CONTENT NOTE: This review will contain minor spoilers, and some of the embedded links are NSFW

It’s been somewhat disconcerting to be one of those Doctor Who naysayers over the past year. The middling quality of Matt Smith’s final (half)-series appeared to continue into the early episodes of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as The Doctor. I seem to be in the minority, but I’ve been disappointed by the show since its return last month.

So it’s with great relief that “Listen” is a welcome return to form. In my opinion, it’s the best episode since last November’s “The Day of the Doctor. Steven Moffat returns to take over sole writing duties and gives us an episode that fits directly into his wheelhouse. He writes the story to give us a strong standalone episode rather than shoehorning it into an overall narrative arc; one that addresses elemental fears while also delving into the core of The Doctor. “Listen” could be dubbed as something of a companion episode to “The Girl in the Fireplace.

Part of my problem with the series so far has been the direction taken by the new Doctor. While it’s consistent to have him be crotchety, irritable, and even a little brusque, much of his dialogue has been a combination of rude and mean. Maybe this will be explored in future episodes, but to have him respond to Clara describing herself as The Doctor’s caregiver, with the rejoinder, “she cares so I don’t have to”, seems incongruous with the way Moffat has authored the character. While a funny line, it runs a serious risk of making The Doctor unlikable. Remember, he’s meant to be a hero to young children.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy podcast made the point that at times, Capaldi’s Doctor seemed like a PG version of his iconic role as sweary spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker[1]. This would be a disastrous way to go. It’s okay to disagree with some of the things he does. It’s even okay not to like the decisions he makes. But it’s a problem if you begin to dislike him.

“Listen” acts as a bridge between a more intense 12th Doctor and taking him out of the navel-gazing funk he’s been in since regeneration. There’s plenty for him to be introspective about, but ultimately he has to enjoy travelling and enjoy the company of those he travels with. Otherwise, why bother? Even Christopher Ecceleston’s 9th (or is it 10th) Doctor relished the peripatetic life, despite being weighed down by gargantuan trauma.

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The Doctor starts the episode trying to solve a puzzle, albeit one of his own ostensible making. It’s the first time I’ve seen Capaldi’s Doctor genuinely enthused. Moffat has always been skilled at depicting the inexplicable terror we have as children about quotidian aspects of the world. It’s an engaging foundation, which supports the rest of the episode’s threads.

Jenna Coleman’s Clara continues to be given a more active role in proceedings, although the attempts to give her a life outside of The Doctor still feel more forced than organic. However, her relationship with Samuel Anderson’s Danny Pink may still develop into something substantial. However, Anderson playing Danny as an uber-polite, bundle of nerves is badly pitched. When writing a cisgender man in the early stages of a relationship, there are more options than making him either Hugh Grant or James Bond.

Anderson was better in the brief scenes when he realises that Clara isn’t being totally honest with him. Personally I think he could’ve become a real asset to the cast if we were allowed to see more of his past which still clearly haunts him[2]. When Clara meets the young Danny, it was redolent of the plot of “The Time Travelers Wife” which also appeared to be the inspiration for how the 11th Doctor met Amy Pond.

Coleman revealed that these plot points are called “Moffat loops” on set and the story’s crescendo comes with an almighty “Moffat loop”. Simon Brew wrote that it may infuriate those who dislike how Moffat has left a strong imprint over the makeup of the programme stating, “He’s got ideas as to what he wants to do with Doctor Who, and – against a backdrop of not always unanimous acclaim – he continues to tread that path.”

Personally, I enjoyed the concluding reveal as it fit what I think writers should do when exploring The Doctor’s character. While you should give us something we haven’t seen before, you can’t show us everything. So while we know more than we did previously about The Last of the Time Lords, there’s still so much that we don’t know – and probably never will.

Clara is a companion that hasn’t fully taken with the audience yet. Is that because The Doctor doesn’t always appear to enjoy travelling with her? This can come down to a matter of the actors chemistry as well as the quality of writing, but with the possible exception of Martha Jones, every other recent companion felt like a valued part of the Tardis travelling circus. That said, I wrote once before that in actuality, Clara is the companion who knows The Doctor better than anyone. In fact, does their lack of rapport mean that he can’t hide the darker parts of his character from her with playful whimsy, the way he could with Amy or Rose Tyler?

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Will Clara’s solicitous words to a young Doctor prove a watershed in their relationship? It’s definitely a great opportunity for Moffat and his writers to improve things between Time Lord and companion. Because while romantic undertones have been removed, at times The Doctor is downright cruel in the things he says to Clara, manifesting itself most egregiously in an ugly fat-shaming line when we meet Orson Pink.

Verbal sparring between the two is fine, but it has to be reciprocal, and The Doctor should be intelligent enough to find more ways to mock Clara than just by focusing on her appearance, which doesn’t show the writers in a positive light.

Despite this, it was a pleasure to enjoy an episode of Doctor Who again for the first time in a while. Tons of credit should also go to director Douglas Mackinnon. His marshalling of the dramatic parts of the story, especially the two scenes under the bed, were masterful. He’s a big reason for sections of this episode being the most eerie in the show since the orphanage in “Day of the Moon”.

However, we can’t see an episode this macabre every week. We saw the odd flash of verve from Capaldi last Saturday. Mix a bit more of that into his inherent gravitas and heft and the show could return to the high standards of Series 7.

 

[1] – One of the joys of Capaldi being given the role were the YouTube mashups of him playing The Doctor as Malcolm Tucker

[2] – Which may have some parallels to The Doctor. With the sexual tension now mercifully removed from The Doctor/Clara relationship, has she found herself a surrogate?

 

shane1-300x296A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History, and is a writer for the Writers of Colour website. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).