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Listen
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Premiere, 13 September 2014, BBC One

Occasionally an episode of Doctor Who comes along that makes you think differently about the show’s parameters: what it can do, what it can be, and what it can mean. Described by Steven Moffat as a “chamber piece”, this looks like a money-saving installment, focusing predominantly on the main cast of regulars, with no guest stars to speak of and no (visible) monsters. On paper, it's an odd idea. In fact, this doesn’t sound much like Doctor Who at all (even if it has a kind of precedent going back to 1964’s ‘The Edge of Destruction’).

Yet 'Listen' is a strong candidate for the most intricately structured 50 minutes of Who ever. Near the episode's beginning we see the Doctor in Clara’s mirror, reflected three times over, and it’s an image that prefigures three journeys into characters’ pasts and futures, along with three fragments of childhood or child-like fear. 'Listen' is rammed full of Moffatisms: there are fairytale rhymes, things you can’t look at but can only sense or glimpse, child characters who are given prominent roles, and non-linear storytelling with timelines jumbling, jumping and stuttering. But 'Listen' is much more than a showrunner’s reprise: it isn’t simply this year’s ‘Blink’, for example. For one thing, it doesn’t (quite) deliver a new monster – instead it questions what monsters do, and what functions they can serve, for those who pursue them. Very often in Doctor Who, monsters represent something; they’re allegories or symbols for a range of anxieties. 'Listen' purifies that strategy, boiling Who’s monsters down to their simplest, starkest essence: an experience of fear and a desire for knowledge.

Of course, it’s tempting to see ‘Listen’ as a meditation on childhood; a piece of pop psychoanalysis where our favourite Time Lord can be understood though a very briefly sketched childhood trauma, and where the child is all too obviously the father of the man. But at its crucial moments, ‘Listen’ isn’t about childhood at all: it’s more about parenting. The Doctor shouts at Clara, ordering her to safety as he prepares to confront his own fear and his own need to know: he asserts tough patriarchal authority, positioning Clara as a child who can't evaluate own best interests. But the ‘impossible girl’ is also given a maternal if not matriarchal role, later informing the Doctor that he must do as he is told (something he recognizes and submits to). 'Listen' is, at least partly, about knowing when to heed authority and when to listen to a parent’s protective voice. It is, finally, not the Doctor who’s given an omniscient voice-over; it's Clara who watches over him, as if parentally, and Clara who ties together the episode’s themes as one culminating object is threaded through two different childhoods and a family inheritance. The same image, the same material artefact, seemingly gives rise to “Dan the soldier man” and the Doctor that we know; each becomes a distorted mirror image of the other. Scared may be "a superpower", but that superpower is both metaphorical and literal in the current Doctor Who universe, refracted in different ways through Danny Pink and the Doctor.

Fear and the unseen monster – the “figure”, as closing credits dub it – are equated; each stands as a sort of constant companion. But there are other equations that are more subtle and even more intriguing. What are the two things that this episode refuses to show us clearly? The monsters that must never be seen… and the young Doctor, reduced to a silhouette and a curl of hair. Neither the monsters nor the child-Doctor can be clearly apprehended. The monster’s power – its hold over the imagination – stems from remaining invisible; it is an empty space, a blank Rorschach test onto which anything can be projected. But the proto-Doctor is equally withheld; for all that this story seems to stretch the show’s boundaries and format, it refuses to convert the unseen Doctor into a prosaic face and figure. Resisting realism and refusing representation, the young Doctor is just as mysterious as the perfectly hidden creatures, and hence he remains just as much a space for projection, imagination and fantasy. The Doctor and the monster: both are rendered dream-like and oneiric, shimmering at the edges of perception.

Douglas Mackinnon directs this evocative material with aplomb, having recently been responsible for half of Line of Duty 2, which itself featured a stellar performance from Keeley Hawes (gracing the ‘Next Time’ trailer here). Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson both shine in their Coupling-style flashforwards/flashbackwards romance, with Anderson also convincing in the dual role of Danny/Orson Pink. But for me this episode belongs to Peter Capaldi. He’s mesmerizing when speaking out loud to himself, and looks alarmingly demented at moments, as he seeks to uncover what’s “under your bed”. This is cerebral, provocative Doctor Who at its very finest (where provocative is probably ‘scary’ for deep people). And it features one of the most unusual missions in the series’ long history: this Doctor isn't seeking to overthrow an oppressive regime or repel an alien invasion. No, he wants to engage in the interpretation of dreams, unusually allowing the TARDIS to travel via 'subconscious' means.

To worry about continuity seems to miss all the poetry of this episode. Perhaps some devotees will feel that the Doctor’s early years should have stayed firmly off-screen, or that Clara is being given too much sway over the Doctor’s identity here – she seems to symbolically create “Dan” and the Time Lord: soldiers whose power to protect is rooted in fear. Perhaps others will worry about how the TARDIS can so easily find its way to that barn, and that tearful child. But if 'Listen' plays on certain fan fears (of a Doctor that isn’t quite heroic or mysterious enough), then it does so in order to find new possibilities in the programme’s storytelling engines, and to worry away at fixed images of 'the hero'. In The Inner World of Doctor Who, Iain MacRury and Michael Rustin suggest that the Doctor can often be interpreted as a kind of “inadvertent therapist” (p.290), listening to others and helping them remake and re-order their lives. Here, though, it is the Doctor who is analysed by a script that ranks among the show’s most experimental explorations. What really lurks under the Doctor's bed? This is Doctor Who that demands to be thought about. It’s the programme’s format rewritten and yet perfectly encapsulated at one and the same time. And it leaves us with a beautiful image: the good enough hero as a kind of broken soldier.

The economical, sparse and interlocking structures of 'Listen' – treating continuity as a space for creative play – potentially make this Steven Moffat’s best Who script to date. It’s about striking images rather than spectacular effects; it’s about what it means to be scared, rather than cool and merchandisable monsters; it’s about “real, inter-human” date stuff just as much as the end of time, and it’s about the productive, transformative work that dreaming can sometimes perform. Rupert’s dream which gives rise to his new self may be implanted by the Doctor, in a sense, just as the Doctor’s own 'dream' of himself is seeded by Clara, but these science-fictional suggestions nevertheless stress the importance of our interior lives and dreamscapes. The Doctor’s interest in a seemingly universal dream (and its interpretation) ultimately gives way to dreams of a better self.

On paper, this might not sound quite like Doctor Who. Perhaps this ‘Fear & Monsters’ riff amounts to Moffat’s ‘Love & Monsters’ moment, and may be it’ll prove to be just as divisive. But watch ‘Listen’ without prejudice, and you’ll find series eight of Doctor Who humming with a darkly glittering and serious brilliance. We’re past the fiftieth anniversary, but there are still new things, as raw and energising as childhood fears, to be said and heard through the medium of Who.

There can't really be an 'instant classic': classics take time to settle into fan consensus. But if such an entity existed, and if it could be glimpsed, then 'Listen' would surely deserve the title.

LinkCredit: BBC,Peter Capaldi, Series 8/34 
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