Thursday, September 25, 2014

Average Until The Exceptional, “Listen” Is Intriguing Doctor Who!

The Good: Cool, creepy idea, Intriguing continuity, Neat character moments
The Bad: Plot-heavy, Very average performances
The Basics: With “Listen,” Doctor Who seems to be creating a new, creepy, alien race, but the episode only truly gets going at the end when the idea is tied in to Clara’s Impossible Girl arc.

One of the nice things about completing a vacation at the beginning of Season Premiere Season (mid-September) is that one comes home to a decent number of programs they might be excited for. As a new fan of Doctor Who, I find myself returning home to a backlog of Doctor Who episodes I am excited to watch. The first episode I missed while on vacation was “Listen.”

“Listen” looked very much like an average Doctor Who thriller episode from its previews (and its beginning), but it turned into something else (unfortunately) late in the episode. The result is an episode that is tough to review on its own and took me multiple viewings to truly come to a solid opinion on. Perhaps that is a new thing for me, being less judgmental; I did not have an immediate evaluation of The Giver (reviewed here!) while on vacation, either! “Listen” is one of the rare episodes of Doctor Who that is fairly weak on its own, but is a very strong episode in the larger context and story of Doctor Who. This is an episode that solidifies the concept of Clara Oswald as the Impossible Girl, a young woman who influenced all of the Doctors and who was integral to creating the man he became. “Listen” has a concept where Clara takes on a similar property to River Song, where the effects of her influence precede the cause of them . . . and in that way, the episode is smart and clever.

Unfortunately, it is late in the third act when that tie-in occurs and viewers are stuck in a largely mediocre episode until then.

Opening with the Doctor on (and in) the TARDIS, hypothesizing about the existence of a perfect hiding entity. He believes that talking to oneself occurs because we know we are not truly alone, that we are in the company of a race that hides perfectly from other living beings. Clara returns to her apartment from a disastrous date with Danny Pink to find The Doctor there, waiting. He proposes that all living beings have a silent companion and he enlists Clara to try to help him prove their existence. Believing that all people have a common nightmare – where one awakens from sleep, gets out of bed and feels a hand grab them from under the bed – is implanted by the perfect hider, The Doctor has Clara mentally link to the TARDIS to find the moment she had the dream. Going in search of that moment takes an unfortunate turn when Clara’s phone rings and she gets distracted thinking of Danny Pink.

Clara and The Doctor end up at a children’s home in Gloucester, where The Doctor meets with the caretaker while Clara encounters little Rupert Pink (the orphaned child who would grow up to be Danny Pink). In trying to reassure Rupert, Clara and Rupert get under his bed . . . and something reveals itself on the bed atop them! The Doctor arrives to save their lives by getting all three to turn their backs on the entity in order to make sure it does not feel threatened. After returning to the present where Clara tries to resume her date with Danny, she witnesses an astronaut walking through the restaurant. Following him, she and The Doctor end up at the very end of time and the universe with Orson Pink (one of Danny’s descendants) where he is stranded . . . and believes he is not alone.

“Listen” has two strong elements working in its favor. The first is that it has pretty wonderful banter in it. The Doctor is hilarious in his dialogue interactions with Clara. Together, they check out a version of Clara walking away and Clara quips about how being the last man in the universe is not a competition. The Doctor’s comments on Clara’s apartment and face are delightful. A decent chunk of “Listen” is laugh-out-loud funny.

The rest of “Listen” is clever or creepy and that is the second strong element. While the relationship between Clara and Orson is skirted around without being made entirely explicit, the episode’s most clever moments do not occur until the climax when the episode transitions from being an implicit Clara episode to a powerfully-Clara focused episode. Until that moment of transition, “Listen” is an unfortunately average “creature of the week freakout” episode. The Doctor goes in search of an entity that is, if it exists, impossible to find. By going to the end of the universe, The Doctor has the reasonable theory that the unseen entities might be willing to expose themselves to him (given that they have nothing to fear). The leaps between the creepy creature story and the Clara story make “Listen” look and feel like a number of other episodes of Doctor Who until the episode’s final moments.

Unfortunately, while the episode ends strong, it has some serious conceptual problems. The basic concept of “Listen” is problematic in that The Doctor’s whole idea has Clara crossing her own timestream, something which is explicitly forbidden. As the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald has already witnessed all incarnations of The Doctor, past, present, and future, and influenced him to become the man he becomes (as well as saved his life at every moment of it). So, that Clara has to do the legwork of “The Day Of The Doctor” in “Listen” is an awful mix of brilliant and terrible. The short of it is this: it makes perfect sense that Clara would have done exactly what she does in “Listen” in terms of influencing the past . . . but it should have been Clara from the climax of “Name Of The Doctor” who actually did it, not the Clara who is now months older, traveling around with the current Doctor.

On the acting front, “Listen” is average. Jenna Coleman gives a momentarily great performance under the bed when Clara realizes exactly where she is. Wordlessly, she embodies an epiphany perfectly. That moment is counter-balanced by scenes wherein Coleman and Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink) have generally awful on-screen chemistry. As a result, for an episode that seems like it is ultimately a Clara episode, Peter Capaldi dominates. Capaldi has great facial expressions and deliveries throughout “Listen,” even if his character has no real development over the course of the episode.

Ultimately, the cool way that “Listen” retroactively influences prior episodes keeps the episode from being a dud, but those who are not already in love with Doctor Who are unlikely to have the patience to appreciate what the episode has to offer given how long it takes to come up.

For other works featuring John Hurt, please visit my reviews of:
Only Lovers Left Alive
Charlie Countryman
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
V For Vendetta
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
Dead Man
Jim Henson's The Storyteller
The Lord Of The Rings (1978 animated)
A Man For All Seasons

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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