Thursday, 18 September 2014

Listen written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

This story in a nutshell: Probably the hardest Doctor Who story to define in its long history...

Indefinable: Before I saw a lot of potential in Peter Capaldi's gruff and moody Doctor and already this approach is already starting to pay off and astonishingly early in the season too. Listen is ambitious and far reaching in the way it attempts to reveal further shades about the Doctor, not an easy feat given he has been on our screen for fifty years. Facets of the Doctor's dark character are actually perpetuating stories, he's deliberating going looking for answers to the riddle of his psyche. At the end of this season the Doctor will have examined his soul inside and out and will make a perfect Time Lord therapist, perhaps he can set up shop when he gets back home (the long way round). I don't think there has ever been a time when the series has been quite so obsessed with the character of the Doctor himself as it has since Day of the Doctor, and it was pretty self reflective before then. In the wake of Day of the Doctor and Listen some surprising things have been revealed...but can we get back to having him simply materialising and meeting some interesting guest characters please? That hasn't happened in ages. All this self-examination is practically In Treatment: Gallifrey. The Doctor has been running away from himself ever since he thought he destroyed he is ready to look inwards and examine the blackness within.

Capaldi is a revelation in this, it is exactly the sort of material he has been waiting for. Not arsing about on rooftops with dinos or having a bitch fight with Robin Hood. Here he has the chance to put those eyes and teeth to sinister use, to get to grips with some intense material and for the mood of the episode to match the dark, ruminative disposition of his Doctor. They go hand in hand this week. Unlike the first three episodes of this season, this is specifically geared to Capaldi's Doctor. There is no way Matt Smith could have played this material with the same intensity. He grins maniacally at the thought of seeing what horrors lie under the bed. 'Have you seen the size of human brain? They're hilarious!' He's a fantastic counterpoint to Clara's assuring behaviour, deliberately going out of his way to disturb young Pink and point out that there is nothing wrong with being scared. You could grow very fond of this Doctor. I wonder if there are any parents out there who are jealous of his Dad skills?  He can't leave even if their lives are in danger because he has to know. Sixie said something similar in The Mysterious Planet. Questions to which I must have an answer. He barks at Clara to get back in the TARDIS - he really reminds me of Colin Baker's Doctor at times. It might be why I like him so much.

Impossible Girl: I am starting to worry that Clara is going to turn out to be the Doctor's mother and daughter one day, in an insane timey wimey twist that sees her fulfilling every role he has ever had in his life. My only real problem with Listen is Clara and how she is still as insubstantial as a character can it any wonder that the story delved into the history of Danny and the Doctor but failed to do the same for Clara. There is nothing significant to be found there beyond a crusty old leaf. It's getting beyond a joke now how slight this companion is, especially since Moffat keeps manoeuvring her into vital points in the Doctor's life. The least substantial companion turns out to be the most important...that's so funny I almost fell off my chair. Clara is now the architect of all things Doctor Who and given her opaqueness that is rather embarrassing for the show. We're being asked to invest in the Clara/Danny relationship when we don't really know anything about either character. In Danny's case that is understandable but in Clara's it is inexcusable. So whilst I could acknowledge the material, nod my head and go 'I see what he's implying there' (about them having a child in the future), I wasn't emotionally invested in it because I haven't gone on a journey with them. It's like peeking at the end of a book. A little humour between the two characters would be a good start. And whilst I acknowledge that Moffat's brain doesn't work this way I would really like to see just one relationship in his tenure playing out naturally with two people meeting and simply getting to know each other, getting on and falling in love. No meeting out of order or daughters travelling back and being their parents best friends or skipping forwards to the future and seeing how it all works out. Not even a simple date can be...well simple in Moffat's hands. Concentrate on the emotional worth of the relationship rather than simply playing clever tricks with it. Then you'll hook your audience.

How thoughtless was her comment to Danny? Any sympathy I might have had with the character vanished in a moment of utter thoughtlessness. There is an easy chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman that is nice to watch which almost (almost...) pushes Clara's flaws to one side (Coleman is that good). Naturally Clara is the one who takes a little boy under his bed and dispels every fear he might have about what is lurking under there. That is because she is impossibly dauntless and brave and never bats an eyelid at anything. I was really hoping there would be something dark, pulsing and unknowable under there to bring her out in a sweat. Even when there is every reason to be petrified (somebody sits on the bed) she is still smiling. Bring back Sarah Jane, she would have still confronted what it was but she would have been terrified with it. I could believe in her. Plus she is repeatedly proven to be smarter and more observant than the Doctor and nobody can get one up on him as often as she does. She's superwoman in practically every way, she's without flaws. It's infuriating. The Doctor sought out the dangers of the universe because Clara told him so...and he chose the TARDIS he end up with because Clara told him so...and he was saved from countless dangers because Clara was there to help him...and he ultimately saved Gallifrey because Clara doesn't believe he could go through with destroying it. She's the ultimate time meddler.

Pinkster: I like Danny. I'm not sure if it's Samuel Anderson's vulnerable performance or simply the fact that Moffat seems to write far more convincingly for male companions than he does female ones but he has done relatively little to win me over and has already succeeded. He's exposed and I really like that in a man and he has a complex emotional past which is ripe for exploiting. He outstrips Clara by a factor of ten in the interest stakes and he has only appeared in cameos in two episodes. He hasn't got much of a sense of humour but I figure that he might lighten up as the season progresses. There's a massive chip on his shoulder (for a very good reason, his personal history is turbulent stretching right back to his childhood) but because of it I feel as if I have gotten to know him rather well already. It makes each smile a victory.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we're alone? Conjecture: Because we know we're not.'
'What if the breath of something on the back of your neck is something behind you?'
'The room looks different at night. It ticks and creaks and breathes.'
'The TARDIS isn't supposed to come out this far but some idiot turned the safeguards off...'
'It doesn't matter that there is nothing under the bed or in the long as you know it is okay to be afraid of it.'

The Good:

* I've said it practically every week but it is worth re-iterating...this is my favourite new series TARDIS console by a factor of ten. It feels like a living, pulsating, mood driven cathedral and is wonderfully shot in Listen to capture the aching sadness and rumination that is inherent in the script.
* My Facebook feed has been full of the perplexed exclamations of fans who are desperate to know precisely what the protagonist was in Listen. Horror often leaves its mysteries ambiguous and if I'm honest I sometimes prefer it when it does. When a film or book reveals what has been menacing the heroes in the darkness it rarely manages to be as frightening as what you conjure up in your mind. It is much more scary when you simply cannot get a handle on the nightmare or monster. As much as I find the twist in Hide quite quirky, the episode no longer has any chance to freaking you out on repeat viewings when you know that it was simply two twisted freaks who are looking for love. When a story is this deliberately obscure you have to be sure that you have sufficiently built it up to get under the skin and Moffat achieves that wonderfully in the scene with the cloaked figure on the bed. It might be a child playing tricks. It might be an evil from the dawn of time. It might even be Samantha Mulder revealing where she has been all along. If somebody had thrown that sheet away suddenly a scene that has been butt clenchingly frightening becomes something mundane...why would anybody want that? The ambiguity in Listen is deliberate, the uncertainty there to frighten (or frustrate those who like tidy answers) and for me it worked a treat.
* I big poke in the eye to cynics like me who have suggested (perhaps with some evidence in the past half season or so) that Murray Gold no longer has anything to offer the show. Listen goes someway to providing a counter argument and is the best score in ages. It's ambient mood music all the way, barely drawing attention to itself and being all the more sinister for it.
* Can you imagine getting out of bed at night and a hand grabbing your foot from under the bed? Just put yourself in that position for a moment. Anybody that says they wouldn't scream like a baby is big fat liar. Imagine going to get a glass of water in the middle of the night and coming back and finding a cloaked figure sitting on your bed? I'm wondering if these scares are little too subtle for children...but I bet there were plenty of adults sitting there in a cold sweat. The idea that your own imagination and paranoia can make the most innocuous of noises take on a very sinister meaning is a startling one. It is something we do all the time.
* Where has Douglas Mackinnon been hiding these directing skills? I'll be fair his debut story had some very impressive action sequences in it but if I'm honest parts of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky felt as though they needed tightening up. The Power of Three was quirkily brought to the screen but never really went for the scares. Cold War seemed entirely unsuited to Mackinnon's style, the claustrophobic that was required failed to ignite and story seemed to plod along with relatively little atmosphere or chills. Then Listen comes along. Every scene moodily lit and filmed. Effortless scene transitions. Slow reveals of scares and a camera that is willing to hold on reaction shots and frightening images for a period that unsettles. Half the battle with a horror is how it is realised and this is the work of a suspense magician. Who knew this was what Mackinnon was capable of?
* Moffat managed to wrong foot me completely at one point. I genuinely thought that the Doctor had invaded Clara's meal in a spacesuit just because he was in a bit of a playful mood. I never expected for the visor to be removed and for Danny to be the occupant. Nicely played.
* There is a disquieting atmosphere to the scenes set on the last planet in the universe. It is a location that manages to be eerie just because it is so quiet. It reminded me of the Library in that respect. Not a breath or sliver or a click or a tick. This is the silence at the end of time.
* Sometimes Moffat's timey-wimeyness can yield some effective results and Clara seeing that the words she chose for young Rupert Pink having a profound effect for the next 100 years (the toy still being carried by his ancestor) is a great example. It is rather touching.

The Bad:

* If the nature of the threat is imaginary...does that mean it is our own imaginations that we should fear? That is a really scary idea that fell to the wayside. The fact that I am asking profound questions of this nature about a Saturday night show scheduled against The X-Factor is something to be celebrated though.
* If evolution were to create a creature that could hide from view...if? I thought that was the Silence?
* I feared that Moffat may had become so obsessed with trying to scare his audience that he had forgotten how to do it. The early scenes in the TARDIS, whilst beautifully realised, are trying so hard to understand the nature of fear that they almost spoil the chance for the audience experience it. Talking about why people are afraid doesn't cut it...that's taking the educational approach to shitting somebody up. You have to dump these characters in genuinely fearful situations, which is precisely what Moffat does when the ruminations require answers. Brilliantly, none of the questions pondered in the opening ten minutes are given a satisfactory response. And that's what Moffat was getting at.
* Some pretty dodgy 'let's pretend to be having a nice chat with our dinner' acting going on in the background to the restaurant scenes. Check it out.
* Companions having babies together? Haven't we covered that already?
* I'm in too minds about Moffat continually mythologizing the Doctor and putting his own stamp on his past. There are some things that don't need to be shown and the Doctor's childhood is one of them. Do we really need to know that he was a big cry baby that didn't want to join the army? Does that in any way enhance the character? It strikes me as trying a little too hard to play God and make a lasting impact long after he has gone. If Moffat was a braver writer he should have had his older self storm out of the TARDIS and treat his younger self just like he did Rupert Pink. Give him a slap around the chops (Blinovitch be damned) and tell him that everything he is afraid of is real and waiting to be fought. Instead Clara gets the honours, which strikes me as giving one assistant far too much influence over his timeline. The scene is well done in of itself (I especially loved it when she grabbed his foot) but I question whether this kind of self-aggrandising mythology was needed in Listen.

The Shallow Bit: When it comes to looks, Clara and Danny are just about the hottest couple to have appeared on Doctor Who. Nobody would ever pip Polly and Ben for me though.

Result: 'Fear makes companions of all of us...' The most complex, baffling, thoughtful and frustrating Doctor Who story since Ghost Light, Listen practically defies explanation and will leave viewers as thrilled as it will irritated. I rather like that, it is Doctor Who pushing the boundaries again and not rejecting Hollywood concessions for the audience. Listen expects some people to be appalled. And others to be aghast at the liberties it takes. And others to be bowled over by its exploration of the unknown. Listen deliberately asks more questions than it answers which is bound to cause a portion of the Doctor Who fan base (who like to tidy away everything into boxes - take the subject of canon for example) to self ignite. It is basically four vignettes that are only tenuously linked; the first set piece being a take on the Russell T. Davies era (a date in a restaurant that goes disastrously wrong specifically reminds me of Boom Town), the second a mix of The Girl in the Fireplace (something under the bed), Blink/The Eleventh Hour (open/close your eyes and something nasty will happen), the third a riff on Midnight (a claustrophobic attack in an SF setting by something unknown) and then finally a reproduction of The Name of the Doctor (Clara playing a vital role in the Doctor's past). While none of these sketches are prototypal, this time Moffat has taken inspiration from the best of New Who and lumps them all together in one episode. I still think he is creatively bankrupt in his twilight years but Listen manages to sum up the best of NuWho in a very satisfying, cohesive way. And isn't Peter Capaldi superb? Whilst the individual set pieces all work for me in their own right (I have a few reservations about the one set on Gallifrey but the reveal that the little boy is the Doctor is expertly done), Moffat is still having trouble structuring a narrative. Or maybe that was the incoherent narrative to accentuate the obscurity of the threat and the lack of answers. To deny the viewer any of things they expect from television.  Listen chugs along moodily...and then just stops as disquietingly as the material that has just played out. The quality of the writing does suggest that Moffat has been filling a role that doesn't suit him, wasting his time structuring seasons and doing an endless roll call of openers and finales when he is much better at concentrated, standalone adventures. It is trying to be more cerebral and philosophical than your average Saturday night fare (Primeval it aint), intelligent material like this should be commended and encouraged. It's taking an intellectual approach to exploring fear so it never reaches the anxiety levels of Midnight, which was very much an emotional exploration of the same idea, and that exposes the major difference in Moffat and Davies' writing. One is discussing what makes things frightening and the other is simply frightening. You decide which approach you prefer. Exquisitely shot, full of strong ideas and trying to say something vital about the titular character, Listen is the best standalone episode since Hide and if we could only write off Clara in a hideous accident it would score even higher. Had this been original it would have been an absolute classic: 8/10


Anonymous said...

There was so much Moffat-fluff and it’s gotta stop.

The monsters under the bed; Ripped right out of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ where it was done infinitely better.

The Doctor/Companion going back in time and influencing a main character; EVERY STEVEN MOFFAT COMPANION! For Christ’s sake, Steven! Companions are capable of having normal lives and free will!! Why can’t Danny Pink be a soldier because that’s what HE wanted to do!? Not because Clara affected him as a child! That turns Danny from a grounded person (which contrasts him with Clara for an interesting dynamic) into a cipher for timey-wimey. And I’m completely and utterly SICK of it. It’s not clever. It’s not smart. It’s not original. It’s LAZY.

A creature/entity you’re not aware of but has influence over you and your surroundings and is like a shadow; The Silence. It’s like the friggin’ Silence.

Also, there WAS some creature or entity lurking around in the episode. The creature that wrote “LISTEN” in the TARDIS (it was INSIDE THE TARDIS!), the thing under the bed-sheets (it can’t have been a child for numerous reasons) and that thing at the end of the Universe behind the door. What was that?!

Moffat’s “just because” narrative sensibilities; Clara recognising a young Danny by his wave *bangs head against wall*. Clara calling Danny Rupert because…the plot requires her to.

Clara going back in the Doctor’s time-line and influencing his entire life; the entire arc of Series 7 and ‘The Day of the Doctor’. If any other companion had done it, it could have worked. But for Clara, it’s utter over-kill.

Fan-service that fans will eat up but in the end amounts to NOTHING; The cut-away to John Hurt.

The fact that it’s the same hut adds NOTHING. The Danny Pink descendant adds NOTHING.

I liked Capaldi’s speech about fear making you powerful. It was incredible writing. But it felt de-valued when Clara repeated it later. How would you feel if Clara went back in time, met the 4th Doctor and tells him “The moment has been prepared for”? It’d rob those words of any sort of power!

I hated Clara in this episode and how she treated Danny in the restaurant. It was Rose Tyler levels of hateful condescension. I was yelling at the screen when she visited him at the end saying “No, Danny! Don’t forgive her! She was a complete bitch!”.

The end of the Universe angle was done better in ‘Utopia’ and ‘Hide’ and the knocking unknown entity was done better in ‘Midnight’.

This episode reaked of artifice. It came across as Moffat shouting “Look how smart and complex my narratives are!”. When really the complexity is alienating audiences and adding nothing to the characters or their emotions. In fact, the complexity is devaluing their traits and putting them second when, really, they should be front and centre.

Sometimes, simplicity IS complexity. Why couldn’t Danny Pink be normal? Why couldn’t the Doctor just understand fear and motivate a child instead of Clara going back in time and teaching him? Why can’t Clara and Danny just have a normal none timey-wimey date?

It’s coming across as self-indulgent and I’m getting sick of it. I’m sick of Moffat waving his ego in my face and telling me how impressed I should be with it.

How about you stop TELLING me how impressed the audience should be. And actually START impressing them?

Joe Ford said...

Wow. You need a lie down. I don't disagree with all of your points but I think you present them in the form of an aneurysm and should tone down your passion. I thought I was critical! I still maintain this was a very well done 'best of NuWho' episode, intelligently presented by the director and packed full of moody and thoughtful moments. Some of the tropes you mention do irritate (especially Clara) but I would rather take something unoriginal that works like this than the recycled and troubled tone of the last three weeks episodes.

Ed Azad said...

Moffat is inextricable from his own writings. Partly because most of oeuvre is semi-autobiographical. But also because of his chutzpah and blatant ambition. He wants to put his personal stamp all over Doctor Who until you cannot address any one aspect of it without mentioning Moffat himself. You have to admire his confidence at least. But it does dilute the message he's trying to get across in his more thoughtful stories, such as this one.

Clara needs to die in a pit lined with Moral Kombat spikes. She serves no purpose here. What are we supposed to take away from this episode? That Clara is the most over-qualified schoolteacher in history? So all-knowing and superior, she can heap scorn on a traumatized ex-solider? Is this meant to dovetail with the Doctor's hypocritical distaste for soldiers? Has the Doctor been downgraded from Clara's ex to her sugar daddy? Is this a repeat of A Study in Pink? The answer is probably all of the above. Clara is the lynchpin of this story and I couldn't give a squirrel's testicle about her personal life.

Anonymous said...

As interesting an idea that it was (very Ambassadors of Death), I was always baffled by the ending because to me it just didn't make any sense. So... It was nothing making a calculating rapping noise at the outpost door and nothing that wrote on the chalkboard in the TARDIS? I don't know. It might just be me, but I thought it unravelled the plot on its own.

Yeah, I've always been a huge fan of Lungbarrow and I really hated the whole Doctor-was-a-crybaby and didn't want to be a soldier schtick. I personally prefer Quences' attempts to get him into politics with the Doctor being a non-compliant wild child (very Hartnellesque).

But still, that's just my opinion. A good episode dampened by a severe lack of focus and an ending that blows up the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

Very good episode, and though I would be in the camp saying that seeing the Doctor as a child is unnecessary, it is interesting to see the character for what he could or could not have been, regarding his cowardly youth as opposed to his devil may care humanist attitude of adulthood. I like to think that was one of the nights shortly after the death of Torvic, for all you BF fans, to explain the Doctor's angst.

Tango said...

This is a beautiful episode, I remember because I love this series. Paul Cornell agrees.

Same as "School Reunion" and "Vincent and the Doctor", the monster was an excuse to tell a beautiful story with very human feelings in an immortal Time Lord. He has changed so many times and one wonders if it remains the same, the other three episodes have done the same question (The Doctor is a good man, who is he really?) And this episode is the successful conclucion.

I do not understand why you do not like Clara, here was independent and take intelligent decisions by itself unlike Amy "Damsel in distress" Pond. Clara is like Nyssa of the new series, both are the ideal companion for their respective Doctors.

I've finished listening "Master" and I think I have a frightening theory of why the young doctor was really crying.

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David Pirtle said...

I really liked this episode, and most of the people I've spoken about it with really disliked it, so I'm glad to find someone else who agrees. People have complained that the episode never even confirms that there's ever a monster to confront, but I think that's one of my favorite aspects of the story. We don't know if the Doctor is on to something, or if he's just gone totally around the bend from being alone too long with his chalkboard.

I liked Clara in this one. It's probably, as you say, the great chemistry she has with Capaldi that I at least never noticed with Matt Smith. I really feel like series 8, not entirely, but largely helped me get over how much I disliked her in the last series, and I ended up loving her in series 9.