Good luck if you’ve got young ’uns. Convincing them that the stygian void beneath their bed isn’t hiding some unseen lurker just got a whole lot harder after “Listen” – Who’s scariest episode for quite some time.
It’s a darker tale for a darker Doctor, one that hums with low-level menace and causes chills with the mere threat that some eldritch abomination may reveal its unfathomable face at any second. If the Doctor’s afraid, what hope do we have? It couldn’t be further from swashbuckling spoon fights and proves the cliché true – Doctor Who is a show with the power to send generations scarpering behind the sofa.
Moffat made his name as a Who writer by playing on everyday childhood fears and there’s a case to be made he’s simply recycling past glories with “Listen”, like some televisual greatest hits package (monsters under the bed or glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, a creature that’s got a thing about being watched, creepy nursery rhymes). It may lack the freshness of “Blink” or “The Girl In The Fireplace”, but crucially he takes tried and tested ideas and gives them a sensational new spin. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Listen” is mentioned in the same breath as Moffat’s best work a few years from now.
It’s also, arguably, the first story this series where Capaldi’s Doctor has felt truly at home – the mad old uncle in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Capaldi is stunning, every bit the prickly Time Lord we’ve seen to date, but raw and exposed by a fear that has plagued him since childhood. His plea, “I have to know” what’s beyond the door at the end of the universe are the words of a desperate man. After going full-grump last week we also get a rare glimpse of the Doctor’s warmer side as he helps young Rupert overcome his night-time tormentor with a motivational speech only his mind could muster.
With creaky old country houses, a candle-lit TARDIS and a marooned space ship straight out of a horror movie it’s an impressively atmospheric episode. Director Douglas Mackinnon proves a perfect match for the spooky tale and constructs some startlingly unsettling images out of it. The Figure draped in Rupert’s red sheet atop the bed, or standing motionless behind the intrepid trio only for the sheet to fall leaving the truth tantalisingly, and terrifyingly, out of focus might be one of the most unbearably tense Doctor Who moments ever. Mackinnon’s a director who clearly understands the number one rule for sending a shiver down the spine: less is more.
For 30 minutes it’s a near-perfect PG horror, meticulously paced as it builds towards a seemingly straightforward monster appearance, but then: the rug pull – an unexpected stop at a barn on Gallifrey. The revelation that Clara had such a seismic influence on the Doctor in his formative years will inevitably irritate some, but it works wonderfully in the context of the episode, and is a genuine jaw-dropper of a twist. It risks damaging the Doctor’s air of mystery. After all, a few hints here and there, we know little about the Doctor’s early years. But like learning Bruce Banner is “always angry” in The Avengers, knowing that the Doctor is always afraid is a moment of pure magic – a compelling new facet to a character we’ve known for 50 years. It puts the rest of the episode sharply into perspective as a deeply personal tale for the Time Lord.
“Day Of The Doctor” was, in Moffat’s words, the beginning of “chapter two” of the Doctor’s life. On the basis of this episode he clearly can’t resist peeking back at chapter one, but I can’t hold it against him if he continues to do so in such thrilling fashion.
Did You Spot?
“Sontarans perverting the course of human history” are among the first words uttered by the Fourth Doctor.
I Want To Believe
The episode goes to great lengths to provide rational explanations for all the strange goings on, but if there really wasn’t a monster in hiding who (or what) moved the chalk?
There’s a pleasingly organic, Cronenberg-like vibe to the TARDIS’s fleshy telepathic interface.
The episode’s miniscule cast is uniformly excellent: Remi Gooding as brave young Rupert, Samuel Anderson on double duties as Danny and Orson Pink, and particularly Jenna Coleman, who once again shines as Clara. Even Capaldi’s attack eyebrows are no defense against four simple words: “Do as you're told”!
For an episode that really delivers on frights, it’s not short on laughs either. “What’s going on with your face? It’s all eyes.” Or Danny’s desperately uncool “I might go for afters…” had me in fits.
It’s less discussion-worthy than what’s going on elsewhere, but Clara and Danny’s date scenes are a lot of fun – Coupling-era Moffat back for one horrendously awkward dinner. They’re the perfect counterpoint to the scares elsewhere.
Could this episode spawn the simplest Halloween costume ever? Throw a red sheet over your head and you’re done!
Doctor Who airs Saturdays on BBC One.