I can honestly say that "Listen" is probably the most difficult episode of Doctor Who I've ever had to review. Even aside from the fact that it's probably the most atypical episode since "Blink', it's nearly impossible to discuss it without revealing major plot points. To that end, I'm going to try to keep to generalities on page one, but page two is definitely only for those who aren't worried about having the episode's revelations discussed at length.
Capaldi gives us a very interesting look at his Doctor on his own. It's actually pretty rare to see The Doctor without a mirror in the form of a companion. Ten did so with terrible loneliness in "Partners in Crime" and Eight showed off his hyperactive jabbering really happens whether there's anyone around to listen or not in "Storm Warning", but Twelve is something very sinister when he broods in his solitude.
"Listen" is about nightmares. At its heart it is an exploration on the very nature of fear, and while I still think Steven Moffat's ability to execute his ambitious idea has fallen below par writing-wise you can't take anything from the fact that "Listen" has a pretty brilliant premise.
The Doctor, like everyone else in the history of creation, has a bad dream. In that dream, he thought he was awake, but when he slipped out of the bed something from underneath grabbed him. It's as universal as dreaming your teeth are going to fall out or that you're late and naked to a big test.
Except that The Doctor, Capaldi's strange, manically-obsessed, Sherlockian Doctor, refuses to let it be just a dream. Between his deductions in "Robot of Sherwood" and his imagining of creatures that live to hide being the inspiration of his nightmare he is actually starting to come across as something of a conspiracy theorist. His ever-present chalkboard scribbles are his version of reposting links from the Alex Jones Facebook page.
In his defense, if there was ever anyone who would be perfectly justified in thinking everything was actually a hidden conspiracy it would be The Doctor. It's strange to see him so afraid though. As he himself says to a young Danny Pink when he and Clara travel back in time, fear is a superpower that gives you focus and strength. That's Capaldi's Doctor. He's completely terrified at all times. He seeks danger like an adrenaline junkie.
Spoilers start on the next page.
Here's the thing though... we never really know if there was ever anything to be really afraid of. Despite there being one of the creepiest moments in the history of the show, there's absolutely no hard evidence that there's even a monster to be fought. It really could have just been a kid under a blanket. The Doctor might just have dropped his chalk. The noises outside Orson Pink's ship could have just been air pressure equalizations. No one gets hurt. No one is attacked.
They're only scared. So when I saw people on Facebook and Twitter screaming, "What was under the sheet?!" my reply was, "Same thing that's under my daughter's bed; nothing." It was nothing to be scared of. Call it Nothing with a capital N if you like, but that's still what it is.
Even in the end, it's revealed that while The Doctor did have something under his bed, it wasn't a monster. It was actually someone he loved that just happened to scare him at a bad moment.
Now that's brilliant, and for the most part Moffat pulled off that multi-layered exploration of fear very well. I think that more credit should go to Douglas Mackinnon's masterful direction and the sheer skill of Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, though because the episode still showed many examples of weak writing.
It's clear that Moffat is setting us up for another River Song-style, multi-adventure mystery. It's Buffy the Vampire Slayer Big Bad 101, but Moffat is getting very sloppy with his signature story plotting.
"Listen" had some great "No Way!" moments. Seeing The Doctor as a child, even as a shadow, was groundbreaking. It did tie in nicely with Moffat's idea that in some way shape or form Clara has been with him since the beginning. It was also wonderful to see nods to the War Doctor, proof that Hurt's one-off performance will not cosigned to the dustbin of Whovian mythology like The Valeyard.
But it's also very backwards-looking. It's as if we're being consoled by making us remember the great twists we've seen since 2011. The problem is Moffat has gotten addicted to offering us gut-punching shockers to smooth over the fact that there's often a bunch of silly stuff going on that's rather pointless.
"Night of the Doctor" and "Time of the Doctor" sailed through rather lackluster scripts because we were going to endure anything for the endings we knew were coming and the on-screen redemption of Paul McGann. "Day of the Doctor" was better, but 90 percent of everything involving the Zygons felt like padding the running time until a grand finale. Eleven's phone call in "Deep Breath", Rusty joining the human ranks in "Into the Dalek", and even the shock ending of "Listen" are all last-minute Hail Mary passes to squeak out victories.
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Of the last seven episodes Moffat has written or co-written six of them, cementing one of the greatest periods of transition in the show's history to his vision and his vision alone. I think that's a mistake. One of the ways Doctor Who has always kept itself new and different is that it was always very good about letting writers take their own stabs at the character. They're guided, true, but they often add something that the overlords may miss.
All we've had in the last seven episodes to cleanse the palette is Mark Gatiss last week... and as fond as I am of "Robot" this is the second time in a row Gatiss has pulled the whole "Doctor loses the sonic screwdriver" trope.
There is lots to love about the era of Twelve. Capaldi is magnificent, and Coleman is a great companion. The new Tardis interior is the warmest and has the most personality of any since the 1996 movie. As much as I roll my eyes at the Big Badding of the show, I can't wait to see where this Promised Land stuff goes.
But if we're going to enjoy the journey to its fullest, Moffat needs to turn the safeguards off and let the Tardis fly a bit. "Listen" was fantastic, but it might have been even more fantastic if all Moffat had to worry about was telling a story instead of advancing an epic.