Listen is many things: chamber piece, ghost story, sit com, origin story for the Doctor. It’s also an attempt at Blink II, but it tries to hard. Blink tried hard too, but it tried to be new and to appear effortless. Listen tries too hard to be Blink for it to really be Listen. It possibly tells us a little too much about the Doctor’s personal history (see also The Doctor’s Wife and The Name of the Doctor), but that’s not the main problem. What we learn of the Doctor’s past is shrouded in enough mystery to preserve the enigma of the main character, or what elements of an enigma still remain after years of Time Lords, old school friends, The Dark Times and so on. The problem is more that nothing quite gels, and that it tries to eat its cake and have it too.
Nothing gels because the sit com scenes are too painful to bear. Moffat found fame as a writer writing relationship sitcoms and has a go at another one here, as we see the hilarious results of dates interrupted by the spacesuited descendents of the daters (almost certainly not direct descendents, given the events of Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but we didn’t know that at the time. And why did the Doctor send Orson anyway, and why did he have to wear a spacesuit?), as well as dates (OK, the same date) interrupted more mundanely by tasteless jokes and confused remarks resulting from time travel. Moffat clearly wants to cross the science fictional, the romantic and the comic, but nothing fits together. I don’t think that comedy needs to be corralled into special “comedy episodes” but the gear changes here are just too great. Ghost stories rely on tension, but humour dissipates tension. It is possible to use comedy to increase tension, but it needs to be done more skilfully than here. A good example is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when Chang, performing on stage, appears to be about to shoot the Doctor. “Chang shoot fifteen peasants learning this trick” he states. It’s his showman’s patter, but in the circumstances, we take it as a threat and the tension ratchets up. Nothing here works that way, though. The comedy and the ghost story exist side by side and ultimately detract from each other.
Then there’s the problem I summarised as trying to eat its cake and have it too. It teases us with an unseen monster present all the time. At the same time it teases us with the first story without an antagonist (villain or a monster) since… well, I’m not entirely sure. Inside the Spaceship, probably (although arguably the Doctor was the antagonist there!). It is possible to be ambiguous and ask questions without answering them, but here things are pushed just a little bit too far. The moved chalk is OK, but the “LISTEN” graffiti is harder to explain away as something the Doctor forgot he had done and we hadn’t. The “boy” on Rupert’s bed is one thing, but pause the story just before he departs and that doesn’t look like a human head, although it’s hard to be sure. Maybe it’s a boy wearing a Halloween mask. Maybe. And then there’s Orson’s heritage and connection to Clara and his time travelling ancestor, which seemed to suggest he was Clara and Danny’s descendent, but by the end of the season we knew he couldn’t be. Too much of what is here seems contrived, at least in retrospect.
This is a pity, because although I have spent nearly 600 words criticising it, in parts at least Listen is very good. When it stops trying to show off and when Moffat isn’t juggling too many balls, this is a strong ghost story, something new Who has not dabbled in much, preferring to show off its monsters rather than keep them out of sight. (Classic Who often didn’t have the choice. It was keep the monsters in the dark or expose them to ridicule. Warriors of the Deep shows what happens when the production team chose wrongly.) The scenes in the children’s home the scenes at the end of the universe are very good, tense and eerie. So good, in fact, that Moffat would return to the ghost story format the next season in Hell Bent. Actually, at times Listen seems like a dry run for Heaven Sent (for my money the greatest new Who episode to date), with Capaldi being given long speeches and generally being allowed to flex his acting muscles for the camera. It’s remarkably ‘out there’ in places, something unlike anything else on television and deliberately subversive of Doctor Who’s clichés, and I will always award marks for episodes that try to do that, even if they don’t completely succeed.
On to a quick word about Time Heist, a story that in many ways is the inverse of Listen. If Listen was the story that seemed great from the pre-publicity, but which disappointed on viewing, Time Heist seemed like a crazy idea in advance (the Doctor robs a bank?!), but everything just slots neatly into place, like a well-picked lock. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor finally comes into his own here as someone who has earned the right to be rude by his brilliance and quiet compassion. The criminal team is small enough for everyone to get something to do in the short time available (actually, Clara doesn’t do much except allow for exposition) and likeable enough to be worth spending time with. I’m not really one for sequels, but a return visit to Psi and Saibra might have been worthwhile. (Or possibly not, given that their characters were significantly altered by the end.)
The reason for the bank job is ingenious. I’m sure the idea of a Doctor Who heist movie episode came first, but working from that premise, the easy way of bringing the Doctor into the story would be that the TARDIS was lost in the vault, or the villain threatened to kill Clara or destroy Earth if the Doctor refused to rob a bank for him. The solution here, that the Doctor was acting to save the “monster” and its mate, is clever and like all good mystery fiction solutions it is hidden in plain sight, yet impossible to guess. The only really off moment is the memory worms at the beginning. While it made sense to use something relatively recently established in the canon (see The Snowmen), they had originally been used as a comedy moment and then a dramatic denouement only seen for a few seconds. Here, while still not seen for long, they seem tonally out of place in an opening sequence that is trying to appear serious and cyberpunky, particularly as the props look a bit, well, silly. It might just be my favourite episode of the season, though, even more so than Mummy on the Orient Express (although I’m chronically indecisive about favourites, so don’t hold me to that).