Nothing much to add, to be honest. So let’s cut straight to it.
Listen. As it begins, the Doctor’s solitary perambulations, combined with that unassuming story title, invite you to think of this tale as something small. It will be a chamber-piece, slowly unfolding some high concept. A Midnight, a Hide, or, most obviously, a Blink.
But the joy of Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who scripts – and, let’s be clear, this is one of his very best – are that they reveal a shape unlike anything you anticipated. By the end of the adventure, Listen is resolved to be the most extraordinary construction, containing both the beginnings of our hero and the end of the universe.
It’s like a magic routine, selling you small misdirections along the way before the big reveal. In the West Country Children’s Home, Clara and Rupert become the thing under the bed – only to discover it’s what’s now above making the springs creak that is the danger. Later on, a spaceman walks into a restaurant and then removes his helmet to reveal he’s not the Doctor, he’s Danny Pink. Except he’s not Danny Pink either. He’s Colonel Orson Pink from the future.
The things we think we know as fans of modern Doctor Who have no real purchase here. Sizing up the story, I was certain we were going to be served some imaginative sci-fi realisation of the Doctor’s posited perfect survivor. A creature that exists forever out of sight sounds like a reasonable premise for a Doctor Who monster, right? And in the past, we’ve been told don’t blink, don’t step in the shadows, don’t breathe. Now we have: don’t look round. Okay, so good, we’ve established the MO. But then something happens that’s never happened before. The programme flings open the doors and in comes the scariest thing ever. A thing that arrives at night when the room is sighing and the ceiling is groaning. A thing… well, there’s no such thing. It’s simply fear, a feeling that can’t be figured out or rationalised. Something we’ve all experienced.
Even as a proposal, Listen confounds. An investigation into the private terrors that drive our hero, which culminates in a glimpse of him as a child – surely that can only diminish the character? But the story (immaculately and mellifluously directed by Douglas Mackinnon, whose cross-fades capture the way thoughts after-dark can run into each other) takes us there under the cover of darkness, and when we finally realise where we’ve ended up, it’s a huge surprise, like a torch beam suddenly illuminating our destination. “He’ll never make a Time Lord,” says someone. As we digest those words, it’s akin to our eyes adjusting to the light. Then we find our focus – that little boy, crying, scared of what’s under the bed… that’s the Doctor. No one, I’m sure, second-guessed this, and I think the thrill of that moment provides such a tingle – a hairs on the back of the neck tingle – that it is, in itself, complete vindication for what can sometimes feel like the paranoiac guarding of secrets on Doctor Who.
This is almost forbidden knowledge. “Why does he have to cry all the time?” asks one voice. “You know why,” says the other.
For Peter Capaldi, the story is both a test and further affirmation of his rightness for the role. A test because he has to show a hitherto hidden vulnerability within the Doctor that’s in contrast to this most taciturn incarnation. He’s able to pull it off by virtue of the fact he’s now bristling with absolute Doctorishness. “I need to know… I have to know,” he says, eyes a-bulging, adrenalin pumping. This is the Time Lord scared but ravenous with curiosity. He has to name that fear. However in chasing it, I think he succumbs to a hysteria. The thing that’s under the covers on Rupert’s bed? What is that? It could well be another boy, playing a prank, but in the dark, anything is possible and the Doctor and Clara get swept away with that. “Go in peace,” he says, as if performing an exorcism. As if he’s no longer a rationalist. But then, that’s how people think at night.
It’s a cliché that when a TV drama returns to our screens the new run is promoted as being darker. It’s certainly a word that has been applied in sponsorship of Peter Capaldi’s debut, and one I’ve also leaned heavily on over the last couple of pages. In other shows dark tends to mean there’ll be more deaths this time around and one of the male leads will stop shaving. But in Doctor Who dark is also intimate and Listen is exactly that, bordering on the introspective. It’s not the kind of adventure (is it even an adventure?) the programme could or should bring us every week, because we do need monsters and our favourites in physical peril. However as a “silent passenger” alongside those exploits it works fantastically.
Two weeks ago we journeyed inside a Dalek, but on this Saturday night it was an expedition to a far, far scarier place. There he was at the beginning in some kind of repose. But then his head snapped up and his eyes opened, blazing through the TV screen. “Listen!” he demanded as we were tilted into the stuff of nightmares. Into the Doctor.