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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - "Listen"

Under Moffat's tenure as show runner for Doctor Who, we've seen a number of great one-off horror based episodes, from last season's "Hide" to season six's "Night Terrors" and "The God Complex". While none of those were penned by Moffat, we also know that he has created some of the scariest new creatures for the show, including the Weeping Angels and the Silence. After last week's fun romp, I was very much looking forward to a classically scary episode of the show, with the potential to be a really great stand alone story and perhaps, if we were lucky, a new alien creature.

We got some of those things, for sure. The first half of the episode is indeed a truly great horror story. We begin in an unusual way as the Doctor, by himself, acts almost as if he's giving a lecture, working through a logical problem: what if there were a creature so perfectly evolved to hide, that no one has ever seen it? What would its purpose be, but more importantly, what would it look like? It's a strange beginning, but as we then go through Clara's failed date with Danny Pink and accidentally find ourselves in his childhood, things pick up rather quickly.

The scene in Danny's orphanage is easily my favorite scene of the new season, and probably the most legitimately scary for the show. What a great play on the classic monster-under-the-bed trope to have the monster sit on top of the bed while they are under it! The scene really exemplifies one of the qualities that I always tout as part of my favorite episodes: doing a lot (story-wise) with a little (visually), with "Midnight" being the best example. With just a hidden figure under a blanket and the idea that this is a creature that's never been seen before–and might react violently if seen–Moffat's created a very intense sequence.

Unfortunately, the episode quickly makes several 180° shifts soon afterwards that take the story in a very different direction. While I enjoy the big season-long arcs, they are often overly confusing and drawn out, so I typically lean more towards liking stand-alone stories that add to the characters, and I think this episode was an attempt to do both. It felt almost like it was originally a two parter: the horror episode with a mysterious Danny Pink in a spacesuit reveal at the end, and a mythology building episode about the Doctor's childhood and his greatest fears. Each could be very compelling on their own, but crammed together it feels like we only got half of each of those stories.

Some of these big mythology reveals were quite stunning, primarily having Clara interact with the Doctor as a child and having her connect that setting and the themes of the episode to The Day of the Doctor and John Hurt's War Doctor. I'm excited to see that we're beginning to see the tiniest bits of what the seeds sown in both that special and Time of the Doctor are going to lead to, in particular how Gallifrey will become part of the show again. However, these big reveals left the episode a bit muddled, as if these surprises just sort of shoved the other story to the side, unresolved. Did Clara grabbing the Doctor's foot from under the bed somehow create this recurring nightmare within all people throughout the universe? Is the creature under the bedsheets and scratching outside the time machine at the end of the universe a literal manifestation of the Doctor's fear? Is Orson Pink Clara's son or grandson, and how did he end up with the soldier toy if she gave it to the Doctor? Perhaps I missed a crucial detail or two, but the end of the episode left me relatively clueless and wishing we could've seen more of Danny's childhood or Orson's time traveling ordeal.

What the second half does do is add to the Doctor's character in a way that's consistent to what we've seen so far in the season: he's becoming a much more human Doctor. While bold and confident on the outside, he's frightened of the same things we are, namely the dark. The idea of fear being a superpower, one that gives you heightened senses and superhuman speed and strength, is an interesting and empowering one. This is a pleasant change in dynamic: now he's strong and questioning to cover up fear, rather than silly and manic to cover up sadness. I'm enjoying that this season they are building up this new Doctor through comparison, with a hero in Robin Hood and with an anxious little boy in Danny Pink.

Overall, I felt the episode was hit or miss. There are some great elements that separately could have made truly great stories, but forced together they both felt lacking. If you've been listening to our theories on the podcast, though, this episode does perhaps confirm some of our suspicions...One idea is that Missy (oddly absent in this Moffat written story) is a regeneration of the Dream Lord seen in season five's "Amy's Choice," and the heavy emphasis on dreams in this episode could hint towards that in some way. Maybe more important is the clue left when the night watchmen in Danny's orphanage looks away, then looks back to find the Doctor has vanished: the Doctor totally is Batman!
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