Doctor Who (Series 8 Episode 4)
BBC1. 7.30pm. 13.09.14.
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
I always felt that Steven Moffat wrote some of the best stand-alone episodes of Doctor Who during the RTD ‘era’. As well as creating original and genuinely scary new monsters such as the Weeping Angels (‘Blink’) and Vashta Narada (‘Silence in the Library’-‘Forest of the Dead’), Moffat seemed to understand instinctively what made Doctor Who both compelling and frightening at the same: the fear of the unknown. The wartime London two-parter ‘The Empty Child’-‘The Doctor Dances’ remains in my view one of the very best new Doctor Who stories with its haunting ‘Are you my mummy?’ association between childhood and the monstrous and its exploration of the darker side of Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ mythology. Even the least of Moffat’s RTD-era scripts, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, contains some stand-out moments such as the march of the Clockwork Robots as well as a moving tragic romance for the Tenth Doctor and Madame du Pompadour.
Since taking on the full role of executive producer and writer-in-chief, however, I’ve felt that Moffat’s scripts have been lacking some of the quality his earlier stories had shown. Not bad, as such – I don’t think Moffat is capable of writing a bad script – but not reaching the heights of ‘The Empty Child’ or ‘Blink’ (which admittedly set the bar very high indeed.) ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was an excellent introductory adventure for the Eleventh Doctor, and with ‘The Day of the Doctor’ Moffat produced a tour de force to mark Doctor Who’s Golden Jubilee that celebrated the series’ history while at the same time opening up a whole range of new narrative possibilities for taking it forward. And ‘The Time of Angels’-‘Flesh and Stone’ was a terrifically creepy Aliens-inspired return for the Weeping Angels – in my view the best of the new series’ new monsters who have wisely been used sparingly.
But elsewhere, as the series’ showrunner with responsibility for its overall direction and style, Moffat has too often had to pack his episodes with exposition and story arc stuff that detracts from their coherence as individual stories. There was criticism of the complex story arc of Series 6 which even some fans found difficult to follow let alone casual viewers. This tendency had begun in earnest with the Series 5 conclusion ‘The Pandorica Opens’-‘The Big Bang’ and reached its fullest extent in ‘The Wedding of River Song’ which was packed full of imaginative ideas but made little sense in its own right. Moffat also lost the knack of writing endings – something that his predecessor Davies also had trouble with towards the end of his tenure – and so has preferred to end a series with a cliffhanger or ‘hook’ for the next such as Dorium’s ‘On the fields of Trenzalore …’ at the end of Series 6 and the appearance of a hitherto unknown incarnation of the Doctor in Series 7 (‘The Name of the Doctor’). This is a strategy borrowed from American telefantasy series – and before that of long-running soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty – and might be seen as further evidence of Doctor Who’s increasing orientation under Moffat towards the US market. It can be confusing for casual viewers and for newcomers to the series – though the frequent repeats and availability of past episodes on iPlayer and DVD means that new series fans can more readily access previous episodes than during classic Doctor Who.
All this is a bit of a preamble into an episode that I think demonstrated Moffat’s writing skills to their best advantage and was nearly as good as his very best Doctor Who stories. For one thing ‘Listen’ worked as a stand-alone story without needing to fit into a story arc. (A cutaway to the War Doctor in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ helped to explain a hanging plot point from that story but wasn’t necessary for understanding this episode.) In a sense ‘Listen’ was a pastiche of previous Moffat stories. The monster that can’t be seen like the Silence – check. The frightened little boy of ‘The Empty Child’ – check. Something hiding under your bed as in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ – check. And this time instead of having to keep your eyes open, as in ‘Blink’, the trick was to keep them closed.
A characteristic of Moffat-era Doctor Who has been to reimagine the series as a horrific fairytale. ‘Listen’ developed the theme of Mark Gatiss’s Series 6 episode ‘Night Terrors’ which posited that the most frightening place in the universe is inside a child’s bedroom. Here there are two children whose destinies – in a typically clever story-telling conceit – are linked through the accidental intervention of the Doctor’s current companion Clara. One is Clara’s putative love interest for this series, Danny Pink. The Doctor’s attempt to reassure the frightened young Danny by taking strength from his own fear, combined with Clara offering him toy soldiers as protection, provides some character background for Danny as his reason for joining the army later in life. The other child – perhaps surprisingly – turns out to be the Doctor himself. And it is Clara who, as when she entered all his timelines in ‘The Name of the Doctor’, again turns out to be cause of his fear when she instinctively grabs his foot. This, we have already established, is the source of a recurring nightmare for the Doctor. Clara repeats the Doctor’s advice to take strength from his own fear – thus imprinting the advice which the Doctor will later offer to the young Danny.
‘Listen’ was most effectively directed by Douglas Mackinnon, who also did such a good job on ‘Cold War’ in Series 7 and who might be emerging as the new series’ Douglas Camfield. It demonstrated that elaborate visual effects and epic narrative arcs are not necessary to make a good episode. The greater psychological intensity of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor was again in evidence as – evidently bored with no mysteries to investigate for once – he goes looking for something to fill his time. No holiday jaunt in the TARDIS for the Capaldi Doctor: his way of amusing himself is to explore his own childhood trauma.
Doctor Who has often been at its best when it draws upon primal childhood fears. And with ‘Listen’, it was once again the scariest thing on television.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.