When I was a little kid, I often went to visit my great grandmother at her home in a rural part of California. It was a small, quiet house, nestled between farms and horse ranches. On one of our visits there weren’t enough beds for everyone to share, so I had to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of the bedroom. I hadn’t ever been afraid of monsters under the bed, but that night, as I stared under the bed and drifted in and out of sleep, I had a nightmare of a face snarling at me, and a hand reaching out from under the bed…
I don’t like high beds, or narrow beds, or beds that are out in the middle of a room. My bed is low to the ground, very wide, and tucked into the far corner of my room. So believe me when I say that this episode spoke to a very deep, ingrained fear in my psyche.
I have very conflicted feelings about “Listen.” It’s an episode that employs a lot of Moffat’s familiar tricks and themes, but for the first time I felt that some of them actually worked. There might even have been some self-commentary on the way he continues to return to some themes repeatedly. But I think I would’ve liked it better if I hadn’t felt like this was something I’d seen before, and I am still frustrated by a lot of very familiar problems in his writing.
Moffat loves to create monsters that play on very basic fears. The Weeping Angles can only move when you aren’t observing them. The Vashta Nerada lurk in the dark and can’t be seen until they infect your shadow. The Silence make you forget them as soon as you turn away. Your natural impulses betray you. So what do you make people afraid of, once you’ve made them so afraid of themselves?
Their fear itself.
In a way, it’s the natural and logical extension of Moffat’s previous monsters. We’re entirely willing to believe, for a large part of the episode, that there really is a monster under the bed, a creature lurking behind us, a silent companion who follows our every move and hides just out of sight because it draws on our most basic fear of the unknown. Given enough time alone with our thoughts, as the world creaks around us, the creaking of pipes can become a monster lurking in our walls. And the Doctor has far too much time alone with his thoughts.
In his opening monologue, the Doctor states that evolution has created perfect hunters and perfect defense, but no perfect hiders. This, of course, is not true. Lions are incredible hunters, but humans have managed to hunt them to extinction in parts of the world. Puffer fish have an incredible defense system, but they are frequently caught and eaten as delicacies. And evolution has created animals with incredible camouflage abilities.
Evolution creates many incredible things, but it does not create perfect creatures. Evolution has given us a fear of the dark and the unknown because, as the Doctor says, fear becomes a superpower that endows us with incredible abilities of self-preservation. But our fear of the unknown is also flawed, allowing us to create dangers that are never really there. Moffat is uniquely skilled in drawing on our most primal fears to create fictional monsters that can terrify us to our cores. And in “Listen” I feel like Moffat makes a rather unique commentary on his own penchant for drawing on and exploiting those fears. Once the audience, and the Doctor, are trained to believe irrational fears might be rational, they are more likely to believe a real danger lurks in every irrational fear.
This is by far the most successful and unique episode written by Moffat that plays on the idea of a monster that can’t properly be observed, but I think I would’ve liked it better if we hadn’t seen this trick so many times before. For most of the episode I felt like we were getting a repeat of the Silence (which, arguably, could be the closest evolution has ever come to creating “perfect hiders”). Ultimately, I think Moffat did something unique with this theme, but it took me quite a long time to become fully engaged in the episode because I started off exasperated that we were revisiting this trope again. (Apologies to Gatiss, but there is literally no way to discuss “Listen” without using the word “trope”).
Moffat revisited a few of his other favorite themes in this episode, particularly the idea that time travel allows for meeting someone throughout their timeline and inadvertently influencing their life in profound ways. I’ve not been the biggest fan of the way Moffat continuously returns to this theme, particularly when he uses it to have the Doctor visit a girl as a child, only to make her a potential love interest when she is a grown woman.
But this time, it was Clara who was influencing the lives of Danny PInk and the Doctor. We returned again to the theme of what it means to be a soldier, and the various ways in which the Doctor and Danny have selected or rejected that title. I’m really interested in the parallels that are being set up between the Doctor and Danny. Clara has now been shown to have a foundational influence in both of their lives, inspiring them both with the broken toy soldier who was missing his gun. Yet each got something very different from that encounter. The Doctor seems to have been inspired to avoid becoming a soldier and instead become a Time Lord; Danny, meanwhile, was inspired to join the military and become a soldier.
I don’t think Moffat is going for a simplistic “soldier=bad” story though. The past few stories have focused on Danny’s discomfort and anger with Clara’s assumption that all soldiers do is shoot people, and given the number of parallels being drawn between Danny and the Doctor, I think Moffat is setting up a confrontation between the two.
But let’s put a pin in that for now and focus on Clara’s influence on the Doctor. The last ten minutes was, without a doubt, the most controversial scene of the entire episode. I saw two common complaints. First, many were arguing that Clara’s visit to the Doctor’s childhood violated established continuity about Gallifrey being time-locked after the Time War. But really, after “The Day of the Doctor,” why should I care that Clara’s visit to the Doctor’s childhood appears to create a few minor continuity issues that can mostly be explained away by the fact that Gallifrey wasn’t actually destroyed? It’s not a big deal, and it’s not the biggest contradiction in continuity in Doctor Who’s history.
And then, of course, there were complaints that Moffat was trying to set up Clara to be the most important person in the Doctor’s life. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with this argument. I first started seeing it crop up in responses to “The Name of the Doctor,” when Clara was shown interacting with the Doctor throughout his various regenerations. My big complaint with that moment was that we didn’t actually see Clara doing anything to save the Doctor, we just saw a lot of scenes of her looking distressed in various period costumes. In “Listen,” we actually saw her doing something substantial to influence the Doctor. I think this line of argument has a lot more to do with the fact that many people don’t like Clara. If Rose was the one comforting the Doctor as a child, would we be up in arms claiming it was wrong for a showrunner to show one particular companion having a foundational influence on the Doctor’s life? I understand why many people dislike Clara, but I think that many of the problems with her characterization are genuinely being addressed, and I’m not particularly concerned that she was the companion that had this moment with the Doctor.
Personally, I think it was one of the most touching, beautiful scenes of the entire episode (and wow was it gorgeously shot and edited). I’m really beginning to get a feel for Clara’s character now: proud but learning to admit her faults, assertive, compassionate, and intelligent in a way that is often undervalued. She understands how people work, and she particularly understands how to reach out to children.
I wish I could leave my review there and walk away saying that “Listen” was one of the better episodes of the series, but unfortunately it was plagued by a problem which has been showing up in the past few episodes written by Moffat: the Doctor’s constant harassment of Clara.
Someone described the Doctor’s treatment of Clara as “negging" to me. I don’t think that’s quite the right term—the motivation is very different. Still, it seems to follow a similar pattern. The Doctor has been continuously insulting Clara in small ways, usually targeting her appearance, and he almost seems to be deliberately aiming to attack her self-confidence. The Doctor’s rude comments to Clara go beyond mere guilelessness or obliviousness. He tends to make a patently false and insulting comment to Clara, but when Clara corrects him or otherwise indicates she was offended, the Doctor doubles down on the comment, refusing to back down and indicating that it must be Clara who is delusional for thinking otherwise about her personal appearance.
It seems that, in trying to differentiate the Eleventh Doctor’s rather flirtatious relationship with Clara from the Twelfth Doctor’s relationship with her, Moffat has gone too far in attempting to show that the Twelfth Doctor has absolutely no interest in Clara. The Doctor doesn’t need to call Clara “ugly” in every interaction to show he no longer has any interest in her appearance. He could simply stop commenting on her appearance.
The Doctor is a flawed character and one of his biggest flaws is that he is often condescending and rude towards his companions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want him called out on it every now and again. And I don’t think it’s wrong of me to assert that the Doctor’s rather pointed attacks on Clara’s appearance are beyond the pale, even for the Doctor. I don’t particularly care that Clara’s self confidence doesn’t appear to be harmed by the Doctor’s comments; I’m more concerned that Moffat seems to be determined to make this a defining feature of their relationship. It’s one of the major issues that keeps me from truly enjoying Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor, and moving forward I hope that this won’t continue to be a major part of their dynamic.