At some point in their life, every person will have the same nightmare. Young or old, sane or mad, one night you’ll awake and look around your room, the place you know so intimately by day, but at night becomes strange and foreign, mutated by the darkness. When everyone else sleeps, you can suddenly hear every creek and squeak and shudder. Noises you could have explained during the day are now part of a slow accumulation of evidence you are not alone. You get out of bed, swing your legs out… and then something grabs your ankle. Listen.
Before his ascension to become Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat was best known for penning some of the most highly regarded and frightening episodes of the revived series, each in some way building on a childhood fear or irrational quirk- statues that move when you blink, shadows that swallow you up whole, monsters that you forget the instant you look away. After taking the top job, though, his focus shifted to opening episodes and big, blow-out finales, and after coming out the other side of the Matt Smith era, Moffat was quoted as wanting to try and see if he could still write the kind of stories he became famous for.
With “Listen”, Moffat goes back to his roots, taking a concept from a story he wrote for a Doctor Who annual, as he had done with the seminal “Blink”, and posed yet another ingenious set-up. Evolution perfects hunting and defense, but if it perfected hiding, how would we ever know it was there? What if every person alive is never, ever alone? It’s one of those unsettling notions that gets under the skin, probably unrealistic, but hard to disprove. It’s this eerie mania that squats at the heart of “Listen”, a quest for answers to a conundrum that might not even exist.
Jenna Coleman’s Clara has just returned from a disastrous first date with fellow Coal Hill teacher Danny Pink, in an exquisitely awkward scene that demonstrates the sitcom skills Moffat perfected on Coupling. Her revery is interrupted, however, when the Doctor sets down the TARDIS in her flat, insisting that he needs her for a ‘thing’. After an unspecified amount of time alone and stewing in his own thoughts, the idea of an un-observable creature has consumed him, and he’s now determined to find out the truth once and for all. Plugging Clara into the TARDIS telepathic circuits, he attempts to locate the point in her life she had the nightmare of a presence under the bed, but memories of the date force the TARDIS of course to Danny (turns out formerly known as Rupert) Pink’s childhood.
It’s here, in the scene where Clara, the Doctor and young Rupert encounter an unidentified mass under a red quilt, that the episode really begins to shine. This could very well be the creature the Doctor has hypothesized, the unknown creature with mysterious designs. Or it could easily just be another boy at the orphanage playing a prank on Rupert and stealing his quilt. The Twelfth Doctor and Clara’s relationship begins to truly solidify in this story, with Clara using her experience as a teacher to reassure Rupert, all the while the ‘grey stick insect’ attempts to comfort the boy in a more unsettling, but equally valid way, describing fear as a superpower that allows humans to be stronger, faster and cleverer in danger. Clara’s uses a broken toy soldier, ‘Dan the Soldier Man’, to show Rupert that he’s safe and protected. A soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun. A soldier who, say, might dig 23 wells.
Clara gets the Doctor to return her to the date the moment after she stormed out, but her attempts at salvaging the situation are derailed when a figure in the David Tennant’s space suit from Series 2 beckons to her from the restaurant kitchen. It isn’t, however, the Doctor, but Colonel Orson Pink, played as well by Samuel Anderson. Using Clara’s residual telepathic signature, the Doctor has happened upon Pink, a pioneer time traveler from the early 22nd Century who has been stranded for six months 100 Trillion years in the future, on the last planet orbiting the last sun in existence. Not a sound in all the universe. And yet…
The Doctor is desperate to delay their departure for as long as possible, fascinated as to why a man who knows there is nothing outside keeps his airlock sealed, with ‘DON’T OPEN IT’ scrawled in UV pen that only show’s up at night. The capsule is rocked with with bangs, creaks and hisses, as the Doctor reveals his mission was inspired by an old nursery rhyme, that claimed that when every living thing is dead, the owners of the breath on the back of our neck will finally reveal themselves. A near-deranged Doctor insists that Clara return to the TARDIS with Orson, his yearning to know impossible to resist. We are never privy to what the Doctor saw when he opened the airlock, but all we know is that when he is rescued from the rapidly decompressing cabin is that the whirling debris has knocked him unconscious.
As the TARDIS begins to judder and crash, the cloister bell tolling- the change in air pressure, or something else? -Clara once again slaves the TARDIS to her mind, hoping to escape, but during the commotion the Doctor wheezes as if in pain. The TARDIS sets down in a barn at night, the only sound the miserable sobs of a child hiding beneath his covers. As Clara ascends to the bed, she has to hide underneath it as a man and a woman, only shot from the legs down, enter the barn to try an get the boy back, promising that the boys will stop teasing him. When the man says that he won’t be able to cry in the army, the woman says that he doesn’t want to join the army. But according to the man, he doesn’t have much of an option, as a boy like that would never get into the Academy to become a Time Lord.
The TARDIS has landed on Gallifrey in the distant past, and the crying boy is the First Doctor, no older than 6 or 7. It falls to Clara, who once shattered into a million pieces to save the Doctor’s timestream, to put the Doctor to sleep after she inadvertently grabs his ankle, inspiring the nightmare that will eventually eat him up, a nightmare that will compel him, unconsciously or not, to choose the ruin of this barn to end the Last Great Time War. As it turns out, people are indeed never truly alone. Everyone has a constant companion- fear. Fear of embarrassment, failure, our own mortality or simply the unknowable, empty spaces beyond the reassuring appraisal of our eyes. But as Clara says, it’s all just a dream. In the end, it’s far more likely that it was just a prank, just cooling pipes, just the house settling. All you have to do is listen.
Clara returns to her date with Danny a third time, the two reconciling, and then sharing a kiss. Orson Pink didn’t say he recognised Clara. But he did have a grandparent or great-grandparent who told him stories about time travel. He did have a grandparent or great-grandparent that gave him an old toy for good luck. A broken toy soldier to keep you safe, to guard your dreams. As Clara places him by the young boy who will grow up to be the Doctor, Dan the Soldier Man, the bravest soldier of them all, is watching the entire universe, for as long as it exists. It turns out all you really have to do is listen.
If Steven Moffat wrote “Listen” to prove that he could still do minimalist, then he succeeded in that aim. Using a few sets, the regular cast and only one or two extras, it’s remiscent of the ‘bottle’ episodes from the days of Hartnell or Troughton, when an awkward gap in the mammoth production schedule that turned out 42 episodes a year necessitated the Doctor and company to become trapped in some sort of eerie void, or else locked inside the TARDIS itself while half of them turned invisible for nebulous reasons. Without special effects or an arresting-looking space monster to pass the time, the episode has to rely on it’s actors and their dialogue, and is all the better for it.
With no monster and no inherent threat, it’s menace and fear factor instead comes from suggestion, and the slow accumulation of evidence. Unlike some other Moffat stories, where his brilliant initial idea runs out of steam once he has to explain why everything has come to pass the way it has, “Listen” has no pretense of answering any of the questions it poses, making it a refreshingly standalone adventure in an era dominated by complex story arcs. Even Orson, a character whose existence seems to hint to the end of Clara’s time in the TARDIS, is never seen or mentioned again. Some might say this is poor continuity, but perhaps sometimes everything doesn’t need an answer. Sometimes Doctor Who doesn’t need an explosion and an army of monsters every week. Sometimes, it just needs the darkness under the bed. And for the children behind the sofa to listen.