“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
I find it simply amazing that a Doctor Who episode can begin with a similar creepy premise to Fredric Brown’s short story “Knock” and end with an incredibly heart warming sense of pathos. But what I truly find engaging is the fact that, for the first time in a while, Steven Moffat managed to create a Doctor Who episode whose monster, whose threat, was rather … ambiguous.
I have to admit that I found the last three Doctor Who episodes of this season to be rather heavy-handed at times. In fact, I didn’t think very much about “Listen” from its television preview. I thought it would follow the contrivance of “Robot of Sherwood”: with a new creature and some half-hearted horror resolved within an hour at best.
It should have been clear that something was up when the episode begins and The Doctor just can’t let go of the idea of some ultimate hidden creature. I mean, it could have easily been one of the Silents but that would have, by now, been a familiar, if somewhat forgettable, being. You already have the interplay of some subtle psychological elements: such as The Doctor seeing messages to himself in his own handwriting that he doesn’t remember making and coming to a strange conclusion that the reason people talk to themselves or “misplace things” is because of some hidden shadow that follows them.
This is not some forgettable terror or something at which you shouldn’t blink. You know it’s there and watching you. You also know that if you look at it, it will manifest and have power over you. And it seems to feed off of fear itself. It’s very tempting to say that Moffat follows an age-old rule of horror when he doesn’t, in fact, reveal what the monster looks like and lets us as the audience imagine the worst for ourselves.
But the dark magic involved here is even deeper than that.
The horror in “Listen” is about the things that the characters don’t want to acknowledge. I have to admit that it was refreshing to see Danny Pink finally call Clara out on some of the thoughtless “cheap shots” at his previous life as a soldier, while also having her find out more about his own fears and the motivations that shaped him into the man he is today. And this fear that plagues The Doctor, Pink, Clara and others is often associated with the dark. At the same time, this darkness is a fear of others and loneliness: both with a young Pink alone in his room, the Pink descendant time traveler at the End of the Universe (which was awesome to see again, this time without anyone), and … one other child.
This particular review has been referencing the horror genre quite a bit, but there are two more things that I’d like to add. H.P. Lovecraft liked to say that humanity’s oldest fear is that of the unknown. However Clive Barker, in his own horror writing, seems to posit that what we fear is also what we desire. I don’t want to give any further spoilers as to what The Doctor and his Companion find in this particular adventure, but it is notable that The Doctor, who is always running, tends to also run towards those things that are frightening — that he is ultimately afraid of — and that at when he faced down that hatch door opening at the End of the Universe he very much wanted to see what, if anything, lay beyond it.
It was immaculately done. At the end of the episode you wonder if the monster, if there ever was one, was just a figment of everyone’s imagination. Perhaps someone did pull a prank on the young boy who would become Danny Pink. Maybe The Doctor did write those messages to himself while still adjusting to who he is. Perhaps the stranded time traveler Pink was going insane from isolation and had to believe he wasn’t alone at the End of the Universe: those messages to himself to keep from suicide.
It might all just be coincidence?
Maybe all everyone in that episode needed to do was simply listen, to pay attention, to what was actually being said to them. The footsteps that never pass your own could be the decisions of your ancestor, the shadow of your past, or even the trepidation of a life not yet lived: or soon to be lived when you place time-traveling into the equation. And then there is the possibility that the monster, the fear, is just hope that you didn’t listen to properly the first time around.
It’s easy to forget, much in the way that you would encounter a Silent, that Steven Moffat — for all his other faults — is a master of the short episode. We get reminded that there’s so much about The Doctor we still don’t know. We get reminded just how dark Doctor Who can get. But at the same time not only do we see just how far Clara and the TARDIS will go to save their Doctor, but just how much more opportunity we have to learn something new about characters that we thought were long established: that the unknown is both terrifying and fascinating to that regard. I only hope that “Listen” is telling us that this will be the turning point to episodes and an arc of a similar nature.