Doctor Who – Listen

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I wasn’t meaning to write reviews of Doctor Who this year, but bits of these spiky, slightly experimental episodes keep sticking in my head. After the romp to end all romps that was ‘Robot of Sherwood’ (huge fun but yes, please could that end all romps now?) ‘Listen’ is a very different affair, and it’s got me pondering again. On Capaldi’s Doctor. On whether Clara is well-written. And on whether Steven Moffat can write.

You know, stuff.

Spoilers for Doctor Who – ‘Listen’

A bit of stock-taking. From a vantage point four episodes into the season I’m feeling slightly conflicted. I’m doing that thing you should never do and wondering how this is all going down with the general public, with the kids. Because I strongly suspect that if I was a kid I wouldn’t be finding Capaldi’s brooding Doctor very appealing. And if I’d warmed up to his Uncle Grumpy persona last week, and tuned in for more of the same, this week would have completely mentally fucked me up. But you can’t second guess kids, and you can’t second guess what other viewers will like. That way lies madness. And censorship. And mediocrity.

I do know that this Doctor feels less accessible to me: more distant; less knowable. Sometimes he’s disconcertingly wheedling, but then he’ll disappear down a psychological hole that only makes sense to him. I kind of like it. I *love* Capaldi. But I feel like a need to see more before the character properly crystallises in my head. This isn’t an oven-ready performance like the Doctor played by David Tennant or Matt Smith, bold and easily digested (not to deny their later development, but they arrived neatly packaged.) The Twelfth Doctor is like a slow cooked meal with lots of contrasting flavours, and I haven’t finished it yet.

Clara does seem like she arrived fully formed this season. And I do mean this season. It feels like the Impossible Girl left the show after fulfilling her… purpose? destiny? and a three-dimensional companion took her place. I’m really liking the way that Clara has come into her own this year. She’s clearly the lead character in terms of audience engagement (and often in terms of resolving the plot) and she’s a believable human being. Grounded, able to be afraid but resourceful under pressure. Insightful, as much the Doctor’s guide as his sidekick.

There are times I dare to think Moffat has cracked this ‘writing women’ thing (Wait! Wait! Cancel that tweet and read on) but then I still see interviews where he says that what’s changed this year is Clara not having the Doctor wrapped around her finger, and I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. That’s not what has changed. What’s changed is that she has agency, and a life beyond the Doctor’s transdimensional walls that I actually believe in and which doesn’t just involve some sitcom babysitting job.

But I’ve also read feminist criticism about Clara, and I try to listen to such things because the chances are that I’m being too forgiving of sexism in my favourite show. Sometimes it takes sensible people to point it out to me. I know that the Doctor is constantly making comedy remarks about Clara’s appearance, and although he’s not portrayed as being ‘right’ it’s a particularly sexist way of needling a female character. I can also see that Vastra ‘blamed’ Clara for her superficiality in having fallen for the Eleventh Doctor, though I think the dialogue in that scene is not necessarily meant to be taken at face value so much as a game of challenge and counter-challenge. Clara also seems to sometimes be labelled with traits that feel a bit arbitrary, like ‘control freak’, without much evidence that they’re true, and she’s not always consistent (her oddly insensitive slips about Danny being a soldier for example).

That’s all true, and those are definitely faults in the way Clara has been written. I would say that there’s much in mitigation. For me, at least, those true things were at their worst in ‘Deep Breath’ and have been much less apparent since. I’d also argue that they are offset by the aforementioned agency. The old Clara has been jettisoned (and perhaps there was little enough there to mourn), so taking the new one on her own terms I’d say she gives as good as she gets. She rolls her eyes at the Doctor’s ‘comedy’ insensitivity (indeed she’s happy with her appearance even though that shouldn’t necessarily be the defining concern of a female character), and is a capable, compassionate but imperfect human being. Although she is not afforded equal significance to the title character (and never will be in the show as presently constituted), she tells the Doctor to do as he’s told on a fairly regular basis, and he tends to listen. She often has ideas that the Doctor doesn’t.

What of ‘Listen’, itself? Widely acclaimed as a classic, occasionally panned as a misfire.

On the misfire side of the equation, it feels strange that the episode is driven solely by the Doctor’s curiosity, with no dramatic imperative beyond testing his hypothesis. Self-indulgent, even, on the part of the writer, because it removes the need to seat his Big Idea within a traditional narrative framework. Counterpointing the Doctor’s scientific mini-expedition with Clara’s date doesn’t add momentum so much as emphasise the episodic quality of the story.

And while I’m on the subject of writerly laziness, Clara’s monologue to the sleeping Doctor is the very epitome of telling rather than showing. Why bother resolving your themes through the narrative when you can have your Mary Sue character simply spout them at the end? Why bother, indeed, making the rest of the episode a masterwork of ambiguity and unresolved mystery if you’re just going to explain the significance of everything with a big black marker pen? In some ways I found ‘Deep Breath’ similarly heavy-handed, the author’s earnest preoccupations so visible in the dialogue that the fourth wall is nearly broken. It’s a surprise for a writer as demonstrably skilful as Moffat.

On the ‘it’s a classic’ side of the equation it’s quite refreshing to have an episode that amounts to the Doctor pursuing a personal ‘cold case’. Doctor Who can be accused of sticking to a tried and true format, and there’s no harm in shaking things up. Then there is the visceral paralysing dread invoked by the hugely effective set pieces. The simple device of a figure under the bed clothes becomes the embodiment of suspense and fear. It’s a traditional English Ghost Story, a little dash of MR James transplanted into an episode of Doctor Who. (Even the Doctor’s rather scholarly quest smacks of James). The knocking on the door at the end of the Universe, although it recalls ‘Midnight’, is undeniably creepy. Add the trope of the hand under the bed, and you have more than enough ingredients for memorable horror. Although these scenes are essentially vignettes without much to link them, they work superbly. Had they been wedded to a more straightforward horror narrative (perhaps with a chilling but elliptical denouement) there would be little to complain about.

Less successful, but still worthy of comment, is the way that using Danny as the subject of the jaunts through time casts Clara’s date in a deeper context, making literal the process of getting to know her date’s past, and speculating on where the relationship might lead. Quite a neat way of linking the otherwise radically different ‘A’ and ‘B’ plots.

It’s that ending scene in the barn, and particularly Clara’s monologue, that sets the cat among the pigeons. I’m very torn on this, but what rescues it from info-dumpy deus-ex-machina purgatory is artistry of a different type. It takes the viewer’s experiences and preconceptions about the entire episode up to that point and, gradually, during one simple speech, completely shifts them. Suddenly we’re no longer watching an episode about an obsessive explorer confronting eldritch horror. We’re watching an episode — the same episode — about a man who has been afraid since childhood and is projecting his oldest fears onto the Universe. We’re beginning to understand that this is part of what makes him tick, and moreover that it always has been what made him tick, right from the start. In the space of a few sentences we see that this is not a ghost story at all. It’s a character study.

Whether we’re ready for a character study of someone as traditionally taken for granted as the Doctor remains open to question. Springing such a character examination upon us late in the episode is perhaps not the best way of investing us in the idea. But why not? Why not delve into this character’s psyche, his history? Why not do it cleverly, in an episode of otherwise riveting dread?

And if that monologue is still just a bit too on the nose, a bit too expository, one dip too many into the well of the 50th Anniversary, it’s still dazzling. Clunky, but dazzling. Suspended between the two. Just like the episode.

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