“Listen” by Steven Moffatt is my favorite season 8 episode so far. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) have reestablished their relationship. We learn more about Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), and “Listen,” leaves us lots of timey-wimey weirdness to think about while we wait for episode 5. The whole episode turns on exploring the idea that we’re never alone — that there’s some creature who has perfected the skill of hiding and listening to us when we find ourselves alone and talking just to keep the silence at bay. Moffatt does a good job taking this common experience and making it creepy. It’s is a trick he excels at, so it’s no coincidence that “Listen” is the best Moffatt episode I’ve seen in awhile.
The episode opens with the Doctor studying evolution as a way of perfecting survival skills. He examines “hunting” on the plains of Africa and “defense” in some deep, dark Pacific trench. Then he turns his attention to “hiding.” And of course, hiding can be a part of both hunting and defense, but he turns it into its own separate thing and asks “what if?”
Meanwhile, Clara is having the date with Danny Pink that was promised in “Into the Dalek,” and it is an awkward date indeed. The two of them take turns insulting one another until Clara finally leaves and goes home to find the TARDIS waiting in her bedroom. From there, things get cool. The Doctor has a theory that everyone, at least once in their lives, has the same dream, and that this dream is connected to the unseen presence that’s always hiding and listening when we’re alone. He links the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits to Clara’s mind and has it extrapolate her timeline in an effort to find the moment in Clara’s life when she had the dream.
Clara’s distracted by a call from Danny Pink and the TARDIS lands at a moment in Danny’s childhood when he’s frightened of the unseen presence. The Doctor gives young Danny (whose name is actually Rupert) a speech in which he explains that “fear is a superpower.” Clara gives Danny a toy soldier to help him cope with the fear. As the two of them leave, the Doctor, unaware that this is the younger version of the guy Clara’s dating, scrambles young Danny’s memory and gives him a dream of being a soldier.
From here, we go back to the date for another round of awkwardness, encounter time-travel pioneer Col. Orson Pink (also played by Anderson) who’s obviously a descendant of Danny, and possibly of Clara as well. The Doctor’s found Orson accidentally stranded at the end of the universe due to a time travel accident. There’s an encounter with the unseen presence (or possibly merely with the Doctor’s own fear). Clara takes control of the TARDIS to escape, and lands at a moment in what appears to be the Doctor’s childhood in which he’s struggling with the same fear young Rupert Pink was dealing with in the earlier scene. Clara hides under the Doctor’s bed and gives him the same speech about fear she’d heard the Doctor give Rupert earlier. She also leaves him the same toy soldier, which had been preserved by the Pink family for generations, and which Orson had given her during the encounter at the end of the universe.
Confused? Sorry. This is the most difficult-to-write-about episode of television I’ve ever watched, and that’s the best I can do. However, the difficulty of translating the episode into text is the only negative thing I have to say in this review. It’s just that good.
My favorite scene in “Listen” is the moment when Clara tells the Doctor “do as you’re told.” He’d said that to her earlier in the episode, after threatening to never travel with her again if she didn’t follow his orders. I like the way the relationship between these two characters is developing, and I love the fact that Clara insists on interacting with the Doctor as an equal despite this incarnation’s penchant for paternal condescension. I’m also liking Danny Pink a lot. I’m eager to see where his story goes, and can’t wait for the Doctor to realize Clara’s dating him.
It’s also cool that the encounter between Clara and the young Doctor takes place in the same barn that the War Doctor retreats to with the Moment during The Day of the Doctor. I didn’t review that episode; I had such problems with it I was afraid I’d just come across as a Moffatt-hater; so instead I made a list of all the things I liked about it after it aired. You can read all 46 of them here.
All-in-all, this is a very strong episode. It’s good to have a creepy Moffatt episode that’s riddled with time paradoxes. Moffatt hasn’t lost his touch with stand-alone episodes at all. “Listen” gives me more hope that this season might turn out all right. I think if Moffatt & Co. keep doing interesting things with Clara and deliver a not-unsatisfying season arc, the acting will take care of the rest and Doctor Who will be back in business.
I’m interested to see what Will makes of this episode. It seems as though our likes/dislikes from this season are nearly always opposite. He reviewed the first two episodes more harshly than me; but his review of “Robot of Sherwood” was actually more positive than my own. Comparing notes each week with other Who fans is by far my favorite part of this tv blogging thing; tune in next week to see what I make of episode 5.