This past week’s episode of Doctor Who was a series high-point, an inventive, frightening, complex and emotionally resonant tale that injected some much needed life into the long running series and left Doctor Who fans split right down the middle. Some (me among them) praised every element of it while others felt it was yet another example of why current show runner Steven Moffat should leave the show and hand over the reins to someone else. I’m not here to argue with the detractors; many of their points are valid and I can understand how tired many of them are with Moffat. But this episode got me thinking, not just about Doctor Who, but about story telling in general, about innovative ideas, about satisfying conclusions and, my favorite subject of course, about what is and isn’t scary. So, if you could all just indulge me for a few minutes while I attempt to collect my thoughts, I’d appreciate it. And I promise to try to go a few months before babbling again about The Doctor.
Doctor Who was a tough sell for me, as it was for lots of people. I was aware of it for many years and always looked at it as ‘that weird British thing that people are obsessed with’. What was it about exactly? A guy who travels in a telephone box? And…fights aliens? There’s time travel too? Why is it always a different guy? Is it the same character even? I don’t get it. So I dismissed it for years and years assuring myself that I’d get to it ‘when I feel like it’.
Finally, a few months back, I gave it a shot and I was hooked from the very first episode I watched. I started with Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, which is the logical place to start for anyone completely unfamiliar with the series. If anyone tells you that you have to go back to the 60’s and start there, just smack them. They’re crazy-pants. No one has that much time. If you want to read up on which old episodes are considered best and watch those, go ahead. Or if you want to just start with Eccleston and never look back, that’s fine too. Don’t listen to people who tell you you’re not a real fan if you’ve only watched ‘New Who’. Anyone who says that should be farted on by the Slitheen.
Anywho, Peter Capaldi started his run as The Doctor a few weeks ago. So far, he’s been brilliant while the show has been sort of…eh. In fact, it’s been ‘eh’ for a couple seasons now. Matt Smith’s last year was close to an all out disaster, chock full of absurd deus ex machinas, poor character choices, despicable fan service, and great set ups with no payoff. Steven Moffat has been running the show for three years and it was starting to seem like he was running out of steam (or has been too distracted by Sherlock). Many fans have been shouting for his removal, citing his writing as ‘weak’. I have a problem with that criticism. In fact, calling someone’s writing ‘weak’ is barely a criticism at all. You need to tell me why it’s weak. For me, he’s written some of the show’s best episodes (Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Empty Child) but often falls back on old tricks and is too in love with his own ideas. He’ll throw in a joke about the title of the show and then make said joke into a season long arc. He’ll throw a curveball at two main characters and then completely negate it in the last five minutes. And he’ll often come up with an amazing idea and then do nothing with it but have The Doctor make a few jokes and yell about how great he is.
Capaldi’s first three episodes did a lot to remedy some of the problems of last season, even flat out apologize for a few of them, without really coming into its own. The first episode was chock full of ideas Moffat exhausted years ago, the second episode lacked a solid supporting cast and felt like little more than a low budget Fantastic Voyage and the third was whimsical fun but not much more. Everything changed last Saturday with the fourth episode, written by Moffat and titled ‘Listen’.
The episode begins with the Doctor by himself in his ship. He’s come up with a theory about evolution. He’s even writing his thoughts down on a chalkboard. He speaks out loud and wonders why people do that all the time even though they know they’re the only one in the room. Then he speaks about traits that help creatures survive: hunting is one, defense is another. And then he wonders if there is an evolutionary trait for hiding. Is there a creature that has survived by learning how to conceal itself at all times? How would we even know? Are we only aware of it sometimes, perhaps when we feel a prick on the back of our necks? He asks this question to the empty TARDIS, going so far as to shout, “If you’re there all the time, what do you do?” He sits down, frustrated at the lack of an answer but then he looks up at his chalkboard where all his writing has been erased and a single word has been written: listen.
It’s a chilling beginning and a terrifying idea. The idea is explored further as The Doctor wonders about nightmares and why everybody has a dream at some point in their life of something lurking under the bed. What if there really is something down there? Maybe we’re all afraid of it because, in some part of our psyches, we know it’s real.
Already, these are more ideas than Doctor Who has had in quite some time. It’s also an example of the show, and science fiction in general, at its best. Science fiction works best not when it’s about space battles and weird creatures but when it’s about taking everyday things that we all understand and spinning them on their heads. Science fiction should make us think before it makes us go ‘wow, look at that laser beam’.
Now, part of the problem people have with this episode is SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER that we do not get a definitive answer as to whether or not there is something always listening to us. I submit to you that any answer we would have been given would have been unsatisfying. If this supposed ‘master of hiding’ were revealed to be evil, that would have made us groan and frown upon Moffat for creating another villain too similar to The Silence. If the creature had turned out to be benevolent, we would have groaned even louder and extended our cynical middle fingers. But really ANY answer would have been bad because once the mystery is solved, there’s no longer anything to be afraid of.
And that’s where the horror element comes in. ‘Listen’ understands the crucial thing about what scares us. The thing most modern horror movies (The Conjuring, the Saw films, most remakes) don’t have a grasp on. They’re all loud noises, cheap jump scares and gore effects. It’s not seeing the monster under the bed that terrifies us; it’s the idea of the monster under the bed. It’s why most of us (though we probably wouldn’t admit it) still rush down the stairs late at night after we’ve shut the upstairs light off. It’s why we still rarely look under our beds. Because something might just be down there…waiting. And that’s an idea that will stay with you much longer than any jump scare or hideous monster.
Because, as this episode points out more than once, fear is a superpower. You’re never more alert than when you’re afraid, never more completely aware of your surroundings, never more willing to do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe, never more filled with adrenaline, never more alive. That’s why we like to be scared.
So all that would be enough to make this a great episode of Doctor Who but Moffat goes one step further. The true focus of the episode isn’t about whether or not there actually is something hiding under all of our beds but about why The Doctor would be so interested in finding the answer. For a guy who has been the focus of a show for over fifty years, surprisingly few episodes get into his psyche. Most are content to paint him as a loveable ‘madman in a box’ or as ‘fire and ice from the heavens’ or as a ‘rogue alien badass’. The show doesn’t often like to actually get inside his head but ‘Listen’ decides to take the risk. It shows us how crazy he can be, how dangerous, how determined. He travels to the end of the universe to find this creature and bring it to heel, all while never being certain if he’s right or wrong. He wants to show it that he can beat it and that he is what it should be afraid of.
As I said, the episode does not come to any conclusion about the ‘master of hiding’ but does come to a conclusion about The Doctor. For all his posturing and wisdom, he is, at the end of the day, like all of us: a boy who couldn’t sleep because of what might be under his bed. His whole life is about conquering fear and at the end of ‘Listen’ he is finally able to accept that fear is one of his constant companions and one of his many super powers.
Fans are a bit rifled by how the show got to this conclusion and I think that’s understandable but also just comes down to personal taste. For me, it worked. And the episode was so overflowing with great ideas, tense scenes, thoughtful character work, and grand visuals that it’s a win no matter what. Capaldi is officially The Doctor now and the show has caught up to his greatness. And if you’re a Who fan angered by this episode I leave you with this final thought: it has at least got us talking again. Great science fiction, all great fiction actually, should always spark a debate, should make us argue with each other and call each other idiots and curse each other for missing the point. It should make us come up with mad theories and it should create ideas that stay with us for the rest of our lives. And when was the last time Doctor Who accomplished that? Is anyone going to even remember the Fantastic Voyage episode in a few weeks? But we’ll remember ‘Listen’. Oh yes we will. It’s one for the books.