If there’s one thing Whovians know about longtime Doctor Who showrunner Stephen Moffat, it’s that he loves a good, scary twist. It started early in his career, with villains like the famous “Weeping Angels” playing off the primal fears of the viewers. His other villains, like Series Four’s “Vashta Nerada” or Series Six’s “The Silence” seem to hearken back to the “Hiding Behind The Sofa” days of the Classic Doctor Who. Even in the first episode of Moffat’s other hit show Sherlock, he does everything he can to make a taxi driver frightening. The man has practically made a career out of making the mundane scary. And the latest episode of Series Eight of Doctor Who, simply titled “Listen,” is no different.
The episode begins with a very Moffat-esque question: Can someone ever be truly alone? The Doctor observes that since there are creatures in the world that are perfect predators and perfect prey, then there must also be creatures who are perfect at hiding. And they’re always with us. It’s a rather frightening assessment, and it’s the perfect note to start off such a strange episode.
It’s difficult to assess the quality of “Listen” as a Doctor Who episode, simply because it goes against the formulas and conventions associated with the series. There’s no real villain, the story raises questions that go unanswered, and the conclusion doesn’t really resolve much of the episode. However, Moffat uses certain tropes and tricks that we’ve seen throughout his time on Who to make the episode somewhat familiar. For example, we see the Doctor encountering various characters at different points in their lives, something that Moffat has done before with former companions Amy Pond and River Song. There are some legitimately touching moments, like the reference to John Hurt’s War Doctor from “The Day of the Doctor,” or Clara’s monologue at the end of the episode reassuring a young Doctor that it’s ok to be afraid. Unfortunately, because of the unsatisfactory and somewhat frustrating conclusion, this episode will prove to be highly divisive among fans.
Perhaps the best part of the episode isn’t a particular scene, but rather is a theme that comes to fruition at the end. Clara tells the young Doctor that, “Fear is like a companion,” and indicates that the reason that the Doctor has always travelled with a companion is to control his fear of being alone. It’s undoubtedly an idea that can be easy for the viewer to connect to. The beauty of Doctor Who has always been in its underlying message about the importance of human life, and “Listen” reinforces this idea. The Doctor, who is practically a deity, needs someone human with him to keep him grounded and to help control his own fears of isolation. It’s a beautiful and optimistic message for the show to send, and it’s part of the reason Doctor Who has persevered for more than 50 years.
By the end, depending on how you look at it, “Listen” can be seen as a disappointing episode. There are a few creepy scenes, and some great banter between the Doctor and Clara, but overall the episode has no real story arc. However, if you look past this and instead appreciate Moffat’s effort to give us something new, then the episode takes on a whole new meaning. And after 50 years, I think that the effort to leave the viewers surprised at what they’ve just seen is an admirable one.