It’s a rare pleasure when you really have no idea where an episode will take you next. In a restaurant for an excruciating first date? Under the bed in a children’s home near Oxford? The end of the Universe?
I thought I knew what was coming when I saw a couple of tweets likening Listen to Blink, as if we’d get a weeping angel for the ears. Blink was Moffat’s third Doctor Who story. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances won me over to the new series in 2005. The Girl in the Fireplace was sublime. Moffat’s scripts were the highlight of each series. Since he took over as the big chief writer, doing a lot more, his stuff has seemed less of a rare treat. It becomes easier to spot ideas being reused – there’s less that seems really new (although The Beast Below is seriously underrated – perhaps the subject for another post). Essentially I thought Listen would recycle Blink.
Instead we got an extraordinary exploration of… fear itself, or at least being scared. (It may seem like an overly nice distinction, but I preferred the Doctor’s calling ‘being scared’ a super power, to Clara’s ‘fear’ being a super power – somehow, being scared seems more like a choice while fear seems almost like a force of nature.) The monster was hiding – no, what drives us to hide (behind the sofa) was the monster. There was no alien monster (on Twitter, Una McCormack even suggested this was therefore a ‘pure historical’ although from our temporally bound human perspective, I guess that could only apply to the section that was in our past).
I hope Capaldi’s performance in this can be considered his manifesto for how he will play his Doctor. I’ve enjoyed the first three episodes, but this was on a different level. The story is imbued with that sense there was in the old Hartnell episodes that the Doctor is not just a hapless space tourist with a faulty vehicle, but a scientist and philosopher who uses his privilege to travel in time and space to find answers and test hypotheses. He’s doing research, and its in pursing that goal that he makes a crucial mistake in using Clara and not appreciating the consequences. It also picks up on the frightened Doctor of Deep Breath, and the ambivalence to soldiering explored in Into the Dalek.
It’s not only Capaldi’s performance. Coleman is great again, and I especially liked Samuel Anderson as a subdued and melancholy Orson. It’s also beautifully directed and photographed, and the sound design with the omnipresent heartbeat motif was magnificent. The whole experience was a visual and aural treat. To be honest, I’m a bit worried to watch it again. The first viewing was so much fun, not knowing where it would go, that I don’t know if it all made sense. Certainly, I didn’t see any explanation of who was under the blanket, or who wrote on the blackboard, though I’m quite happy for those to remain a mystery. Perhaps some of this fits with the season arc, or perhaps not (I didn’t see any Promised Land/Missy references in this one). But did everything else fit?
Despite the small cast, the scope of the story keeps broadening with each twist. Danny’s past and future, the stakes are low. Clara’s future… now Moffat is foreshadowing perhaps the rest of this series. The Doctor’s past? After The Day of the Doctor Moffat has shown he is willing to re-evaluate the Doctor’s actions for a landmark celebration. But here, he confidently and casually gives us a new perspective from which to examine all of the Doctor’s past deeds since that little boy grew up into Bill Hartnell. This incursion, by Clara, into the Doctor’s timeline is so much more meaningful and illuminating than any of the clever digitally altered vignettes in The Name of the Doctor.
Best of all, for a 45 minute episode the pacing is terrific. It’s slow enough to give room to breath, to capture some stillness, and despite the shifting settings every scene is incredibly atmospheric. In particular, there sense of calm, emptiness and foreboding is extraordinary as the Doctor and Clara spend the night alone in a haunted universe.
In short – wow. This is the most exiting, exhilerating and enthralling episode (Day of the Doctor aside) since The God Complex. Moffat is certainly still capable of surprise!