Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 4 “Listen”
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson
Air Date: Saturday, September 13th, 2014
There is nothing like a good scare. The creators of Doctor Who have known this for decades, and made more than a couple generations of children scurry behind furniture to peek out at the television screen from relative safety. That is Steven Moffat‘s intention with the fourth episode of season eight, “Listen,” to scare us and then soothe our fears. He does this by treading familiar ground: the realm of things that live in the dark and go bump in the night. It’s a mythic territory to which we can all relate, and Doctor Who can be at its best when the roots of its stories run deep and show it.
This may indeed be lauded as one of the best episodes of the season. Broken into multiple small acts, it is a tour de force for actors Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and Samuel Anderson. Together with director Douglas Mackimmon, they weave the various story lines in the episode into something like a dream that captivates while it is in progress but evaporates when it is done. It shows a cast fully in command of the material at hand, but can leave the viewer wondering if ending of the episode really pays off the marvelous setup (and it is truly a marvel at points) that proceeds it.
This is Clara’s episode. There have been episodes in the past like “Asylum of the Daleks,” “The Snowmen,” or “The Name of the Doctor” that introduced or revealed Clara, but this episode is different. Here, Clara does something new — she creates. She creates a past, a present, and a future for herself, with some supporting help from the Doctor. She moves. She acts. She effectively flies the TARDIS. She ultimately causes the incident that inspires the whole episode. Those are attributes typically reserved for the Doctor alone.
The structure of the episode is the most disjointed in recent memory. It works more like a short three-act play with a series of interludes that together form the fourth act. It goes from the comparatively recent past to the far, far future. It then detours to a place in an unknown time, but that appears familiar. The events in the later parts of the narrative are the cause of events further and further toward the beginning, so that the events in the last full act motivate the start of the episode itself. It’s a very clever piece of writing and direction that left this viewer somewhat perplexed about how the episode would resolve at the forty minute mark (or so) only to see the multiple narratives resolve quickly with a meaningful punch. While it runs, it casts a powerful spell.
Yet, there are at least some unresolved questions (and potential plot holes) that emerge after the spell breaks. Who or what was under the blanket? What was outside the door? Why didn’t a sleeping boy wake up when a TARDIS materialized (with the brakes on) a couple dozen feet from his bed? What ultimately happened to the toy soldier? Why didn’t someone pay more notice to a man in a space suit walking through a restaurant kitchen? Does Clara play an even bigger role in the Doctor’s existence than “The Name of the Doctor” suggested? After “Silence in the Library” and the Vashta Nerada, how many times must the show cover the things that scare us in the dark? It all seemed so coincidental and a bit too much felt unresolved for an episode of otherwise amazing quality. Steven Moffat is not one for letting loose ends dangle too much, so perhaps this is merely the setup for some other twist in the season-long story arc.
I will call this one a flawed masterpiece. It earns points for great acting, superior story construction, and taut direction. It certainly aims high. Others may disagree with me, but I think it just slightly misses the mark.