TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 4 (Listen)
Simon Kinnear | On 13, Sep 2014
One day, we’re going to find out that Steven Moffat is actually a time traveller and has been writing his episodes of Doctor Who out of order. How else to explain an episode like Listen, whose crystalline perfection – tautly structured, yet oh so fragile – emerges after several years of increasingly lazy work during the Matt Smith era? It’s not enough to call it a return to form, or a reaction to the authority that Peter Capaldi demands: put simply, Moffat wrote this at his peak… whenever that was or will be.
On one level, Listen has been taking cues from the York Notes version of Moffat’s career. It uses fear as a hook – and a universal, child-like fear at that, like statues that move or shadows that kill. It weaves chronology like crazy paving. It sees Clara getting stuck in as the Doctor’s personal spirit guide. There’s even an awkward date. Yet, for the first time in ages, these tropes are deployed in a properly auteurist piece of writing, a manifesto for untapping the show’s limitless narrative potential and a personal, heartfelt statement of what the show and its lead character actually mean: a hero who uses fear as a superpower.
What an inspiring series of Doctor Who this is; a genuine reboot, not simply in the usual terms of regenerating the star, but a proper return to first principles. The lovely parting words – “fear makes companions of us all” – are a direct quote from the show’s very first story; two weeks ago, the Doctor made explicit reference to the second ever story. And, for fans, Listen is very much the 21st Century’s upgrade of story #3: The Edge Of Destruction, an experimental character piece that involved only the principal cast and was confined to the TARDIS. Forget all the hoop-la surrounding last year’s 50th anniversary celebrations. This is the alt.celebration, the B-side to The Day Of The Doctor – not the catchy tune you can’t help hearing, but the piece of music you have to listen to.
This is more expansive than The Edge Of Destruction, of course. Actually, Listen is perhaps the most expansive Doctor Who has ever been, jumping from the end of the universe to an origins story for the Doctor. But it’s a clear ticking of the box for the show’s oft-ignored third way. Back in the 1960s, the Doctor could either go backwards in time (the historical stories), forwards in time (the space operas)… or sideways (genre TBC). As a format solidified into formula, these parameters became more confined; writers and producers concentrated on making the kind of stories they knew they could pull off and abandoned travelling sideways.
But the best periods of Doctor Who have been those that sought to checkmate expectation with a knight’s move, unafraid to be weird and surreal – two words conspicuous by their presence in this episode. (Like the fella says: “Listen.”) The first few years following the return of Doctor Who to our screens contained some of the most radical stories ever attempted – Boom Town, Love And Monsters, and Moffat’s masterpiece-up-until now, Blink – but as the show became a brand, it got safer, more predictable. Even Moffat’s fondness for the “timey-wimey” became an over-used convention.
The best thing about the current series is its bravery. Even last week’s Robin Hood adventure poked holes in its own familiarity, as if it was the last hurrah for the kind of show we’ve been led to expect. Listen uses those holes to unstitch the show’s very fabric and free it from the expectations of a big-budget, global cash cow. Seriously, when was the last time something this demanding, this unexpected, this scary, was broadcast on a Saturday night?
So thank goodness for the real-life time machine of iPlayer to enable the repeat viewings that Listen warrants. Who knows? Maybe the young Steven Moffat will watch it and be inspired to write it once he’s figured out how to travel in time for real.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers