Seven years ago, a quiet, unassuming little story, written as a late replacement for something else and almost apologetic in nature, instantly became a Doctor Who classic. Steven Moffat’s Series Three Doctor-lite episode, Blink, written after he had to renege on the Dalek two-parter he had originally agreed to pen, was one of those once-seen-never-forgotten pieces of television that, in spite of barely featuring any of the main characters, is now an absolute mainstay of Top Ten lists the length and breadth of fandom. And ever since then, Moffat has been busy with introductions and departures and finales and arcs and generally with running the show.
Until now. This year, Steven Moffat promised himself a quiet, unassuming little episode in the middle of Series Eight, something that – although slotting into the general thrust of the 2014 run of episodes and helping to carry forward the characters’ stories – doesn’t feature the series’ Big Bad (or any Big Bad at all, as it happens), doesn’t introduce anyone new and doesn’t finish off any continuing storyline.
Sort of. Because Listen does each of those last two things and oh so very much more. Taking its cue (and much of its dialogue) from H.G. Wells’ short story The Red Room (a story about “the fear of Fear itself”) as well as more obviously from Moffat’s own 2007 Storybook tale Corner of the Eye, Listen takes what The Doctor’s Wife achieved for the TARDIS and applies this not just to the Doctor himself, but also to his relationship with his companions (all of them) – and with the television audience as well. It’s an astonishing achievement, and one which is accomplished quietly and efficiently, using many of Moffat’s best practises and resolving a number of themes which had been developing over the anniversary. Themes which, until Listen, we didn’t even realise were in need of resolving.
Continuing on from Into the Dalek, Clara is out on a date with Danny Pink, and in best Moffat sitcom fashion, not only does the date go badly wrong – several times – but, just as in that second episode, we follow it slightly out of synch. Samuel Anderson brings an unpretentious natural charm to the character of Danny, and Jenna Coleman comes of age in these scenes, consolidating the character development that emerging from the shadow of Matt Smith’s ostentatious Doctor has allowed her. Douglas Mackinnon, one of modern Doctor Who’s most kinetic and yet sympathetic directors, shoots all this through the lens of a classy, contemporary romance, and it barely feels like we’re in Doctor Who at all. Until the Doctor comes crashing into the picture, that is.
He’s been stewing away in the TARDIS by himself, and having been given this time to contemplate, has extemporised a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist: he convinces himself that when we’re alone, we’re never really alone, because somehow something must be following us, watching us, affecting us – and infiltrating our dreams. And in an attempt to find out what this thing might be (clue: it’s not the Floof that appeared in the Storybook tale; in fact, as Wells had it, it isn’t really anything at all), plugs Clara into the TARDIS just as she’s expecting a conciliatory call from Danny Pink, and thus we end up spending the rest of the episode chasing the wrong demons.
The bulk of this is Steven Moffat teasing us with the usual rugs before pulling them away in his customary fashion, leaving some things for the imagination (the child under the bedspread must have been just as frightened as the adults in the room, assuming that’s what was under there) before travelling into territory that most hardcore fans would have deemed to be about as off-limits as off-limits gets.
But Moffat, like Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes before him, is not afraid of foraging in the Doctor’s past in order to inform his future. Listen includes perhaps the most outrageous, and yet conversely the most delicate, foraging into the Doctor’s past we’ve ever seen – The Name and Day of the Doctor notwithstanding.
Last week was something of a blip in the development of this new first Doctor’s character (first Doctor of a new regeneration cycle, that is; which is surely the explanation for Moffat’s apparent fascination with reacquainting him with the world around him); Robot of Sherwood saw a rather too curmudgeonly side to Capaldi’s interpretation. Clara, on the other hand, has come into her own in these past half a dozen episodes, continuously taking on the mantle of the Doctor’s soul ever since making a monumental decision on the three Doctors’ behalf on the surface of Gallifrey last November. Clara, lest we forget, was Elisabeth Sladen’s middle name, and while that was certainly no coincidence on Moffat’s part, what we appear to be seeing in this first half of Series Eight is a repositioning of the programme to resemble Tom Baker’s first season back in 1975. If any companion since then has been worthy of being a successor to Sladen’s success, then Jenna Coleman is clearly it, and in Danny Pink the distant and ‘alien’ and yet fragile new Doctor even has a surprisingly timorous military man to complete the Sullivan-shaped triangle. The amazing thing is, Moffat is slipping these players into position almost imperceptibly – even centring the relationships around the Coal Hill School as something of a red herring – and yet it all feels not just entirely natural but also justified by the stories, the characters and actors.
Moffat doesn’t simply repeat things, though, he puts his own spin on them as well, and Clara (like Amy and Rory towards the end of their run) has a home life away from the Doctor, something the series had never really investigated before, even during the 1970s with companions like Smith (the investigative journalist, of course) or Liz Shaw. And why not? Change is part of the programme’s very nature and trying new ways of doing the same old things is what keeps it fresh. And with Moffat using the Coal Hill connection to revisit some of the series’ very early themes, while at the same time being very careful to keep all of this nostalgia on a level which doesn’t overbalance the show, this might be the dawn of a new golden age.
Although there’s something a bit more than mere nostalgia about where Moffat’s Doctor Who is going. If Clara Oswald is the worthy successor to Sarah Jane Smith, then it’s appropriate that it’s this character that Moffat is using to inveigle his way into the entirety of the series’ history, much as both the Great Intelligence and subsequently Clara herself did at the end of Series Seven. Back then, we saw the Intelligence attempt to destroy the Doctor’s entire past, and Clara making the repairs necessary to stop the Doctor from ceasing to be. It’s a heady metaphor for the way in which certain writers (Moffat included) choose to superintend the series, but even more significantly we saw Clara helping the first Doctor perform his escape from Gallifrey which ultimately was what was responsible for the format devised for the series back in 1963. In other words, Moffat was bringing Doctor Who full circle and marking the end of one particular act in the Doctor’s ongoing story, while thereafter using the fiftieth anniversary special to begin another.
What Listen manages to do is go one step further, and in a fashion that is entirely in keeping with the series we’ve been watching not just for the past five years, but for the past fifty-one, tells the story of how the Doctor came to be the Doctor. What’s lovely about this is that it isn’t some big, bafflegab-riddled science fiction explanation – there are no Untempered Schisms here – but something far simpler and more humanising. No doubt there will be disquiet in certain quarters of fandom to think that the Doctor might once have been a little boy and that a few kind words were all it took to create the uncruel and uncowardly hero we now know and love, but fortunately the Doctor is neither Dalek nor Cyberman and Clara’s role in setting him on his way is comparable to that of the wise old hermit we heard so much about during the third Doctor’s tenure. Peter Capaldi, an avowed third Doctor fan, must be chuffed.
There’s no reason why Doctor Who should be reverential towards itself (Dicks’ and Holmes’ versions never were), and Moffat’s rewriting of its history is entirely sympathetic and consistent with the series’ time-travel parameters. The hairs on the back of my neck, which had already been standing on end since the incident with the coffee mug, were tying themselves in happy knots during this episode’s final revelations.
Just as interesting is the soldier arc that Moffat is also setting up here. We’ve seen during Moffat’s previous stories that the Doctor has an almost hypocritical aversion to organised military, and if we hadn’t noted it then, Into the Dalek was a blatant reminder. But Clara is about to embark upon a relationship with a character that the Doctor will no doubt find questionable, and Listen serves to undermine the Doctor’s prejudice by exposing the parallels between the two men. Clara’s final act, while in her dialogue tying together the very reason why the Doctor always seeks to travel in company with the very reason audiences have loved the chills the series has provided down the decades, is to bring together the Doctor and Danny Pink in a manner that will lead to explosions once the two men finally come face to face.
Listen has proved that Steven Moffat is still capable of the 45-minute standalone mid-series episode, even if the only thing it stands alone from is the rest of popular television in terms of its quality and ambition and sheer perverseness (there’s no other programme that can take you from the end of the universe to the birth of its hero in the beat of a couple of hearts), but it has proved something more important: that Moffat is still as capable as ever he was of frightening the living daylights out of an audience, while amusing them with some of the cleverest dialogue the show has ever produced and ultimately, wrapping it all up in the most significant yet delicately fashioned whimsy. More to the point, he achieves all this without alienating the more casual viewer, by making it plain what’s at stake (this is an episode about the monsters that lurk just out of vision in the dark, after all) and by making the concerns of and consequences for the characters the centre of the drama. He manages to make a fine art of navel-gazing, and he manages to make something extremely attractive of it, too.
Listen shares a number of things with Blink; its provenance in the Panini Storybooks, its title (give it another seven years and expect a story called Sniff or Lick), and most significantly its achievement. An instant classic. And we even got another little glimpse of John Hurt.