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Doctor Who: "Listen" Season 8 Episode 4

Narratives of Fear and Hope by the Unquenchable Duckie

Author: Duckie/Tuesday, September 16, 2014/Categories: Blog, Episode Review

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     The Earth in space, the sun cast at its back, a network of vein-like lights in the dark. We pass, floating, in space to the open doors of an old police box. The desktop of the TARDIS spins and whirls, inviting the audience inside. Instead, we float upward; an aged man sits in the lotus position with a resplendent view of Earth behind him. We see it in night. We see it in day. Closer to the Doctor’s face, his attack eyebrows furrowed but serene; they open and he speaks, “Listen”.

     Establishing mood is an important part of the writing process and it is something that Steven Moffat does well. Not since “Blink” has Moffat written something so eerie. The fourth episode of season 8, titled “Listen”, is entrenched in a mood of lingering chill. We can’t help but pull the covers close to our face, wring our hands with suspense, or cower behind the sofa. It isn’t an overt monster with which we derive this spellbinding terror; it is the constant unknown that drives this episode. The missing chalk, the mystery under the red blanket, and the knock at the time machine’s door are all these dread reminders of what could be out there. But, what makes this episode so effective is that there is nothing underneath the bed. It’s in the Doctor’s head and it’s in ours. Moffat drove the mood, from the first intonation of “listen”, so deep into our psyche that we believed that a monster would be lurking behind us. Seeing it would have deprived us of the tantalizing frights of our own imagination. That’s what makes “Listen” powerful, Moffat whispers the what-if in our mind and we take over from there. In fact, all we have to do to understand that there is nothing to be afraid of is to listen to the dialogue.

     The fact that the dialogue undeniably refutes the hidden creature’s existence can be overlooked in the first viewing. In every scene where the hidden creature makes an appearance we are offered with a rational reason as to what it could be. When the chalk goes missing Clara points out to the Doctor, “It looks like your handwriting”. In the orphanage, with their back to the mystery under the red blanket, the Doctor suggests, “Possibility one: It’s just one of your friends standing there. He’s playing a joke on you”. Later as the Doctor and Clara sit alone in the crashed time machine a gasping scream is heard, “Atmospheric pressure equalizing,” the Doctor claims. In each of the scenes we’re given another possibility, a far creepier one. However, by the end of the episode there is only the fear. There was never a foul beasty, and that’s where the dialogue in “Listen” and the mood make a fantastic narrative synthesis. It teaches us an age old fable, not about removing fear, but utilizing fear. The Doctor describes the night sky outside of young Pink’s bedroom, “The deep and lovely dark. We’d never see the stars without it”. That line is so poignant, because it is through the darkness that all things burn brightest. It’s the fact that we’re scared that lets us “run faster…fight harder…jump higher”. In this episode fear intermingles with hope so much that it becomes indistinguishable. It becomes the primal motivation in our lives. It kicks our instincts into overdrive and pulls us closer—and that’s what this episode is about. As homage to the First Doctor’s line in “An Unearthly Child” Clara whispers to a crying child Doctor, “Fear makes companions of us all”. Those lines sum up the entire premise of “Listen”; to use our fear to better ourselves. It certainly shapes the character of young Rupert Pink and even the Doctor himself.

     Character development is one of the more nebulous aspects of constructing a narrative, doubly so when your narrative is passed down over fifty years. In “Listen” Steven Moffat manages to tie in fear with the essence of the Doctor himself. It’s his fear and the reassurance that it’s okay to be scared that acts as a critical development in the Time Lord’s past and present. Both the realities of fear and the balm for it come in the form of the Impossible Girl. Clara proves to us again, not only is she his peer, but their shared fate makes her vital for the Doctor’s development. In ancient Gallifrey (in the same barn he would not use the Moment) the young Time Lord is crippled by the fear of joining the army. After initially grabbing the waking child’s ankle—the same telltale symbol of terror used in “Listen”—Clara offers the same advice the Doctor gives to young Pink to the child Doctor:

Didn’t anyone ever tell you, fear is a superpower? Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger. And, one day you’re going to come back to this barn. And, on that day you’re going to be very afraid indeed. But, that’s okay. Because, if you’re very wise and very strong; fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind.

It’s in this line that we see something in the Doctor that we don’t often get to see. We see his humanity. We see our humanity. In this way, Clara Oswald is one of the most impacting companions of the Doctor Who series. It’s her that turns an outcast Gallifreyan into the Time Lord that we love; and in changing the Doctor, alters the course of time and the fate of Danny Pink.

     The handsome soldier turned teacher was featured in the season’s fourth episode. While “Listen” was subtly about the Doctor, the overt character development was all Pink. Clara’s accidental meddling created two soldiers without guns. Danny Pink’s awkward charm hides layers of bravery and fear. The comingling of these two seemingly juxtaposed emotions makes him perfect as the new companion. We see in the episode that the Doctor gives Pink the same advice Clara would later give the Time Lord. In many ways, Danny Pink is the same as the Doctor. While the end result of overcoming fear may be different—shy but bold versus cantankerous but gentle—the core of both characters is the same. There is blood on both Pink and the Doctor’s hands, yet (as implied by the many wells Danny has dug in war) they both save lives. What makes Danny and the Doctor (no The Doctor-Danny jokes yet) so similar is one simple fact about both these characters. They’re heroes.


 Aaron Lirette

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