Monday, November 10, 2014


Clara: How long have you been traveling alone?
Doctor: Perhaps I never have.
Back in The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, I described Steven Moffat thusly:
“Steven Moffat is an evil wizard from another dimension dedicted to one purpose: to frighten every person on earth so much that they never sleep again… But underneath that evil exterior, Moffatt is also apparently a good wizard, wanting to spread joy and happiness throughout the world.”
Through the Russell T. Davies era, Moffat had a reputation beyond just the inevitable highlight of the season: he was the one who did the scariest monsters, yet turned around and ended his stories with the most intensely emotional catharses.

These monsters weren’t just weird creatures; they tapped into fundamentally horrific concepts, and made ordinary parts of the world terrifying. The Empty Child, the Clockwork robots, the Angels, and the Vashta Nerada were unforgettable creations, all contenders for the scariest creatures the show has ever done; the Angels and Vashta Nerada, in particular, found strange corners of the world to haunt. The Angels can only move when you’re not looking; they’re harmless only as long as you don’t blink. Similarly, the Vashta Nerada are no problem if you can figure out how to not have a shadow.

And these endings were extraordinary - the Ninth Doctor managing a single day where everybody lives; the off-screen death of Reinette; and the sacrifice of River Song are all tremendous finales. Even the least satisfying ending is still pretty cool: Blink starts out like it’s just going to end with a nice bit of cleverness, before reminding us that the angels are everywhere.

Of course, there were other distinguishing features of Moffat’s episodes - his endless wit, his clever plotting, and his thematic complexity (The Empty Child in particular has a remarkable depth beneath its surface emotional roller-coaster). They also tended to climax with small-scale drama rather than huge set-pieces; The Girl In the Fireplace may showcase the Doctor riding a horse through a mirror, literally shattering the barriers of time, but it does that at the 32 minute mark. (seriously, check it!) The climax is the romantic tragedy at the episode’s core.

Since he took over as showrunner, we’ve seen these qualities spread around - as for monsters, the Angels have been made even more frightening by exploring what their concepts mean, and the Silence were another great villain. But there’s a difference; his monsters are always in the big arc-episodes, or minor lackeys who show up for a couple of scenes and disappear, or both. That’s not always a bad thing; the best Dalek episode in the Smith era was, oddly enough, The Big Bang. But there’s still a sense in which we haven’t gotten an RTD-era Moffat since he took over. 

Listen delivers exactly that, and then goes even further, using the character and thematic richness and dazzling visual style that Moffat has brought to his era to make something truly wonderful.

That visual richness is evident right from the gorgeous opening shot. Where RTD’s episodes tended to look fairly realistic, Moffat’s episodes have consistently been more stylized, and director Douglas Mackinnon takes full advantage of that here. While there are times when the stylization has tended toward the annoying (too many blue post-production filters), it’s done perfectly here. Mackinnon also plays the horror perfectly; the atmosphere is consistently tense, emphasizing silence, simple ambience, and eerie sounds over music or bombast. The episode seems to take inspiration from Robert Wise’s 1963 horror classic The Haunting in it, and Moffat and Mackinnon clearly learned the right lessons from it. (Incidentally, if you haven’t seen The Haunting, see it right away; it belongs on any shortlist of the best horror films ever. And probably avoid the 1999 remake; I haven’t seen it, but have heard very few good things about it.)

The genius of the episode’s horror lies in the monster itself, however.
Doctor: Question: why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: Because we know we’re not. Evolution perfects survival skills. There are perfect hunters. There is perfect defense. Question: why is there no such thing as perfect hiding? Answer - how would you know?
That first scene alone is chilling. Peter Capaldi’s take on the Doctor swings into full stride here, exuding all the alien menace, edgy humor, and quiet, charismatic intensity that defines the Twelfth Doctor. Even his humor has a hint of menace to it, albeit a fun, adventurous menace. His delivery of his opening monologue, combined with Mackinnon’s perfect use of creepy sounds intruding on the silence, and the final shots all combine for a classic bit of horror film making.

But it’s the concept of the monster that truly gets to you. Even more so than the Angels and Silence, it’s a purely conceptual horror - the idea that when you’re alone and start talking to yourself, or when you feel afraid of the dark, or that something is under your bed, it’s because there really is something. And that something is a creature that has perfected hiding. They only reveal themselves to young children, the elderly, the dying, or the mad… the ones who will never be believed. (As the Doctor says in a few episodes, “When a child is talking, listen to it!”) And the longer the episode goes on, the more the idea gets to worm inside your head, knowing that the end of the episode won’t be the end of the terror. (Moffat adds an extra wrinkle with a dream that “everybody has”: you step out of bed, and a hand grabs your ankle from under the bed.)

But Moffat wouldn’t abandoned his trademark humor or characterizations, and so the Doctor’s hunt for this unknowable creature intertwines with the disastrous first date of Clara and Danny.

It’s a superbly written scene in itself; even if you hate Moffat’s writing, you have to admire the level of characterization he can give to a scene like this. It’s the right combination of charming and awkward in real first dates between people who suspect they like each other. I especially like the touch of the two of them agreeing not to talk about work, but almost immediately bonding by complaining about a certain trouble-making student who will be making a return appearance in a few episodes.

Even if we had never met Clara before, we would see her intelligence, her wit (both the cleverness and the insensitivity), and see glimpses of the complex mind beneath her bubbly personality. Danny, too, is sketched out effectively; we see his complex his feelings on his soldiering:
Danny: I dug 23 wells when I was a soldier.
Clara: Okay, good, wells.
Danny: Yeah, they were, actually.
Clara: I’m not doubting the quality of your wells.
Danny: Whole villages saved. Actual towns, full of people.
It’s not only his pride in the good things he’s done; the level of insistence implies that there are darker acts he isn’t proud of; even with the set-up in Into the Dalek or the payoff in Dark Water, you’d learn what you need to about Danny in this little scene. But you also see his nervous attempts at banter - he’s clever in his own way, but clumsily creates double entendres he never intended. Clara takes all this in good humor for a while, but then the moment comes and she just can’t resist the good joke that sends the conversation spiraling. And even when it starts to come back together, she makes another one, and it all goes to Hell.

So, when the Doctor shows up and tries to use her memories to telepathically find when she first had the dream about the hand grabbing her ankle, it’s no surprise that she gets distracted, and instead the TARDIS brings her to Danny’s version of the dream. Moffat is doing another variation on a favorite theme, the Doctor interacting with companions as children. (Danny sort-of being a companion. Kind of.)

This new variation becomes one of the most effective by focusing on Clara’s interactions, instead of the Doctor’s. One of Clara’s defining characteristics is her love of and genius with children, and combining that with the weirdness of it being the guy she’s dating when he was a kid makes for a fascinating sequence that can be deeply emotional without playing anything above a casual conversation.

Once she gets over her shock - and the occasional shocks “Rupert” delivers entirely on accident - she works with him as well as she’s always worked with kids. When Rupert points out that the toy soldier doesn’t have a gun, Clara responds, “That why it’s the boss. A soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun. He can keep the whole world safe.” Not that there’s someone on the show that applies to.

I especially love when she asks, “What’s under your bed?” only to reveal, “Me!” and crawls under there herself, and beckons him to join her. Then the monster appears in a perfectly timed bit of creepiness, invading the comfort Clara’s been so effectively giving. We never actually see the creature itself; it's the weight on the bed, and then the thing under the covers. Mackinnon finds an ingenious use of lens flares here, using very subtle ones to give an otherworldly feel to what looks otherwise ordinary.

And then Moffat adds one more layer to the monster - it might not exist. In this case, it might just be a kid playing a game with people who are already scared. It’s magnificently ambiguous, making it even more mysterious and frightening. But in the midst of one of the scariest scenes in Who, the Doctor gives this phenomenal speech: 

Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain. It’s like rocket fuel, right now, you could run faster, and you could fight harder, you could jump higher, than ever in your life. And you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower. There is danger in this room, and guess what? It’s you. Do you feel it?  I think he feels it.

With all that behind us, we can return to the present, and see Clara return to Danny. And, for a moment, it’s pure charm; Jenna Coleman quietly shows us the exact moment Clara starts to fall in love with Danny, and Danny gets to show some of his own charm. And then Clara gets clever, and Danny freaks out, and Clara freaks out, and then Clara gets clever again, and it all falls apart, and she’s whisked away by the Doctor.
Clara: There is something I should be honest about.
Danny: How about everything?
Clara: Everything, in my case, is actually quite a lot.
I love Samuel Anderson’s delivery of Danny’s line about telling the truth. You hear not just the strength of a soldier, but the hint of pain in that strength. Danny’s nature may be sweet and gentle, but there’s a lion underneath.

Now we meet Orson Pink, probably Danny’s descendent, possibly Clara’s, brilliantly played by Anderson as clearly a different person from Danny but just familiar enough to be unnerving. And, again, maddeningly ambiguous, but maddingly in a good way - we feel Clara’s whirlpool of emotions.

At any rate, the Doctor has found a solution: go to the end of time, the Last Planet around the Last Star, and see what happens. Again, the horror is built quietly, adding detail after detail (Orson’s reminder to not open the door), escalating the terror entirely in our minds…
The Doctor: The Universe is dead. Nothing but nothingness forever. So why is it locked?
Orson: Please, don’t make me spend another night here.
The Doctor: Afraid of the dark. But the dark is empty now.
Orson: No. No it isn’t.
... before finally given way to the scraping, the knocking, the creaking, and the Doctor nearly getting sucked out of the ship… and, again, giving us all manner of Scully explanations that make just enough sense that we’re not sure. (I spent the first part of the episode reminded of The Haunting. After that scene, I’m convinced that Moffat and Mackinnon have seen it and were channeling it.)

Here, too, we see a crucial side of Twelve. Capaldi tends toward playing the Doctor small and subtle in a way no Doctor besides Davison and Troughton ever did, but he does it without ever losing that simmering intensity. The result never loses its edge of danger, while still allowing any actual outburst or yelling to have a tremendous impact. Here, it’s his commanding Clara to get in the TARDIS: “Do as you’re told!”

But it’s the final scene that elevates Listen to one of the all-time greats. As Clara tries to fly the TARDIS telepathically again, she’s distracted again, not by Danny, but by the Doctor, and winds up in his childhood.

Visiting the Doctor’s childhood isn’t just going out on a limb. It’s having a choreographed dance on a limb. Revealing anything before the TARDIS stole the Doctor risks taking away his mystery and aura. Thankfully, Moffat has apparently not only been studying The Haunting, but also Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and how to have a swordfight on a twig. He only hints at things, and hints at things that only reveal the Doctor to have always been a certain way, even as a small child. He’s individualistic (refusing to stay with the other children) and rebelliously rejecting what life assigns him (becoming a Time Lord against his apparent destiny as a soldier).

Then Clara hides under the bed, and Kid Doctor wakes up, starts to stand, and Clara instinctively grabs his foot.

As she told Rupert, she’s what's monster under the bed.

She tells him it’s a dream, and to go to sleep. But as she walks out, she hears his crying, and can’t go. She turns back, gently caresses his head, and tells him to listen…

Then returns to the TARDIS, telling the Doctor there was no monster. In the end, it doesn't matter whether there was a monster or not. The true monster was fear. “... the big bad Time Lord doesn't want to admit he's just afraid of the dark.” And, of course, the monster under the bed who grabbed the Doctor’s foot in a dream? It was her. So before he has a chance to figure any of this out, she tells him to take off, never look up where they were, and turning the Doctor’s words on him.

Doctor: I don’t take orders.
Clara: Do as you’re told.

She doesn’t command it like the Doctor. It’s said with real strength, but calmly and quietly. It’s not an order, but a request to trust her. And the Doctor does, and we go back to hear what Clara told the Kid Doctor: She gave him the most beautiful of speeches, combining the Doctor’s speech about fear with her own compassion: 

Listen, this is just a dream. And very clever people can hear dreams, so please, just listen.  I know you’re afraid. But being afraid is all right. 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. 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.

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’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.

There’s great richness in this speech to find, such as the reference to The Cave of Skulls, the Doctor’s first adventure with true danger and the first moment he started to make companions. There's the reference to Day of the Doctor reinforcing that episode's meaning. There's the beautiful notion that the Doctor's bravery came from one of his companions, which is to say, one of the very people he inspired and made stronger. Anchoring it all, Coleman’s performance is deeply moving. But it’s the message that matters.

I noted before that this season was very thoughtful in the messages it sends, but never more than here. It isn’t just a message for children, but one they need and should never forget: the ability to use fear as a power. (Something Clara could teach from within herself and not just as a lesson, which can be said for few other companions.) But this also applies to the older, as it reminds us by juxtaposing the speech with Clara using fear to find the courage to return to Danny and kiss him, and with the Doctor looking at the word written on the board.

Danny: I just get nervous.
Clara: Me too.
Danny: I don’t even know what I’m nervous of.
Clara: I’ll show you.

It’s hard to say whether this is Steven Moffat’s finest work for Who; at his best, he’s written some of the greatest episodes in its history. But this is at his apex; like all his best, it’s a clear contender for the best Who story ever created. And if I can extend a final bit of hyperbole, let’s note this: his Blink is rightly considered the standard by which New Who is judged.

However it stacks against anything else, Listen is superior to Blink - every bit as frightening and clever, but it’s scary for a purpose both grand and personal. It’s a work of art that ennobles and inspires both the young and old.
Clara: 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.


* * * *

  • Clara: Doctor, what are you doing here?
    Doctor: You scheduled a date. Thought I’d better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home.
  • The Doctor, when Clara claims she’s never been to Gloucester: “You’ve probably just forgotten. Have you seen the size of human brains?”
  • I love the TARDIS telepathic circuits. They're the right mix of organic and machine-like, creating an effectively icky noise, and at one point stubbornly holding onto Clara for whatever reason.

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