Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Listen"

The lamp on top of the TARDIS is where, at this point?
We've had the Dalek episode. We've had the dumb historical celebrity episode. Now it's time for the Spooky Doo episode. I like horror, but I guess you need to be a little kid to find this stuff scary. I also find it doesn't really work in serialised fiction. It's not like a monster is going to sneak up behind the Doctor, snap his neck and then bam, that's the end of Doctor Who four episodes into the new series. 'Listen' is more a psychological thriller than anything else, but it's still pretty tame as they go. We begin with the Doctor meditating on top of the TARDIS: an odd image, but an interesting one. What's he contemplating: deep matters of philosophy, perhaps? Spiritual and metaphysical possibilities? No, of course not, he's wondering if scary monsters live under the bed. He wanders around the TARDIS talking to himself and being pointlessly creepy, blowing out candles and so forth, while hypothesising about hidden beings that accompany us all our lives. He contemplates that in contrast to hunting and defence, evolution has never produced a creature perfect at hiding. Since when were any of these hunters or defensive creatures perfect? The example of a 'perfectly defended' creature is a puffer fish, hardly the epitome of invulnerability. Anyway, what about chameleons? What about stick insects, or sloths or stonefishes? They're all just as good at hiding as a puffer fish is at defending itself, in some cases better. I'm being pedantic, but the Doctor's premise seems to be based on some pretty unsubstantiated generalisations. Apparently such a being would only possibly be able to be observed when the observer was alone. What? It's a pretty stupid thing for him to be thinking about, like something an idiot or maybe a drug user would think was sophisticated. His chalk spookily falls off a book, the word 'Listen' appearing on his chalkboard. Well I've just shat my pants in terror. Roll titles!
"Formal jacket with a t-shirt! Never goes out of style!"
In a series of disjointed sequences reminiscent of the school scenes from 'Into the Dalek,' we see Clara's disastrous date with Danny Pink, who wants to skip the foreplay and go "straight for extras" with Clara. We get some typical 'instant reversal' humour where Clara wants to not talk about teaching and then they discuss just that, laughing uproariously about something that doesn't sound terrible funny. When they agree about a desire to 'kill' a student Clara cracks some more jibes about Danny being a stone cold killer before he insists that he did a lot of good work as a soldier. When he claims that "people like you get the wrong end of the stick" Clara completely overreacts and storms off. I'm not sure why Clara is this defensive - maybe she's a puffer fish - but there you go. Back in her room the Doctor's talking Moffat nonsense: "I need you for a thing." He makes some dodgy jibes about her appearance so that Moffat can overemphasise the non-romantic aspect of the character, and then goes on to describe his theory that "no one is ever really alone" and that it's related to how everyone has the same presumed nightmare. These two concepts have a vaguely Jungian quality to them (shadows and archetypes) but it's hardly a sophisticated concept; it's two human kids and an old lady from different historical periods having a hand from under their bed grab their ankles. A couple of aliens might have served to mix this up a bit. Clara claims that "everybody dreams about something under the bed." Do they? Not sure I ever have. To investigate, the Doctor makes Clara stick her hands into these rather sexual-looking pink squidgy things on the TARDIS console to hunt down the dream. She thinks of Pink when her phone rings, however, and it seems as if we've come to the wrong place.
"Now stick your fingers deep into the psychic interface."
Clara assures the Doctor that their location can't be right: she was never in a children's home in Gloucester. I'm pretty sure there wouldn't be orphanages in the Nineties. The Doctor thinks it is the right place, but surely he must know that it isn't. Did he take a hop, skip and a jump through Clara's youth back in 'The Rings of Akhaten'? He's a bit arbitrarily thick at points in this. The answer is, of course, that we've actually arrived in the past of a young Danny, who calls out to Clara revealing his original name to be Rupert, much like the bear with the checked trousers. It sounds a bit like he says 'Rupert Pig' but we are in fact witnessing Clara's date as a young child. Inside the 'home' the Doctor has a short and pointless conversation with the late night supervisor. When the Doctor asks him if ever he looks around to find his coffee's disappeared, he replies "everybody does that." Do they? I'm more of a tea drinker myself, so maybe the scary creatures under the bed aren't interested in my English Breakfast. The TV also turns off by itself so we think something must be afoot. Upstairs, Rupert Bear tells Clara that he thinks there's something under his bed: "everyone thinks that sometimes." Again, do they? I sometimes have weird dreams about animals under my bed, not ankle-grabbing hands, and I'm not scared, just annoyed that I have to figure out a way to get rid of them. Incidentally, Rupert has a pretty bloody big room for an orphanage. Maybe this is a concession to how rare they were by this point, although I'm inclined to think that they were probably in fact nonexistent.
Dream a little dream of me.
We get to see how Clara is great with kids as she clambers under the bed and rationalises to Rupert that late night noises are generally explicable: other people asleep or awake, the house creaking (it's implied later) and so forth. Something sinks down on the mattress above them, however, and they emerge to discover a huge lump under the blanket like the invisible man's in there pitching a massive tent. There's the reason these orphanages were closed down. Why doesn't Clara just whip the cover off the bed? Well she doesn't, and the Doctor, who's turned up while they weren't looking, sits around waffling about Where's Wally because it can't be New Who without the Doctor cracking some shit jokes. He explains that being scared is a 'superpower' because it enhances your responses. It's an interesting idea relating to the evolution concepts proposed earlier that the episode doesn't fully follow up on: fear as an instinctive response. For whatever reason, the Doctor insists that they turn their back on the giant blanketed phallus, telling it that they won't look at it. After some mucking about there's a flash and it disappears out the door, nicking Rupert's threadbare bed cover. After he makes some dark remarks to Rupert, Clara calls the Doctor a "big grey haired stick insect" in some more of this series' obsession with ageism and then she gives Rupert an 'army' of toy soldiers to comfort him, topped off by the Colonel who is "so brave he doesn't need a gun." It's a pretty heavy handed parallel to the Doctor. Rupert calls this toy 'Dan the Soldier Man,' implying that these events are setting up Danny's future. The Doctor telepathically sends him to sleep and back in the TARDIS he acts like more of a doofus than ever, asking Clara if she has a connection to the child when it's painfully obvious that she does. He states that he gave him a dream about being Soldier Dan: another Moffat ontological paradox? Will dream suggestion make him the man he is today? This episode is a little too willing to suggest that it will.
Moffat's summer home.
Clara goes back to the restaurant just after she originally stormed off to patch things up with Danny. We get some more shit humour from Moffat when Clara says her mouth wants to "go solo," which is just a repetition of the remarks Capaldi made about his eyebrows in 'Deep Breath.' She mentions the name Rupert, making Danny suspicious. Then an astronaut comes in and motions to Clara. Right. Danny becomes frustrated about Clara's prevarication and pisses off. Clara leaves too, so I hope they paid for their drinks already because otherwise that restaurant's going to be out a few quid. It turns out the astronaut is a descendant of Danny from 100 years in the future named Orson but also played by Samuel Anderson who plays Danny. The Doctor used the psychic link from Clara or what have you to pick him up, and it turns out that he was at the end of the universe where he was flung by a time travel accident. The imagery we see of a decaying planet with a giant pink sun on the horizon is very evocative of the later sequences of H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine,' one of the more successful pieces of imagery in the episode. I don't know what happened to no stars, Utopia, fanged people with tattoos on their faces and so on from 'Utopia' at the end of the Universe but who cares, that was dumb. The experiment in which Orson took part was to shoot him into 'next week.' If so, why is he in this big spaceship? What would he need it for? He's more than ready to go home after being stranded in the future for six months but in another example of our 'Twelfth Doctor is a dick' characterisation Capaldi makes up some cock and bull story about the TARDIS needing to recharge so he can test if there's anything out there now that all life has ceased. It's kind of convenient, isn't it, that someone with a connection to Clara enabled this particular scenario to come about.
"Your romantic subplot disgusts me."
In the TARDIS where Orson is shacking up for the night Clara finds Dan the Soldier Man and Orson relates that his family has an old story about time traveller ancestors, implying not very much beyond the fairly obvious fact that he might be a descendant of Clara. Now that we can see it clearly, why does Orson's spacesuit have the logo on it of the mission from the episode for which the costume was originally designed? Maybe it means something else here, like 'Sweaty Bollocks 6.' A message on the ship door visible only under night lights tells its writer not to open it, Capaldi telling Clara that Orson must have been tempted to seek some 'company' from whatever lurked outside. He reasons that the creaky sounds should just be the ship cooling, but argues that he needs to know if there's something outside. When a knocking begins, he starts reciting poetry, as characters so often do in Moffat Who. He unlocks the door and it starts to open, but he claims that this could just be a result of pressure from outside. When Clara argues, he inexplicably yells at her and browbeats her into returning to the TARDIS. The air starts rushing out of the ship, but there's no evidence of anything coming in. Orson rescues the Doctor and Clara sticks her hands back into the TARDIS' erogenous zones so that the Cloister Bell will stop ringing: "apparently I can do a thing," she declares, regurgitating more dreadful Moffat non-dialogue scraped from Joss Whedon's excrement.
"One day when you grow up you'll attempt
to bash in a caveman's skull with a rock."

The TARDIS lands in a barn somewhere where a little child is sobbing in bed. Clara asks if it's Rupert or Orson. Why would it be? Was she thinking of either of them? A couple of people we only see from the knees down come in complaining about the crying boy, the man declaring that his behaviour won't be tolerated in the army, the woman insisting that he doesn't want to be in the army. Then Moffat attempts to drop his massive bombshell: "Well he's not going to the Academy, is he, that boy? He'll never make a Time Lord." So presumably this is the Doctor. It's not altogether inconsistent with characterisation we've seen before, but where are we? Why are there "other boys" he could go and join? We were told just last week that the Doctor was "born into wealth and privilege" so he can't be an orphan, can he? Where is he then? Gallifreyan boarding school? Who knows. It seems to lean towards the 'not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords' thing too. In the TARDIS, Capaldi jumps to his feet repeating old Tom Baker lines: "Sontarans perverting the course of human history." Reason for this inclusion? Anyway, kid Doctor wonders who's there, so Clara grabs his leg to stop him getting out of bed, telling him it's a dream. Is this another ontological paradox? The Doctor only became interested in this because Clara hid under his bed and grabbed his ankle when he was a child? Back in the TARDIS, Clara insists that the Doctor depart and not ask her what happened, much like Rupert with the invisible phallus. Why? This isn't a potential monster situation. Isn't he allowed to learn something from this, maybe see himself as a child and remember what it's all about? Sadly it's not to be.
Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?
Instead of leaving things as ambiguous or subtle, however, we cut away to what we didn't see before: Clara giving kid Doctor a big spiel about fear, and how one day he'll come back as John Hurt in the 50th Anniversary Special when fear will make him kind. Is she meant to have subliminally imprinted these qualities upon him while he slept? 'Cause I've tried that on someone, and it doesn't work. They send Orson home and then Clara goes off to smooch Danny, but we cut away again to Clara pontificating further to little William Hartnell in his barn bed on Gallifrey, saying that "it's okay to be afraid" because "fear makes companions of us all." So was this whole episode's point summed up in 1973 when the Third Doctor said that courage was "being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway"? In the TARDIS, Capaldi pointlessly underlines the word 'listen' for emphasis and Clara leaves the little toy soldier with the kid Doctor. He probably woke up in the morning and said in his childlike squeak "What's this, hmm? Toy soldiers left by my bed at night? I won't be having with that, not one bit." 'Listen' is okay, I guess. It's an interesting experiment, at least, but the plot's far too convenient: too many of Moffat's same old ontological paradoxes and coincidences, too much navel-gazing about the character of the Doctor and too much repetition of what's come before: inexplicable potential monsters in 'Midnight,' the end of the universe in 'Utopia,' creepy orphanages as seen in 'The Impossible Astronaut' for instance, and Clara interfering in the Doctor's history as in 'The Name of the Doctor.' As the Doctor doing something in his spare time rather than being a monster of the week runaround it's interesting and unconventional as far as New Who goes but I feel like it would have been improved if the strongest idea - the Doctor contemplating some mystery - had proceeded along more interesting or more intellectually sophisticated lines than 'spooky monster under the bed.' The thriller elements aren't even really left unexplained - it was just Clara grabbing the Doctor's ankle when he was a little boy, with the rest presumably being a series of coincidences. As usual, some of the ideas have merit but the execution is, in my opinion, inelegant and by this point even a little trite. It feels less like a 'best ever episode' as some are claiming it and more just the regular charlatan's routine of dressing up something ultimately insubstantial in a narrative and vocabulary which gives the illusion of profundity. My recommendation is that if you want to listen, you do so to some lost Hartnell or Troughton serials, and don't overestimate New Who's capacity for integrity.

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