Mork calling Orson. Come in Orson.
No, not Orson from Mork and Mindy, but Danny’s descendent, who is subsequently shown to be impossible in a continuity-busting moment. One of Steven Moffat’s recurring themes (and there are lots of those, even within just this one episode) is showing multiple versions of the same person. Yes, Orson is not the same person as Danny but he might as well be, as he is played by the same actor. That trick is well-worn, but you can’t really blame an episode for pulling a Back to the Future. It’s resolutely non-immersive, but that’s exactly the right way to do Doctor Who. The multiple versions we have been shown of Clara and Danny seem to be leading up to something big within the recurring theme, which feels like it should be feeding into the ongoing question of why the Doctor looks like Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii. Unfortunately it’s not, and the revelation when we eventually get it in The Girl Who Died is exactly the obvious thing we expected, but that’s a discussion for another day. I will look at the whole issue of actors playing other roles when we get to The Day of the Doctor, or possibly a separate article on the Curator.
A much stronger and more coherent theme is the examination of the Doctor’s persona by looking at his childhood origins, in conjunction with those of his companions, and the link between that and the theme of children changing their names. So far in the Moffat era we have had River shown as a child, but as Melody, Amy shown as a child but as Amelia, and Danny shown as a child, but as Rupert. In all these cases there is a need for a change. Melody regenerates and becomes the Doctor’s assassin and then his wife, in effect becoming a different character to where she starts out. Amelia’s childhood hero abandons her to live her childhood years without him, and his existence in her mind eventually gets labelled as a mental illness, so she moves on by turning him into a fantasy and leaving her childhood behind by becoming Amy. Rupert is a bullied child who escapes by becoming Dan the Soldier Man, in his mind to start with and eventually in reality. These are all parallels for the Doctor who is shown here to be a troubled child who eventually escapes and becomes somebody different, changing his name in the process. Looking into his past risks treading on dangerous ground by explaining too much and losing some of his mythical status, but Steven Moffat treads the line wisely, keeping things nicely vague.
We also get some exploration of the Doctor’s soldier issues. Up until this point it has been a running theme that was not really working because it seemed so out of character. It is difficult to square what we have seen so far of the Twelfth Doctor with his past history of working for UNIT, which became at times little more than a branch of the army. The Mind of Evil is a good example of that, with UNIT providing security for a peace conference. With Capaldi emulating the Pertwee Doctor in more ways than one, it highlights this odd clash of morality quite starkly. It is possible of course for a person to change their attitudes and learn from their mistakes, which would make sense but for the fact that his issues are shown here to stem from his childhood. It is a fascinating theme though, and the comparison of the Doctor with a toy soldier who has no gun is fabulous, and of course there is more to come on this theme as the series progresses.
But the best thing about this episode is the monster. In an interview for DWM, Steven Moffat said this:
“I’m going to do a chamber piece, with no money, in the middle, because I haven’t done one in ages and I’d like to prove that I can actually write.”
You can really see the approach he was going for here. Pick an unseen childhood fear and then you have a shortcut to a scary episode without having to pay for a monster costume or special effect. And to generalise, the scariest Doctor Who monsters are often the ones we see the least. I mean, you could probably plot a graph of them with scariness on one axis and screen time on the other, and get a curve. But that’s the easy bit. The really clever trick is the subversion of Blink and various other episodes, by having the monster defeated by turning away from it, accepting its existence, and coming to terms with it. And that’s utterly, completely brilliant for two reasons.
Firstly, Steven Moffat has moved Doctor Who towards fantasy more than ever before. I’ve discussed that a lot, and why it is perfect for the show. Accepting that some things cannot be explained and have to be simply accepted for what they are is very non-sci-fi, and also very non-Who if you compare it with the bulk of the Classic run in particular. It strips the sci away from the sci-fi. And Doctor Who as a magical world with the thinnest of pseudoscientific veils is the flavour of Doctor Who that I like the most.
Secondly, and much more importantly, it speaks to the children watching, and also the adults who have retained their childhood fears (as we all do, to some extent). It says that it’s ok to be afraid, even (or especially) if the fear is irrational. Because this is the kind of public service Doctor Who performs. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say it genuinely helps people. I have read and heard about plenty of examples over the years where Doctor Who has been a lifeline to people in times of trouble, especially in childhood. Speak to fans at conventions and you will hear plenty of those kinds of stories. Doctor Who has probably saved more lives than anybody will ever realise. So we need it to keep doing this kind of thing. Children need Doctor Who, and they need it to keep being like this. RP
The view from across the pond:
Like the Doctor, when speaking about this episode, it probably helps to start by thinking outside the box.
Doctor Who is an action/scifi/drama. It’s meant to keep the audience entertained and generally uses scary monsters and implied danger to give it the right pacing. It’s hard to do that without an antagonist. But that’s exactly what Listen attempts to do, and it does it superbly.
The opening with the Doctor pondering the idea that we are never truly alone is amazing. His journey into strange places to test his theory is visually beautiful and mentally stimulating. The trip to the children’s home where a young Danny Pink resides is atmospheric, eerie and marvelous. The life form in the bed is incredibly executed creating an air of tension without any direct danger. It’s a thoughtful approach to darkness and the unknown in a way that is both scary and yet non-threatening. Like a creature hiding in the dark, there’s probably a deeper commentary hidden here too! Story-wise, Listen is one of the strongest stories of the season.
But it’s not without some criticism.
Listen is written by Stephen Moffat and listen… or look… I’m very grateful for his involvement bringing Doctor Who back to our screens and giving us some truly great episodes, but I’m ready for him to put the pen down. That’s pretty harsh criticism of a man who wrote what you called one of the best episodes of the season! True, but some things bog down what should be an absolute home run, to use a turn of phrase my nephew would be delighted with!
For one, Moffat uses rudeness for comedy’s sake far too often. The interaction between Danny and Clara turns rude very fast. Clara’s relationship with the Doctor is also often rude. “Do as you’re told” and “Shut up!” are not funny quips. They are abusive. The depiction of the relationship between Danny and Clara is also based on lies; a constant stream of them, and in each case from Clara. (Not the soldier the Doctor has problems with!) Does Moffat think this is natural in relationships? Shouldn’t the “good guys” be above that? The whole “Doctor lies” thing during the Matt Smith era was Moffat’s idea too and it was terrible then and it’s terrible now. As a role model for children, this character has to be above that.
Moffat also liked doing a bit of “retconning”. That is, creating retroactive continuity. And in this era of Origin Stories, as they seem to crop up like weeds everywhere, doing this in Doctor Who is risky business. For one, there’s 50 years of established history. For two, you run the risk of destroying part of the mystery that’s embedded right in the title of the show! Creating back story for Danny Pink through “Dan the soldier man” is creepy but interesting. He learns from young that the good guy carries no weapons. Creating back story to the Doctor is dangerous. The barn scene shows us that it was Clara who gave the Doctor the lines that define him! “Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly.” This becomes the promise that is the Doctor’s name: “never cruel or cowardly”. She may have given him the “One day, I shall come back…” opener that defined the 1st Doctor’s departure from Susan as well as “Fear makes companions of us all”. It takes away part of the myth of our hero and gives it to our Narcissistic companion. And the crying child, while it may hearken back to Reinette’s “lonely boy” quote from The Girl in the Fireplace, it makes the Doctor seem like he had a very weak childhood! A loner who had a hard time coping… I don’t think that’s a good message either, unless it was meant to show those real life loners can still be extraordinary! The only good that really comes of it, is that there’s indication that the Doctor was not expected to be a Time Lord. This at least makes sense of why the second Doctor is originally confused by his regeneration saying the TARDIS was responsible for it.
And then there’s the Barn. During Day of the Doctor, I assumed that barn was somewhere NOT on Gallifrey. The sky is a beautiful blue. Gallifrey is typically burnt orange and during that scene, it is being blasted by millions of Daleks. Finding the barn was on Gallifrey was rough. To realize that the most technologically advanced civilization in the entire universe still has barns… that was a real emotional trauma! I didn’t take well to that personally, and I’d bet I’m not alone.
Lastly, we are given a taste of an alternate future that never happens with Orson Pink, as we learn by the end of the season. Danny and Clara don’t end up together. They don’t have a child and Orson basically will cease to exist. That domino effect is unpleasant and takes away part of the reason for this entire story. But then Hell Bent happened… so maybe Orson still has a shot at existing! Or it gives credence to all the false histories within Doctor Who. (Maybe that was what Moffat was really planning: to explain away all the discrepancies in Doctor Who by showing how events can be made not to happen!)
Listen, even with all this, is one heck of a ride. It’s enjoyable provided we look at the story on its own merits. In fact, in that light, it’s an amazingly good episode. The moment we start to connect the dots to the past though… let’s just say, “safety not guaranteed”! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Time Heist