Listen. That wheezing, groaning sound you hear could be the TARDIS materialising in time for another adventure. On the other hand, it could be the sound of this week’s episode straining for effect. It really, really wants to be scary.
Listen does manage to struggle its way up from disposable fluff to atmospheric and, at times, creepy run-of-the-mill Doctor Who fare. Of course, whereas in the old days the show might set out to scare us kids, here in the 21st century we get treated to a 45-minute counseling session.
It’s okay to be scared. And anyway there’s nothing there.
A Doctor Who story with a purely imagined menace. That’s new. Although come to think of it, it does vaguely resemble Hide, the most atmospheric and creepy episode in recent memory that turned out to be a love story. But this was cleverly interwoven with one of Moffat’s ‘timey-wimey’ (yegads, I hate that term) masterpieces. So more like Blink then, without the monsters.
Blink. Listen. The Silence. Whatever you do, don’t blink, cos those Angels only move when you can’t see them. And the Silence, well, keep looking at them because the moment you turn around you forget they were ever there. This notion of some mystery creature that has perfected the art of hiding appears to be riffing on a familiar Moffat theme.
The thinking seems to be, What can I scare the young viewers with next? Superficially it’s a clever approach – because who hasn’t woken up in the night as a kid and felt there was something lurking in the dark or under the bed? I know I have, not least because Doctor Who used to give me such terrific nightmares. Nothing ever grabbed my ankles, mind you, but still it preys upon a feeling with which most of us will be familiar. Smart move and we kick off here with an intriguing premise – the notion of a creature that has so perfected the art of concealment it might never be seen by anyone. So how would anyone – even the Doctor – ever know it was there?
Unfortunately, this speculative premise is far more interesting than the explanation eventually provided. It's a rare but chronic condition shared by a few other stories in the past. (See very early Hartnell vehicle, Edge Of Destruction, and initially fascinating, ultimately god-awful Matt Smith Chibnall-scripted dumbfest Power Of Three.) Invariably fatal.
The twist here is it’s nothing. A phantom menace, if you will. A term which could have applied to about 90% of the preceding season’s tales. This is a non-threat born of the Doctor’s paranoia and the fact that hauling Clara along on a hunt for a creature that only might be there when you’re alone strikes him as a smart ploy.
But then, he’s stupid enough to believe that this same master of concealment could be the figure on the bed with a blanket over its head. And he’s stupid enough to believe that the best move when perhaps confronted with the very thing he’s seeking is to stand with his back to it and tell everyone, whatever they do, don’t look round.
And frankly, when you have to make your ostensibly smart characters behave stupidly to make your story work that’s when you’ve lost. Lost my attention, at any rate. As though Clara’s (albeit endearingly naive) historical ignorance in last week’s Robin Hood outing wasn’t enough.
For an extra helping of dumbness on the side this week, because she’s dating an ex-soldier we have her blurting another idiotic joke about killing. Okay, we can attribute this second blunder to nerves, but Clara is smart, intelligent and confident. She exhibits no nervousness whatsoever when she first corrals Danny into a date back in Into The Dalek.
As in that episode, we kick off with a strong pre-titles hook only to return to soap-opera territory as Clara dines out with Danny ‘Interesting’ Pink. Makes you long for the days when the Doctor couldn’t steer his TARDIS with any accuracy, obliging the companion to stick around for a perilous life of adventure rather than take a taxi to a weekly escapade between real-life dramas. And by real-life I mean contrived Hollyoaks-level situations, of course. Now it’s just difficult first dates, but next thing you know it’ll be a disastrous wedding and a major annual fire at the local pub.
There were some nice touches and stand-out moments in this one (e.g. Clara posting out the toy soldiers around Rupert ‘Interesting’ Pink’s bed, the Doctor pinching the caretaker’s coffee – saw it coming, but still nicely done etc). And I suppose the identity of the boy in the barn comes as a surprise, even if chiefly because the Gallifrey of the Doctor’s youth that lived in my imagination rarely involved barns as an accommodation option. Still, it was also nice to have a reminder of the fabulous John Hurt Doctor and Day Of The Doctor, what I consider Moffat’s most recent triumph. But my biggest fear is that this is another tale leading to some resolution concerning the Doctor’s ‘trouble with soldiers’, which to my mind should have been a non-issue in the first place.
On the whole this story was like a piece of cheap jewellery you might see being flogged on a shopping channel. The presenters are all hyped up, trying to convince you how wonderful it is, but it’s really just a necklace of pretty beads strung together, not nearly as exquisitely crafted as they’re making out. And there’s the sense you’ve seen a dozen others like it.
Moffat’s clear love of cyclic stories has extended to bring us a series that seems stuck in a chronic hysteresis-style rut, content to repeat itself because of some paranoid fear that any deviation from the formula may result in a ratings dip. It’s a particular shame because when you have two leads as engaging and so damn near perfect as Capaldi’s Doctor and Jenna’s Clara, these letdowns amount to a greater waste of opportunity.
Never mind, instead of watching from behind the sofa the new trend is to watch from the therapist’s couch. So hopefully, now that we’ve dealt with our nightmares and fear issues, future episodes will address these dreams I keep having.
See, Doctor, I keep imagining there might be something there, a decent story lurking just at the edges of my vision, but I turn on my TV every Saturday evening and there's nothing of substance there. Only shadows.