If you were playing “Steven Moffat Bingo” during the latest episode of Doctor Who, you most definitely went home with a prize (or two, or three…). End of the universe? Check; see also: “The Doctor’s Wife.” Something hidden in the corner of your eye? Check; see also: “Blink,” “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead.” Preying on fears? Check; see also: “Night Terrors,” “The God Complex.” And if you were hoping to pick up a few pithy one-liners pertaining to the well-trodden themes of “darkness” and/or “fear,” you hit the jackpot as well.
And yet…shall I let you in on a little secret? I absolutely adored this episode from start to finish.
“Listen” was Steven Moffat at his storytelling peak, and I say that knowing full well that he embraced timeworn (if you’ll excuse the pun) concepts and territories both metaphorical and literal. Because Moffat’s genius comes from tackling age-old notions such as a child’s fear of the dark and injecting it with new life, while also preserving the universal appeal of such a theme. “It’s been done before” is only an accusation if the tale and the characters fall flat; on the flipside, storytelling “novelty”—such as, say, a computer animated-science fiction-romantic comedy film with minimal dialogue—must have, at its core, a beating heart.…or hearts, as it were, when it comes to our eponymous hero.
By Episode 4, the Twelfth Doctor may have finally settled into his new, prickly personality, toting his committed anti-hugging manifesto and a languid lack of social skills that manifests particularly in older folks who simply Can’t Be Bothered. When the episode begins, we see the Doctor acting out a few instantly lovable quirks: doing research For Science and writing his findings on a chalkboard, jabbering to himself, meditating on the roof of the TARDIS…you know, just a day in the life. We also get another instance of Twelve’s didactic usage of the word “question” while verbally laying out a mystery to be solved, hearkening back to his “the question is…” in Episode 1. I don’t think Twelve is cutesy enough to have an actual catchphrase like his predecessors, but in terms of general word affinities, some sort of Socratic question-answer conversation with himself looks like it’s going to recur pretty often.
So, the Doctor gets busy lecturing thin air about eeevolution, focusing on an animal’s fight-or-flight response to danger. “Question,” drones the Doctor, “Why is there no such thing as perfect hiding?” I was about to point out (to the maybe-not-so-empty room) that, um, there is? when I became distracted by the Doctor casually placing his piece of chalk in the shadows of a book.
I couldn’t help but think of another Moffat Monster that hides in the shadows: the Vashta Nerada from “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead.” While this allusion didn’t end up being relevant in the context of this episode, I wonder if it offers up some support for my theory that the Doctor will somehow be revisiting The Library by the end of the season as part of the overarching Missy plot. To my knowledge, there was no other insinuation toward Mary Poppin’s Evil Twin in this episode, so this brief moment could have been it.
Clara, meanwhile, might as well be a contestant on Dating Naked for all the awkwardness involved in her dinner with Danny Pink. Danny, in turn, is really not doing himself any favors by showing up in a pink shirt, but I digress. Zooming out for a moment: Clara suddenly feels a bit more relatable, since we’ve pretty much all been in that “date gone wrong” situation…multiple times. Unlike the rest of us, though, Clara has a time traveler waiting in her bedroom (“you said you had a date. I thought I’d better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home”), and while Clara will get her (sort of) do-over date later in the episode, right now the Doctor has other ideas. “I need you for a thing,” he declares. I’m game!
After Clara grudging follows the Doctor into the TARDIS, the Doctor picks up his lecture right where he left off, proposing that everybody, at some point in his/her life, has experienced the same nightmare. Popping in to the West Country Children’s Home, he expands further on this “universal nightmare” to include mysteriously disappearing coffee cups and televisions suspiciously turning themselves off…at which point you, dear viewer, probably dove under the safety of the nearest blanket after coming to the realization that something very, very similar actually happened to you. That constant “banging in the pipes”—is it really just the air pressure changing? I’ve never had that particular nightmare about Clara Oswald something reaching out from under my bed (at least, not that I can remember), but I have woken up suddenly and found myself face-to-face with a monster-shaped shadow that only revealed itself as a chair or a lampshade minutes after the terrified pounding of my heart had resided. I have also—I kid you not—been startled in my completely empty, silent, breeze-less bedroom by a certain merry-go-round music box spontaneously beginning to play. It probably has something to do with the wind currents of my air conditioning unit, but…hmm, what was it this episode taught us about the word “probably”?
Whew. Anyway, back to Twelve:
“What if no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow. What if the prickle on the back of your neck is the breath of something close behind you?”
This is the kind of monologue that takes on additional significance by the end of the episode, and if you’ve already completed “Listen,” you’ll immediately recognize why. “Fear” quickly becomes a motif that weaves its way throughout the episode, as it tightens its grip on two little boys at different points of the time/space continuum, both unable to sleep at night due to a fear of the dark.
First up: Rupert Pink, a West Country Children’s Home resident who hates his name—his first name, not his last, so get your head out of the heteronormative gutter, Clara—and strikes up a conversation with Clara after giving her the same adorably stiff-armed wave that his grown-up self sent her way on their date about an hour ago. Or twenty years in the future. Or whatever. #TimeyWimey At any rate, Clara discovers that Rupert can’t sleep because he’s afraid of something, so she makes her way up to Rupert’s room to comfort him. The nanny in her awakens, and she has a heartening discussion with Rupert, seeming to cure him once and for all of his irrational fear, until someone…something…sits down on the bed. Fortunately, the Doctor appears before the eerie music in the background can reach a crescendo. He flips through one of Rupert’s books and laments the fact that he can’t seem to find Wally (or “Waldo,” for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic). When Rupert informs the Doctor that the book is “not a Where’s Wally? one,” and, furthermore, Wally cannot be found in every single book, Twelve replies, “Well that’s a few years of my life I’ll be needing back.” Love it. As an aside, I will consider this entire series an abject failure if the Doctor doesn’t spend at least an entire episode sometime in the future in a desperate race to find a man named Wally/Waldo. Do I smell a spinoff?
Anyway, back to Gloucester: The Doctor takes up the mantle of comforting Rupert, meandering with a bit of evolutionary science-y babble before summing it all up with the mantra that it’s good to be scared because “scared is a superpower.” To demonstrate, the three of them turn their backs on the unknown, blanket-covered figure on Rupert’s bed, and the Doctor orders Clara and Rupert: “Don’t look round.” At this, I was immediately reminded of the Genesis tale of Lot’s wife, who was ordered not to turn and look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, from which she and her family were fleeing. But she did look back, and, as the story goes, was transformed into a pillar of salt. In its time, this story was told as a moralistic warning against disobeying God, but some of us have other ideas; Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five “loves” her for looking back because “it was so human.” Already, we see that this still-new incarnation of the Doctor is different from Eleven because he does look back, but not only (as with Ten) for the purpose of regret—he will look back on the destruction (…or disappearance) of Gallifrey, and unlike Eleven, will take responsibility and use his past to move forward.
As it turns out, we find ourselves back on Gallifrey sooner than we expected. At the end of the episode, Clara steps out of the TARDIS and into a vaguely familiar barn, where the sounds of a weeping child calls her to arms—much like it does the Doctor. But before Clara can do what she does best, the barn door opens and in walk two faceless adults. Clara darts underneath the bed, listening intently. “Why does he have to cry all the time?” says one. “You know why,” says the other. “They’ll be no crying in the army,” comes the reply. Then, an invitation to the boy who’s probably Danny Pink to come sleep in the house with the other boys, after which the conversation between the two adults resumes: “He can’t just run away crying all the time if he wants to join the army!” Whereupon we learn that the little boy doesn’t even want to join the army. “Well he’s not going to the Academy, is he, that boy?” the man continues. “He’ll never make a Time Lord.”
The chills that raced up and down my spine after that sentence were felt, I’m sure, by every single Whovian who hadn’t already made the connection between the present barnhouse and the one the War Doctor inhabits in “The Day of the Doctor.” Good thing we were given an entire commercial break to pry our jaws off of the floor. Even Clara needed a solid three minutes of recovery time; her eyes bugged out in shock, and I could see exactly what the Doctor was talking about when he mentioned that her face becomes “all eyes.
When Clara regains her composure, she takes her place by the little boy’s bedside and gives him a pep talk that’ll stay with the boy—I mean, the Doctor—for, oh, a good 1,200 years or so. Though I was initially skeptical of Clara’s status as The Impossible Girl, I’ve come to like her Easter-Egg-like presence in the Doctor’s timeline (that is, if I don’t think about it too much), and this scene provided a perfect example of Clara prancing in like a guardian angel when the Doctor needs her most. “Listen,” she says,
This is just a dream. But very clever people can hear dreams – so please, just listen. I know you’re afraid. But being afraid is alright. Because didn’t anyone ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger. And one day, you’re gonna come back to this barn. And on that day, you’re going to be very afraid indeed. And 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. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed, or in the dark, so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. So, listen. If you listen to nothing else, listen to this. You’re always gonna be afraid. Even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like…a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that’s okay. Because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something, just so you remember. Fear makes companions of us all.
Any doubt that this is going to become one of the show’s all-time greatest speeches, a la “We’re all stories in the end?” Didn’t think so. (Excuse me for a moment, I seem to have transformed into Niagara Falls.) While the beauty of the message speaks for itself, there are a few particular passages I wanted to flesh out:
“Fear is a superpower” – Referring back (or…forward) to what the Doctor told young Rupert Pink.
“One day, you’re gonna come back to this barn” – See: “Day of the Doctor,” where the War Doctor confronts the conscience of The Moment while deciding whether or not to obliterate Gallifrey.
“Fear can make you kind” – Clearly referring to the Doctor(s) refusal to take the easy way out in “The Day of the Doctor,” but also alluding to another touching speech by a companion talking about the Doctor’s “kindness” emerging from trauma—in “The Beast Below,” Amelia Pond’s maiden adventure episode, we witness a Star Whale’s selfless sacrifice, and Amy reflects on the Star Whale’s nature while not-so-subtly reflecting on the Doctor’s as well: “Amazing, though, don’t you think? The Star Whale. All that pain and misery and loneliness, and it just made it kind.” Interestingly enough, “The Beast Below” is also the notable episode in which the Doctor teaches Amy (in a tongue-in-cheek tone, of course) that he “never get[s] involved in the affairs of other people or planets.” At the end of the episode, after a whole host of “not getting involved” shenanigans, Amy finishes the Doctor’s thought: “…unless there’s children crying.” Here, in “Listen,” we have a very particular child crying—the Doctor himself. Later on, in Clara’s first full episode, “The Rings of Akhaten,” the Doctor puts forth a completely opposing edict: not, “we never get involved,” but “we never walk away.” If you ask me, Eleven learned a thing or two about responsibility over his years after all.
What’s more, this whole notion of fear leading to kindness is loosely rooted in the most quotable English work of them all: William Shakepseare’s Hamlet. In his famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, Hamlet declares that “conscience makes cowards of us all”; and while the context there is entirely different (Hamlet is bemoaning the fact that he is unwilling to take his own life) the message certainly resonates throughout the Whoniverse, as the Doctor reverses the polarity of the phrase to mean something very positive indeed. As the Ninth Doctor spelled out in no uncertain terms, he would choose to be a “coward” over a “killer” any day. And that’s what makes him who he is.
“Fear can bring us together” – Pretty self-explanatory, I just wanted to reiterate it as many times as possible because I love it so much. When I first heard this phrase, I pictured a group of people huddled together in a bomb shelter and, well, it’s a pretty emotional image, to say the least.
“Fear can bring you home” – …take us to Gallifrey, and step on it!
“Fear makes companions of us all” – Those six words should take their place among all the other great quotes pertaining to “fear,” of which there are a near-infinite amount. But I would like to bring up several of those adages because I believe that they can enhance the poignancy of this one, which is more than just a mere rewording of the aforementioned “fear can bring us together.”
First: the word “companion” is clearly significant given that it also serves as the rather antiquated soubriquet given to those who travel with the Doctor. Fear is as much of a “companion” to the Doctor as Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, et al, and that is both heartbreaking and heartening, because (as Clara and Amy both said), fear makes the Doctor kind. And it is, of course, a buzzword callback to the beginning of the episode, when the Doctor himself talks about a mysterious “companion” that accompanies every single living being.
Yet this phrase was uttered even earlier than the beginning of the episode; in fact, it was recited near-verbatim in the very first episode of Doctor Who: 1963’s “An Unearthly Child.” But in that initial scene, in that fateful first episode, there’s even more…
DOCTOR: Fear makes companions of all of us. That’s right.
BARBARA: I never thought once you were afraid.
DOCTOR: Fear is with all of us, and always will be. Just like that other sensation that lives with it.
BARBARA: What’s that?
DOCTOR: Your companion referred to it. Hope. Hope, that’s right.
Hope. As much as “Listen” convinced us that the Doctor is always accompanied by fear, he always, always brings hope as well. In the novella that went on to become the critically acclaimed movie Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King wrote: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” And the moment Clara began her speech, the moment she said that fateful word: “Listen!” what sound do we hear? The wheezing and groaning of the TARDIS. Remember what Rose Tyler as The Moment said, in that very barn, to the War Doctor, about that sound? She said: “That sound brings hope wherever it goes.” Hope. The hope that someone is there to help. On that note, there was another beautiful line, one that probably flew under the radar amidst all the other shocks going on, that was stated by the woman who came to invite the crying little boy into the house. She said: “You don’t have to be alone.” It reminded me of the Face of Boe’s message to the Doctor in season 3’s “Gridlock,” which relayed the very same message: “You are not alone.” And they’re not just referring (metaphorically) to “fear” or (literally) to “another existing Time Lord,” but to the Doctor’s many friends and extended, loving family.
Even though I’ve babbled for way too long about how gorgeous this whole theme is, I think there is also something to be said for the simple sight of the Doctor as a young boy, crying himself to sleep every night. We’ve all been there, eh? Maybe “the big bad Time Lord” really is “just afraid of the dark”—maybe it’s something a bit deeper than that. Maybe he’s just—for reasons unknown—so very sad. As Madame Vastra once said: “Heartbreak is a burden to us all. Pity the man who has two.”
<rant> And for those who criticize Moffat for dipping into his own work and riffing on others—I get it, but I don’t feel the same. To me, he’s not stealing, he’s paying homage; he’s not self-plagiarizing, he’s expanding upon well-established ideas without having to initiate a grand set-up, and by doing so, he’s chipping away at the Big Secrets of the Universe bit by bit. He may be recycling dialogue and concepts, but then again, isn’t recycling supposed to be good for us? </rant>
There were a bunch of memorable moments (…no Rose Tyler-shaped Moments, though) throughout the episode that held up the beginning and the end, and there were two in particular I’d like to touch upon. First: “The deep and lovely dark. You’d never see the stars without it.” Another well-worn axiom—case in point: a quick Goodreads quotes search will reveal the paraphrased source of this quote to be a whole host of personas ranging from Martin Luther King to Stephanie Meyer. But it never ceases to be comforting, and it was perfectly delivered in this episode—in classic Who fashion—with a mixture of wryness and sincerity.
The second quote I wanted to bring up is one that, if you’ve been following my recaps and analyses of the character of “the Doctor,” you’re probably shocked I haven’t already expounded for several dozen paragraphs. After the Doctor does his shtick with the Thing under Rupert’s blanket (not looking back, using fear as a superpower, etc.), Clara takes charge once more and brings out a box of toys (is that a Weeping Angel?) to keep the boy safe during the night. She chooses one toy soldier to be “the boss,” but Rupert points out that that one is broken—it doesn’t have a gun. This seems to be exactly what Clara was hoping he’d say. Because he’s “a soldier so brave, he doesn’t need a gun.” Camera focuses in on the Doctor. “He can keep the whole world safe.” That’s the Doctor I want to see. As Twelve, he can be colder, he can be more abrasive, he can be less goofy—but he can never be less kind. As was mentioned before: the Doctor would be a coward rather than a killer any day.
And—last but not least—the Doctor had his fair share of snort-giggle funny moments this week. From his special “dad skills” storytelling to his dragging Clara out of the TARDIS at the boarding school because he “was still talking and needed someone to nod,” Twelve shined as a grumpy grandfatheresque comedic force in his own right.
Oods and Ends
- Missy Watch: I’m sticking with my Vashta Nerada/Library connection (see above).
- The restaurant where Clara and Danny had their ill-fated date had red, round-shaped things on the ceiling. Was it an Evil TARDIS? A trap? Was anyone in that restaurant actually eating…or breathing?!
- I know everyone is all up in arms about the Doctor’s constant commentary on Clara’s appearance, but…is it horrible that I think it’s funny? I mean, it’s hyperbole. And it slides right off of Clara. She has bigger things to worry about than her daft old friend’s petty and harmless insults. (Plus, he probably doesn’t even realize his comments are generally insulting.)
- ”Why do you need three mirrors? Why don’t you just turn your head?” –The Doctor, pithily snarking on every cinematographer ever.
- ”Is that really what I look like from the back?” Clara Oswald aka Hermione Granger, characters who go back in time to save something and glimpse the back of their own heads, because apparently neither one has ever heard of a triple mirror which can be used for the exact purpose of…Well, apparently the Doctor isn’t the only one who doesn’t undersand the function of three mirrors.
- Next time my coffee cup disappears, I’m blaming the Doctor.
- I cringed when, at the end of the universe, the Doctor told Clara to get back into the TARDIS, and when she didn’t listen, bellowed “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD!”, and I was even more chagrined when Clara actually obeyed. But all was forgiven (on my part, at least) when Clara through the command right back in the Doctor’s face later on, when she orders the Doctor to fly away from the barn and never look back. “I don’t take orders,” sniffs the Doctor, clearly ignorant of his hypocrisy. To whom Clara tells—but much more gently—to do as he’s told, and the Doctor recognizes his earlier misstep.
- You may have noticed the ring of Twelve’s hand when he was holding on for dear life to avoid being sucked out into the end-of-the-universe void. Peter Capaldi explained the origin of that ring in an interview with TV Guide a little while ago, excerpted here.
- “Did we go to the end of the universe just to investigate a nursery rhyme?” –> Sums up Steven Moffat in a nutshell.
- All that “alone at the end of the universe” stuff was pretty awesome, as is this perfect little horror story which picks up on the same idea.
- When Clara accuses “the big bad Time Lord” of “just [being] afraid of the dark,” there’s a bit more to the quote—she says that he’s “afraid of nothing.” Or perhaps, afraid of nothingness? We all fear oblivion, and the Doctor—who may have actually witnessed oblivion in all of his many travels across time and space—would be no exception.
- Finally, the entire Who fandom is in a terrified uproar: If the “constant companion” was really just a metaphor…what was the thing under young Danny Pink’s blanket?? Either Moffat will jump back to this plot in order to explain, at a later date, what it was, or it will just be left a mystery forevermore, and we’ll be forced to ponder the wonders of the universe without the (un)satisfaction of definite answers. How very like J.J. Abrams and his coveted Mystery Box. There’s even a Red Robot—a possible (okay, unlikely, but still fun) reference to Abrams’ film production company, Bad Robot!
In fact, the whole episode is very Lost-like…
So, next stop: The Island?