“Zagreus sits inside your head, Zagreus lives among the dead, Zagreus sees you in your bed and eats you when you're sleeping ...”
TV Nursery rhymes have always had a queer effect on the Doctor. Usually it's when he’s up against it with The Celestial Toymaker but in the Big Finish fortieth anniversary audio, Zagreus, it led three and a half hours of Disney crossed with Hammer crossed with Asimov leading to Eighth absorbing more anti-time than his constitution should have really and marooning himself in something called the Divergent universe for a few years until the revival of the television series prompted his return or something like that anyway. The point is that if you want to see Doctor Who when it’s at its most experimental, there’ll usually be a sinister nursery rhyme in there somewhere.
I’ve never had the under the bed dream. I did once think I saw a ghost at the end of the bed, that looked like my Dad, in pain, which isn’t really the kind of hallucination you want to have when you’re six years old. Under the bed to me is the place where I keep all my cds, Doctor Who fan videos and episode 3 of The Underwater Menace on VHS. It’s where I look as the place of last resort when I’ve searched everywhere for a television remote control, keys or my right shoe and where I invariably find all of these items along with various other burton coggles, plimlico, ballycumber and recently replaced nottage. I’m a bit of a worksop, truth be told.
But I can understand fear of the unknown. I spent a whole year at university worrying about utility bills which failed to arrive at our shared student accommodation. After a while we’d assumed we’d in fact moved into one of those places where the landlord picked up the tab, but were still in the situation in which we didn’t want to ask him in case he actually wasn’t or indeed contact the utility companies to find out if that was the situation either lest they backdated the whole lot. So I spent most of that year white with fear that something terrible might happen in relation to money. I attribute my current, unceasing tiredness to those sleepless nights. But I digress…
Since I’ve been neglecting it in previous weeks, I should probably say up front that I’m a Yes voter on the quality of the episode. Every now and then, Doctor Who becomes magical, surprises you and throws you so completely for the loop to the point that even if you’ve seen or heard every television story and read those old articles about structure in last decade’s Doctor Who Magazine and think you know how one of its stories will go, you have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go. For all the, well yes, obvious structural similarities to some of writer Steven Moffat’s previous escapades, I had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with them next.
Which of course as you’ve probably already calculated creates a complication for me because I haven’t the first clue how to write about the thing. Back in the Behind The Sofa days for me and when Steven Moffat just wrote episodes for someone else I always had the perennial problem of them being of such high quality I didn’t know how to review them which led to such masterpieces as this and this. Since he became showrunner I’ve largely managed to put all that to one side, mostly because he’s been stuck writing the arc stories. Now here he is back in stand-alone mode and here I am with no idea how to proceed. Apologies for the following nonsense.
Let’s get the apparent “problem” out of the way first then. Complaining about recycling in Doctor Who, even from the same writer, is a bit like losing your temper over the council turning up to collect the blue or green plastic box outside your house every fortnight. Pretty much every script Terry Nation wrote for the programme and even the ones he didn’t, tell roughly the same Dalek story to the point that it’s always a disappointment now when at least one character in every episode isn’t called Tarrant. Doctor Who in total only has about three genres and they’re all about alien invasions and time travel. It’s what it does.
So yes, Listen has a similar structure as The Time of the Doctor with Clara’s adventures with the Time Lord happening in and out of a significant life event, in this case her first date rather than Christmas lunch. Yes, it’s also about her visiting significant people across their timeline, in this case various shades of Pinky and the Brain and making an important contribution to their lives. Yes, at one point it seems to be offering us a variation on not blinking and turning our back by advising the opposite. Yes, there’s the element of a companion not telling the Doctor something important which will presumably become important later.
Except I think Moffat knows this. He’s a good enough writer to know when he’s recycling and mores to the point that we’ll know he’s recycling too. He knows we watched The Time of the Doctor, not least because he referenced what seemed originally like an insignificant detail in Deep Breath. He also knows we’ve seen The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor which are also referenced. As well as the titles, what those three episodes all share is that they’re significant moments for Clara and specifically Clara helping the Doctor to overcome his fears. He’s servicing the franchise as an entity by crystallising one of its and his earlier thought processes.
If the episode is about how fear drives the Doctor, when Clara drives the TARDIS she’s taking him to a pair of what would otherwise be considered “short trips”, mini-adventures which would otherwise be just the thing to appear in a Virgin Decalog. Or Dualogue if you like. In other words, he’s gleefully reversing the rules of Blink here for the benefit of a passing alien who has no less importance in the grand scheme of things than the Sinister Sponge. When he finds the chrononaut in the far future that’s all it really is. It’s to illustrate that it’s the Doctor’s fear that connects them together, just as it’s the Doctor’s fear that helps him to fight.
True both adventures are also tied together by the other significant character whose now nudging towards the same plot point status which some people think marred Clara’s first year, but that might explain why he had all of that narrative agency in episode two of the kind which they hoped would carry over from Souffle Girl and Christmas Clara but didn’t due to them being completely different characters. Now that they’ve realised their mistake, possibly also after having watched the first five episodes of Dollhouse, they’re trying to do it differently this time. Notice how much agency Pink even has here with all his Ross-like table interaction.
Why hasn’t Clara been up front about the identities of the watchful Rupert, (Mork calling) Orson and Danny Pink? Now that is something which will become significant later, when the Doctor does finally meet the ex-soldier leading to much “just another stupid ape” conversation, assuming like Amy’s Schrodingers he hasn’t already figured it out. As ex-soldiers will they instead find kinship or is there something else underlying his recently more emphatic dislike of the army? Real world interviews are providing breadcrumbs, though as we’ve discovered over the years, lying isn’t just the Doctor’s rule. Quite right too.
The problem is, there is no second, I don’t know what else you want me to say. Listen is not actually like any other Doctor Who story we’ve ever seen. Ever. Bits of it are or as we’ve already discussed, maybe, but seriously, given all of that, is there another Doctor Who story which is anything like this? No, no there isn’t. Isn’t that good? Isn’t it good that even if you think the opposite to me, that you didn’t think that it worked, that at least it didn’t work brilliantly? That it wasn’t at least like anything else you’ve seen lately even on television? This year? In the sci-fi genre? In a world where hairy old, stolidly disappointing Extant exists?
Douglas McKinnon’s direction is superb. Noticing the new style of scenes filled with dialogue he fought against the natural tendency towards loads of unnecessary camera and character movement and instead was happy to simply film the performances in that way which judging by the first three episodes is the new post-nuWho style. Once again, just as in Deep Breath we have the Doctor and Clara simply talking, the camera resting to take in the scene (albeit sometimes with a slight camera shake to create some kineticism). There’s an intimacy too, close-ups that capture the emotion of a point and not just when scares are the objective.
The performances are superb. Peter is now fully relaxed into the role, seems to know how to play it which is as we’d hoped essentially nerdy Malcolm Tucker with a moral compass but without the swears. He might say in interviews that he isn’t and in the first couple he’s clearly fighting against it, but just as Tennant eventually realised his best strategy was Casanova in the TARDIS, so here he is being entirely unapproachable until he realises he has to be and when he’s not doing that he’s remembering his own childhood and giving us some good Tom (especially when the script calls upon him to do exactly that).
Once again Jenna’s a revelation. Her scene with Rupert, just as I think it’s meant to, is resonant of Matt and his various encounters with kids, especially in A Christmas Carol and Night Terrors. Clara’s been a nanny of course in various lives, so she’s supposed to be able to talk to children (see also The Rings of Arkadian) but she brought an extra level of poetic reassurance which is very much like Eleventh. During the week I had a slightly bonkers five minutes when I wondered if the twist would be that she is somehow the Doctor in waiting ala the Watcher and would play the Time Lord next year until I realised it was slightly bonkers.
To slightly bust open one of the episode’s jaw dropping moments, how did the TARDIS land in Gallifrey’s past? Isn’t the Time War locked, including the Time Lord home planet’s history as per Engines of War? Will the TARDIS’s sudden newfound ability to visit the planet’s past become important again later? Is Gallifrey the Promised Land? Or is this, like The Doctor’s Wife simply a stand-alone event, in this case Moffat trying to prove to himself that he can still write stand alones, that not everything has to be about story arcs? Clearly not in relation to Danny Pink, but still it would be nice if this was never explained.
All of which rambling is essentially me filling in words and paragraphs so this actually looks like I made an effort. A couple of thousand words should be enough I think for tonight. At various points during the last three series of Sherlock, I’ve asked myself and others, why Doctor Who isn’t that interesting sometimes, willing to take risk with itself and its characters. Now here we are with an episode which did just that and slap bang in the middle of Saturday night between Tumble and The National Lottery. I wonder if those of us born a decade too late finally understand now what it must have been like to see An Unearthly Child in 1963?