14 September 2014

TV: Listen

Morris Style

Oh quit yer whinging Morris. Here ya go!

When ghosts of past and future crowd into their lives, the Doctor and Clara are thrown into an adventure that takes them to the very end of the universe.

What happens when the Doctor is alone? And what scares the grand old man of Time and Space? Listen!
List of Bits That Spoiled it for Me:
  • Clara's melodramatics
  • Clara's undiplomatics
  • Clara's self-importance
  • the re-occurrence of Moffat tropes motifs
  • the lack of time spent with Danny, not Rupert or Orson

Loved: Sam Anderson and Peter Capaldi.

Mark out of Ten: 7/10

Whether you love or loathe Listen, there doesn't seem to be much disputing that it's an odd one. As is becoming increasingly prescient with Series 8, the character drama was given far more significance than what would traditionally be labelled a plot. Of course, in the best pieces of television, these are almost one and the same. For me, there were bits of this episode that worked really well, and others that absolutely didn't. There were a few pieces in the middle ground too, making it very difficult for  me to fully quantify how I feel about it.

I think the character that came out of this the best was Danny. Samuel Anderson continues to be excellent in the role, and I can't wait until Mr Pink joins the TARDIS in a couple of weeks. Danny comes out of Listen as a rounded human. He's obviously still vulnerable as a result of whatever events were also raised in Into the Dalek, but there's a personality and charm to the character that's really quite endearing. How much of this is Anderson and how much is scripted is difficult to tell, but the fusion of the two is proving very successful for me. I thought he acted completely naturally in the situations he was presented with (which, surprisingly, basically consisted of a short date in a restaurant) and so all credit to Anderson and Moffat.

I believe Listen is going to be very important both to this season and, knowing Moffat, beyond. There were simply too many continuity-heavy threads in this for it not to be. For a start, Orson Pink. At first, you're tricked into thinking it's the Doctor because he's in his Sanctuary Base Six suit originally from The Impossible Planet. A nice bit of misdirection, but then the audience's attention is diverted away from this and onto the character himself. However, Colonel Pink is wearing this suit every time we see him - even in the BBC News report, where he's standing behind the 'Bon Voyage' banner. Now whether the Doctor gave him the suit or not, he must be involved somehow. Sanctuary Base Six was destroyed, and all the suits along with it. The Doctor's is the only one left (also seen in The Waters of Mars and Hide). Interesting. 

One theory I do have (which is probably utterly incorrect) is that Orson is Danny, and the Doctor has come backwards from some point in his relative future to Clara in order to manipulate her, somehow. If that's not entirely clear, what I mean is that for the Doctor this could take place some time between episodes ten and eleven (for example) but for Clara, it happens between Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist (as for us). One supporting piece of evidence for this is that the series has broadcast episodes in a different order for the Doctor and his companions before. In Series 7, The Power of Three must come before A Town Called Mercy since events are referenced in it. (As a sidenote, I personally think that 7A runs as follows from the Doctor's perspective: Asylum, Power, Angels, Dinosaurs, Mercy.) As I say above, this is undoubtedly wrong, but it's fun to speculate and so even detractors must grant Moffat that. He certainly causes debate.

Speaking of Series 7, throughout Listen I kept getting distinct reminders of The Angels Take Manhattan. The children's home sang to me of Winter Quay in a lot of ways. I think it was more the feel of the place, because the concept of each establishment is pretty different. I think this episode was trying to show that Moffat can still write human drama, and can scale it all back from the intergalactic, reality-altering epics of 2013. The last time the showrunner scripted an episode mid-season was Flesh and Stone back in 2010, and I think this takes a lot of the same cues. This was a real opportunity to learn about our three new leads Capaldi, Coleman and Anderson and their characters, and I think Moffat probably got about two-thirds of the way towards exploiting their potential to its maximum.

I've read a lot about people being scared by Listen, and of course by Doctor Who over the years. Being dyspraxic, I tend to find it quite difficult to connect emotionally to things at first (either positively or negatively) - it says it on the Dyspraxia Foundation website, must be true! Possibly for this reason, I am rarely scared by things on television and in films despite the fact that were I to be confronted by these things in real life, I almost definitely would be. Having said that, the Autons in Rose did get me for a few days at the time. I think this might be why I'm nowhere near as keen on Blink as most people are, and again why I wasn't terrified by the material presented in Listen. Can I just take a moment to say that I've never had the dream about someone grabbing your ankle from under the bed? There's probably a more rational explanation for this though: my bed (the one I've had all my life, and was my dad's and his dad's before me) goes almost right down to the floor, leaving about an inch for the wheels. The idea that someone could fit under there and then fit their wrist through the gap and grab my ankle never really crossed my mind.

Having said all that, I thought director Douglas MacKinnon (the first and only returnee of the series, sadly - yes I am still hoping for Saul Metzstein back) handled the 'horror' elements of the episode competently. This was of course most tangible in the scene with Rupert, and I did like how his framing here was mirrored in the barn towards the episode's end. The exterior night shots were very atmospheric, and I love the way Peter Capaldi stalks through the darkness. There surely can't be any regular viewers left who can deny that he is utterly the Doctor now. He is once again afforded all the funniest lines, but the 'shut up' thing is becoming a bit too regular for my liking. I think Moffat has tried to write this incarnation as 'darker' but Capaldi imbues the part with such a loveable charm that the end result is really quite likeable. Taking the Doctor's dialogue in isolation, I still think it would sound just as natural coming from the Eleventh Doctor's mouth, the difference is in the way this new incarnation is played.

The scene in this episode that everyone is talking about is obviously that in the latter portion, with Clara talking to the unidentified child. With a lack of plot in this episode (it really was just a string of events, forcing the characters to examine and interact with each other in new ways) the climax had to come emotionally instead. As opposed to the big Doctor-Dalek confrontation two weeks ago or the Hood-Sheriff showdown last time, this climaxed with Clara talking to a child. We were of course supposed to believe it was the Doctor. By setting the sequence up in exactly the same way (deliberately or otherwise) as with Rupert earlier in the story, we were hoodwinked. Wherever the barn was geographically, it's obviously somewhere important for the Doctor. Not content with seeding Ms Oswald through his timeline back to when he stole the TARDIS, Moffat plants her in his childhood too (although he's probably about fifty here). 

I liked Doctor Who Magazine reviewer Matt Michael's suggestion on Twitter that the barn could have been located on Earth, and that it was his mother's place (she is human, after all - thanks Matthew Jacobs!). That would explain why the sky was blue, after all. This might've been a joke, but it still has some weight at least. If it was on Gallifrey, this has all sorts of other implications. I wonder if Moffat actually planned this at all when writing The Day of the Doctor. I'd assume it came to him soon after writing it that this could be a place of significance, and the wheels of Listen were put in motion. If it is Gallifrey, then why is Clara so keen for the Doctor not to know? Like, seriously, why? She knows he's searching for it (the aforementioned anniversary special) and  cares about it (he waited until what he thought was the end of his life in The Time of the Doctor) so why would she insist so forcefully that doesn't know? 

Following on less than neatly, Clara was unfortunately one of my main issues with this episode. Just because your characters admit they're smug, self-centered, whatever, doesn't suddenly make them humble or likeable. In fact, I found Clara less appealing here than in either of the last two episodes. She might be nervous on the date, but surely she wouldn't be straight-out rude twice. This explores a vein of the character I've never really been keen on and I hope is avoided in future. The only moment where I felt she was handled responsibly was in the scene where Jenna Coleman was just allowed to act: when she goes to Danny's flat at the end. The way Clara takes it upon herself to be sole protector and guardian of all things good and innocent grated massively on me. If she believes so utterly in the Doctor's good intentions (as has been explored over the preceding three weeks) then why won't she let him know or do anything. I was actually relieved when he put Rupert to sleep and later when he ordered her into the TARDIS. An additional reason I feel Coleman is being hard done by is Moffat's tendency to reference his actors' physicalities - the wide face, the chin, Amy and Rory being The Legs and The Nose in The Impossible Astronaut and so on. It adds nothing, and just makes me feel a bit bad for them. The references need not be continual.

On a technical level, I thought this episode was lit beautifully, and shot maturely. I wasn't a fan of MacKinnon's wobbly-zooming approach to directing Line of Duty early this year, and so was afraid we may have been in for more of the same here. However, his adopted stance was much more warmly received. The only place where I thought it was let down was, like with Ben Wheatley in Deep Breath, when the revelation (the locked door here, the android diners then) carried no weight because we hadn't had any build up. A consequence of using all these fancy lenses nowadays is that you can only have one character in focus at a time. I'm convinced that if the BBC had only purchased lenses allowing two or more people to be in focus simultaneously, BBC Three wouldn't have been axed. At no point prior to the shot used to reveal the signage had we even seen this door. Another issue for me was that the implication that the TARDIS had landed on Gallifrey was given barely any weight. I think it was the lack of musical depth that undersold the moment for me, it felt like an "Oh, right." rather than a "What the f-?!" as it should have been. Aside from this though, I thought Murray Gold benefitted the story quite substantially - the prominence of his Clara theme an exception.

The idea of the TARDIS' telepathic circuits being used in this way was really nice, and worked well by itself and in the context of the episode. One technical thing that's been bugging me is how the title and writers' credit appears each week. In varies from week to week, and is annoying me a little bit. To make sure I wasn't just imagining things, I went back through the first four episodes, and you can see screen caps (taken in exactly the same place, at exactly the same length of time through the title sequence) here. The kerning, size, capitals (or not) and even face of the font seems to change between episodes, as if sometimes a 'condensed' version is used instead of the regular. I'd really like to see some consistency here, as it's sending my OCD into overdrive! But seriously, I know it doesn't matter, it's just a little unprofessional, isn't it?

There are obviously a few things I've not mentioned, but suffice to say I think this will be an important episode in years to come, but probably not for the moments or reasons we're thinking of at the moment. The one remaining piece of Listen's puzzle I felt obligated to mention is the soldier toy. It reminds me a bit of the whole fez and mop incident from The Big Bang. Clara gives it to Danny, who presumably passes it down until it reaches Orson, who gives it to Clara for no reason, who gives it to the Doctor (as a child). I really hope the mentions of this being a 'family heirloom' don't end up with the Doctor and/or Danny and/or Clara being related in some way. A human relationship is complex enough, that's where I'd like to see more character moments. There doesn't need to be an epic backstory to the romance, I'd just like to see it played out in a 'straightforward' way. One last thing I want to broach quickly is the notion that either Gallifrey or the last planet is the Heaven we saw in the opening episodes. Another thought I've had is that Heaven and the Promised Land aren't the same place (could the latter title be more literal than we think?).

I think Steven Moffat can still write, but a lot of this felt built from parts of other stories, in a similar fashion to The Bells of Saint John. Despite being somewhat sidelined, the Doctor was once again the star of the show for me. He got all the best lines and moments, and Capaldi once more proved a revelation. He is such a fantastic Doctor, and his relationship with Anderson was magical to watch, I can't wait until they're travelling side-by-side regularly. The set design was pretty good, but I felt the time capsule (interesting that we'll be pioneering the technology in a century) interior was a bit timid given what the team have shown they can achieve in the past. A competent effort in the horror stakes, but one that was more visually interesting than much the characters contributed. Time Heist looks brilliant though, could it be Steve Thompson's two fingers to his haters? Let's hope so.

Shades Of: The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Beast Below, The Time of Angels, The Big Bang, Night Terrors, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Bells of Saint John and Deep Breath.

Top Three Lines:
  • "Once upon a time... the end."
  • "Twenty-three wells!"
  • "She has three mirrors, you know!"

I watch the show every week with someone we'll call Larry. He grew up with the show, but isn't a 'fan' and has never been a huge fan of the Moffat era. On the whole, though, he usually enjoys episodes written by the showrunner the most. 

I should mention that for the fourth week in a row, Larry interrupted the episode by talking across it and coming to sit next to me, showing me something. This is beginning to grate. It's forty-five minutes a week, and usually results in me seeing half the episode, missing all the key bits, and knowing what's coming when I rewatch out of necessity in the small hours of Sunday morning. Despite this, he seems to still be able to hear every line and not miss a second somehow. It's quite an annoying trait.

Larry's Line: "I thought it was really good. Too fast in places though."

In a Nutshell: Enjoyable, with several flaws and lots of typical Moffat-style moments, but mainly giving Capaldi and Anderson a chance to really shine.

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