Sunday, 14 September 2014

DOCTOR WHO: LISTEN review, 13 September 2014


Peter Capaldi's fourth story is funny, frightening and a revelation for long-term fans of Doctor Who.

What's that in the shadows? (Image: Deviantart)

In 'Listen', the Doctor joins those other great British folk heroes and loners Sherlock Holmes and James Bond in having a troubled start to his life. There have been hints about this in Doctor Who before - his 'black day' when he poured out his troubles to the hermit that lived behind his house ('The Time Monster'), just scraping through the Academy's exams on the second attempt ('The Ribos Operation') - but here we see it confirmed.

The shock on Clara's face when she realises the sobbing child in the bed she's hiding under is the Doctor brilliantly reflects the thrill I and millions of other viewers must have felt. In effect, 'Listen' is the last of the Time Lord's Skyfall, as the clip of the War Doctor (John Hurt) choosing the dilapidated barn in the wastes of Gallifrey for a final act of violence is now given a context by the childhood unhappiness he felt there. It's clever stuff indeed.

'Listen' gets cleverer. The Twelfth Doctor's obsession with discovering if the nightmare of someone under your bed has a basis in reality, is shown to be a by-product of his companion Clara's advice to him as a boy in that barn. OK, it's yet another piece of Steven Moffat timey-wimeyness, but the emotional power of it is so strong that it's almost worth having gone through all the maddeningly convoluted storytelling in Series Six to get here.

With only three principal speaking parts in the story, Capaldi, Coleman and Samuel Anderson really get to blossom. The leading man is restrained and sympathetic, a stand out when he tells Rupert Pink that 'scared is a superpower' and making the tantalising comment about his 'Dad skills'. As we've seen before Capaldi clearly relishes his character's darker side, as here he makes the most of the Doctor experimenting on Clara in a ruthless quest for knowledge. From the romcom scenes with Danny Pink in the restaurant to gently whispering reassurances in a Gallifreyan child's ear, Jenna Coleman continues to impress with both her comedy timing and emotional range. Anderson is great, too: funny, moody and subtly different as time traveller - chrononaut? - Colonel Orson Pink. These three are without a doubt the strongest line up of regulars the series has had for years.

In a story set mostly at night, director Douglas Mackinnon creates a murky, edgy mood throughout that reaches the peak of its effectiveness in the scene where he makes a mound of bedclothes absolutely terrifying (and I bet you anything you like it turns out to be Missy under there). Other images that'll remain with me forever are two visually stunning moments: the Doctor sitting cross-legged on top of the TARDIS in space, then looking in through the police box's open doors as it sits at the bottom of the ocean. Not showing the child-Doctor's face was a good piece of directorial judgement too.

Ultimately, 'Listen' is a well told and well-made shaggy dog story, that's also a great piece of fan fiction with an effective emotional punch. It'll divide opinion, I'm sure, but that's one of the joys of Doctor Who. The story is low key but epic, creepy, humane, slightly self-indulgent and rather wonderful, another love letter by Steven Moffat to the series he's been in love with since he was a boy.

That's four out of four so far. Can they keep it up? Looking at the trailer for 'Next Week', it certainly looks like it.

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