Recap: Doctor Who, “Listen” (8×04)
So first off: sorry for the delay. Life, as Dr. Ian Malcolm says, always finds a way. In my case, it found a way to completely overwhelm my ability to write this article in a timely fashion. But here I am, so let’s begin.
This was an absolutely magnificent episode of Doctor Who specifically and television generally. It has already found a place amongst my most favorite episodes (“Blink”, “The Family Blood”…). The episode managed to embrace the best of Doctor Who’s ambiguous nature, harness an emotional investment in a character we had barely been introduced to, and change the “savior” dynamic of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor to one worthy of the show.
This season seems, more than any other of the modern incarnation, to bring the focus squarely back on the title character – to see the world through his eyes instead of just his companions’. We are repeatedly shown the Doctor by himself in the TARDIS, only coming to Clara when he needs her. For this Doctor and companion, it is about assistance more than it is friendship. The Doctor isn’t showing off any more. He’s not naming planets or cascades, not running off to diamond planets. Even if the Doctor does not remember everything that happened pre-regeneration, he knows he has some shit to figure out. “Listen” follows the Doctor and Clara as they try to figure out exactly what is hiding under the bed.
But first, Clara and Danny are finally getting their promised drink. Like the conversation that led to the date in the first place, the date is filled with false starts, mislaid words, and disagreement. More than once it looks like the date is doomed, only to be saved with an apology or a smile. The chemistry between these two characters is instant, even with the tension. The character work is excellent – from the actors, the script, and the editing. But in the end, Clara storms off. And just as before, the TARDIS is parked in an inconveniently small location with the Doctor waiting impatiently and insisting she join him. This is a stark juxtaposition with one of the last times Clara got on the TARDIS with Eleven, getting a call at school and then riding her motorcycle through the open countryside and driving right through the waiting doors. The Doctor’s visits are no longer frivolous, just about adventure (though last week’s certainly was – and was clearly a treat for Clara as recognition of her help). The Doctor’s visits are shoehorned into Clara’s life now – a responsibility to assist her hero – included amongst the storylines of the life she is leaving behind with each trip.
The Doctor asks Clara if she’s ever had the nightmare about something under her bed grabbing at her ankles in the middle of the night. Of course she has, all kids do. The Doctor insists that this universality is not a coincidence – that something just might be causing this. “The Silence in the Library” immediately sprung to my mind, the terrifying creatures in the dark that exist and are feared everywhere but never seen.
The Doctor puts Clara’s hands inside a new, squishy bit of the TARDIS to guide it to when she herself had the dream about something under the bed. It felt very reminiscent of both Minority Report and Battlestar Galactica – and I will say, I didn’t much like the new magic TARDIS power – but that’s hardly the point of anything.
Distracted by her date, Clara brings the TARDIS not to when she first had the nightmare but when Danny first had it. Clara meets Danny Pink before he’s Danny Pink – when he’s a young boy in a children’s home. She can’t help herself from going inside to comfort him.
Clara’s relationship with kids continues to be a shining light for her character. The flashback to Clara’s abysmal first go at teaching in “Deep Breath” showed how it has grown over time – and watching Clara with not-yet-Danny is beautiful. Clara crawls under the bed and brings Danny with her to show him that there is nothing to be afraid of. The way she guides him from his fear to a place of acceptance is an exact mirror of how she is slowly, carefully bringing the Doctor to grips with himself. It is how she helped him (in multiple) during the 50th anniversary special and it is how she helps the Doctor (in multiple) at the end of the episode.
When the Doctor comes in to join Danny and Clara, there is something mysterious and dangerous on Danny’s bed. It was never explained if it was a kid playing a prank or actually the boogey monster but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it gave the Doctor a reason to give a beautiful speech about the power of fear – how the adrenaline that comes from it makes you stronger and faster, more alert and the best possible version of yourself. And it gave him the excuse to use his “dad skills” to put Danny to sleep. Don’t forget, the Doctor stole the TARDIS with his granddaughter in tow – he had to have been a dad first.
Leaving Danny, Clara insists on taking another stab at her date. The Doctor drops her off right after she stormed out. The rescue of the date starts to go well… until it really doesn’t. Clara refers to Danny by Rupert – the name he had as a child. He storms off when it’s clear that she’s not telling the truth – and she sees a man in a space suit beckoning her to go through the kitchen. (Anyone else have flashbacks to “The Impossible Astronaut”?)
The Doctor, trying to figure out why they appeared at Danny Pink’s children’s home instead of Clara’s house, probes the remaining wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff left in the TARDIS from Clara’s subconscious and moves forward in her time stream to find a pioneer space traveler stuck at the end of time. He’s clearly her great grandson, but it takes a while for her to admit that to herself.
The Doctor, the Astronaut (Orson), and Clara go back to Orson’s time to bring him home. But there’s something waiting in the dark. It’s what the Doctor has been waiting for – listening for.
The Doctor screams at Clara to return to the TARDIS – and for all of the times that the companion doesn’t listen to him, she finally does. Not without telling him off for being an idiot. The thing in the dark – or the depressurization of the capsule – starts to attack the Doctor, and Clara and Orson rescue him just in time. But the thing – or the instability of the environment – is still coming. Clara throws her hands into the squishy thing again trying to escape… something (or nothing).
Hoping that she’ll end up in another part of her time line, she ends up in a barn. A child is crying in a bed. She goes to comfort him, calling him the children’s names she’s met so far. And then someone comes in. Clara hides under the bed as the adults discuss the boy who is scared and crying alone in the barn. This is the Doctor – before he became a Time Lord, before he even became a man. And just as he’s about to get out of bed, to see the TARDIS and his future, Clara grabs his ankle and becomes the thing that, 2000 years later, he is still scared of under his bed.
Way back during the 50th Anniversary special, we saw a Doctor who was resigned, sad, and full of fear in a barn. That barn reappears with this child. And just like in the 50th, Clara spends her time in the barn fixing, comforting, and reassuring the Doctor. Reminding him that it is ok to be scared as long as it fuels him to be a good man. Reminding him that it is ok to be scared as long as he listens.
Odds & Ends
– I am impressed with how well-established the emotional connection is between Danny and Clara, and between the audience and their relationship. I am already looking forward to spending more time with the two of them.
– They’ve done a great job of building Clara’s future – of showing her with kids and that she’s going to have her own – as a foundation for her leaving the Doctor at the end of this season. It is subtle and very well done.
– Who puts shoes on the counter when they come home from a date? That’s just unsanitary.
– Do you think it was the boogey man? Does it matter?