Sunday, 14 September 2014

Listen

"Enough. E-f***ing-nough. You need to learn when to shut your f***ing cave!"

Listen is an odd episode. In a series where average tends to mean something along the lines of "the Robin Hood episode", that is quite a bold statement to make. To be perfectly honest, I don't know how to tackle it. This post will therefore be less of a review, and take the form of a bit of a ramble.

I didn't like it very much. Well... Actually, that's a total lie. I liked certain sequences in the episode very much. But from about halfway through, it took a downward turn for me and the story never fully came together. In fact, the issues I have with it are not dissimilar to the problems I have with The Time of The Doctor, albeit not to quite the same extent.

The Doctor is sitting on the lightbulb.
The best place to start is probably the pre-titles sequence, which is probably one of the best the series has ever had. The Doctor questions the existence of a perfectly hidden creature in an odd mix of mental breakdown, wildlife documentary, and horror story. It works. It's very atmospheric and it establishes a mood which manages to survive the entire episode (Take notes, Hide).

Following the titles, we suddenly start watching Coupling - one of Steven Moffat's sitcoms. Take that as flippant if you want, but the similarities are striking: awkward dialogue (intentional, mind), misunderstandings, and intensive use of flashbacks between the aftermath and the date itself. See, Clara has gone on a date with resident brick wall Danny Pink.  While it had the potential to mess up the tone of the episode before it even began, it fits snugly into the narrative and doesn't disrupt the flow as much as you might think. In part because it's a recurring sub-plot instead of just bookending the story like Into The Dalek... and partly due to the story not having much flow to speak of anyway!

Cut to after the date, and The Doctor is hiding in Clara's bedroom just in case she brought her date back home. Hmm... He needs her to help him with a 'thing', and persuades her by insulting her appearance. Again. As a side note: I really love Twelve's disregard for human emotion, brutal honesty, and alien-ness, but I wish it would stop manifesting as commenting on Clara's appearance. It's consistent enough that it is starting to feel a bit sexist.

The Doctor tunes the TARDIS into Clara's time stream to pinpoint the dream that everyone has at some point in their lives: A monster hiding under the bed. Clara accidentally flies to young Danny Pink instead, and we're treated to an exceptionally chilling sequence as something appears underneath Danny's bedsheets. Nothing actually happens and we never get an answer as to what is underneath: Could be a creature, could just be a kid playing a prank on a scared little boy. "No one came in", but nobody noticed The Doctor entering the room... It works here very well.

It is a very easily found perfectly hidden monster....

I mean... I wasn't scared myself, of course, but whatever; The Empty Child doesn't scare me any more but it was pants-wettingly terrifying back when I was 9. Not literally, I must emphasize.

I appreciate the implication that The Doctor has spent years looking for Wally. I also appreciate his inspirational speech on being scared, even if it is a bit of a retread.

Excursion over, Clara returns to her date. This is what I mean by being an odd episode: It feels like a couple of connected subplots; thematically connected but ultimately separate. The next place the story takes us is the end of the universe with one of Danny's (and possibly Clara's) descendants. This is where I started to lose my interest in the episode - it's disjointed and a bit boring.

"Open the door and you're dead. Don't turn around, don't look away, and don't open the door!"

In the space station stranded at the end of the universe, the last man hears a knock on the door. That's the premise of the second half of the story. While The Doctor and Clara get ready to open the door, strange noises echo through the ship. Which is fine, but the cast spend too long rationalising the noises as pipes cooling. It takes away from the effect to continually play on the ambiguity; the repetition damages the entire episode because the whole story relies on that lack of clarity. Furthermore, the repetition is just boring.

The locked door was the airlock (which adds a sinister edge to the warning not to open it. What if 'company' wasn't Orson's temptation to open it in the lonely nights...). The Doctor's out of action, so Clara pilots the TARDIS once more, and we end up in a familiar barn from an important moment in the show's history.

URRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

This is the big twist in the episode: Clara was the monster beneath The Doctor's bed. The Doctor's paranoia throughout the story may have been completely unfounded - just an irrational fear of the dark inspired by this one night in his childhood. It lends a lot of weight to the "rational" explanation for the episode; that the creature under the bedspread was just a kid, that the noises were just the ship. Perhaps too much weight, given the constant justification those explanations had earlier received.

If this 'dream' was so influential on The Doctor, and drives his fear...
why has neither the fear nor the dream ever been apparent before?!

So Clara gives young!Doctor a familiar speech about fear; how it makes "companions of us all" (nice reference to Hartnell). It makes one wonder just how much they can force Clara into the show's mythos before she leaves, doesn't it? She's already been jammed into the position of most important person in The Doctor's life in The Name of The Doctor, and to have her play a key role in The Doctor's beginnings again is just taking liberties. The Doctor's childhood is something we should never really know much about in the first place, never mind using it as another opportunity to shoehorn Clara in.

It may sound petty or excessive but this scene bothers me so much, and that's when I knew it was coming! I knew I probably wouldn't agree with the sequence, but I didn't expect it to bother me to the extent that it almost ruins the entire episode.

I wanted to love Listen. I wasn't expecting the next Blink, as many people seemed to, but I did expect that most of it (again, I knew the Gallifrey bit was coming) would be very good. And much of it is. But it plays the "Is the monster real?" angle far too much, to the extent the fear factor is almost entirely lost by the third act. The final twist is one I absolutely cannot abide by, too. I'm not going to give Listen a score because I don't think it would add much - if anything - to the post. So I'll conclude by saying that I can appreciate that Listen is an impressive episode, just one I don't like.