Season 8, Episode 4 —”Listen”
When I began recapping the series, I lamented that one of my biggest issues last season was the Doctor’s invincibility. While Matt Smith added an endearing child-like wonder to the titular character, his incarnation was omnipotent to the point of patronization. This power deflated any tension from the series and subconsciously told the audience “sit back, relax, the Doctor’s going to pull out some random factoid that will save the day.” Viewers were no longer fellow adventurers engaged in solving a common issue, but rather passive actors watching an expert show them up with his interstellar knowledge.
In addition to making the show rather dull, the Doctor’s skills also negatively impacted the emotional connection he had with Clara. While she sometimes came up with ingenious (and incomprehensible) solutions, for the majority of the season Clara was just along for the ride. Steven Moffat seemingly forgot that the strongest bonds are forged in a crucible; having one character carry another like a murse while he solves problems just doesn’t result in a meaningful connection viewers will believe or care about.
“Listen” addressed all of the issues above in perhaps one of the most beautiful Who episodes yet. Here Clara and the Doctor are on a level playing field, their joint struggle resulting in a deeper bond that finally felt earned rather than forced. So what happened this episode that was so good?
To the recap!
We open the episode with the Doctor practicing space yoga while wearing a lovely polka dot sweater (side note: is it bad that I want this outfit?). Inside the TARDIS, he wonders if there is a logical reason why we all feel like someone is hovering around us even though we think we’re alone. What if, the Doctor proposes, we each have a shadow companion whose main purpose in life is to hide and observe us? Just as he wonders what this creature would want, the Doctor turns around to find the word “LISTEN” scribbled onto a chalkboard.
This episode’s plot ingeniously tapped into a universal experience that feels alien and tried to match it with an explanation that is truly outer worldly. This twist echoed how the Matrix trilogy tried to explain déjà vu moments as glitches in the larger matrix rather than oddities of the brain.
Back on Earth we’re treated to a mirror of “Into the Dalek”’s endearingly awkward Clara/Danny scene. This time, however, it is Clara who mentally recounts how the interaction went sour. Despite their obvious attraction, the two have a difficult time navigating the assumptions and pre-conceived notions each has formed about the other. With both characters instinctually going on the defensive, the date takes a disastrous turn when Clara storms out of the restaurant.
When the Doctor wishes to whisk her away on a new space adventure, Clara is reluctant to join him, as she hopes Danny will contact her to work out their differences.
Despite her reservations, the Doctor pulls her into the TARDIS to share his newest observation: at some point in their lives, every single person has had the same nightmare of a person hiding underneath the bed. But what if something was hiding under the bed and we all just deluded ourselves into thinking it was a figment of our imagination? Baby Elena is so not cool with this storyline.
In order to research the issue, the Doctor proposes allowing the TARDIS to go back into Clara’s timeline to the point where she had the nightmare herself. Clara is telepathically connected with the TARDIS (hey, that’s nifty!), and the machine attempts to hone in on the nightmare by extrapolating events tied to her past and future. Unfortunately, Clara’s phone rings during the link, and the companion thinks of Danny rather than her childhood dream (hey, I would rather be thinking of handsome men too).
When the TARDIS arrives at the West Country Children’s Home in mid 90s Gloucester, a location unknown to Clara, something is immediately amiss. Inside the home, the Doctor pulls out the ‘ol psychic paper and gets past the guard by feigning a 2AM surprise home inspection. Sure, let’s not pursue the strange, trench-coat man that’s sneaking into a building full of defenseless children in the middle of the night.
While the Doctor investigates his shadow stalker theory, Clara is struck by the sight of a child named Rupert who looks suspiciously like a baby version of Danny. After confirming that Rupert and Danny are one and the same, Clara attempts to soothe the little boy’s fears regarding foot-snatching monsters. This episode had much suspense, but no scene was better handled than this one. How many of us gasped when the bed creaked with weight on top of Clara and little Rupert?
In addition to great tension, the bedroom scene also brought about the first of many ambiguities into the storyline. While underneath the bed, Rupert tells Clara that a third person couldn’t have entered the room while they were speaking. Because we’re not in the room with the characters, our instinct is to believe Rupert and assume that what caused the mattress to dip is an alien creature. Logically, however, there is a distinct possibility that the figure underneath the blanket is human child playing a trick. The latter explanation is actually much more plausible. Rupert is an unreliable narrator, as he might be subconsciously ignoring evidence of someone entering the room because he already believes a monster exists. This theory is supported by the fact that neither Rupert nor Clara noticed the Doctor sneaking into the armchair in the bedroom until he turned on the lights.
The two possibilities douse the entire episode with uncertainty: is the Doctor obsessively pursuing a universal mystery, or is he merely trying to find a rational explanation for his own fear?
Upon seeing the blanket figure, the Doctor tries to find utility in fear, instructing Rupert to think of fear as a superpower that prepares your body to flee or fight. The figure then exits the room once the team turns around and gives it the anonymity it so craves.
Before leaving, Clara attempts to comfort little Rupert by surrounding him with plastic army men that will protect him from any closet monsters. Tellingly, Clara tells Rupert that the most powerful soldier of all is the one without a gun (“Dan the Soldier Man”), because he doesn’t need a fun to protect his friends. This explanation is in line with Danny’s earlier insistence that a modern soldier has more dimensions than just being a weapon. The Doctor objects to Clara’s reassurances as “coddling”, hinting at his own issues with fear and its rationalization.
Side note: did we know the Doctor could just put people to sleep just by touching their foreheads? Why does he not use this power on baddies all the time?
Inside the TARDIS, Clara asks the Doctor to take her back to the moment just after she stormed off from her date with Danny. Taking the place of her past self, Clara attempts to mend her relationship by admitting that she tends to jump to conclusions and speak too much when she gets nervous. The pair’s connection is once again disrupted when Clara accidentally reveals her knowledge of Danny’s childhood name. Oh dear sweet god this was the sci-fi equivalent of liking your crush’s Facebook photos from 2007 at 4AM.
After Danny storms out (man this date was really dramatic), Clara is beckoned into the kitchen by an astronaut, because sure. The evening gets even more surreal when the astronaut reveals himself to be Orson Pink, an astronaut from the future who just happens to look exactly like Danny. Thankfully, the story doesn’t attempt any Back to the Future accidental mom romancing shenanigans.
The Doctor explains that a trace of Clara’s timeline was used by the TARDIS to locate another moment connected to under-the-bed monsters. This point in time involved a trip to the “end of the universe”, a place where Orson had been accidentally transported to as humans’ first time travel test subject. When the Doctor asks Clara if she has any idea as to why she’s so closely connected to the Pinks, she feigns ignorance. Why is Clara lying? My bet is that she doesn’t want the Doctor in her life more than he already is.
After showing Clara the quiet, desolate landscape of the end of the universe, the Doctor insists the TARDIS needs to recharge overnight in order to make the jump to Orson’s time period. After spending six months stranded in the desolate area (how did he have that much food?), Orson admits he began believing that there are unseen beings in the area that might do him harm. Upon hearing this information, the Doctor strengthens his malevolent shadow creature theory: with no one to hide from at the end of the universe, the creatures might be ready to finally show themselves.
Once again the developments in the story are ambiguous. While Orson may have locked the door in order to protect himself from real creatures, he might have also been imagining things due to his isolation. The message “don’t open the door” could have also easily been written by Orson as an attempt to stop himself from committing suicide due to loneliness.
When the ship somehow becomes unlocked, the Doctor refuses to enter the safety of the TARDIS, his curiosity overtaking any sense of self-preservation. After the hull is breached, Orson must rescue a conked-out Doctor. In an attempt to get them out of danger, Clara uses the telepathic circuits to travel to another point in time. In the new location, the companion finds herself in a barn housing a small boy crying in bed. After a couple comes in and discusses how the child’s fears will impede him from becoming a time lord, Clara realizes that the small boy is not Danny, but the Doctor.
In a heartbreaking moment, Clara grabs onto the little boy’s foot much like the monsters he is so afraid of. Understanding what she must do, Clara asks the boy to climb back into bed and accept that what is happening to him is part of a dream. Holding him, Clara soothingly explains that being afraid isn’t cowardly.
After the tiny Doctor falls asleep, Clara returns to the TARDIS and asks the Doctor to take off and never ask her where they’ve been. Much like the Doctor ordering Clara to go into the TARDIS back on the ship, she orders her hero to obey her order.
The episode sweetly ends with Clara visiting Danny and giving him a well-deserved kiss and Orson getting safely home.
Overall opinion: Is the dark really filled with monsters, or do we create monsters simply to overcome the shame of being irrationally afraid of the unknown? This episode offered up two alternative answers to this question that tell us equally valuable information about Clara and the Doctor.
If there really are shadow monsters, Clara’s actions are protective. Back on the ship, the Doctor recklessly endangered his life to satisfy his own curiosity. The message to the young Doctor thus becomes: you don’t always need to find the justification for your fear if it involves risking your safety. If there are no shadow monsters (my personal theory), then Clara compassionately helps the Doctor accept that fear is not synonymous with weakness. No matter what your theory regarding “Listen” is, the episode is unquestionably a brave one for tackling a facet of the Doctor’s timeline that affects all of his regenerations.
I also applaud Steven Moffat for completely turning around Clara as a character. Over the course of four episodes, the companion’s qualities from last season have been so satisfyingly expanded upon that she feels absolutely real. Clara is no longer brave or compassionate because that’s what the story requires her to be; she is brave and compassionate because that’s who she is. She doesn’t help the Doctor as a child because she’s there to advance his storyline; she helps the Doctor because it’s in her nature to be kind and understanding with others just like she was with Rupert. At long last, Clara and the Doctor have become characters who care and help one another in equally meaningful ways and I could not be happier.
Bonus points: To Sam Anderson for being able to act platonically towards Jenna Coleman as Orson, and for turning on the adorable flirty chemistry as Danny.
Doctor: “The deep and lovely dark. Could never see the stars without it”
Doctor: “People don’t need to be lied to.” / Clara: “People don’t need to be scared by a big grey-haired stick insect, but here you are.”