I’ll admit it, I didn’t have high hopes for this week’s episode. I haven’t been a fan of the last couple of Moffat-written creepfests (Night Terror and Hide) but thankfully, Listen far exceeded my expectations and, in spite of a few narrative shortcuts, ended up being probably the strongest and most significant episode in Capaldi’s run so far.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
This week’s episode started with a premise worthy of the best New Who episodes – “Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone?” Capaldi’s Doctor was the most eccentric we’ve seen him so far as he laid out the central hook for the episode – his hunt for an elusive creature capable of ‘perfect hiding’. Courtesy of this opening, Listen initially appeared to be a vehicle for a new monster to join Moffat’s series defining Weeping Angels and Silence. However, the episode itself ended up being something different altogether.
While I’ve certainly enjoyed the first few of Capaldi’s episodes, Listen was the episode that got me to sit up and pay attention. It kept me guessing, and – while I’ll concede he does have strengths as a showrunner- that’s a quality that’s become increasingly rare under Moffat’s tenure. It effortlessly blended together the core mystery, Clara’s dating subplot and the mythology of the Doctor himself in surprisingly subversive fashion.
The episode itself was structured rather curiously, with the aforementioned romance subplot serving as both a bookend to the Listen’s time-bending shenanigans and an effective intermission between each of its three acts. It opened with a tight adventure highly reminiscent of Moffat’s previous episodes before leading into a tight nail-biting showdown at the end of the universe and then finally reaching its mythology-spanning and revelatory climax.
One of my favorite things to see this season has been the emergence of Clara as a companion in her own right and Listen did a great job of building on that. Her date with Rupert/Danny was interesting to watch and her verbal sparring with Capaldi’s Doctor was on-point as usual. Props also have to be given to Jenna Louise-Coleman’s facial expressions. Like Capaldi himself, they convey so much about her and often do a great job of filling in blanks that Moffat’s convoluted dialogue leaves.
The tension and friction between her and The Doctor has also never been more interesting to watch. Previous episode’s have seen Capaldi’s Doctor drop mean spirited remarks in Clara’s direction but this was the first time – since the climax of Into The Dalek – we’ve really seen her strike back in hilarious fashion (“Do you have your own mood lighting now to go with that accent?”).
The dialogue also served the double purpose of setting up the episode’s big reveal. Throughout Listen, the words ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ are thrown around far more than makes sense and while some of this contributes the both the episode’s tension and comic relief, it’s chief purpose was leaving the episode’s big reveal and outcome firmly in the realm of plausibility. While some will inevitably react to this scriptural sleight-of-hand as a sort of narrative-cheat, I have settled on it being a rather impressive trick that’s effectively masked through direction, scoring and a stellar performance on Capaldi’s part.
As I’ve touched on in previous reviews, this series has thus far placed a heavy focus on deconstructing who The Doctor is and challenging what we know about him – and Listen tied this deconstructive-aspect of the show effectively into its climactic narrative hook. The Doctor’s speech to young Rupert on the power of fear (and it’s later reiteration my Clara) served as a great motif throughout the episode that ultimately ended up touching on The Doctor’s own upbringing, his aversion to soldiers and his need for companions.
Doctor Who is a show that often jumps between different styles of storytelling. It features tight self-contained mysteries, epic spacefaring sagas and convoluted chronological escapades. Listen was an ambitious episode that attempted to be all of those at once – and I feel like most of the show’s audience will agree that it definitely succeeded in doing so.