This post contains spoilers.
I have the growing suspicion that “Listen” might earn a place among my all-time favourite episodes of Doctor Who. I’m quickly beginning to suspect that this season might rank among my favourites as well.
I’ve talked before about how my feelings about Doctor Who are deeply rooted in what an episode (and a season) means to me at the particular time in my life when I first watch it. Doctor Who is so much about the routine for me, the ritual, that it becomes embedded in that moment of my life
– the context, the emotional white noise. This season will always be the year we got up every Sunday at 4:30am. For the first time in a while, Doctor Who is the backbone of my week again.
“Listen” feels like it happened at exactly the right moment. A few weeks either side, and I don’t know if this episode would have hit me the way it did. Maybe my response says more about where I am right now than it does about the episode. But I don’t think I’m making a huge leap when I interpret the story the way I have. When the episode ended I turned to my boyfriend and I said “So that was basically about managing anxiety?”
At its heart this is a pretty interesting study of fear. Moffat has always been at his best when he looks at the things that scare us – the vashta nerada, the Weeping Angels, Lynda’s fear of committing to Spike. What I loved about this episode was that it went deeper to look at what being afraid actually means.
This episode marked a real return to form for Moffat. It reminded me that, actually, I think Steven Moffat is a damn fine writer. Not a perfect writer or one without problematic tendencies but still someone who is incredibly good at what he does. This script is tight. Every question you have after that reveal is answered within the episode itself. What was that thing on the bed? Clara herself says “is it possible we just saved a kid from another kid and a bedspread?” There are two answers to every question. Nothing is certain or concrete
– everything is prefixed with possibly (believably).
Even before the opening credits the Doctor has described this creature as a “companion, a silent passenger, a shadow”. This description (which seems so sinister at the time) is repeated throughout the episode. When Clara asks Orson what he’s afraid of, he says it’s probably his shadow. Then it comes full circle with Clara’s speech to the child Doctor in the barn – “You’re always going to be afraid, even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion. Fear makes companions of us all.”
The episode never lied to us, it never pretended there was something under the bed – we saw what we wanted to see, just as Clara and the Doctor did. There was never anything in the dark except suggestions.
It wasn’t until the third viewing that I realised how pertinent the sub-plot with Danny and Clara is. At first it seems like comic relief – a foil for the tension to play against – but actually it’s another string to the same bow. Right at the end when Clara goes to his apartment Danny looks at her and says “I just get so nervous. I don’t even know what I’m nervous of.” Just as this episode is about a fear of the dark it’s also about those other mundane fears – fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of going on dates. It looks at every one of those fears and it says that they’re ok.
“Listen” is one of the most powerful pieces of advice I’ve been given about anxiety. It says that it’s ok to worry and be nervous. And that it’s ok if it doesn’t go away, even when there’s nothing in the darkness. Telling someone that they shouldn’t be afraid is denying an emotion that is designed to keep us safe, to help us survive and to deal with the very things which we’re afraid of
– “didn’t anybody tell you? Fear is a superpower.”