I am a huge fan of the TV show “Doctor Who.” I avoided the show for a better part of my life - I felt “Doctor Who” was like another nerdhole such as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” and knowing how I am, once I descended into it, I wouldn’t be able to get myself out. Sometime in 2007, I was on Netflix and saw the 2005 season on the streaming service. I hesitated, but I eventually clicked on that first episode.
Once I got through Eccleston’s first season and started into Tennant, I also began a concurrent Classic Who rewatch - in order. I still have a few 1980’s stories to get through, but by the end of this calendar year, I’ll have ingested all of Who, including nearly every piece of VAM on both the Classic and New Who DVDs & the IDW comics releases. I’ve been ingesting the 8th Doctor Big Finish audios (again, in order), have bought others that I’ve yet to listen to, and I’ve also downloaded a few of the audio versions of the “lost” TV episodes with linking narration by the likes of Peter Purves and Anneke Wills. I even subscribe to Doctor Who Magazine (thanks for bringing it to the iPad, btw) and listen to a ton of Doctor Who fan podcasts AND have begun producing one on my own.
That’s a lot of Doctor Who.
I don’t say all this to show off (because, well, no) or think that the show owes me anything. It doesn’t and never has / never will. In fact, I prefer a show to ignore “fan” reaction, both positive and negative, so they can tell the story they want to tell.
I list that out to show how invested I am and how much I trust “Doctor Who.” It is nerdy, yes, but I think what it does better than any other show is that it can break out of its genre at any moment. It can be a horror show, a sitcom, a western, a mystery - it can dabble in all genres very easily. It’s the most versatile format in television.
I should add that I’ve been fairly pleased with Steven Moffat’s current run as showrunner, which I know isn’t always a popular opinion. I know he constantly gets a lot of criticism, which I guess is to be expected when you’re in the hot seat of a super nerdy show and we don’t really have a new Star Trek TV show or some other huge sci-fi event* to distract us (*that’s a topic for another post). Doctor Who has also gone truly global under his run (although probably in part due to BBC Worldwide efforts, but he’s still the person who does and should get credit), so there’s an even larger microscope on his work.
I started a Doctor Who podcast with some other Whovians at the beginning of this season. It’s called The Chatternoster Gang (chatternostergang), so if you happen to listen to that, I may repeat a few points from there. Once we recorded last week’s episode where we talked about the 4th episode this season, called “Listen,” I felt I didn’t properly express myself. I also am continually seeing reviews of the episode that praise this as some of the best work the show has done, at least this season, if not since 2005. Some claim of the entire 51 years. The Verge, io9 (although they were a little more even-handed), Philip Sandifer, Paul Cornell and even some of my co-hosts agreed.
Which is absolute insanity. Actually no - after watching last week’s “Listen,” I felt insane. Because I thought it was absolutely terrible. The opposite of “best ever.” But I should qualify - subsequent viewings have evened out my opinion, but it still doesn’t even qualify for Top 30 in my opinion. So this entire 7,000 words is to put an alternate, yet reasonable and non-ranty, opinion and critique out into the internet world.
Before I go any further, I realize this is a ridiculous thing to write in this day and age. Real-world events, like the protests in Ferguson and the awful events in the Middle East, or even the vote in Scotland, amongst so many other things, should really be what I spend a few hours writing about, instead of a British science-fiction TV show.
But someone did point out how this episode of television “Listen” may have some parallels to these real-world issues. So I’ll delve into that at the end. For now - let’s get into a counter-point to the rave reviews “Listen” is getting.
Let me detail my issues.
"Schmuck bait" is typically used to describe something where there is NO way what we see on-screen is what really happened. I think a lot of Classic Who cliffhangers fall into this. One great example is in "The Pirate Planet," I believe it’s Episode 3’s cliffhanger where Tom Baker is pushed off a pirate plank! Oh my gosh! The 4th Doctor died!! That’s "schmuck bait" - only a "schmuck" would really fall for such a trick. Clearly they would never "kill" the Doctor. You could look in your TV guide or a British newspaper to see that, sure enough, next week there’s an episode 4. And next week we quickly find out that the Doctor had some random hologram thingie, so he was never on that plank to begin with.
Ms. Espenson adds that “schmuck bait” has taken on other definitions in other writer’s rooms. To that end, I was pretty certain that on the Breaking Bad podcast, they also used that term to mean when a story or TV show intentionally misleads you. Almost to a point where it’s unfair to the audience. Kind of like a murder mystery TV show that provides all these clues and camera angles to make you think Person A did the crime, but then at the last second they reveal it to be Person Z, who was barely even mentioned up until now. One may say that this story, “Listen”, may have had a point to doing this, or that it’s not about the mystery at all. However, I contend that if you, as the writer or director or showrunner, ask the audience to invest in something, you should pay that off. Otherwise, it’s “schmuck bait,” and I feel like a schmuck for caring about trying to follow along.
Either way, I don’t think “Listen” is Schmuck Bait.
There’s also the “Shaggy Dog” story, which is also a relatively new term for me. Apparently this can also have multiple definitions. One such definition of a “Shaggy Dog” story in which a long tale ends up in a lame joke or pun. A Google search will bring it up, but it’s something along the lines of someone wanting to adopt a literal shaggy dog. Someone else does so, brings it home, and the punchline is that person A says about the dog, “Oh, that’s too shaggy.”
A friend of mine, with whom I collaborated with on a KCRW “Radio Race” a few months back, explained the term to me in a slightly different way - it’s a story that sets up a problem, or a narrative, or some type of event, but when we reach the end, there is no ending. Sometimes that’s part of the punchline is that there is no punchline. An example might be: “So I woke up this morning and there was loud banging in my apartment. So I slowly crept into my bathroom. There was nothing there and so I got ready for work.” It’s a story where there is no real resolution or reveal - it just ends. Someone else online called “Listen” Moffat’s “shaggy dog” story and I think it’s apt.
I should be balanced, here, and point to what others who praise this as “Best Episode Ever” are calling it a “character study.” Or, maybe it’s more of an “exploration on a theme.” While I think these things are true, and I promise to give credit where credit is due, I think those descriptions are best when incorporated into a larger story. If something is the “Best Episode Ever,” it should tick all the boxes that make-up a television script, as well as a Doctor Who script, and these things alone would miss some very important elements that I find lacking.
Regardless of the term used to describe “Listen,” it’s not a story or a television episode in a traditional sense. What really happens in this episode?
1) Clara and Danny Pink’s first date. I do quite enjoy the idea that time travel can be used to correct something. It’s a trope I personally find rewarding in time travel stories, as I feel that’s the first inclination many people would have if they could go to the past or future.
The date itself seems to go poorly and Clara leaves the restaurant abruptly. But after a trip in the TARDIS and a weird adventure in the late ’90s, Clara goes back into the restaurant just after she leaves the first time. They resume the date and it goes south AGAIN, and Clara travels again with the Doctor. She then comes back a third time, goes to Danny’s house and they get it on.
Is there a thematic or emotional arc here in this story? I can’t really pinpoint how their multiple attempts at romantic connection would tie-in to what else this episode is about. I think it’s more about how these 2 characters interact with each other and end up smooching (and more?) at the end. I also realize that Clara and Danny’s relationship will come into play at the end of this season.
2) The Doctor. He starts and ends in the same place, plot-wise. I could even argue character-wise, but I won’t. At the start, The Doctor is alone in his TARDIS and randomly decides he wants to investigate a theoretical creature that hides in plain sight (that I guess is what we think we dream when someone grabs our ankle or steals our chalk / coffee cup or who we talk to when we’re alone). There’s no real inciting incident to inspire this quest, other than he’s going stir crazy. So after all that he experiences in this episode, he ends up disproving the theorem that there’s something really there.
Those that praise this episode say that there’s an emotional journey the Doctor goes on. Or a character study on the character of the Doctor. Let’s take those one at a time:
An emotional journey for the Doctor. I guess when we reach the end, the young person in the barn, crying, is supposed to be the Doctor, although I am going to throw my “Vagueness” flag for the first time here - it’s intentionally not defined (although the latest “Doctor Who Magazine” confirms this is supposed to be Young Doctor on Gallifrey). But, for the sake of the examination here, and since we do see the War Doctor insert, let’s say it IS the Doctor and Clara IS the one that not only:
- a) Grabs his leg
- b) Tells the Doctor to go back to sleep
- c) Recites the “fear” speech, similar to the one a 2,000+ older version of the Doctor will say back to Rupert Pink in that closed time-loop kind of way.
- d) Potentially inspires the “Doctor” to become “The Doctor”, as she leaves the solider with no gun at his bed side.
So the Doctor has, ostensibly, had this fear his entire life. Or, to play it Moffat-style, he did and didn’t, since Clara didn’t grab his ankle until we saw it happen, and theoretically that rippled through his timestream (or not, I guess it doesn’t really matter). So this “fear” that he had, this dream he theorized everyone had throughout history (as shown by 3 people in the beginning montage), was really him remembering what Clara did. And instead of Clara showing him the truth behind the dream, when they were in the barn, she told him to leave. We do get the speech about how fear makes you stronger, which is scientifically true, although I want to talk about this, “fear” in general and how it relates to the Doctor more later on, so we’ll come back to that.
I have to be honest - I’m not sure how this resolves the Doctor’s fear. Or if he actually is at peace at the end of the episode. So while he goes on a journey, I can’t say the character advances or retreats - emotionally he seems to be in the same place, because an answer would’ve offered resolution either way. Instead, he - and the viewer - are stuck with a lot of “maybes.” I don’t know about you, but lack of resolution would cause even more emotional stress.
The other part of this, if Clara just admits to all this, the fear goes away, along with the negative effects of fear. Yet she chooses not to, which seems cruel, even to a 2,000 year-old Time Lord.
So does the Doctor go on an emotional journey? I guess so, but that journey is far from over. Is an emotional journey for a character enough to sustain 45 minutes of television and be crowned “best episode ever?” I think we need a little more. And we have some candidates…
A character study for the Doctor. Since this is only the 4th episode with this new Doctor, we are supposedly getting not only more insight to this specific incarnation, but also the 51-year-old (in TV time) / 2000+ year-old (in character time) character. There’s a lot shown here, but I do want to point out things that are noticeably different than previous incarnations. So, let’s look at each of these:
- a) His need to know and not to know. I detail this in other places, but the fact that this Doctor does not turn around to look at the thing in Rupert’s bedroom is a massive switch from many other Doctors. Previous versions of himself would’ve loved to have spoken to it, learned about it, asked what it was doing there. Instead, 12 didn’t turn around. Odd, but I’m embracing it.
- b) Clueless or mean. Other Doctors have said similar snarky things, and I genuinely laugh at them, but the Doctor is quite rude to Clara. I can’t tell why yet - it sometimes feels like 9’s passive-aggressive jealousy, at other times like 4’s reverse-psychology insults, or even 3’s utter indifference. Or maybe it has to do with Clara specifically, as she is someone he used to care about in a romantic way. But they’re now “just friends” and she’s going on a date with a new guy. For people with just 1 heart, that would hurt.
- c) Crying Doctor? So Doctor Who Magazine does confirm we are with the Doctor on Gallifrey (more about THAT shortly) when he’s a boy, crying. Why is he crying? What’s causing this trauma? Then Clara adds to the trauma by scaring him. So I guess we’re led to believe, along with leaving the symbolic solider toy, this all creates our Doctor, powered by fear (?).
- d) Possibly uber-mad? Has the Doctor had, or is currently having, a nervous breakdown? Many fans, both lovers and haters, reject this theory. But it’s worth noting that this could be true. 12 might be crazy. Losing all sense of reality kind of crazy. That would actually explain a lot of his behavior so far.
So we see a lot more of the Doctor, and really more of Clara and Danny as well. So, great, a “character study.” What else happens?
3) The closed time loop, which could have major implications. Doc and Clara go to Danny Pink’s past and the Doctor tells Danny an inspiring speech about fear and Clara gives young Danny a toy soldier. This inspires Clara to try ‘Date with Danny’ for the second time in the “present,” then we go to the far future to find a descendent of Danny’s carrying the SAME TOY SOLDIER… well, it looks the same. But it is implied she and Danny made babies that eventually leads to this great-grandson, Orson. Then we hop to the Doctor’s past, when he’s a kid, and Clara gives young Doctor the same fear speech and gives the Doctor the same toy soldier. Boom. Oh and somehow we got around the time-lock / Gallifrey-in-a-painting thing. But hey, who cares about that!
4) Clara. Continuing with this season’s trend, we get a lot of Clara. A ton of Clara. She is the Doctor’s sane center and potentially the source of great strife (including the Clara-is-Missy theory). She goes on a date with Danny and they get all smoochy at the end (because she assumes she’s the great-grandma of Orson?). She is potentially being credited with inspiring the Doctor to be who he is. Her character grows and whether you agree with it or not, she is becoming the most important person ever in this history of the television show. Possibly even more important than the Doctor himself. I still think she acts extremely strange in the orphanage, going up to a little boy’s room and getting under the bed, and then upon realizing it’s a young Danny, eventually smooching with him at the end. Weird, but that I can forgive. It’s also odd that her own fear or lack of courage in not telling the Doctor what happened with the telepathic circuits led to the majority of this time loop. I was a little disappointed in Clara’s actions, but at the same time glad she’s really had time to develop so I can be disappointed with her.
5) The Pink(s). We see a little more Danny Pink, and although the whole “well” thing about his time as a soldier was a bit odd, we continue to get the sense that Danny killed someone during his service, and it’s either a lady, a young person, or possibly both. He’s awkward, he wears shirts to match his last name, but in the end, he’s just a regular ol’ dude. We also see someone named “Orson Pink”, as well as an apparently younger version of Danny in Rupert Pink. They pass around this toy soldier, first owned by young Danny / Rupert, then it shows up with Orson who hands it to Clara as a “family heirloom” then it ends up in the Barn at the end with the Doctor.
6) The ending. At the very end, we are intentionally left with a lot of “most likely.” That was just another kid under the red blanket at the orphanage (even though it looked like Dobby). That was probably Danny Pink as a boy. There probably was no alien at the end of the universe trying to get in through the air lock. That was probably the Doctor crying in the barn (now confirmed by DWM). And the Doctor was probably wrong about his conjecture. ‘Probablys’ are fun when I feel the author or writer is making a point about approximations. Or that certain things are better left vague for the viewer to interpret. Doctor Who has a lot of ‘probablys’ in its DNA. But this felt… uninspired. Or lazy. It felt like the writer didn’t want to make that decision, so instead of making a choice, this idea of vagueness came together. As I maintain, all previous incarnations would run TOWARDS the answers, and multiple times this Doctor decided against getting that answer. So maybe that’s a new characteristic of 12 - he chose not to get an answer, so we didn’t get one either.
Also, once the episode ended, I looked around my empty apartment like the stir-crazy Doctor. “Is that it?” I said aloud, to a monster that may or not be there. We end up back where we started, since all this was a bunch of nonsense.
I guess this episode was about none of these things above, really. I guess this was a (1) philosophical meditation about the concept of “fear.” And (2) the Doctor’s need to know answers but sometimes not getting them. And (3) the strength in being afraid.
I am not a writer on Doctor Who, so I am not telling this story. But I’m not sure what is the value in exploring “fear” in the context of the season, or these characters, assuming this story will stand-alone and won’t be part of a larger arc? Someone pointed out that this was a father telling a story to his kids, and Steven Moffat readily admits that he consults his children quite often for story ideas. Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat in particular, has a long history of ‘being scary’ and that now-cliche ‘hiding behind the sofa’ aspect of the show. So I guess, having said that, the impetus of this might be to try to get to the root of fear? To deconstruct fear?
For me, to be philosophical, being afraid has never been productive. What’s been productive and moved me forward as a person is FACING my fear and finding out that I’ve built up in my head something much larger than the real thing. I am introvert and still struggle with being an introvert, in particular when meeting new people. I had a fear of strangers and avoided them. So, to fight that fear, I decided to face it. I took an improv class and I think I can say that I can handle myself in an extroverted situation in a way that I could never have if I never faced that fear.
We face our fears all the time. We have those difficult conversations with those we’re in a relationship with. We confront someone who’s disrespectful. We try to be brave when every fiber in our being tells us to cower.
It has always been information that has eradicated fear.
In “Listen,” the Doctor, Clara and young Danny (who’s real first name is Rupert) are in a room with something. Something is under the blanket on young Danny’s bed. We, the audience, never know. I actually took a photo of it - it’s a blurry figure that kinda looks like Dobby from Harry Potter.
"But, Chris," you say, "the point isn’t whether it’s a monster or not. The point is they stand with their backs to it, completely vulnerable to an attack." No, wait. The point is that they don’t let the fear affect them? But I thought fear empowered you? No, wait. The point is to not let the pranking boy and/or Dobby the satisfaction that you are scared of it. As it stands behind you.
The Doctor has always been a character who knows things. He’s hyper-intelligent and well-travelled. A trope of the show is for the Doctor to land somewhere and skipping the whole “where are we” part, since he likely knows the aliens, but instead we get “when are we?” Then, for all the times he doesn’t know a species or a villain or a planet, he has a thirst to know, which usually inspires him to exit the TARDIS for a “quick look around.” Hijinks ensue! He wants to add it to his knowledge base. He’s the quintessential nerd!
So this episode might be intended to challenge that. What happens when the person that wants to know the most can’t know something?
I find that question interesting and something worth playing with, but there are 2 problems with that:
- a) The Doctor hasn’t known things before, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. He still doesn’t know Jenny is alive and flying around space, for instance. So while an interesting question, the Doctor is just like any other living being - it’s impossible for him to know everything. So while intriguing, it’s not really a fresh angle on the Doctor. Plus I think a random dream about someone grabbing your ankle would be far down his list - I have to imagine there are bigger questions he doesn’t have answers to yet.
- b) If he can know, he does. Different incarnations act in different ways, but when this info-hound has easy access to the answer he’s searching for - and chooses not to - it’s a hugely significant break and a sign of something else going on. Which we don’t see in this episode.
An artist or writer should be able to examine something through the lens of their own experience. They should feel empowered to shine a different light on anything, to show a viewer or reader something we haven’t seen or read before.
But I feel the message in “Listen” about fear is confusing at best, dangerous at worst.
- Fear as a superpower:
In short, fear does have an effect on the human body. But it’s possible the Doctor over-stated it a bit.
A few years back, Scientific American published an excerpt from Jeff Wise’s book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” in which they do address fear’s ability to increase our physical abilities. From the article:
"But there’s a limit to how fast and how strong fear can make us…. A woman who can lift 100 pounds at the gym might, according to Zatsiorsky, be able to lift 135 pounds in a frenzy of maternal fear. But she’s not going to suddenly be able to lift a 3,000-pound car. Tom Boyle was an experienced weight lifter. The adrenaline of that June night gave him an edge, but it didn’t turn him into the Incredible Hulk."
So not to be an asshole, but while the fear phenomenon is real, there’s a limit. The article goes on to say:
"The mechanisms by which the brain is able to summon greater reserves of power have not been well explored, but it may be related to another of fear’s superpowers: analgesia, or the inability to feel pain. When I’m at the gym, straining to complete the last rep of a dumbbell exercise, it’s pretty hard to imagine that my muscles have the capacity to work half again harder than they already are. What I feel is screaming agony."
I personally feel the power of fiction is to actually be free of science and logic. Particularly science fiction - the art should push beyond those boundaries to expand the minds of otherwise very logically-based scientists. The documentary about CERN and the Higgs Boson “Particle Fever” had a scene where 2 scientists were looking at an artist’s sculpture installation. I found it hilarious for a different reason than maybe others. Watching scientists or mathematicians try to ingest art is entertaining, as they’re looking at it from practical and reason-based point-of-views. They were almost laughing at it. The joke, of course, is that while art can really do anything, it should be hitting you in an emotional and more reflexive sort of way, and in some cases in direct objections to logic. The superpower of art is to be free of those logical shackles and show you something you didn’t think possible. Then the real scientists can dream of teleporters and transmats and artificial intelligence and interstellar travel.
So I guess I’m saying Moffat is allowed to explore fear in whatever way he wants. But I don’t know if his “fear as superpower” really worked for me, in the end. Not only did it not really ring true in terms of what “fear” can do for someone, but I felt the lesson taught about “fear” was damaging. Maybe I have a limit on my own logic shackles?
But, to reference the quote above, there is a counter-weight with this “superpower of fear” - the inability to feel pain. I wonder if that may find its way into this season?
- How we handle fear:
Typically when we think of fear responses, we think of fight or flight. But there are actually some additional responses to consider.
From Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/200912/superhuman-no-just-very-scared), some researchers have suggested we add “freeze” and “fright” to the list of responses, meaning a deer-in-headlights approach in the case of “freeze” and simply yell or scream in the case of “fright”, like one might do when trying to scare off a large animal. Even others want to add “tend-and-befriend” as well, where the response is to reduce the tension or danger in a peaceful way.
I guess where I got stuck, as I referenced in the comments section of Philip Sandifer’s blog (link below) and hinted at earlier in this piece, is in Rupert’s room. A potentially dangerous “thing” is beneath that red blanket. It sure looked dangerous, even in the blurry image we got. So the Doctor asks everyone to turn around and look away. This read to me like “avoidance” or an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Of all the responses to a threat, especially to be shown for a little kid who’s the stand-in for the young audience, that would be the last option on fear responses. #1 I think would be to run to an adult or guardian. Maybe #2 would be fright. I don’t think “look at the window and pretend it isn’t there” would get any such recommendations.
But let’s give the script the benefit of the doubt - let’s say that fear response was innate to Rupert. We can evolve out of our fear responses! Discover Magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/2003/mar/cover) explores some dimensions of fear, but it also details how researchers tried to take a rat and have him/her unlearn their fear response:
”The contrast,” LeDoux says, sitting in his university office above Washington Square Park, with Ground Zero lurking not far to the south, ”is between taking action and being stuck, frozen in fear, headed toward despondency, unable to control your life. There’s an interesting experiment along these lines: You have a rat that goes into a chamber. A tone goes off, and he gets a shock, and he freezes with the fear response. The next day he goes into chamber B, the tone goes off, and he freezes. But if he takes a step, the tone stops. Eventually he learns that he has to crawl across the chamber to eliminate the tone completely. So by taking that action, he’s able to prevent fear from existing in his life.
In this example, taking action changes the fear response. If the Doctor is truly afraid of something, I would think he’d be intelligent enough to know that taking an action, instead of being afraid for 2,000+ years and not looking, would solve this problem. Or, I think Clara would have a tiny guess that the same could be effectual. I also had forgiven that end bit where Clara doesn’t want the Doctor to see himself in the barn, but Galifrey Time-Lock aside, the Doctor frequently interacts with his previous incarnations and conveniently forgets it. We can’t pull out some timey-wimeyness here? For what? To serve up a vague ending to creep us out? Unless it’s for a larger season narrative arc, it doesn’t hold together, sorry. In fact, I think I’d be on the “Best Episode Ever” bandwagon if he HAD come out of that TARDIS and looked down at his blanket-covered self. That would’ve felt like massive resolution. But, nope, we don’t get that.
Fear and PTSD
There also was the intentional inclusion of a couple shots of the War Doctor.
I found another article on war and PTSD, which the connection to our War Doctor was clear. “Psychological Effects of Combat” (http://www.killology.com/print/print_psychological.htm) is a good read, and I would direct you to check it out yourself. There’s interesting timelines of dealing with the after-effects of war, both physical and psychological. But worth noting in regards to “Listen” is this quote:
"When snakes, heights, or darkness cause an intense fear reaction in an individual it is considered a phobia, a dysfunction, an abnormality. But it is very natural and normal to respond to an attacking, aggressive fellow human being with a phobic-scale response. This is a universal human phobia. More than anything else in life, it is intentional, overt human hostility and aggression that assaults the self-image, sense of control and ultimately, the mental and physical health of human beings."
And so seeing the War Doctor is apt. The only part where we go astray is that we’ve never seen anything the War Doctor went through. Mind you, this is a “family” show, so it’s not like we’re going to see “Band of Brothers” level of brutality. However, all we know is text and a few brief space battles from the 50th Anniversary Special. This is not a critique, by all means, but I think I’d embrace this episode much more if the connective tissue to the Doctor’s experiences in war were more closely tied. I think it’d validate this exploration of fear as an attempt to resolve some PTSD angst.
But the War Doctor’s appearance is more to tie the barn to Gallifrey (as confirmed by DWM) as opposed to an examination of post-war stress.
As I researched this this week, I found this all very fascinating and interesting to think about for the character of “The Doctor.” But once again, I got a little stuck - didn’t we close this chapter of the Doctor’s character? Wasn’t the point of the 50th to start to heal from that trauma? I feel like this kind of story, and all its lovely touches, would be more fitting for the 9th Doctor, fresh from the war. I feel like 10 had his arc of trying to reconnect and yet feeling alone. Then 11’s quite literal running away from it and bringing history into myth and legend. Shouldn’t 12 be moving past some of these issues? It just feels like a retread. As I’ve stated, there could be a larger narrative arc at work here and that I simply don’t have all the pieces yet, but it just feels out of place at this stage of the character’s place in life.
Of course, this is all really pointless, in the end, as the Doctor is not a human and doesn’t have the same physiology. I guess Time Lords dream (at least the Doctor does), but other than that, I’m not how much their DNA matches our own. So ultimately this is all a moot point.
While in the end I feel this story doesn’t reach its lofty aims, I do commend the attempt. Plus, as I again mention in the podcast, I went through and wrote things I liked, didn’t like, and then had conflicting reactions to. Things I thought worked great?
- I did enjoy Capaldi solidifying his pseudo-catchphrase of “Question.” I dig it, and it’s expansion into “Conjecture,” etc… It really solidified the scientific-nature of this incarnation.
- I know not everyone thinks this is true nor a good thing, but I believe 12 is losing his mind. Break-from-reality crazy. He’s always been the “Madman in a box,” but I think he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m not quite sure why yet, to be honest (it can’t be Clara-angst), but I, once again, will wait to see how this entire season unfolds to make a final call on this. But I like it, even if I’m wrong about it.
- I thought the set-up was great. Even though the ending was disappointing, I thought the first 9 minutes set-up a real interesting premise and approach.
- I like both the new title sequence AND the new theme. I think you got to let the new version of theme wash over and absorb it. You’ll grow to love it.
- As I said on that chatternostergang podcast, all the dinner / date stuff worked for me. With the use of time travel, I bought it all and really enjoyed it. Some have complained about the lack of chemistry between either or both Jenna and Sam or Clara and Danny, but I felt it was just awkward people trying to connect.
- I know people have also commented on the Doctor’s insults to Clara, or his use of “negging,” (http://dating.about.com/od/glossarywordsn/g/What-Is-A-Neg.htm) which I think I want to do a larger post about. Yes, he is a little mean, but I take it as 12 either being truly genuine in his comments, or just trying to joke around in his alien way. Kind of like you might do to a brother or sister.
- I thought the episode’s director, Douglas MacKinnon, did a fantastic job. I thought it all looked beautiful and scary throughout. He’s fantastic!
- I dig 12’s shirt - I want it.
- I also liked the TARDIS telepathic interface. It’s a neat idea. Not sure why we haven’t seen this used until now, but that’s fine to me. It’s super cool!
- And on that note, the Doctor does say that the TARDIS now knows the full birth through death of Clara. That’s interesting in a season starting to dance around this idea of death and (potentially) the after-life.
- When Clara’s phone rings and the Doctor just abruptly grabs it and tosses it!
- I can’t recall right now if we had seen 12 use the psychic paper (did he use it during “Into the Dalek”?), but I noticed it much more here and really liked seeing it again. The psychic paper might be the only thing left that’s virtually unchanged since “Rose” and feels like a true through-line.
- I’ll admit - I dug the red blanket moment. Very well-done tension.
- And even though I dug into the theme of “Fear,” the Doctor’s speech to Rupert / Danny was well written and performed by 12.
- The Doctor’s line which was really for fans: “Human race; you’re never happy.”
- The “Dad Skills” bit. Kind of felt similar to when Vastra put 12 to sleep in “Deep Breath.”
- Any complaints about Clara or Jenna Coleman’s performance should (hopefully) be put to rest. Ironically, the criticism that is now the “Clara Who” show is kind of silly, since last year we were all yelling “We know nothing about Clara.” Now there’s too much? Malarkey. At least since 2005, this show has been about the companion and I’m glad we’re getting a lot more of Clara (since I am convinced Jenna’s leaving at Christmas). And Jenna Coleman’s putting in some great performances!
- I also liked the brief mention of “ghosts” when we met Orson at the end of the universe. I suspect that is going to tie into the season finale and even possibly the Christmas episode.
As I said waaaay up above, I felt crazy. Numerous people and websites that I usually turn to for insightful commentary, praised this as “best episode ever.” It was truly confusing for me, as I feel like these same people would’ve seen all these issues and have written this for me already. I will also admit and re-iterate - there is a lot I DO like about “Listen.” But to call it “best episode ever” or even best of this current series is baffling to me.
I got further annoyed at people bestowing gifts to this script that are simply not there. I guess it’s nice for readers / viewers to add their own meaning to a piece of artistic work, but I feel it forgives sloppy or lazy writing! Someone began gifting each moment and character with literary-symbolism, which was lovely to read, but ZERO evidence in the text that this was an intention. Someone else said that the “constant companion” is us, the viewers, which while technically true, is more of a meta-observation than anything the script should be given credit for.
But all that aside, the purpose of this long essay is that I feel there are many other stories that do similar things and yet take care of the plot as well, including other Steven Moffat scripts. “Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Midnight,” “Turn Left,” “Human Nature / Family of Blood,” “City of Death,” “Spearhead from Space,” “Caves of Androzanni” etc… There are so many Doctor Who stories that are far far superior and embody what makes this show so amazing. I think “Listen” falls very short of that.
And on a grander scale, which I hinted at above, is the divergent point-of-view on reactions to this. How people viewing the same thing have almost completely different reactions.
In the U.S., there is no clearer example than our own politics. We’ve reached a place where someone with a set point-of-view will see a situation, and with their POV already established, react to that situation based on their POV, not on the situation itself. Climate Change is a fantastic example! The scientific majority has agreed it’s happening and it’s man-made. But those on the right of the political scale are unable to shake their POV that it’s either “them damn liberals” trying to push some sort of political agenda. Or they find the one scientist that disagrees to reaffirm their initial point-of-view. There are also some who have financial stakes in certain pollution-causing industries fight back. But a Climate Change denier will not be swayed - no matter the science and facts thrown their way, they have their point-of-view and nothing can break it.
Even a more extreme example is Creationists versus… er… scientists? Bill Nye recently debated a creationist and Bill’s scientific evidence was overwhelming! Undeniable! Just the age of the planet Earth was up for debate and Bill has very simple, grade-school-level evidence to show. And yet, the creationist and his supporters felt the creationists won that debate. The pretense of a “debate” was nonsense, since the Creationists going in had no intention of even entertaining something that would challenge their POV.
I can’t really explain why this happens. Ego? Power? Belief systems / religion? Anger? I don’t know. Is there no so such thing as an absolute truth?
To move away from political issues or scientific data, we get into murkier waters when it comes to art or fiction, an inherently subjective experience. Even murkier than that is a nerdy show with a fandom community around it, with each fan having their own Twitter account and Tumblr (me included). Not everyone is going to like something.
Someone in a comment thread put it like food, at least when it comes to art. Some people like a type of food. Others don’t. It doesn’t impart a value judgment on the food itself, but simply a matter of taste - literally and figuratively.
So is it OK that I think this story is terrible (well, the ending is terrible, which sours the whole story for me), where others praise it to the high heavens? I guess so. Deep down, I do want to be “right,” which feels human. I want to explain to those that love this why they’re wrong and say “don’t you SEE!”
But I will agree to this - no other episode of Doctor Who has yet to inspire me to write a blog post this long over these many days. So in that sense, “Listen” succeeds.
As I have said a lot over these past few days (and crediting the Verity! podcast), the great thing about this TV show is that it’s always evolving. It’s always changing, becoming new and different things. So if you don’t like something one week, just wait a bit, and something else will come along that will like.
So admittedly, the headline is a little click-baity. Even “schmuck bait.” Much like the 4th Doctor leaping from that plank, I am still a fan of this show. But honestly… it was a cliffhanger there for a short while. I also have to admit that my undying faith in this show has been challenged - it’s no longer this beautifully flawed creature capable of practically anything.
No one will probably change my mind. If I really think about it and am honest with myself, the only way to change my mind will probably be myself. So if you loved “Listen,” I probably won’t have swayed you at all. But I actually feel good that this is posted and in the world. Just so I don’t feel crazy.
I do shudder when people just rip something apart that I love. So that’s not my intention. I hope this comes off as I wanted it to be - a fairly level-headed critique “Listen” and to respectfully challenge a claim that this is the “best episode ever.”
But I wish to retain the right to roll my eyes when I hear others rave about it.
PS: I tried to get some help from the very intelligent community at Philip Sandifer’s blog. Some things I ended up putting here I did write there as well. And I got some intelligent and thoughtful responses. http://www.philipsandifer.com/2014/09/listen-review.html?showComment=1410981919336#c4368670280647856062
PPS: The formatting of this theme sucks. I’m going to find a new one. Apologies.