Monday, 15 September 2014

The First Sign Of Madness

Doctor Who
Series Eight, Episode Four

Well, here's one nobody's going to agree on.  I've read reviews that love this episode, reviews that hate it, and reviews that critique other reviewers for not feeling the same way.  All of which is true every week, to some extent, but Listen really feels like a fork in the road.  I've seen it twice; I'm sat here arguing with myself about it.  Or am I?

Sorry, that's a reference to the plot.  The Doctor is alone in the TARDIS, thinking aloud, and he comes up with a theory.  What if we don't really talk to ourselves?  What if, on some level, we know there's someone else there?  Imagine a creature that hides perfectly.  What if it's always there, turning off the TV, moving our coffee cups, hiding under the bed?  Haven't we all had a nightmare about something under the bed?  What's that about?

I hate to be that guy, but I haven't actually had this dream.
Stuff under my bed, sure, but you'd never catch me
putting my feet on the ground.
Already there's a mixture of the new and the, um, not-so-new.  Monsters that tap into elemental childhood fears are Steven Moffat's forté.  Heck, we've already had a monster that can hide perfectly, by making you forget about it.  (Insert "I guess he forgot about it" joke here.)  What's new, apart from his interest in people's dreams, is that the Doctor figures all this out by brainstorming when he's bored.  No landing the TARDIS where there just happens to be some trouble, no distress call on the psychic paper, just an idea that takes root in his head.  It's different.  Different's good.

Also good is the way it says something about the Doctor.  He is absolutely driven by curiosity.  That's him to a tee, although it drives Peter Capaldi's Doctor in a more clinical, nothing-else-matters kind of way than his predecessors.  Capaldi just wants to know, at all costs.  Listen takes him further down the not-necessarily-your-friend path of "alienness".  One moment he's telling a young boy that being afraid just makes him a better person, the next he's sniping at Clara for sugar-coating it.  He wades into Clara's history, ostensibly to help, really for his own purposes, and without considering the consequences.  He rescues a man from the end of time, and from something that's frightening him, but still makes him wait until he can get a good look at it.  He needs rescuing, too, when he gets in over his head.

No doubt about it, this Doctor is fallible.  And guess what: he's probably wrong about the Monster Of Perfect Hiding, too.  They leave it open, just about: something is in that little boy's room, but it might be another little boy.  Something opens a door at the end of the universe, but it might be a faulty mechanism.  (Or that invisible monster from Midnight, popping by to say "Coo-ee!")  The Doctor doesn't know everything, and the "monster" plot isn't tied up in a bow.  Who saw that coming?  I mean, usually there's plot holes, but this is deliberate!

I think it's refreshing to look at the way the Doctor thinks, why he does what he does, and whether he ever lets his imagination run away with him.  Some will find it disappointing – there's no monster, or worse, we don't know either way.  Boo!  But I'm one of those fuddy-duddies who thinks you can do Doctor Who without monsters (burn him!), so I'd be nuts to complain when they do things differently, and actually make a show about ideas and people instead.  In any case, they have their cake and eat it too: the scene with the whatever-it-is under the bed-covers is instantly one of the most terrifying moments in Doctor Who.  Behind the sofa?  Screw that.  Get out of the house.

But despite how it looks, this isn't an episode about scaring you.  It's about fear, and more specifically, the Doctor's fears.  His paranoia is, despite all his usual horribleness – and he's plenty gittish this week – a clever way to make him relatable.  We all talk to ourselves, and imagine things that aren't there.  That's another bit people might not like – bringing the Doctor down to our level.  I'm fine with that, up to a point.  (More on that later.)  He's not like us.  There should always be distance.  But we do need to see something familiar in there, otherwise we wouldn't want to stick with him.  Especially these days.

Horribleness aside, he can be very cute.  "I need you!  For a thing!"
How can you not love his little face?
Which brings us to another thing this episode is saying, albeit indirectly: get this man some full-time companionship!  Clara's need to get away from it all ("it all" being "the TARDIS") made more sense once Capaldi showed up, but he needs a friend more than usual now, not less.  She's got plenty of reasons to find him infuriating, such as his callous disregard for timelines, or the safety of others, and the continued "jokes" about her physical appearance.  (These are becoming less about the lack of underlying romance and, sadly, more about finding new ways to be rude.  Still, I loved "You said you had a date.  I thought I'd better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home."  Quintessential Doctor strangeness.)  I wish they'd resolve it, and have Clara step aboard permanently.  The Doctor needs someone to make sure he hasn't gone completely nuts and, at this rate, to remind him to put on trousers in the morning.  Alas, the idea of a Doctor Who companion who can up sticks and just go with him is becoming increasingly sepia-toned.  Clara gives him a hug at the end, so maybe that's a good sign.  Fingers crossed.

Ah, Clara.  You know how I mentioned liking it when they make the Doctor relatable, up to a point?  Well, we've reached that point.  And hopped over it.  And set up camp on the other side.  No doubt about it, this is the bit that really divides people: Clara goes back in time to find the Doctor as a young boy, inadvertently starting his fascination with a monster under the bed (it's really Clara), and reassuring him afterwards.  By "reassuring", I mean setting up several tenets of his personality, including the need to be kind, and to not be cruel or cowardly, and – for good measure – the need for companions.  I'm genuinely surprised she didn't add "You know what would make a good name?  The Doctor, that's what!"

Is there anything inherently wrong with invading the Doctor's personal history?  Your mileage may vary.  In my oh-so-humble opinion, there was never any point investigating (for example) his real name, because he doesn't need one and nothing they come up with would ever be good enough.  Similarly, there's no need to tell us why he is the way he is – if you really want to know that, just watch Doctor Who.  It takes away some of the mystery – well, no, it takes away all of the mystery to have someone roll up and explain to him how to be the Doctor.  A lingering look at the man behind the curtain is not going to make him more interesting.  It does the opposite.

Mary Sue to the rescue!
And it's not just anybody doing it.  No, it has to be Clara.  Quick recap: it was Clara who told the Doctor which TARDIS to choose for his adventures.  Clara rescued the Doctor throughout his timeline.  Clara convinced the three Doctors not to blow up Gallifrey after all.  And Clara talked the Time Lords into giving the Doctor a new set of regenerations.  Anything else?  Well, thanks to the TARDIS telepathic circuits, she's got her time-space pilot's license as well.  She even tells the grown-up Doctor to "do as you're told", and that works.  I know Steven Moffat likes Clara, and really, I do too – her character's coming along nicely this year and makes a heap more sense with Peter Capaldi to act opposite.  But there's a limit to how OMG you can make her before the Doctor starts to seem strangely unnecessary.

I know how the ending is supposed to work, and for many, it did.  You're supposed to be pleased to see another Steven Moffat timey-wimey slot into place.  You're supposed to go "Oh, I see!" when you realise why the Doctor had that dream after all (but not why everyone else did, because um).  You're supposed to tingle and smile when Clara waxes lyrical about who and what the Doctor is.  But none of that worked for me.  I wanted to get behind the sofa.  I'm all for exploring the Doctor's character, exposing his fallibilities, even visiting his past, but it's how you do it.  Do it like that, and the Doctor edges a little closer to not being special any more.

It sounds like I'm one of those guys who hated Listen.  I'm not.  I really don't have a problem with the Doctor going on a wild goose chase, and I like the open-ended-possible-non-monster.  I like Clara, up to a point (we're not going through that again!), and hey, I like Danny.  Clara finally goes for that drink, and Samuel Anderson is as charming and vulnerable as he was in Into The Dalek.  Exactly as much, actually, with the same argument arising (Don't mention the war!) and the same back-and-forth editing wheeze about it afterwards.  (Let's think of it as a call-back.)  I don't really like the soldier parallels between him and the Doctor – drawn so broadly that you couldn't miss them in a snowstorm – but that's obviously an arc, so best just to grit my teeth and see where it goes.  As for Clara, her emotional journey didn't make a heap of sense to me, but I'm glad she seems to be getting on famously with Danny at the end.  The Doctor seems happier too, which is good news for Mr Grumpy.

It's frustrating.  I can't entirely land on "I liked it" because of that ending, and it's one of those stories where the ending is everything.  But I can't dismiss it either, because it does a lot of things really well – like some of the characterisation, the stock-in-trade scariness, and Peter Capaldi rocking the house, terrifyingly unreliable one minute, childishly loveable the next.  Ultimately, the Doctor doesn't know if there really was a monster, and has to leave it at that.  I know how he feels.  I don't know if there was a really good episode.

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