Doctor Who Listen review: “A classy, creepy study of fear and loneliness”

“Fear makes companions of all of us”

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Listen is an exploration of fear and loneliness: the loneliness of a boy in a children’s home, the loneliness of the last man alive at the end of the universe and the loneliness of the Last of the Time Lords, who we know should never be left alone, but often is these days, as Clara is not a constant companion but someone who flits in and out of his life whenever he needs help with “a thing”.

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For once we see what preoccupies the Doctor, or at least this Doctor, what plagues and obsesses him when he’s not engaged in heroics – what results when his mind is allowed to wonder. And of course it’s dark and disturbing. “Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone?” he posits, as though beginning a lecture. “Because we know we are not.” He later expands on his theory with Clara: “I think everybody, at some point in their lives, has the exact same nightmare.” A fear of a nocturnal intruder, of something lurking under the bed. Something wicked that might grab your ankle if you climb out.

With the elliptical élan we’ve come to expect from Steven Moffat, it is the Doctor’s actions in the present that lead to Clara hiding under his bed in childhood on Gallifrey long ago, and grabbing his ankle. Not only that, she comforts the whimpering child and gives him the strength to overcome his fears.

This overlaps with the Doctor and Clara dipping into Danny’s past and his descendant Orson’s life in the far future, where they allay their night-time fears. Cleverly, the talisman of a broken plastic toy, Rupert’s Dan the soldier man, “a soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun”, drifts through their lives, linking and symbolising the two men most important to Clara. Danny likes to talk about the 23 wells he’s dug and whole villages he’s saved. The Doctor will become the ultimate weaponless warrior. The Unarmed Man.

Moffat – so often charged with the “big” episodes, the season openers and finales – says he’s set out to pen a low-budget chamber piece – which rather undersells Listen. While not a patch on Blink, Listen is sharply written, deftly edited and performed by a minimal cast, with fine direction from Line of Duty’s Douglas Mackinnon.

If there’s a downside to reviewing episodes in advance, it’s that they come with big fat embargos. So while I endeavour not to spoil, I am repeatedly spoiled myself. This week, before watching, I had to digest the BBC’s spoiler alert: “Please do not mention the character we meet in the barn (the young Doctor) or that we go to Gallifrey.”

In The Sound of Drums (2007), we glimpsed the Master as a boy so it seemed inevitable we might one day be exposed to the Doctor’s youth. It’s an indulgence only the showrunner would allow himself. The Doctor has often talked about his childhood, albeit obliquely, never in detail. And this is how Moffat leaves it. We see the legs and hear the voices of two concerned adults, not necessarily the Doctor’s parents. The man and woman remain unbilled in the credits. Nor do we see the child Doctor’s face – a boyish William Hartnell would have been hard to find or fake.

We know Moffat is a master of time-bending plots and creeping menaces just beyond our perception: Vashta Nerada, Weeping Angels, Prisoner Zero, the Silence… To a lengthy list we can add these nightmare presences, which may or may not exist. From hands under the bed to the spectre under Rupert’s bedspread to the forces banging outside the spacecraft airlock… It’s mildly creepy for me as a grown-up, and I admire the attempt to scare the little blighters watching today. Doctor Who isn’t nearly scary enough in my view, and the creatures that gave me nightmares in the 1970s, the Silurians and Sontarans, are now benign or light relief.

Many children will, with any luck, be scared rigid by this, despite the insistent message that fear can be channelled to make us strong. “Scared is a super power,” the Doctor tells Rupert, just as Clara emboldens the boy Doctor: “Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger. Fear is like a constant companion.”

That may sound like wishful thinking, but Steven Moffat is shrewd. He knows what makes the Doctor tick, especially in his early days. The giveaway line is Clara’s, the final line of Listen: “Fear makes companions of us all.” Moffat is harking back to the moment in the Cave of Skulls in the very first story in 1963 when the first Doctor comforted Barbara with almost those exact same words: “Fear makes companions of all of us.”

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Listen: watch and learn.