259 – Doctor Who, “Listen”

doctor who listen

Another episode into the season, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is very little for me to talk about in these episodes. No one will ever accuse me of being a professional television recapper, that’s for sure. But I have a little over 100 more reviews to write, so I’m gonna squeeze them in however I can. And today’s squeeze is the fourth episode of the revamped Doctor Who‘s eighth season, titled “Listen.”

Showrunner Steven Moffat gets back behind the typewriter for this episode, which sees the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) attempting to figure out just what it is that goes bump in the night. What is it that lives underneath your bed and gives you such a fright when the lights go out? For the uninitiated, that means it is time for this season’s “scary episode.”

Doctor Who is a pretty versatile show, using its time travel/science fiction premise to evoke many different genres across its 50 year run. These include western, comedy, musical (probably), but – most enduringly – horror. Old British people (like Moffat) always talk about hiding behind their couches while a man with a giant scarf shouted at stuntmen in poorly constructed monster costumes. It’s a ridiculous notion in hindsight, but also one that the writers have continued to mine even in this new iteration. Particularly Moffat.

One of the greatest episodes of this new era is “Blink” from season three. It is commonly referred to as an excellent starting point for newcomers, despite the fact that the Doctor (David Tennant at the time) is barely a presence in the episode. Instead we follow a woman named Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan circa 2007) as more and more of her friends fall victim to a mysterious villain that can only move when you are not looking at it. “Don’t blink” was the common refrain of the episode, at times the only way the characters could avoid a nasty fate.

Moffat went on to ride those villains into the ground throughout Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor, as he did with many things, but now the writer looks to return to the scary side of things with a new creature. This time around though, the advice is “don’t look,” as whatever the Doctor is tracking doesn’t want to be seen. The Doctor’s insatiable curiosity won’t rest there, however. Joined by his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), the two travelers search the timestream for these silent passengers that keep us from ever really being alone.

There is a level of ambiguity to the Doctor’s quest in this episode that I really appreciate. If you can’t see the monster, how do you know if it’s ever really there? Unfortunately the tradeoff is that Clara’s personal journey feels much more staid. Predetermined even, as absurd of a criticism as that is for a scripted television show. After a few strong episodes for the character, it is just do disappointing to see most of her arc revolve around a date with a man whose main character trait is understated rage. And she’s into it!

The episode has a couple well-acted monologues, a really tense moment or two, and it goes to some interesting places (literally), but ultimately it feels really light. Like Moffat is trying to recapture something that is lost. Doctor Who should be going in a new direction, not trying to repave a well-worn trail. Maybe they will have more luck next week when the company takes on an entirely different genre: the heist.

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