This episode, in which Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink’s (Samuel Anderson) first date goes about as well as my latest Tinder disaster, is the episode where Steven Moffat’s vision for Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor really kicks in.
An emotional, scary and gloriously entertaining episode, we were paraded through the timeline at such a pace it was at times hard to keep up. The ride, however, was entirely worth it.
The story came out of The Doctor’s (and Moffat’s) obsession with that feeling when the hairs on the back of your neck prick up for no particular reason, when you speak to yourself although no one else is there and the age-old nightmare of something hiding under your bed waiting to grab your feet when dare to get out. What could have just been a solid and creepy ‘monster of the week’ episode escalated into something with a vast temporal and emotional scale.
The Doctor’s curiosity makes him flit through Clara’s timeline to investigate the nightmare that everyone – including The Doctor – shares. Clara’s distraction about her first failed date attempt means she accidentally thinks about Danny when linked with the TARDIS, sending them to the children’s home in Gloucester where he grew up. A frightened ‘Rupert Pink’ (who is keen to change his name to something cooler) is scared to go to bed because there is something underneath it.
Cue the scariest blanket on broadcast television.
Another attempt at the first date fails and then we’re heading to ‘The Last World’ at the end of time to meet Orson Pink who may well just be Danny and Clara’s great grandson – so the date can’t end up going that badly. The ‘first’ human time traveller, he has somewhat overshot his intended destination and is stranded. But he isn’t alone. Whatever it is that hides under our beds when we’re asleep is outside and seems to be yearning for some company.
The Doctor opens the doors, ordering Clara and Orson into the TARDIS so he can find the truth he has been seeking. As a worried Clara links up with the TARDIS again to help them and an injured Doctor escape, she is distracted as she tries to direct them and ends up in a barn. A very familiar barn on Gallifrey. Hiding under the covers, crying with fear is a young boy who is never going to make it as a soldier, let alone become a Time Lord.
And so, as Clara hides under his bed to avoid being seen and grabs his ankle to stop him from finding her, we have an episode that neatly manages to eat its own tail.
Again, Capaldi and Coleman give sterling performances as Listen rockets along. Clara’s soothing of the boy Doctor is a joy to watch as we learn The Doctor’s previous words spoken to calm Rupert Pink were essentially hers repeated (or his repeated: time travel). This scene cements the wonderful journey her character has travelled so far this series and impresses again her ‘Impossible Girl’ status as she imprints herself on his timeline.
The stripped down cast, the gradually layered plot and the sense of self-fulfilling prophecy create a polished result. Asking plenty of questions but also providing some answers, Listen is a character study that packs a punch. The repeated motifs of the ‘soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun’, of fear ‘as a companion’ or a ‘superpower’ are beautifully realised and we come away feeling as though we know this Doctor more than we did before. An episode whose direction (by Line of Duty’s Douglas Mackinnon) allows for claustrophobia alongside space for the emotional moments to expand, Listen finally delivers on the promise this series has so far perhaps only fleetingly shown. It successfully gives us something that is different from what we expect. It takes what we, The Doctor and Clara think is going to happen and pulls the rug out from under us whilst we’re still creeping around in the dark hiding from monsters. Undoubtedly the strongest episode of the series so far.
Doctor Who Continues 7.30pm on Saturday on BBC ONE.