I think I get it now. I think I finally see it, the extraordinary appeal of this episode. I’ve seen Listen at least three times before this viewing, but I could never see in it what made others hail it as a soaring, undisputed classic, Moffat’s latest masterpiece. I mean, I liked the episode. By any standards it was a good episode, a great one, even. But I could never bring myself to praise it in the gushing superlatives others felt justified in applying to it. It was good, yes, but surely not that good? I felt frustrated that I was missing out on something profound; what did they see that I didn’t? But I think I get it now. There’s something about it that makes you sit up, mesmerised, oblivious to all else for its forty-five minutes, as the best Doctor Who scripts are always able to do. The story grabs hold of you from its very first moments, opening with the almost Shakespearean scene of the Doctor soliloquising to an eerily empty Tardis console room, setting up the enthralling idea that entertains this episode, and never lets go.
This episode’s genius is in its fear factor. This has to be one of the show’s spookiest episodes to date. Listen was supposed to be what is known in the industry as “the cheap one”, the episode whose budget is stripped down to something approaching bare minimum so the money can be spent beefing up the other episodes. In Listen Moffat takes that handicap and turns it into an asset. We never see the monster in Listen. That’s the whole point. Something that you never see, never know is there, cannot even be sure actually exists or is just the product of the overactive imaginations of frightened humanity. We’ve had quantum-locked monsters, monsters that look like shadows, monsters that cause you to forget them, and now Moffat has given us monsters that stalk us but which we’ll never see. “Listen,” the Doctor enjoins us, and, boy, we will now. The scenes showing the Doctor chasing his elusive monster, in Rupert Pink’s bedroom and Orson Pink’s space shuttle, are terrifically hair-raising, captivating television, some of the spookiest sequences ever on this show.
So was there a monster? Anything under Rupert’s bed sheets, anything banging on Orson’s door? I’d like to think there was, and, God, I’d have liked to have seen it. But if we had seen the monster, this would have been an entirely different story, a more straightforward scary monster story like Blink. That would have made an equally good episode, but that wasn’t what this episode was about. The monster itself, or lack thereof, wasn’t really what this episode was about. The whole point was that the monster may have been real, or it may have been a creation of frightened human imagination, an allegory for that most primal of human instincts, fear, and the way humans conjure wraiths out of nothing when we’re afraid. It was more than that, though. Fear itself was the subject of this story: fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of social situations and of getting it wrong. I’ll admit I found the scenes of Clara’s and Danny’s awkward date rather tedious, but they fit very nicely with the episode’s theme: nervousness about making a good impression on someone you like is a particularly keen kind of fear that everyone has experienced before. The heartwarming spin on all this was that fear was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be ashamed of, that fear should be embraced. It was stunningly good writing.
Peter Capaldi continues to dazzle, in a performance that surely deserves some kind of award or accolade. Capaldi’s Doctor is totally in his element here. It’s an episode it’s hard to imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant in, but Capaldi completely owns the screen here. He really is an astoundingly good actor and, although he hasn’t breached my “top 5 Doctors” list yet (don’t lie, you’ve got one too), I’m totally prepared for him to do so in awesome style in Series 9. Jenna, too, was on exceptional form in this episode, more than managing to hold her own beside her partner’s luminous performance. It was sweet seeing Clara’s rapport with children in the scenes between her and young Rupert. It’s little scenes like this that build, more than references to her bossiness and control-freakery, the much-needed character of which Clara was somewhat devoid in Series 7. And Clara’s comforting of the young Doctor was just beautiful. Some absolutely hated it, but surely no one can deny that the scene, the writing, itself was wonderful.