After the tongue-in-cheek comedy of Robot of Sherwood, this week sees Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation back to his terrifying best with an episode that combines psychological paranoia and monster movie thrills for one of the scariest Doctor Who stories yet.
Stephen Moffat has always had a knack for creating a good monster – from the spooky Weeping Angels to the creeping suspense of The Silence – but this was more chilling than anything we’ve seen before. Here Moffat plays on our innate childhood fears, like whether there is a monster hiding beneath the bed, and turns the mere threat of a monster into a terrifying prospect just by suggesting that everyday occurrences like a misplaced coffee mug or a TV that switches itself off may have a more sinister explanation.
At first this set up seems all too familiar with the Doctor having to face-off against a villain that operates out of sight feeling reminiscent of Blink, the episode that first introduced the Weeping Angels. Yet Moffat gives fresh impetus to the idea by writing it as a psychological drama.
From the start it looks like Capaldi’s Time Lord is loosing his mind as he paces wildly about his Tardis while scribbling on chalkboards and rambling about whether we are ever truly alone. Far from becoming clearer, the episode actually raises more questions than it answers as the Doctor encounters more and more unsettling events. And Moffat is also keen to leave the viewer with doubt about whether the monster was just a figment of the imagination or if there really are things that go bump in the night.
Compared to Robot of Sherwood, the pace of Listen is slower and more purposeful. There are no sword vs. spoon duels here and much of the content is taken up with posing questions and waiting for answers. But this doesn’t mean that Doctor Who has forgotten its sense of fun, and the fiery back and forth between the Doctor and Clara is in full flow this week – particularly in Capaldi’s mildly offensive comments about Clara’s looks (“It’s too late, you’ve taken your make-up off.”) which always deliver big laughs.
This episode proves Capaldi to be most comfortable when tackling the darker aspects of his character and the fierce energy he brings to the role is needed here to give the scenes where the Doctor is apparently talking to himself the power and tension that makes Listen so thrilling. But Capaldi also shows his tender side in the way he teaches a child to welcome fear as a super power and also by proving that he has finally learned to trust Clara.
It’s not all about the Doctor, though, and Listen provides plenty of room for Clara and Danny Pink to shine as they embark on an awkward first date. Coleman, especially, is on dazzling form, displaying both the feisty and gentle sides of her character by stepping up to challenge the Doctor and Danny and then soothing a petrified child after a nightmare.
The date also allows Samuel Anderson to showcase a wider range than we saw in his pervious appearance, as Danny flits between awkward love interest, desperate loner and tormented soldier, to reveal more of his backstory while raising even more questions about his past.
While the conclusion may draw some ire from fans who are not fond of Moffat tinkering with the Doctor’s timeline, the return to the shack on Gallifrey and the nod to The Day of the Doctor gave a nice sense of completion to last series’ impossible girl story arc and it makes way for the show to head in a new direction.
Aside from these potential timey-wimey quibbles, Listen is a tautly written thrill of an episode that sends shivers down the spine with a monster we never even see and still finds time to slot some moving character drama in amongst the terror. It’s perfect Saturday night viewing.
Next week on Doctor Who… things take on the feel of a sci-fi caper, as the Doctor and Clara have to rob a bank to escape the clutches of Keeley Hawes’ fearsome Miss Delphox.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Listen on iplayer