Doctor Who: Listen
(1 episode, s08e04, 2014)
Are we ever truly alone?
The Doctor meditates on top of the TARDIS in Earth’s orbit when he whispers the episode’s title. *ding* He later muses in the console room about the habit of talking to oneself when alone. Perhaps it is because we know that we’re not truly alone. On a tour of the world’s biomes, he studies hunters and prey and hypothesizes about a being that can remain perfectly hidden. He places his piece of chalk in an open book and asks what such a being would do. When he returns to the book, the chalk is on the floor and the chalkboard contains a single statement.
Clara returns home from a date with Danny Pink, but it is obvious that things did not go well. In fact, Danny became hostile when she joked about him knowing of killing another person. She tries to apologize for her gaffe but, through a series of miscommunications, ends up leaving. Danny is also upset over the interaction.
Clara finds the Doctor and the TARDIS in her bedroom. The Doctor ropes her into his theory, including his dream journal, and the premise that everyone has had the exact same nightmare that someone is watching. In the premise, there’s no one there until a hand reaches out from under the bed to grab the dreamer’s leg.
To her credit, Clara wonders how long the Doctor has been traveling alone.
The Doctor interfaces Clara with the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits and sets the craft in motion. They arrive at the West Country Children’s Home in Gloucester in the mid-1990s, which the Doctor claims is part of Clara’s childhood but she doesn’t remember visiting the location. Since meeting herself could be catastrophic, the Doctor leaves Clara with the TARDIS while he investigates, but she spots a boy waving from a window. The boy is Rupert Pink, has a desire to change his “stupid” first name, and waves just like Danny does.
The Doctor enters the home and poses as an inspector. While he talks to the night manager about strange things that happen while he’s alone (and steals the man’s coffee), Clara sneaks upstairs to Rupert’s room. She asks the boy about the Doctor’s theoretical dream and then dispels the notion of a creature under the bed by climbing under it with Rupert. Her explanation is interrupted by someone sitting on the bed.
When Clara investigates, she finds someone sitting under the covers. The Doctor arrives to investigate and talk with Rupert about fear. He convinces Clara and Rupert to turn their backs on the figure under the covers, then addresses the figure with an offer to leave in peace. It approaches them and uncovers itself, and the Doctor implores them to promise that they’ll never look at the being. The figure leaves with the slam of a door and Clara convinces Rupert that his toy army will guard against anything else happening to him. She includes a soldier without a gun as the leader – Dan the Soldier Man, a soldier so brave that he doesn’t need a weapon to keep the world safe – and then the Doctor telepathically puts him to sleep.
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor muses about why they were there when they should have been somewhere on her timeline. Since she was thinking about Danny when she was piloting the TARDIS, she theorizes that the boy was him. The Doctor reinforces this by saying that he scrambled Rupert’s memory of the night’s events with a dream about Dan the Soldier Man.
Clara tests the hypothesis by asking the Doctor to return to her to the moment when she stormed out on Danny. She makes amends with him but stumbles when she blurts out his real name. Danny asks for the truth about Clara, but leaves when she can’t tell him. Clara spots a figure in the Doctor’s orange spacesuit who beckons her back to the TARDIS, a person who is revealed to be Colonel Orson Pink, a time-traveling descendant of Danny’s. The Doctor found him at the end of the universe, stranded on an expedition that was only supposed to send a pioneer one week forward in time. They missed.
The Doctor stalls for time to ask about his dream theory. Even though there’s no one else left in the universe, Orson still locks his doors at night. Orson is adamant about not speaking of it, but the Doctor assumes that the figures have emerged since there’s no one left to hide from.
Orson hides in the TARDIS and inadvertently reveals Dan the Soldier Man, an heirloom that brings luck. He strongly implies that he and Clara are related.
As the Doctor and Clara spend a night in Orson’s base, they hear the rattles and squeaks related to the Doctor’s theory. They banter about Clara’s date and discuss the Doctor’s need to pursue the theory. They are interrupted by a knocking on the locked door and, as Clara asks why he’s so motivated to find out what’s going on, the Doctor unseals the door and sends Clara to the TARDIS.
Clara and Orson watch on the TARDIS scanner as the door opens, but the screen shorts as the air shell is breached. Orson rushes out to save the Doctor. When they return, the TARDIS begins to shake and the Cloister Bell sounds, so Clara engages the telepathic circuits to move the ship. She goes outside to investigate, leaving Orson to tend to the Doctor.
Clara emerges in a barn where someone is crying in a bed. She climbs to the loft, mistaking the child for Rupert and Orson before hiding when the a man and woman arrive. The child prefers to sleep in the barn because he cries so often. He also doesn’t want to join the army, but the man doesn’t think the boy has what it takes to join the Academy and become a Time Lord.
The Doctor awakens in the TARDIS and calls for Clara, prompting the boy to spring from his bed. Clara grabs the boy’s leg and persuades him to go back to sleep, dismissing all of this as a dream. The boy does so and Clara departs, leaving him with a comforting thought. She asks him to listen and tells him that fear is a superpower. That one day he’ll return to the barn in fear, but that fear need not make him cruel or cowardly. Instead, it should make him kind.
She has crossed the Doctor’s timeline and encountered him as a child.
Clara returns to the TARDIS and suggests that all of this potentially stems from a fear of the dark. She tells the Doctor to take them somewhere else and never look at where they were. They return Orson home and then Clara returns to Danny’s side to discuss his fears.
The Doctor can be afraid, but that fear can be a comforting companion that always brings him home. In the TARDIS, the Doctor closes the book by underlining the word LISTEN. In the barn, the Doctor awakens to see the night sky and a gift from the mysterious voice under his bed: A toy soldier so brave that he doesn’t need a weapon.
This story makes good progress on the season arcs related to the Doctor’s identity and the relationship with Danny Pink. Both of these characters are alien to the environments in which they live, and the parallel between the Doctor’s quest to find himself and Danny’s quest to reconcile his history is fantastic. I especially like how both characters are on these journeys but still have to appear “normal” and blend in with the people around them. They have both experienced things that those around them cannot fathom, and as a military veteran myself, I can empathize.
Clara is a good counterbalance to both characters as they travel these paths, and I’m glad that she can be there for both of them.
This story marks the first appearance of the Doctor as a child. While the actor’s face remains shadowed throughout the encounter, it was a good call by director Douglas Mackinnon to style Michael Jones’s hair to match a photograph of William Hartnell in his youth. I also liked the parallel to The Day of the Doctor with the barn becoming a place of solace for the Doctor in his most stressful times.
Clara’s words of strength to the young Doctor echo throughout his life: The thread of not being cruel or cowardly was recently reinforced in The Day of the Doctor, and “fear makes companions of us all” was said to Barbara Wright in An Unearthly Child. The fear of the dark calls back to Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, and we also have character threads reaching back to The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace.
Sadly, the aliens themselves are a clever idea but are backseated as a plot device to carry the theme. I’d really like to know more about them and the mystery that they embody.
Overall, it’s a twisted and convoluted narrative, but the results struck home for me.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Time Heist
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.