Why do we talk out loud when there’s no one else around? What if no one is ever really alone? And what does the last of the Time Lords not want to admit he is scared of?
What does the Doctor do when he’s alone? He thinks too much, he looks for a mystery to solve and he inevitably finds trouble. New face, same old Doctor!
It’s déjà vu all over again
What if the big bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s just afraid of the dark?
Over the past year or so, show-runner Steven Moffat has come under criticism from some fans for a tendency to revisit his favourite ideas. Whether it is his repeated use of River Song or the Paternoster gang, bringing everyday objects or fears to life (statues becoming the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada in the shadows), a penchant for companions who are inextricably intertwined with the Doctor‘s life (Amy, Clara and now, to a lesser extent, Danny), or an obsession with complex timey-wimey plots (Blink and The Big Bang for starters), there are certainly some common motifs which crop up repeatedly in Moffat-penned tales.
If you’re in that camp of critics, then you’ll have had a field day with Listen. There’s no River or Madame Vastra, but all those other tropes are present and correct.
The episode revolves around the Doctor’s theory that children’s universal nightmares about things that go bump in the night might be the result of some silent, perfectly hidden species that accompany us all when we think we’re alone. Ultimately, this is just a projection of the Doctor’s own childhood fears, but it’s a great idea. After all, what else could be scarier to a kid than the notion that their nightmares are reality?
Also, how cool is it that one of the night-time noises that awakens the boy is his own TARDIS dematerialising? Over the years we have come to condition ourselves to find the sound of the TARDIS reassuring – but it’s actually quite scary, isn’t it?
I’ll come back to Danny in a moment, but Clara goes all ‘Impossible Girl’ once more as she pops up in the Doctor’s timeline again. She inadvertently becomes the thing underneath the bed and the ankle-grabber in his boyhood nightmare. She plants the idea that fear can make him kind. And she leaves behind the unarmed toy soldier to foreshadow the weaponless warrior the boy will be become.
Fear is a super-power. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger, and one day you’re going to come back to this barn and on that day you’re going to be very afraid. But that’s okay because, if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind.
Finally, Moffat outdoes himself here, inserting not one but two timey-wimey loops into this story. In both cases – first with Rupert/Danny, then with the Doctor – Clara uses her knowledge of the men she knows they will become to influence them when she encounters them as boys, whether it is planting the seed of ‘Dan the soldier man’ or shaping the young Doctor’s future in a whisper.
Does all the above make Listen derivative? Yes. Does it make it a retread of previous episodes, in particular Blink? Not really. It lacks that all too rare spark of genuine originality, but as a story that delivers scares, strong character moments and adds to the Doctor’s own back-story this is pretty hard to beat.
The mystery of Danny Pink
A soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun.
This episode covers a lot of ground in establishing Danny’s background and his relationship with Clara, whose decision to try to keep the two parts of her life separate has direct consequences in diverting the TARDIS to seek out both young Rupert and then his great-grandson Orson. It will no doubt have bigger ramifications further down the line. But for every fact we find out about Danny, another facet of his mystery reveals himself.
Right at the beginning of his date with Clara, Danny apologises that it has taken so long for it to happen because he was dealing with “family stuff”. In Into the Dalek, he covers up what he does outside of school under the guise of “reading”. So what does he actually do when he’s not teaching or with Clara? And are his family issues also just a bland cover story, or could it be related to the reason why he was in a children’s home as a boy?
Intriguingly, he’s also being set up as a human mirror image of the Doctor. The Time Lord’s past is shrouded in mystery (and what little we know isn’t always consistent either), but there’s a suggestion (albeit an ambiguous one) in the scene on Gallifrey that, as a boy, he too was in a home. And both men became soldiers who save lives: Danny dug wells and the Doctor has fought the good fight in each of his incarnations. But, just as the Doctor regrets some of the things he has done and the many lives he failed to save, remember Danny’s tear when asked in school whether he had ever killed anyone who wasn’t a soldier?
There is definitely more to Danny Pink than meets the eye.
Love and terror
I imagine that this episode is one that kids will love and have nightmares about in equal measure – the same way the Cybermen used to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies when I was a child. I wonder how many children will go to bed just that little bit more scared than usual tonight? (And, as a result, how many complaints will the BBC receive from parents?)
Personally, I loved it. It’s not Moffat’s best Who story – and let’s gloss over the notion of humans achieving time travel in the 22nd century, which goes against all series continuity as far as I can remember – but it’s a strong entry which leaves us with just a hint of ambiguity. We never really know for sure who it was that was under the bedspread in Rupert’s room, although presumably it really was just another child. And we’re never shown who wrote ‘listen’ on the Doctor’s blackboard. Again, we’re supposed to assume that the Doctor somehow did it unconsciously.
But how do we know for sure? Maybe the Doctor was right after all. Maybe we really aren’t as alone as we like to think we are …
Fun stuff, references & quotables
- Pink by name, pink by nature. Danny wears a pink shirt on his disastrous dinner date with Clara.
- “Why do you have three mirrors? Why don’t you just turn your head?”
- “People don’t need to be scared by a big grey-haired stick insect but here you are. Stay still. Shut up.”
- “Once upon a time. The end. Dad skills.”
- This isn’t the first time a companion has compelled the TARDIS to travel to the end of the universe. The presence of Jack Harkness clinging on to it achieved the same thing in Utopia.
- “Did we come to the end of the universe because of a nursery rhyme?”
- The Doctor regains consciousness in the TARDIS and blurts out, “Sontarans perverting the course of human history!” This is most likely a reference to their original appearance in the Third Doctor story The Time Warrior.