Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Doctor Who: Episode 8.04 Listen

This week’s Doctor Who episode Listen had so much potential. So much potential. The potential to be this season’s equivalent of Blink. The potential to let Capaldi shine in a scary episode along with a smart companion who solves puzzles and is awesome. Danny Pink had so much potential to be a really interesting character and his connection with Clara could have been really human and vulnerable.

In short, it all fell in an absolute heap.

This is an example of Steven Moffat’s unnecessarily convoluted plots arcs at their absolute worst.

Follow me under the cut for more.

My main gripe with this episode is that it could have been fantastic. The episode certainly started out that way. Capaldi’s Doctor paces in the TARDIS hypothesising that the reason one speaks out aloud when they are alone is that some part of them realises that they are not alone. That there is something with them, something that makes the hairs on the backs of their necks stand on edge. What if there was a creature able to hide perfectly. What would it do? The answer inexplicably appears on a chalkboard. Listen. It’s creepy and it foreshadows so much more.

Cue Clara in the present day going on her first date with Danny Pink who we met in Into the Dalek. The date goes terribly, they are both terrible at conversation, they say all the wrong things and Clara leaves in anger. She seems to be seriously overreacting to a date with a guy whom, as far as we know, she has barely met and is barely interested in. It’s their first date. She’s moping, or threatening to mope, until the Doctor arrives and demands she accompany him on an adventure.

He explains his theory to her, that there is something in the dark that is an expert and hiding, that all throughout history there have been accounts of people dreaming or half dreaming the same dream; that they have woken in the night, gone to get out of bed, and something has grabbed them by the ankle. Clara is convinced that the dark is nothing to be afraid of, but the Doctor wants her to go back to the place in time where she has that dream. While hooked into the TARDIS, navigating to that very point in time, she thinks of Danny and due to this distraction, the Doctor and Clara end up at a young Rupert (Danny in the past) Pink’s room. The Doctor thinks this must be Clara’s time stream even though it clearly isn’t. He’s seemingly too caught up in his own theory to remember that Clara probably shouldn’t interact with herself, or that she is lying about being distracted.

Little Rupert tells Clara that he’s had the same dream that the Doctor has described, and while Clara tries to convince him that there is nothing to be afraid of, something very real sits on Rupert’s bed. Rupert, Clara and the Doctor all see it and know it is there and for a long time they try to surmise that it is one of Rupert’s friends playing a trick on him. The Doctor tells Rupert that fear is a powerful emotion, that is makes you a super hero; you can run faster, fight harder and perform better than at any other time. So don’t look at the thing, don’t believe it can take you out, don’t acknowledge it and it will go away. It does. Clara leaves some toy soldiers around young Rupert’s bed to protect him and help him sleep at night. She calls one Dan, inspiring his future re-naming of himself. Dan has no weapons because the bravest soldiers carry no guns.

So far, all good. Excellent in fact. Though here is where everything starts to unravel. 

Clara asks to be taken back to the moment where she left her date so that she can make another go of it. Upon returning inside the restaurant, both she and Danny proceed to make arses of themselves yet again! It’s not only painful to watch but seems completely out of character for Clara who has been incredibly articulate and capable up until this point, including in her previous interaction with Danny. Clara is then beckoned away from her date by a man in a space suit. The man enters the TARDIS and is revealed to look exactly like Danny Pink, though he calls himself Orson Pink. Orson was found by the Doctor on a station at the end of the universe after a time travel experiment went wrong. To remind himself for the six months that he has been stranded not to open the sealed doors to what is outside, he has scrawled a note on the door. The Doctor wants to know what could be left at the end of everything and so concludes that they should stay to find out.

Here the Doctor and Clara have a very shouty and very irksome fight. I say irksome because of the way that the Doctor speaks to Clara – ‘shut up and do what you’re told’ – and that this is somehow made okay later by Clara saying exactly the same thing to the Doctor didn’t fill me with the sense that they had a mature and caring relationship. Certainly not even as close as the one that Clara shared with the Eleventh Doctor which took forever to warm up and still resulted in her loving him so much that she flung herself throughout the Doctor’s timeline to save him, dying over and over again. Sigh. Mary Sue character.

Inside the TARDIS with Orson, Clara sees that he has the same toy soldier that she gave to Rupert. He tells her it’s a family heirloom and that he kept it for luck before giving it to her and insinuating – in case you hadn’t been beaten over the head with it the whole episode – that Clara is perhaps his great grandmother and that clearly Clara and Danny’s destiny’s have to be entwined. They are meant to be! Gosh I miss the companion not needing to have a husband or a boyfriend in order to be whole. He’s going to come in the TARDIS isn’t he? Sigh.

The Doctor does not discover what is outside as the air pocket surrounding the station ruptures when he opens the door and he is dragged back inside the TARDIS unconscious. Clara re-connects with the TARDIS to try to take them back to somewhere in her time-stream where they will be safe. Thinking that this might be somewhere that Orson might run into Danny, she convinces Orson to stay inside while she goes outside to investigate.

She finds herself in a barn where a crying boy cannot sleep. She gently calls him Rupert and when he doesn’t respond calls him Orson. Before she can continue, she hears noises that force her to hide under the bed. It’s revealed that it is neither Rupert/Danny nor Orson but actually the Doctor as a small boy who is terrified of the dark and the night and of monsters. Clara grabs his ankle as he gets out of bed and realises that the dream he is remembering is of her in this moment. That she is the monster under his bed. She tells him to go back to sleep and tells him about fear being his constant companion – as the Doctor had told Rupert earlier – she also leaves him the toy soldier.

Let me pause for a moment here to say, the toy solider, the idea that the bravest warrior needs no gun goes on to affect the Doctor’s whole existence and takes away his power and his choice in how his character developed. The Doctor didn’t do this out of some sense of self; he did it because Clara told a scared little boy a story. It’s disappointing and could have been, should have been, better thought through. The Doctor perhaps telling himself that would have made more sense and been a nicer way to tell that story. Making everything about Clara it not only egotistical and tiresome, but it makes little sense.

Additionally, we get to this point and say, okay, so the monsters weren’t real and it was simply that the Doctor has always been afraid. Well, what about everyone else’s accounts throughout time? Is it just that everyone is afraid? What about the thing that everyone saw on Rupert’s bed? Is that a figment? The idea is cool but not necessarily executed as well as it could have been.

Jumping back to the episode, Clara rushes back to Danny and the two of them share a passionate, if confusing for the viewer, kiss after talking about how terrible they are at conversations. It makes no sense emotionally or really in the context of everything Clara has just discovered. It feels like Moffat decided that she doesn’t really have an option now and is simply compelled to fulfil her history. Because that gives the character agency and leads to excellent character development. That was sarcasm.

This episode felt so messy by the end that all of the enjoyment of the beginning was completely sucked out of it. While the mood was creepy and dark throughout most of the episode, it started to feel like a caricature by the time Orson showed up and was a very disjointed narrative. Story-telling wise, it just wasn’t engaging or well written.

Content wise it was close to a disaster. Moffat has taken one of his creations and basically made her the one person in the whole of Doctor Who history who has the most impact and influence on the Doctor. First through scattering her throughout history to stop the Doctor from dying and to protect him, and second by having her go to him and tell him before he became the Doctor, that being afraid was okay – which apparently he didn’t take to heart anyway – and that he should not use a gun. I read something recently that argued that giving women more control over the Doctor’s life was somehow feminist. It’s not. It’s just a poor response to pressure to write more authentic female characters. I don’t want to see pointless plot arcs that make Clara the centre of the world but are hollow in execution. I’d prefer it if she was a three-dimensional character with her own motivations, independent of both the Doctor and any other men on the show, and that she had realistic relationship development and personhood. Unfortunately, she just hasn’t been developed that way.

I also read an article that theorised that Doctor Who has been ruining it’s own continuity since the beginning of the show and that it’s never going to please everyone and that maybe this episode annoyed people because it wasn’t true to Classic Who. I just completely disagree. While this article writer may have a very good point, the structure of New!Who is not based on the seemingly comic book style structure of older Doctor Who seasons. From Christopher Eccleston onwards, the series has been a tightly woven story that back references itself and Moffat himself relies on that to tell his stories and develop his characters. You cannot argue that New! Who is subject to the rules of the classic series, because plainly the very writers being defended have 100% bought into the on-going continuity of the show. With this in mind then, how did Clara so easily access Gallifrey? How did she get passed the time lock? I hope this isn’t another ‘but she’s magical Clara and can do anything’ plotline. Isn’t the whole point that the Doctor should actually be looking for Gallifrey? So why has Clara lied to him? In fact, why did Clara lie repeatedly to the Doctor throughout this episode? Urgh. Headache. 

There was also clearly something knocking on the door at the end of the universe (as there was clearly something on the bed). Or are we supposed to believe that the Doctor took some extreme kind of fear mushrooms that meant that he interpreted everything in that episode way out of whack and passed that fear on to Rupert, Orson and Clara at different times? This crippling fear has certainly not been a mainstay feature of the Doctor’s personality so what brought it on? There is a throw-away mention that perhaps he has been travelling alone too long, but we don’t know if that is true and we also don’t know why he’s not taking Clara with him most of the time when he specifically asked her to stay with him – both Eleventh ringing back through time and Twelve confirming the sentiment. So what, he’s happy to spend heaps of time without her after all that?

Frustratingly, it seems like the writing of the show doesn’t reflect the way that Peter Capaldi is playing the character. Previously, the style of writing has matched the characteristics the new actors have brought to the Doctor’s repertoire. In this case, Capaldi’s Doctor seems to be struggling to do the things that are written on the page and therefore at times, feels like he lacks authenticity. It’s a real shame because in the moments that he is good, he is very very good.

It’s clear that this episode was pivotal to both the overall story arc and to the on-going relationship development between characters. Perhaps too much was tried in this episode all at once resulting in nothing making sense. This is a characteristic of the recent seasons with things getting way more convoluted then that actually have to be. I say, pick one thing and do it well. This episode didn’t need to be about Danny’s backstory, the Doctor’s backstory, Clara’s superpowers and dating skills AND a interesting monster all at once. All of those things could have been tackled in separate episodes.

Next week actually looks pretty boring and a plain run-of-the-mill type story. It’s hard to get excited anymore. I’m going to cross my fingers and hope for the best.

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