Are we afraid of monsters or slaves to our imaginations? You decide.
If there was a greater sense of high-quality television whiplash than what one experiences when watching Doctor Who, then I don’t know what’s what anymore. Sometimes an episode just slams your expectations out of the park and you’re left sitting there, wondering how to even approach explaining it. Well, this is a personal stance at the moment of writing of course, by no means reflecting my opinions of both the past and the future, but I also have a really difficult time believing that this opinion will change. Why? Because I just freaking experienced it.
(Pictured: Me, in 80 years, finally admitting that maybe there’s a show with a little more high-quality whiplash than Doctor Who.)
But Ellen, didn’t you say before that Doctor Who is just a hokey sci-fi show we shouldn’t take seriously? Um, yes. Yes I have. Actually, I still stand by that statement and I don’t see that opinion changing either. What we need to remember, however, is that just because a TV show is a nerdy mess doesn’t mean that it cannot also have a lot of heart that tackles some universal subjects of the human condition, and that’s what we ended up getting by going from the romp that was Robot of Sherwood to this week’s episode: Listen.
Be aware that there are spoilers ahead, including personal meta. Please watch the episode before reading unless you do not mind spoilers.
We start off the episode with Clara coming home from a disastrous first date with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson, first seen in Into the Dalek). Going out for a drink had gotten postponed and eventually turned into dinner, which quickly devolved due to both parties’ awkwardness and insecurities. Clara leaves and returns to her flat an embarrassed and emotional wreck. Her recouping at home is intercut with said disaster date until she decides to turn in for the night. Instead the Doctor, with all his tact and pet-like tendencies, has parked the TARDIS in her room in order to wait for her return. He has, the entire time while away, been talking to himself (and likely hopped up on some intergalactic energy supplement) while trying to figure out the reasoning behind a near-universal nightmare based in primal fear. Convinced there is no such thing as coincidence, the Doctor has the TARDIS extract Clara’s timeline in order to go to the exact moment in her childhood when she first experienced such a dream. It’s sort of dangerous though, meeting one’s self, so the Doctor tells Clara to wait in the ship.
This does sound logical, especially coming from a character who is, while becoming increasingly prone to manically grinning, shown to be potentially scared out of his mind. What isn’t steeped in logic, however, is the fact that the TARDIS landed in Gloucester, where Clara has never been. Right timeframe, off the mark location-wise… what could go wrong?
(To be honest? A lot.)
Turns out that the TARDIS has landed next to the children’s home housing little Rupert Pink, a boy who has just had the very dream the Doctor is investigating. Clara, not ready to submit to being ordered around, has a hunch about Rupert possibly being a young Danny and goes up to talk to him. She explains to Rupert that dreams are exactly that and there’s nothing under his bed. As they investigate this notion something lands atop the mattress, covered in Rupert’s blanket. Is it the Doctor? Nope—the Doctor is right there and, after his own speech about fear, has everyone turn their backs so that whoever it is can leave in peace. It’s pretty ambiguous as to if it was really a monster or just to world’s ugliest and rudest orphan, but I have a feeling we’ll find out eventually as the season progresses. No big deal.
(Everyone’s flipping out about this screenshot and, considering it left out the door with a flash of blue light and an almost Theremin-esque sound effect, I’d say it’s justified.)
After the prankster is gone Clara and the Doctor put Rupert to bed, the former assuring his safety with a little plastic soldier army and latter knocking him out with his psychic “dad skills” and a dream about being “Dan the Soldier Man”. Clara then has the Doctor drop her back off at her disaster-date with Danny, only a few moments after storming off on him. She tries to start over while acknowledging her faults, and it goes well, until she lets slip that she knows Danny’s name used to be Rupert. Unnerved by this, Danny demands Clara tell him what she’s hiding. Clara doesn’t divulge, because it is honestly a lot and he wouldn’t believe most of it anyways, prompting Danny to storm out this time around.
Now angry, Clara follows a spacesuited individual to the back of the restaurant and into the TARDIS, complaining that she is just trying to have a nice, normal, very human get-together. Off comes the helmet and, surprise! The Doctor was poking around in Clara’s time line some more and ran into someone else vaguely related to her: a pioneer space traveler from a hundred years in the future named Orson Pink (also played by Samuel Anderson, but in a weird wig that might be to make him look old but then they forgot the ageing makeup). In typical human error, he was supposed to go five minutes into the future and instead was flung to the end of the universe where he’s slowly been going insane over the past six months. Despite having landed in dead-space, it sounds like something is outside his craft and he is rightfully terrified. He and Clara bring his things onto the TARDIS for when she and the Doctor drop him back off in his own time. Clara accidentally discovers Orson’s good luck charm and family heirloom: one of the little toy soldiers from Rupert’s bedroom, specifically the broken one without a gun that Clara had said was so brave he didn’t need one. Orson then gives it to Clara, a move that is not at all suspicious.
(Time travel is apparently in his family, according to stories told to him by a great-grandparent; heavily hinted to be Clara, though he used the gender-neutral and claimed to not recognize her when they first met. I smell plot.)
While Orson waits in the TARDIS, Clara and the Doctor sit around in the experimental time machine attempting to figure out what Orson is so afraid of. While it is possibly just his imagination, as most of the fears in the episode have been plausibly explained, it still is also very possible that there is something outside the ship that poses as a threat. The Doctor orders Clara inside the TARDIS again, in a stern way that comes off as both manic and uncharacteristically mean, and opens the air lock. Something might have been out there, something might not have, but very quickly Orson brings the Doctor inside the TARDIS to avoid getting sucked out into space and suddenly we’re left with no monster, an unconscious Doctor, and presumably no way to get back… except Clara does the clever thing and pilots the TARDIS by herself.
The last seven minutes is best watched and not written for full-effect. To summarize: Clara gives another flawless speech about fear to a scared kid, Orson gets to go back home, the Doctor has satisfied his own questions, and Danny and Clara finish their date. It all looks kind of boring, but the way everything comes together makes the episode wrap up neatly and satisfyingly.
(There’s also a pretty nifty line reversal that works great to support the fact that Clara and the Doctor are true equals this season.)
Overall, I am of the opinion that this is going to be one of the best episodes this season has to offer, possibly one of the best stand-alone episodes for a while. The writing was solid, the messages on fear were down-to-earth and really touching, and the acting was out of the park. There were only a couple things that only stood out as possibly being on the negative side of things, which I will get to later, and even that stuff seems to pale in the fact that this was a fun, meaningful episode with great rewatch value.
One of the things I really, really enjoy about this episode is the heavy emphasis on characterization. Clara and Danny both are incredibly awkward when it comes to getting the ball rolling on their relationship, which like I’ve said before feels realer than the relationships that are shown as perfect right off the bat. Instead they admit they’re both wrong, that Danny has some issues leftover from soldering and Clara has other personality problems that don’t exactly make her an ideal date. The Doctor is shown as, despite being smitten with Clara (whichever interpretation of that you want to view), he respects her choices in her personal life. He even demonstrates the ability to lose all sense of everything else when enveloped in something, as shown by his lack of tact when both reasoning with Clara to come along and when being protective of her when he is at his most afraid. For anyone else, thinking Clara still had her makeup on or commenting on her wide face would be rude and almost callous but the Doctor is, well, an alien for one and engrossed in his thoughts and fears for two. He then is so terrified of the potential threats that he very plainly orders Clara to wait in the TARDIS not once but on two separate occasions, which is a pretty big deal considering this incarnation and the previous have both trusted her with being in danger so often that it’s jarring to see him that concerned.
(The only thing that would have made this exchange worse to watch is the Doctor tacking a “Susan” onto the end of his bit, because it would both potentially ruin their current relationship dynamic as well as ruin me.)
So not only is characterization emphasized, but what we are given is consistent with the rest of the season thus far. Clara is shown to be good with kids and very clever when it comes to handling fear, things which we have been privy to not only this season but the previous as well. She is not very large, but she is most definitely in-charge and easily is the most important player in the episode. The Doctor is someone who is, although caring, very alien in how he deals with things and is paranoid about his own self. Danny is a sweet and awkward guy who, despite being caring and normal, is also paranoid about his own self and self-worth. It’s still worth mentioning again that they’re really setting up the parallels big time, making the Doctor and Danny look very much like different interpretations of the same man.
One negative thing about the episode is that you kind of have to know at least a little bit about the Doctor before this season started in order to get the full grasp of the storyline. A lot of this can be solved by watching the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, which covers most of the points of the Doctor once being a soldier and the difficult and frightening decisions he had to make (as well as featuring John Hurt as Sassygrandpa/Cuddly-Space-Hobo-Santa/“[Time] War Doctor”). Being that I have been watching this season with my mom, a definite newbie to the show, I don’t think she got the full effect of Clara’s end speech, or any of the parallels that they’re conducting with the Doctor and Danny. She also thinks that there’s nothing more than what’s on the surface when it comes to Orson, which I, as the person better-versed in Doctor Who, would like to cautiously disagree.
(“So she goes and has kids by this Pink guy, right?” … “It’s probably a little more complicated than that, Mom.” … “You mean this isn’t absolute?” … “In Doctor Who, nothing is absolute. Except fixed points. Which this probably isn’t. So yeah.”)
The only other thing I can really pinpoint as a negative about this episode isn’t even something that is finalized yet since we’re still mid-season: Orson Pink. It seems weird from a storytelling perspective to introduce a potential great-grandchild before the date that would lead to his existence was even finished. We’re not talking this is a season-finale reveal, or even a mid-season-finale reveal, but we’re on episode four of twelve. That’s… odd. Granted, Orson seems to know a lot more than he lets on and it isn’t expressly stated “yes this is Clara’s descendent”. For all we know he is actually Danny, having lost the ability to age or accidentally left behind in the future and trying to get home. He could be Clara and Danny’s descendent, but his existence could change based on upcoming events. Shoot, he could very well be only Danny’s descendent and Clara’s genetics had absolutely nothing to do with him. What I do know for sure is that Samuel Anderson in the role was done to either save money on casting or for a very specific and plot-important reason. Considering all the focus on the chosen names/identities we’ve been given so far this season, I’m really hoping it’s the latter.
(Upside is that I get to see both men on the screen together earlier than originally expected, which is a bonus let me tell you. #SeriesNiceview)
Come back next week for the rundown of a bank heist thriller (sign me up!), Time Heist.
If you missed the episode, it is available online for legal streaming. Please refer to the official tumblr for details [link].
Recommended to: anyone that wants a real solid piece of writing, even if it is a bit on the timey-wimey side
Not recommended to: people that would rather shut off their brains while watching TV, unless you’re the kind that do that to make surprises even better