Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doctor Who: Listen (Episode Review)

The series so far has been quite the roller-coaster ride hasn't it? For every serious episode we get it's immediately followed up by a wacky comedy or some massive tonal shift to something entirely different. So, after last week's Robot of Sherwood we now have Listen, apparently set up as a horror story and nightmarish tale of woe. It's certainly a bit jarring to go from one to the next, with each bit only working if you completely separate them out, and that goes for the episode as well.

The Doctor has become obsessed with an idea, thinking of things which hide in the corners of the universe and stay away from all others, of primordial fears and old ideas. His theories are seemingly proven when something is written inside the TARDIS, in his own handwriting, yet he has no memory of ever leaving it there. Clara meanwhile, returning from her disastrous date with Danny, is soon dragged into this event and soon many things are thrown into question...

Now, to be completely clear, the episode works for the most part. Unlike Into The Dalek, this is not one which is outright bad and there are multiple segments which do work. For the most part the episode is fairly solid and the idea does work. Despite a rather abrupt introduction with the Doctor ranting to himself, the hook proves to be so effective, and Capaldi's performance is so great, it immediately works. The same goes for the following scene and the one next.

Overall the episode is aiming for a very creepy vibe rather than an outright scary one, and taps back into the concept of childhood fears. Now, while we've seen this done way too many damn times before it's initially handled well enough to warrant the audience's interest. This is only improved as the story goes by, oddly thanks to it breaking a core rule of directing. The episode tells the audience things rather than truly showing them, but the idea behind the monsters is that they are never seen. We catch the odd possible glimpses of them, hints of their presence, but it never directly shows them. This allows Capaldi, Coleman and the other actors to react to some serious potential threats, building the atmosphere.

Most of the episode leaves the audience almost entirely in the dark, never knowing the full truth nor allowing them enough real information to truly judge what is going on. It manages to hook the audience in with enough details to keep them interesting, pull them along with tantalizing hints and letting Steven Moffat do what he does best with his writing. Better yet, some extremely creepy scenes are shot by Douglas Mackinnon fantastically capture the haunting nature of many locations, especially those in the past. Focusing upon key objects and building with the right number of close ups, he manages to shoot every scene effectively like that of a horror film creating a very unsettling feeling from the start.

Things work even better towards the end as they move into the future, heading to the very end of days. They encounter a man trapped there, accidentally stuck on the very last place in existence, yet with the door to the outside world locked. There is also something very specifically interesting about this man as he is tied into Clara's past and leaves some very strong hints for his future. Much of this also works because the script knows when to take a break and branch off into secondary things to help break up the feelings of horror. This primarily comes into play with Clara's date, and unlike before it's definitely more integral to the story. While still awkwardly shoved into the narrative, you can at least see its reason for being there and what role it plays within the tale.

Unfortunately, things start to go very wrong in the final act. Up to that point the episode had made missteps, but somewhat forgivable ones. Okay, the story was working more as a series of isolated segments than a single cohesive piece and it was obviously re-using Moffat's old ideas with very little editing. At the same time however, they were well done enough that it was easy to accept they were there and the episode was obviously going somewhere with its ideas. Unfortunately, by the end, it then pulls a Lost. Everything leading up to that point stops making sense, and while the writing is trying to be smart, it only succeeds in ripping a few dozen plot holes into its narrative.

While the conclusion cannot be talked about without spoilers, you'll quickly see where things go wrong. It not only directly contradicts everything leading up to then, completely contradicts rather than plays with people's expectations, but it breaks a few major taboos. It's not only trying to turn Clara into the most important companion ever once again, it also suffers from the failing of going into the Doctor's personal history to an unforgivable degree. This would be bad enough, but it not only torpedoes any goodwill of the audience, it manages to destroy any potential behind the re-used ideas. Whereas before they could have been something great, now they are obviously just cut and paste jobs with no payoff.

The ending is truly abysmal, and while the episode tries to deflect it with fan-service it fails to deliver any real answers or even go anywhere with its main concepts. This could have been something fantastic, and for almost the entire way though it is solid, but it then putters out into complete tosh. It's truly sad to see this happen, as without it this could have been the first truly outstanding story of the Capaldi era. 

Still, perhaps this is the trend we're going to get now. Every odd episode is good, every even episode is bad in some way. It'd certainly be an interesting trend to remember this series by.


  1. While I think the ending they do with Clara and the Doctor is overdone, I do disagree that it was bad enough to ruin the entire episode, but maybe that's because this isn't the first time my expectations were completely shattered, so I'm not annoyed when something sets something up and then goes completely against it later. Recently I've also being reading some books that have do on a whole new level, like The Red Duke, which I was initially confused about its characters and character setup (If you've read it you'll know what I mean), that book almost seems entirely based on building up expectations and then shattering them entirely, but I'd still recommend it as a good book, and the more recent The End Times book that came out with The End Times expansion for Warhammer Fantasy, so those might have also had something to do with it.

    I think everything in the episode does fit together when you really think about it, unfortunately I can't explain why without going into spoiler territory. I believe what they establish about the monsters fits with the rest of the episode when you think back on it, there's also more I want to say about the fears they bring up (and specifically the fear they end the episode on), but again I can't say what they are without spoiling the episode.

    1. Well fair enough, there's definitely people with their own opinions on this, and going about the internet it's obvious i'm in the minority here when it comes to taking issue with this tale. I'll actually have a spoiler heavy article up tomorrow so we can talk about it more in the comments there.

  2. I liked the episode... until the last ten minutes. They didn't really feel connected to the rest of the episode except copping out on all the buildup and on top of it just felt like another blatant attempt to make Clara super special and important, which I'm really getting quite tired of.

    I'll give points to the rest of the episode for being genuinely quite creepy, but the problem is sort of... I think there'll be comparisons to Midnight with this in as far as the unexplained aspects go, but I think the difference is that with Midnight, there's still no doubt that there -WAS- something there outside the ship (I especially think there'll be comparisons because of the knocking on the hatch, that seriously reminded me of Midnight), whereas here they just kind of copout and essentially go 'it was nothing' in spite of the moment with the thing under the bedding.

    On the other hand a friend and I discussed this and a certain character apparently went uncredited, which makes him (the friend) think there's going to be a plot twist later and that this stuff is actually setup for later in the season.

    1. To be fair, the thing under the bedding could really have been just a kid, since it was child sized and looked roughly like a kid when it pulled the covers off.
      It would be nice if this was setting up a twist for later, but I think this'll be a one-off.