On his travels through time and space, The Doctor hypothesizes that no-one in the universe is ever alone. He travels to Clara’s flat to share his theory, and finds her home from a date with Danny which went horribly wrong after the topic of his military service came up. The Doctor wants to use Clara’s childhood to investigate a common dream that he thinks proves his contention. Clara connects with the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits to find the dream in her past but, still thinking about Danny, they end up visiting him in a children’s home in Gloucester in the 1990s.
In trying to protect the child from a mysterious figure under his bedcovers, Clara inadvertently causes him to change his name from Rupert to Danny and become a soldier. The Doctor takes Clara back to try and salvage her date, but they are interrupted by time-traveller Orson Pink, Danny’s grandson, who The Doctor has rescued from the end of time. All three return to the last planet to try and ensnare the elusive eternal companion. Upon leaving, Clara ends up on Gallifrey, comforting a childhood version of The Doctor scared of the dark, which is what motivated his original hypothesis.
This is very much an episode of two halves. The first is a suspenseful piece of paranormal horror while the second teases out The Doctor’s psyche and timeline, much like 50th anniversary special ‘Day of The Doctor’. It’s not surprising that the two should come together in an episode written by Steven Moffat, as they are both his writing defaults, but the two don’t really gel. The horror half is much stronger dramatically and though the twist is wholly original in the history of Doctor Who, trying to tie it into The Doctor’s past history goes a step too far.
The script goes to rather elaborate lengths to keep Danny out of the TARDIS, which is one of many odd choices made here by Moffat (including a redundant ‘time cannon’ sub-plot) that you idly hope will eventually come to fruition in later stories. In hindsight, the concept would have worked better without the futuristic section and Gallifrey scenes, as the idea of a Doctor Who story without monsters is so unique and powerful it could easily stand on its own. Though the biggest problem is that tension cultivated in the first half is undone by the time-hopping of the second.
Although The Doctor’s psyche is at the centre of the episode, the idea that his personality comes from childhood fear of the dark is something that Moffat has rather forced upon his characterisation in this episode rather than it explaining past behaviour. Either that or Moffat’s cod-psychological explanation of how this forged The Doctor’s ‘superpowers’ is simply unconvincing. That said, these biographical nuggets gives Capaldi’s authoritative Doctor some much-needed vulnerability. We get a better sense of Danny’s backstory (and hints about his future) while his scenes with Clara put her in a much less sympathetic light than we’re used to.
Clara’s encounters with Danny’s past and future lead to a rapid development of their romance but otherwise the episode acts as a consolidation of what we found out about The Doctor last season, with a brief clip from Day of The Doctor bridging the gap. It’s indicative of how this season lives in the past rather than giving Capaldi’s Doctor a clean break. The season arc is ignored (for once!) and for the most part ‘Listen’ is a self-contained story with some mythology revision thrown in as an afterthought. Though I suspect we might return to the episode later on.
I’m not really sure what to think about ‘Listen’. I was so enthralled by the ‘monster under the bed’ segment of the story that, even with the innovative ending, it was disappointing when it once again boiled down to a series of coincidental time paradoxes. Part of me would have been happier if it had turned out to be a monster! There’s too much going on too fast for the episode to be as suspenseful as it could have been, and I’m not sure it knows what its strengths are. We’re supposed to find more satisfaction in seeing The Doctor as a child on Gallifrey than the unprecedented revelation that for once there is no antagonist. Still, the episode contains the most concentrated bout of scares we’ve seen in Doctor Who for a while, and it’s good to see Moffat experimenting for a change rather than resting on his laurels.