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New Who 8.4 Listen

So, yes - still a week behind on Who blogging, then. But I did really enjoy this episode, and not just in and of itself, but as yet another entry in what has so far been one of the thematically-strongest seasons of Doctor Who I've ever seen. Fear, heroism, companionship and prejudice are all being developed steadily and substantially from episode to episode - as the genre of each story permits, of course - and it is really looking impressive. I don't know what changed or what happened, but it really seems like Steven Moffat has his eye 100% on the ball at last. Perhaps things will suddenly go downhill again this evening, or perhaps the price we'll pay for this is a shoddy next season of Sherlock? But right now, I am liking it.

In this particular episode, there was a lot of very good stuff about fear and bravery and what makes a hero, but most of that has been discussed at length all over the internet, so I won't be adding much if I talk about that now. Let's just say I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Perhaps more interesting, and less thoroughly raked over, was how much the story really explored the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. Parts of this were played quite explicitly, like the way it turned out that Clara had started the Doctor's whole line of enquiry about things under the bed in the first place, as well as giving him the courage to embrace his fear and turn it into a superpower. Their stories are intimately inter-twined, then - but we knew that already from the Impossible Girl story in the previous season.

Rather subtler were multiple references throughout the episode to the Doctor's fundamental need for a companion (be that Clara or anyone else). Well before we find out that it was Clara all along under the Doctor's bed, many of the things he says about the putative beings who are perfect hiders and who listen when we talk aloud actually apply to his companions. Right at the start, and for no very obvious reason, he assumes that they are our 'silent partners' - i.e. that everyone is matched by one hidden listener. 'Partner', of course, is pretty much another word for 'companion'. Later, when they arrive at the children's home, Clara asks, "Why did you bring me out here?", and he replies "I was still talking - I needed someone to nod." This is a typically Doctorish thing to say, of course (I'm pretty sure Four says much the same at various points), but here where the whole focus is on listeners, it reminds us that this is one of his companions' most consistent functions. So what he is hunting for so avidly throughout the entire episode is essentially the companion he has always had - as, indeed, literally turns out to be the case at the end.

Yet he is afraid of his 'silent partner', and Moffat pursues the implications of this as well. Indeed, it is the final part of what Clara tells the young Doctor as he huddles under his blankets. That fear itself is like a companion, and that "Fear makes companions of us all." As many people have already pointed out (e.g. the Radio Times reviewer), this echoes a comment made by the First Doctor to Barbara in The Forest Of Fear, only the third episode ever of the entire programme, to explain why he is suddenly helping her after having been dismissive if not aggressive up to that point: "Fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright." In the Doctor's time-line, of course, this insight comes not so very long after he would have heard Clara's words as a child, and at the point in his life when he is for the first time starting to realise their truth.

So Moffat presents the Doctor's relationship with his companions here as paradoxical (as so many things are for Moffat). He is fixated on them and needs them, and yet at the same time he is afraid - perhaps at the intensity of his own dependence on them. But, in another twist, that very fear makes him what he is - while at the same time being utterly unnecessary, as it is just based on a misunderstanding anyway. Complicated! But lots of fun, and I suspect a line of thought which still has a little way to travel in this season, too.

Companionship issues aside, Listen was more straightforwardly a classic ghost story, and like all the best ghost stories, it kept the matter of whether or not there is actually an unseen other-worldly entity out there as ambiguous as possible. Who wrote 'LISTEN' on the chalk-board - the Doctor or the Thing? Who was under the blanket - another child from the home or a Thing? What struck the Doctor on the head in Orson's time vessel - random stuff flying around because the air-lock had been opened, or a Thing? And which of those two possibilities set the TARDIS cloister bell off, as well? On the whole, the answer suggested at the resolution of the episode seemed to be that there isn't anything inexplicable there after all - just perfectly normal things which people misinterpret as result of their own fear. But we do see what looks like a strangely misshapen head, albeit a very out-of-focus one, emerge from under the blanket over Clara and Rupert's shoulders in the children's home. So there's room to believe in a Thing there if we want to.

Other things... I like the way the Doctor and Clara are positioned as complementary equals in this story. Like the way she and he take turns to help and comfort the young Rupert, or the way he orders her back to the TARDIS in Orson's time-vessel, and then she turns his words back on him to stop him going out and meeting himself in the barn. Indeed, in keeping with the theme of this episode both of them explicitly instruct each other to 'listen' at different points in the story - he when he tells her to listen to the sound of absolute silence at the end of the Universe, and she when she tells him as a child to listen to her words of comfort. His fondness for chalking up his thoughts (which we've seen him doing in all four episodes so far) reflects her role as a teacher, too - not that we ever see her using a chalkboard, but he doesn't have to be the same as her for the match to work. Where she is the bright, modern teacher, he is the more old-fashioned kind.

I also think there was a nice little riff on Harry Potter when the Doctor took Clara back to her date with Danny. Where Hermione in a similar situation in The Prisoner of Azkaban asked in tones of horror, "Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?", Clara makes almost exactly the same comment (though without specific reference to her hair). But, unlike Hermione, she is pretty impressed with what she sees. A nice jokey way to show us her self-confidence, in spite of the Doctor's constant comments about her appearance - and an explanation for why these don't bother her.

Then, of course, there is the scene in the barn. And yes, I gasped and thrilled when I realised what we were seeing. We could ask questions about how the TARDIS was able to get into Gallifrey's past all of a sudden, when supposedly its entire existence is still shut inside a time-lock. But I'm sure that can be explained - either by saying that the barn wasn't on Gallifrey, or via some other kind of hand-waving. I don't really care all that much - all of these things in Doctor Who can be ironed out if you think about them carefully enough, and meanwhile what matters to me is the emotive power of the story, which this scene delivered very nicely. We also have a pretty clear statement now on whether or not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords, which has tended to oscillate a bit in the past. I'd be interested to know whether all Gallifreyans can regenerate, or whether that is something you learn at the Time Academy, and at the moment I'd be inclined to say the former - not least because the Doctor referred to this as a genetic advantage (rather than a learnt advantage) only last week in Robot of Sherwood. Perhaps one day we will find out.

Finally - and I am sorry to keep going on about this - there really is quite a lot of watery business going on in this season, and one moment in this episode struck me particularly forcefully under this heading. During Clara and Danny's date, his insistence on how he mainly dug twenty-three wells as a soldier rather than killing people already makes water part of the conversation. It's positioned as the opposite of guns - guns kill people, wells save them. But their conversation is also interrupted at exactly this point by a waiter with a jug of fresh water, asking "Excuse me, er - water for the table?" This may have been inserted just to up the cringe factor for the date, since Clara responds with yet another misjudged wisecrack relating back to the well conversation: "Don't worry - he'll probably dig for it." But I don't think the intervention of the waiter was necessary to provide a platform for that - Danny and Clara were being quite cringe-worthy enough without it. And meanwhile, I have certainly watched enough Poirot to know that you should always pay attention to the waiting staff. In the short term, within this episode, I was fully expecting the 'waiter' to turn out to be the Doctor, keeping an eye on Clara's date, but it didn't happen. In the longer term, though, it could still turn out to be someone important - one of Missy's agents, perhaps?

Anyway, at this point it seemed worth gathering together a systematic list of watery references so far this season, so this is what we've had:
  • Deep Breath - the Doctor dives into the murky, night-time waters of the Thames and disappears for a considerable amount of time; Clara pours beautifully clear water into a bowl to wash with; Strax tells Clara to watch out for fluid retention and offers her a bucket of mop-water to drink.
  • Into the Dalek - Clara, the Doctor and their companions all plunge into utterly filthy water made out of dead people in the Dalek's garbage disposal area.
  • Robot of Sherwood - the Doctor pushes Robin into a stream during their fight, only to be pushed in by Robin in return a few moments later; Clara is pulled into the moonlit moat by Robin as a way of rescuing her, remains underwater for an implausibly long time and is unconscious in Robin's arms by the time she reappears.
  • Plus the stuff I've outlined about about the wells and the waiter with the water-jug in Listen
If I can pull anything out of all that as a set, I guess it would be something about good water vs. bad water. Sometimes it is pure and clean and under control, as in Clara's wash-bowl and Danny's wells. But sometimes it is dark, dirty and worrying, as in the Thames, the interior of the Dalek and the moat. The Doctor and Clara have both now at different times disappeared under water and looked like they might not resurface, while people (Strax, the waiter) seem quite keen on getting Clara to drink it. All of this could still turn out to be nothing remarkable, but in case it isn't, I'm setting out the pattern as I see it so far here. Time will tell.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 20th, 2014 05:36 pm (UTC)
It's not only family pride, or the fact that I'm seeing his parents tomorrow, but the fact is that the Capaldi era has a new executive producer...
Sep. 20th, 2014 09:15 pm (UTC)
Aha! You can tell him from me he's doing an excellent job. :-)
Sep. 21st, 2014 07:07 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Thank you, I shall ponder.
Sep. 21st, 2014 07:13 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Thanks for reading. :-)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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