STEVEN Moffat has been very hit and miss recently, and by recently I mean the last three years. Since taking over as Doctor Who showrunner in 2010, Moffat has delivered a fantastic fifth series and two appalling ones. If Russell T. Davies hammered the first nail in the coffin of my Who fandom with ‘The End of Time’, Moffat completed the task with ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘The Wedding of River Song’. Now that I occupy the role of resident cynical, jaded sort-of-not-really Who fan of SCM, I have to savour the times that my sceptic vitriol is proved wrong.
‘Listen’ proves me wrong with aplomb. While it hits the standard Moffat beats – unseen enemy living off fear out of the corner of your eye being amongst them – it achieved the rare feat of not feeling self-indulgent or lost amidst a simmering cauldron of overdone narrative soup. No already-answered questions of the Doctor’s morality, no threat-derailing quips, no superfluous characters streaming in by the dozens. No complications. We haven’t seen a Moffat episode this precise and well-executed since ‘The Eleventh Hour’. He’s always been at his best when writing on a standalone basis; while it may not be his finest (for me that would be ‘The Doctor Dances’), it’s a strong return to form.
‘Listen’ kicks off with an disastrous dinner date between Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the alarm bells start ringing immediately. Fortunately our fears are allayed when Peter Capaldi’s Doctor emerges bug-eyed and eyebrow-arched out of the TARDIS, spluttering something about a single dream that everyone ever has shared and asking for Clara’s help as a guinea pig for this theory.
Tasked with controlling the TARDIS with her MINDBULLETS (distractions from said date ahoy), Clara ends up propelling the blue box into Danny’s own past. From there, the mechanics of the narrative take several body-blows – particularly in the final five minutes – but it’s all done for the sake of the plot proper, which addresses, primarily if not exclusively, the nature of fear itself.
It’s a highly conceptual episode for Doctor Who with an almost total absence of a palpable monster-of-the-week threat. The few hints of monstrous opposition are so placed as to heavily imply their non-existence, indicating a purely psychological threat to the heroes. Normally I’d be up in arms about the laziness in having no credible threat whatsoever, but I’d rather this to the alternative of an ill-defined menace that’s treated with improbity and promptly discarded (see: most episodes ever).
Lord knows I’d rather give Clara some actual character development, which she finally receives here. Instead of being some sarcy, saucy, smirking, one-liner spouting, deus ex machina in persona, Clara is shown to be a warm young woman, sharp and witty without being painfully so. A human being with human traits! Hooray!
Capaldi’s Doctor is also given some solid ground to stand upon; his scenes where only he is on-camera are magnetic, with the Doctor talking to himself at length, laying bare the fragility of his loneliness. Though never explicitly stated, we are given a fascinating window into the importance of Clara – and companionship in general – to the Doctor’s world. He’s a lonely old man, gibbering away; his dependence on Clara is made emphatically clear without ever stating it directly, a triumph of subtle storytelling seldom observed in Who history.
‘Listen’ is a shining light in the sea of garbage produced by Doctor Who recently. Despite some narrative hiccups – most prominently the end of the universe, one of the most widely-advertised aspects of the episode, being thoroughly pointless and improbable – the strength of the characters and, yes, the writing propel it above the mediocrity it had every right to be. For once, Moffat’s irritating hyperbolising seems justified. I do love being proved wrong.