For all his faults — and, as the last few seasons of “Doctor Who” have shown us, they are legion — Steven Moffat gives good fear. This is the man who gave us the Weeping Angels and the Silence, and who ended his miniseries “Jekyll and Hyde” with a scene that had me sleeping with the lights on for a fortnight.
This episode was technically light on plot — the monster the Doctor thinks he’s chasing is really his own fear of what could be out there. And it’s a relief to see that he’s not always right, that his mad intuitive leaps are sometimes just that. Although that doesn’t explain the figure in Danny Pink’s childhood bedroom…
Really, “Listen” is a three-hander this time, light on special effects and gizmos, pared back to the essentials — the monster under the bed, the shadow in the corner. As a result, Clara’s co-worker Danny gets more of a look in this week; more than just a teacher with a tragic past in the army, he’s now a potential boyfriend with a tragic past in a children’s home. Even worse, his name is really Rupert.
Samuel Anderson pulls a double shift this week as both Danny Pink and Orson, his (and maybe Clara’s?) great-great grandson. Hopefully that will lead to further revelations down the Pink family line — otherwise, it’s just a slightly clunky way to foreshadow Danny’s adventures in time and space and show us how good he looks in an orange space suit (very, very good, it turns out).
Anderson and Jenna Coleman do awkward flirting very well — a woman determined to set her own course for the future, Doctor be damned, and a man who can’t let go of the past. It turns out Danny built wells in the army — 23 of them — and he’s justifiably proud of the fact, but Clara’s quip about his being able to actually kill people was the kind of awful thing you blurt out without thinking, and Coleman plays her post-date misery and embarrassment perfectly. She’s rumoured to be leaving the show in the not-too-distant future, and I’d like to see her lead a nice juicy drama where she can display her full range.
The Doctor’s torrent of insults about Clara’s looks hasn’t eased up at all — since he regenerated, he’s called her fat, old, implied she smells (it’s her perfume) and now can’t tell if she’s wearing make-up or not. It could be that after the blurred lines of their relationship in his earlier regeneration that he’s protesting a bit too much, or it could be that he’s just rude. Either way, it’s an unwelcome distraction from a pleasantly bantering relationship.
(Incidentally, Clara’s date makeup is flawless. I know a lot of people who secretly want to be best friends with Amy or Donna or Martha, but Clara. We could get drunk and talk about terrible dates and she could teach me how to do my eyeliner like that.)
Of course, it isn’t only Danny’s past into which we get a glimpse. Whilst Clara is searching for answers, the TARDIS does her bit and takes her to the one place she can get even a clue — Gallifrey, around 2,000 years into the past, where a young future Time Lord is hiding, scared in a barn, only for something under the bed to grab him… Technically, this means that Clara scars him for life. But we’ll gloss over that.
In just a few episodes, Capaldi has gone from an unknown quantity to a hero who can afford to show us his vulnerabilities. And this episode offers a beautiful insight into a character we’ll never figure out entirely — that this is why the Doctor has a companion. It isn’t because he’s lonely, or because he needs to be protected from his worst instincts. It’s because he’s scared. We’ve had so many incidents where the Doctor meets the companion as a child and shapes their lives — Amy, River Song, Clara, even Rose — that it’s nice to reverse the trend, and remember that he is who he is because of his friends.
Unless, of course, that was another Time Lord entirely and we’re going to see the return of the Master…