffat-penned episodes often have incomprehensible endings, full of timey-wimey handwaving. Listen is not one of those episodes (though many of the Doctor’s initial questions appear to have gone unanswered). It’s full of unexpected twists, and elegant loops; it’s about the Doctor’s fear of the dark. I’m not convinced that I grasp all of it yet, but it’s only been less than a day since it aired on television. It will probably take quite some time before some sort of received conventional fan wisdom about the episode can be reached. It will probably also make more sense once we see how the rest of Season 8 plays out, how the eventual relationship between Clara and Danny develops, and how the Capaldi Doctor faces his eventual death (because all Doctors die).
But I quite enjoyed the ride that Listen gave us. Scene by scene, line by line, there was something to enjoy, or laugh at, or nod at, or be scared by, every 15 to 30 seconds. It’s a rich script. Whether or not it works, whether or not all of Moffat’s ambitions for the episode were realized, is a question that can’t be answered yet. But I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt, in a way that I still haven’t been able to do for other Moffat stabs at mythology, like Silence in the Library or The Big Bang.
12. Clara is going to die, too
This is the second time this season that someone has announced foreknowledge of the circumstances of Clara’s death — Strax in Deep Breath, and now the Doctor, by way of the TARDIS telepathic circuits, in Listen. Both episodes were scripted solely by Steven Moffat himself. This is either a a dire prediction of Ms. Oswald’s/future Mrs. Pink’s fate, or a clever decoy by Mr. Moffat. But you don’t, as show-runner, discuss a lead character’s death in each of your first two scripts for a given season, and then not bring it up again later in the year. Especially with the swirling, unconfirmed rumors, that Jenna Coleman is leaving the series effective this year’s Christmas special.
13. Next Time
Time Heist appears to be a caper story set in a bank, with some sort of slavering monster lurking just off-screen, and with Peter Capaldi being surprised with the “not knowing”. The real treat in the teaser, though, is the parade of past monsters flashed across the screen, which it took me several run-throughs to properly freeze-frame. A Sensorite from 1964, a Terileptil from 1982, a Slitheen, something from The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as he appeared in Torchwood. All sporting police mug-shot ID badges. I take it the Sensorite was arrested for tripping over its own feet?