For me, there has never been an episode as deceiving, and surprising, as Listen. At first, I was under the impression that this was going to be a straight-forward horror episode, in a similar vein to last year’s Hide. This was “egged on” by a trailer that reveled in the creepy aspects of the episode, leaving no question to me exactly what we were going to be getting. I like these sorts of episodes a bit, but usually find them to be somewhat worse than other episodes due to the tendency to overdo the explanation for whatever supernatural creature they “seem” to be fighting. That’s not a ghost! It’s merely a time traveler trapped in a parallel dimension! That’s not a vampire! That’s an alien from the deepest outer-reaches of space! You get the idea. Then I watched the episode and everything changed. While the beginning segment of the episode was a straight forward “creep out” exercise by Steven Moffat, what followed was quite possibly some of his most clever writing since Blink.
I’m going to do far more of a recap than usual, because this is not an episode that simply needs a one paragraph blurb to get the point across. In fact, I have no idea how to express the plot of this other than actually analyzing it, and you will soon see why.
Question. Why is there no such thing as perfect hiding? Answer! How would you know? Logically, if evolution were to prefect a creature whose primary skill were to hide from view – how could you know it existed? It could be with us every second and we would never know. How would you detect it, even sense it… except in those moments when, for no clear reason, you choose to speak aloud? What would such a creature want? What would it do? Well? What would you do?
Listen opens with the long-awaited date between Danny Pink and Clara Oswald that was hinted at few episodes ago. As one can imagine, this does not go well at all, and both parties end up awkwardly offending each other in probably the worst way possible. Clara once again mentions something that offhandedly seems to be a reference to Danny’s buried past, and he lashes out at her – ruining the date. Disheartened, Clara goes to the Tardis to meet a Doctor that seems to have been left alone to ponder something for far too long.
It seems he has become completely consumed with the idea that every living being has a constant companion, an entity that is with us at all times, watching us, experiencing all we experience. Being a bit into western esotericism, this almost seemed to hint at an old Platonic theory of the eidolon, a “shadow being” that we all have that may or may not be our actual suppressed personality or essence. This isn’t actually referenced in the episode whatsoever, but I was all ready for the possibility that they were going for that and I got excited (LOL). The Doctor’s “theory” is that everyone seems to have the same dream at some point in their lives, a dream in which a hand grabs them from under the bed at night. He asserts that this was no dream, but this entity trying to communicate with us. Clara initially dismisses this wholesale, but agrees to return to her childhood so they can investigate.
There is a blunder in the Tardis navigation circuits (WHAT!? That never happens!), and instead of visiting Clara’s childhood, they seem to visit a young Rupert Pink, a boy that it is assumed to be none other than Danny. Of course, The Doctor has yet to officially meet Mr. Pink, so he seemingly does not know the significance. Rupert is terrified of a monster under his bed, making him a prime candidate to test The Doctor’s theory. As they discuss the situation, and odd apparition rises from under Rupert’s bed sheets, leading The Doctor to have them turn away from it, ignoring it. While this could be a monster, it also could have merely been another child keen to play a prank on Rupert.
An interesting thing happens here when both Clara and The Doctor seem to “create” Danny Pink by imprinting values and future information on him. Clara suggests he let a toy soldier stand guard for him, which he enjoys the idea of. He’s always been into soldiers, and names one of his toys “Soldier Dan”. Since he hates his real name, we can see this as when he chooses “Danny” as his new alias. Before wiping his mind of their meeting, The Doctor encourages Rupert to see his fear as a “superpower,” because adrenaline will empower him to overcome obstacles and foes. He seems adamant of this, as if he knows something he isn’t telling anyone else. Rupert slips into a deep sleep with his new life as the heroic “Soldier Dan” firmly implanted into his mind.
This is where the episode veers off into a place where I had no idea it would go. The Doctor and Clara decide to go back to her “date”, mere minutes after she storms off, in order to set things right with Danny. The Doctor isn’t so keen on this, but seems okay as long as he can ponder his theory more. The date still goes poorly, this time with Danny storming out after she accidentally calls him “Rupert”. He assumes that she is making fun of him in some way, and is hurt. A man in an orange spacesuit steps into the diner, and assuming it’s The Doctor, Clara follows him angrily. The man removes his mask to reveal a much older Danny Pink!
The Doctor identifies this man as Orson Pink, one of Earth’s first time travelers, having originally come from over one-hundred years in Clara’s future. The Doctor found him stranded at the end of the universe, where he was on the verge of death and fearing that an entity was trying to kill him. The Doctor theorizes that this is the very same “companion entity” that he was looking for earlier, and that it may be trying to kill Orson since he is the only remaining life in the Universe.
Orson decided to become a time traveler when he was a child due to things that happened in his upbringing. It is revealed that one of Orson’s great-grandparents told him stories about time travel and that Orson possesses the small toy soldier given to Rupert earlier in the episode. He gives it back saying that she is worthy of his family heirloom. Something happens and our crew attempts to escape the entity and end up in an odd location as the cloister bell rings, a telltale sign of enormous danger.
Clara finds herself in a rickety barn with a crying child in it. She is forced to hide under the bed when two people enter and try and coax the child out of the room. They are concerned that his constant fear of the dark is going to make him a poor soldier, and that he will never become a TIME LORD at his current state. Horrified at what she has heard, Clara accidentally grabs the child’s leg from under the bed.
It is at this time that she realizes that she has met none other than The Doctor himself as a young boy, and she is the “companion entity” that he is fearful of. She tells him that he is dreaming, and that he needs to channel his fear into something good, a similar idea that The Doctor told a young Rupert Pink. This barn is none other than the rickety old barn seen in “Day of the Doctor”, so it can be assumed that they are somehow on Gallifrey. Clara tells the Doctor that they need to leave without question, and that he isn’t to know where they just were.
Listen is the perfect set-up for a Moffat-style monster that ends up being a GIANT red herring. He excels at creating conceptual monsters that embody some sort of primal fear that we all share, and in this case it was taken to the ultimate conclusion. For half of the episode, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the reveal on the constant companion and why it seems to be terrorizing The Doctor so much. Realizing that this monster is none other than a misunderstanding from The Doctor, and that he is secretly “scared of the dark” is pretty awesome. In fact, knowing what is going on makes a second viewing that much better.
To be honest, When I thought this was a straightforward monster episode I felt that the beginning was weird and oddly paced. The episode seemed to be almost nonsensically put together on a narrative standpoint and concentrated on Clara’s date way too much. It’s only half-way through when I realized that the monster isn’t the main point of the episode, and the date is a study of what makes Danny Pink tick, and why the Doctor acts the way he does. We basically end up searching the negative space of the episode, looking for clues that help us know about the monster (much like The Doctor) and are left speechless when we find out that there is no monster.
We are left assuming that The Doctor has basically made an immense leap of logic that seems somewhat uncharacteristic for himself, and has veered somewhat into the realm of the conspiracy theorist. I’m not going to say that this fact makes The Twelfth Doctor crazy, but his motivation here seems to be that of someone that is utterly horrified by something, but can’t get past the most likely reason for feeling the way he does. He literally cannot come out and say that he’s scared and show any weakness; being so used to carrying the universe on his shoulders, he has somehow internalized it into this “superpower” he tells Danny about.
As a complete package, it all comes together in such a gratifying way that I haven’t felt since the 50th anniversary special. In a way, this is the current show’s Edge of Destruction, an episode from “classic Who” that seemed weird, oddly paced, and yet immensely gratifying once you realized what was happening.
If anything, this season has proven to be much more about character building than the previous few, and I for one am very happy about that. While I hope that we don’t see too much more of The Doctor’s past, it was cool seeing him as a child. Writers always run the risk of spoiling the mystery of characters like The Doctor by showing their “origin stories” (see X-Men’s Wolverine) but seeing him before he became who he is was awesome. Clara has really imprinted herself on The Doctor much more than anyone else has, she really is “The Constant Companion.”