What if there was nothing? What if there was never anything? Nothing under the bed. Nothing out the door. What if - the big, bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s just afraid of the dark?
It's as if you've been invited into our living room, on the evening of Sat 13th September, at approximately 11pm. (Just stay away from the Milky Bar.) Jo turns on the lights and returns to her seat. Again: not a word shared. “Well… what did you think?” I purse my lips and pull a grimace. It feels like there’s an ‘opinion hair-ball’ stuck at the back of my throat, and I just can’t seem to get it out. What eventually leaves my mouth doesn’t exactly bring much clarity.
“Well… It was either one of the very best episodes of Doctor Who, or it wasn’t that good at all. I can't really tell right now.”
That scene in the bedroom. Oh-my-Claras I think I wet myself a little.
This isn’t the first time the Doctor’s childhood has been covered. Not by a long shot. Putting aside the (now probably non-canonical) aspects of the New Adventures novel, Lungbarrow (1997) - at several points the Third Doctor described his old school days with The Master and his various experiences as a “little boy” (e.g. The Mind of Evil; The Sea Devils; The Time Monster etc). Later, of course, we see the Eleventh Doctor give his own cot to Amy & Rory (A Good Man Goes to War). Even without Lungbarrow, however, this scene does throw a small spanner into the works. We know from the ‘expanded universe’ of DW that the Doctor had both a Father and a Mother, and that he has strong memories of his Father in particular. This, too, might now be non-canonical, as here it's suggested the Doctor was at this time an orphan in some kind of children’s home. Certainly raises some questions. It would be interesting to see this idea developed. The actual event in itself would be worth exploring, but the Doctor struggling with such a massive past trauma is sheer, undiluted plot fuel. (This is what Batman’s been running off for about 75 years, after all.)
A few other bits and pieces from this scene.
- I noticed that it’s suggested the young Doctor will never become a Time Lord - does this now settle the fact that it’s a title only bestowed on a few? In popular parlance, at least, ‘Time Lord’ is the Gallifreyan equivalent of ‘Human’. But that’s obviously not the case. Here, it’s a reward bestowed on graduates from the Academy - one of two routes for a young Gallifreyan boy to take, the other being military service. All Time Lords are Gallifreyan, then, but not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords.
- Are we to assume that the TARDIS materialising on ancient Gallifrey is significant? Because it would certainly seem so. Remember, Gallifrey is in a Time Lock. Or at the very least: a stasis cube. Remember, it was the directive given to the Eleventh Doctor, to find his home planet. One expects this will become significant later on.
- It was a superb bit of casting, whoever played the boy. His head looked so old. Exactly what I’d expect the Doctor to look like at that age, albeit in silhouette.
- Clara’s speech was wonderful. Just as she once entered into the Doctor’s time stream as an influence for the better (Name of the Doctor), here she declares some truths that subconsciously impact the Doctor’s future worldview. From the his relationship with fear (which references the First Doctor’s words to Barbara in Cave of Skulls: “Fear makes a companion of all of us” - as opposed to Clara's, "Fear makes a companion of us all"), and then the promise that he’ll one day make to himself (“never cruel or cowardly”).
- More substantively, there are some really important moves made here. For example, the fact that Hurt’s Doctor later returns to the very same barn to wipe out both the Time Lords and the Daleks is now even better in retrospect. For a start, it’s rather moving that he’d return to a place of childhood familiarity - as if he needed comforting. Also, given that it’s a place of hurt and feeling outcast, there’s also a sinister element to the decision, as if it marks two fingers up to those who caused him so much pain throughout his life, from start to (what he believes to be the) finish.
Most significantly, however, we’re given an insight into the Doctor as a child. Many of us have an image of what the Doctor’s childhood might have been like. In fact, it was the subject of a recent (failed) Kickstarter prequel TV show, entitled Wild Endeavour. In it, the Doctor and a handful of others run around and solve adventures and generally have fun in a rather charming manner.
Notice: that’s not the kind of Doctor we get here. In actual proper DW, we get a crying, hurt, pained Doctor. A bullied, lonely, orphaned outcast. This is because Moffat, for all his flaws, knows this character. Unlike the vast swathe of sci-fi and fantasy protagonists, our hero’s not popular. He’s not strong. He’s not good looking and he’s not rich. He's not got a lady in every quadrant. He's not got a gun in every pocket.
All the Doctor has in his possession is a sonic screwdriver and a friend.
This explains why I love Doctor Who. In a culture that values braun, prestige and appearance above all else we’re given a hero who lacks all three, but abounds in bravery, intelligence and compassion. We're given a show that lauds true friendship over promiscuity or vulgarity. This one scene in which we get such a small glimpse into the Doctor’s origins exemplifies this perfectly. Here's a pathetic, weak little boy - and yet in his weakness, he finds his strength. I believe this says something quite profound.
All the principal actors were brilliant again. After being the victim of Gatiss’ poor writing in Robot of Sherwood, it’s nice to see Moffat give Clara some real character again. Her scenes with Danny were just like in Into the Dalek - horrendously awkward, as well as amusing given that it’s all about pretty people trying and failing to be cool. Jenna Coleman is quickly becoming one of my favourite companion actors of all time. She plays the part so well. Peter Capaldi was, once again, undisputedly brilliant - although I did notice his performance was a tad ‘understated’ this time round. I’m not sure if I could put my finger on anything specific. It just felt like it wasn’t quite his intention to turn it up to 11, as we’ve seen in previous episodes. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. It just allowed Clara to be the main focus.
Or rather, to be more specific, the main theme in Listen is ‘Clara as Matriarch’.
We see this over and over again.
She meets Rupert and tends to his fear, assembling his toy soldiers around the bed, in a wonderfully tender moment. She meets Orson and is literally his Great Grandmother (or so we can reasonably assume). And then, most importantly, she becomes the Doctor’s mother figure. When he’s a boy she comforts him through the tears, stroking his hair, telling him stories of courage in fear. And then, returning to the TARDIS, she inverts the Doctor’s stout authoritarianism and parries back her own: “Do as you’re told”.
If this episode was Clara’s episode - and it was - then it was primarily designed to underline what we’ve observed already. Clara is no longer the flirtatious object of the Doctor’s affections. (Primarily because he doesn’t care anymore.) She’s his maternal influence, steering him onto the right course. Recall how Moffat’s first companions, Amy & Rory, matured and developed into independent adults and parents by the end of their run. Here we see Moffat begin to complete the same arc in Clara - which does rather support the rumours that she might be leaving soon. I really hope not.
Quite simply, we were confused. A lion’s share of this brilliant episode was spent convincing us that there was this horrendous monster attached to every person, who has developed the skill of perfect hiddenness. I bought this right away. A great idea, one that was very quickly well realised, and in a genuinely creepy way. (Let’s not go back there.) Not only that, but the Doctor’s theory was seemingly supported by Clara and Rupert and several others all having the same dream. This cannot possibly be a coincidence, we thought.
Well, apparently, it was. It is strongly suggested - both at the end of the episode and in Doctor Who Extra - that there was no monster. That this is all just power of suggestion. The Doctor has simply been alone for too long, and with that loneliness comes a crazy theory. That it’s supported by dreams is in fact a coincidence, one that the Doctor reads through an established prejudice, and, of course, through the prism of a childhood experience with a perfectly normal explanation. (If you regard a time travelling lady under your bed ‘normal’ - but hey, this is Gallifrey baby.) Even Orson's fear of what’s outside his shuttle is partly self-explained - he remarks that it could just be his breathing that he’s confusing for outside activity. (I expect that a second and third watch will reveal other examples of alternative explanations.)
Here’s my problem with this: I just can't buy it.
So when it got to the end, and it was all implied it was all a dream (or whatever), we felt shortchanged. More than that, actually. We maybe even felt a little bit patronised, as if we weren't expected to notice the creaks and the cracks. Moffat’s final subversion simply wasn’t good enough to hold the weight of everything that had preceded it. If it was good enough, then this would be a 9 or even 10 out of 10 episode.
As it stands, I’ll stick to the anatomical analogy I suggested to Jo on Saturday night - Listen has healthy organs and healthy blood pumping round an otherwise healthy body, but its bones are brittle. The actual structure of this episode is, by the end at least, not able to support the weight of all its components in a coherent and reliable manner.
Does this make it a bad episode? Goodness, no, I’m not insane. This is a really good episode with some incredible moments. It’s just not the exceptional episode that it so nearly could have been. That's the problem with unfulfilled potential - it's like a small nuisance that just won't go away, no matter how many times you tell it to.
Which is annoying because, again, this episode was great. I just wish I didn't feel the need to say "but" at the end of that sentence. Life would be so much simpler.