“Listen” is a very unique and experimental episode of Doctor Who. Series 7 had a lot on its plate, as the season that needed to wrap up the entire Matt Smith era. So “Listen” is the first time in a long time that the series’ showrunner, Steven Moffat, doesn’t have to deal with any big status quo changes – like wrapping up an ongoing story arc (“The Name Of The Doctor“), writing out old companions (“The Angels Take Manhattan“), introducing new companions (“The Snowmen“, “The Bells Of Saint John“), sending off the old Doctor (“The Time Of The Doctor“), introducing the new Doctor (“Deep Breath“), or rescuing Gallifrey from its fiery demise (“The Day Of The Doctor“). “Listen” can afford to just be a simple standalone story that’s centered around one main theme.
“Listen” is, for the most part, a character study: when you look at the overall plot, you’ll notice that not that much of anything actually happens in this episode and the pacing is fairly slow across its three acts. But it never feels like a boring story, because it does a phenomenal job of telling us more about our three main characters this season – letting them all play off of each other as Clara Oswald tries to navigate her complicated relationships with the two men she’s closest to at the moment. Not every episode needs to be big or full of action to be impactful: sometimes they just need to be thoughtful and heartfelt. I also appreciate that this episode is willing to take its time building up a good spooky atmosphere, encouraging the audience to imagine all sorts of creepy things about a creature that may or may not even exist in the end. Because as Doctor Who has proven several times before in the past, an idea in the viewers’ head can be very bit as scary as a great, big, snarling beast onscreen.
When “Listen” begins, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has clearly been left to his own devices for quite some time, pondering the mysteries of the universe. The Doctor has a theory that there are creatures in the universe that have mastered the art of hiding, that have perfect camouflage. You can never see them, but they’re always with you, watching you, and they only come to a select few people at night in their dreams. Now he wants to find them and flush them out. It’s a very peculiar theory, but considering the Doctor’s past encounters with other monsters that Moffat has created like the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada and the Silence, it’s certainly plausible in the weird world of Doctor Who. During the early scenes of this episode, Steven Moffat does what he does best by tapping into basic, primal fears that humanity has had for centuries – fears of the dark and the unknown.
While the Doctor is on the hunt for his perfect hiders, he and Clara have an encounter with a young Danny Pink who’s supposedly being stalked by a monster, and we see for the first time that for all his gruffness and antisocial behavior, Twelve hasn’t quite lost that special touch with children that he had in his previous life as Eleven. The Doctor shares some wise words with Danny to comfort him, steady his nerves, and teach him how to properly handle his fear. It’s one of several scenes in this episode where Peter Capaldi has a phenomenal amount of charisma and screen presence as he meticulously lays out the Doctor’s view of the world, letting his character’s passionate, philosophical side shine. And since Twelve is still Twelve, once the danger has passed, he promptly (and rudely) puts Danny to sleep with time lord telepathy, so he won’t have to deal with him any longer.
“Listen” is still pretty early in the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, when we’re still learning more about what makes him tick, and this episode establishes two big character flaws for him. Twelve can be very stubborn and he has an obsessive personality. During his quest (that takes him all the way to the end of the universe), the Doctor gets increasingly reckless and foolhardy as he hits roadblock after roadblock. Eventually, he goes too far and nearly gets himself killed, when he’s almost sucked out into the vacuum of space, trying to catch a peek at his theoretical creatures. This borderline suicidal side of the Twelfth Doctor’s personality is going to be magnified a lot later in the Series 9 finale, when something tragic happens to Clara and he makes it his personal mission to save her at all costs.
The Doctor was so certain that these creatures must exist because he thought he had an encounter with one himself early in life, and ironically, he winds up causing that boyhood memory to happen himself. Yep, the answer to the mystery turns out to be your classic Steven Moffat bootstrap paradox, when the TARDIS takes Clara back to the distant past of Gallifrey. Madame De Pompadour previously hinted that the Doctor didn’t have a happy childhood, and that certainly turns out to be true, from the glimpse we get of it here. He was a lonely child who didn’t enjoy training to join the academy so he could become a time lord, but it was preferable to the alternative – being forced to join the Gallifreyan military. He was shunned by his peers as an oversensitive weirdo, and looked down upon by adults. “Listen” also quietly slips in a sweet little retcon, by establishing that the barn from “The Day Of The Doctor” has sentimental value to him: it’s always been own personal safe haven when he wants to be alone.
Clara can’t resist comforting the young Doctor and giving him some words of wisdom before she leaves, which means the Impossible Girl has once again made a small, positive impact on his life, centuries before he would meet her properly. For once, the Doctor is kept out of the loop as this story wraps up. Clara stops him from meeting his past self to prevent a potential paradox and chooses not to tell him about what he missed while he was unconscious (though he clearly has his suspicions). The Doctor never does get the answers that he seeks, and a lot of what happened in this episode are things that he’ll never fully understand (since they only make sense from Clara’s perspective), so he’ll just have to make peace with the fact that this is one mystery that will remain unsolved.
The existence of his ‘perfect hiders’ is left up in the air by the episode’s end. We catch a glimpse of one, out-of-focus, in young Danny’s room, and it doesn’t appear to be human. There also seemed to be something sentient and intelligent knocking on the door of Orson’s base, responding to the Doctor’s call. However, the possibility is raised that the former could have just been another kid in a blanket trying to frighten Danny, while the latter could have just been the base malfunctioning. Moffat always makes sure to give the audience a number of plausible explanations for the strange things going on, so that while it’s possible there may be something supernatural happening in this episode, it’s also entirely possible that the Doctor’s hypothetical monsters don’t even exist – that the Doctor and Clara are so accustomed to seeing horrific things happen every week that they let their imaginations run away with them and wound up scaring themselves silly over nothing (which is really amusing to think about).
In “Listen”, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) goes on that date with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) that they both agreed upon in “Into The Dalek“, and the night turns out to be a total disaster. Fear is the main overarching theme of “Listen”: fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the past, fear of the future, fear of commitment, fear of one’s own personality flaws, fear of making mistakes. Clara and Danny sabotage themselves repeatedly because of their own fears, and it’s pretty painful to watch. Clara’s gift of gab can get away from her sometimes and lead to her putting her foot right in her mouth with insensitive remarks, while Danny can overreact to little things because he’s still carrying that shameful secret of his around and he’s overcompensating for his past sins.
Ever since she first joined the TARDIS in “The Bells Of Saint John”, Clara has always tried to keep her personal life and her travels with the Doctor separate and compartmentalized, so she can manage them both easily. But ever since Eleven regenerated into Twelve, those two different worlds have started to bleed into each other more and more often from the Doctor pushing her boundaries, which we’ll eventually explore the consequences of in “The Caretaker“. In “Listen”, the Doctor keeps intruding on Clara’s disastrous date night to recruit her on his monster-hunting quest, and as a result, Clara winds up being the true protagonist of this episode. Throughout the hour, we see her try to balance two different halves of her life, two big commitments she’s made to men she’s fond of. And more often than not, it’s Clara who drives the plot of this episode forward, as we journey up and down her timeline and find a number of surprising things in it along the way.
Since Clara keeps getting distracted by her regretful thoughts about Danny on the hunt, the Doctor and Clara travel back to Danny’s childhood by mistake, which gives Steven Moffat a chance to flesh out his background and humanize Clara’s new boyfriend. At this point in Series 8, we still don’t know a lot about Danny, beyond the fact that he’s a former soldier, he has PTSD and he’s clearly being set up as a romantic rival to the Doctor for Clara’s affections. But Danny is going to be become a very important figure down the line – both in regards to the main themes and ideas of Series 8, and the role he’ll play in the Doctor and Clara’s character development.
Danny was a lonely child who grew up in an orphanage. Like most kids, he was afraid of many things and he didn’t have a lot of adults to turn to for guidance, so he wanted to become a soldier someday when he was big and strong, so he could be a protector to those who needed help (he also hated his birth name and wanted to change it to one of his own choosing). Once he became an adult, he did pursue that career path, and it was a fulfilling profession for a while, until it all went horribly wrong one day. Young Danny has his memories wiped of his brief encounter with the Doctor and Clara, but it’s implied that they still managed to have a small impact on him, when it came to the name he would choose for himself later in life. Thanks to the magic of time travel, Clara is given a do-over to get her date with Danny right in the present day, but she still manages to blow it when she lets slip that she knows his original name (something he’s never told anyone, least of all her) and he starts to suspect she’s some kind of creeper who’s been digging around his past.
During their next trip into time, the Doctor and Clara encounter Orson Pink, Danny’s descendant. He’s a pioneer of time travel who wound up being stranded in the year 100 trillion, the end of the universe (an eerily empty time period which we last saw in Series 3’s “Utopia“). It’s implied that Orson might be Clara’s descendant too, since he’s connected to her timeline and he claims his family has a long history with time travel. He might be Clara and Danny’s great-great grandson, which means that even though they’ve just started to consider the possibility of dating, and they only have a spark between them at the moment, Danny might be Clara’s soulmate and they might have a future together. That’s one hell of an intimidating thing to discover.
Normally, Clara would confide in the Doctor about her fears and her worries and ask him for advice, but this time she’s can’t do that – she’s still trying to keep her relationship with Danny a secret from him, because she knows he wouldn’t approve of her taste in men – so she’s subjecting herself to a whole lot of unnecessary stress. In light of Danny’s ultimate fate in the Series 8 finale, either Clara’s hunch was wrong, or it was correct and Orson Pink was erased from existence after “Death In Heaven” (because as the Doctor himself stated numerous times in the Matt Smith years, time can be rewritten). Clara assumed they were related, but it was never actually confirmed – it was left deliberately open-ended, like so many things in “Listen”. And I’m okay with that. If there’s anything I’ve learned from previous episodes like “The Satan Pit” and “Midnight“, it’s that I like a good bit of ambiguity in my Doctor Who from time to time.
Ever since “The Girl In The Fireplace“, one time travel trope that Steven Moffat has liked to deploy in several of his stories has been his main characters meeting their future loved ones as children, getting a glimpse of where they got their start – and that tradition holds true in “Listen”, as Clara briefly encounters both of her love interests during the early days of their lives. Danny and the Doctor came from similar, isolated backgrounds, but the soldier and the aristocrat went on to stand for very different things when they got older: they decided to help others and make a difference in the world the way they thought was best.
Once Clara realizes she’s part of a stable time loop, she takes pity on the younger Doctor’s sorrow (because she’s still just as compassionate towards children as she’s always been), and gives him a bit of comfort before she goes. She decides to pass along the Doctor’s own words of wisdom to his younger self, while also adding in her own bits of personal insight – about how the first step of facing one’s fears is accepting it’s okay to have them, instead of trying to avoid them. It’s a surprisingly touching ending that ties everything up nicely, since helping the young Doctor in the past causes Clara to realize she needs to confront her own problems in the present. Once she returns to her own time, she and Danny sit down to have a much-needed talk about what they both want out of this relationship and what kind of future they would like to have together. It’s one of the few times this season where we see them actually open up to communicate properly, though sadly they’re both still keeping some massive secrets from each other that will continue to put a strain on their relationship going forward.
“Listen” is helmed by Douglas MacKinnon, who has really shown a lot of growth as a director over the years. He originally handled “The Sontaran Stratagem” in Series 4, and his work on that two-parter was serviceable, if a bit unremarkable. When he returned to handle “Cold War” and “The Power Of Three” in Series 7, he showed a lot more skill with capturing snappy, dynamic perspective shots and creating a good, tense atmosphere. With “Listen”, there are a lot of scenes scattered throughout this episode that are visually stunning: like the opening shot of the Doctor meditating on top of the TARDIS, or the creepy low-angle shots of that creature sitting on Danny’s bed in silence, or the entire climax of Clara wandering through the Doctor’s barn, which is complimented by some beautiful work from the show’s lighting department.
The framing device of Clara and Danny’s scenes is a direct callback to “Into The Dalek”, where we see the depressing aftermath of their date just before we watch the disaster unfold (this time from Clara’s perspective). Compared to the last few episodes, “Listen” is not a story that requires a lot of CGI or special effects – most of the scenes in this episode are either set inside the TARDIS, a restaurant, a barn, a space base, or Clara’s apartment – so it’s pretty clearly one of the low-budget episodes of Series 8. The limitations of writing a low-budget episode can be a good creative challenge for a showrunner sometimes: “Midnight”, for example, was meant to be a money-saving episode and it wound up being one of the best stories in Series 4. Murray Gold’s score is pretty muted and understated for a change, letting the actors’ performances speak for themselves more often not, though when his music does appear (in tracks like “Listen“, “Rupert Pink” and “Fear“) it does a nice job of setting the mood or pulling on the viewer’s heartstrings.
All in all, “Listen” is a surprisingly stirring and impactful episode about the nature of fear and the important place it has amongst all of our other human emotions. “Listen” easily sits alongside “Robot Of Sherwood” as one of the standout stories from the first half of Series 8.
* “Did it all go wrong, or is this good by your standards?” “It was a disaster and I am extremely upset about it, since you didn’t ask”.
* “A call from the date guy? It’s too late, you’ve taken your make-up off” “No, I haven’t. I’m still wearing my make-up” “Oh, right. Well, you probably just missed a bit”.
* Clara tells the Doctor she doesn’t need to know any details about her future death, which is the same thing she told Strax in “Deep Breath”. It would seem the Trenzalore arc from her first season left quite an impression on her about how dangerous that kind of foreknowledge can be. Tragically, Clara still winds up having that kind of foreknowledge anyway in her last appearance.
* “I’ve never been to Gloucester in my life, and I’ve never lived in a children’s home” “You’ve probably just forgotten. Have you seen the size of human brains? They’re hilarious”.
* After he’s done talking to the night manager of the orphanage, the Doctor walks off and steals that dude’s coffee for himself. Talk about rude.
* “Wally’s not in every book” “Really? Well, that’s a few years of my life I’ll be needing back”.
* “Lovely view out this window” “Yeah, come and see all the dark”.
* “He took my bedspread” “Oh, the human race. You’re never happy, are you?”
* “People don’t need to be lied to” “People don’t need to be scared by a big gray-haired stick insect, but here you are” Oh snap.
* “Is that what I look like from the back?” “It’s fine” “I was thinking it was good”.
* “I don’t know what to say” “Don’t say anything. Or say something nice” Missy approves.
* “Er, well, do you have any old family photographs of her? You know, probably quite old and really fat-looking?”
* “Is she doing the all eyes thing? It’s because her face is so wide. She needs three mirrors” Oh wow, the Doctor is catty in this episode.
* “Afraid of the dark? But the dark is empty now” “No. No, it isn’t”.
* “If everybody in the universe is dead, then there’s nobody out there” “That’s one way of looking at it” “What’s the other?” “That’s a hell of a lot of ghosts”.
* “Orson, you don’t want to meet yourself. It’s really embarrassing”.
* “I don’t take orders, Clara” “Do as you’re told”.
* “This is just a dream. But very clever people can hear dreams. So, please, just listen. I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anybody ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger. And one day, you’re going to come back to this barn. And on that day you’re going to be very afraid indeed. But that’s okay. Because if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind“.
* “It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark, so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. I’ll show you. So, listen. If you listen to nothing else, listen to this. You’re always going to be afraid, even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that’s okay, because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m going to leave you something, just so you’ll always remember, fear makes companions of us all“.