‘Doctor Who’ Guides Us to a Restaurant and the End of the Universe in “Listen”

By  · Published on September 14th, 2014


What a clever girl, this episode was! Part of me should be disappointed that “Listen” wasn’t strictly the creepy installment that was promised in the preview and the first act (I revealed my excitement in last week’s recap). But in the end I am too impressed with the unexpected turns of its plot to complain. We began with an introduction teasing a new villain along the same lines as the Weeping Angels and The Silence. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is wandering about the TARDIS talking to himself about the possibility that none of us is ever truly alone, that the fear of something under the bed or right behind us comes with good reason. Whatever might be there is always hidden, as the best baddies in the Doctor Who universe are ‐ they come at us when we aren’t looking, or we forget about them when we’re not looking, or in this case they’re always there when we don’t see them.

But the creepiness quickly subsides for some rom-com-ness with Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) ‐ or should I say Rupert Pink ‐ which reminded me of how, two episodes ago, in “Into the Dalek,” the flow of the action was similarly interrupted by some cuteness between that budding couple. The show just can’t wait to get back to them any chance it can. Here they have some awkward get-to-know-you and a sudden walk-out from Clara, who gets home and finds her time-traveling pal in her bedroom amazed by her tri-fold vanity mirror (called back for a nice punchline later). The pair go off to investigate the Doctor’s suspicion about common nightmares of hidden and unknown constant consorts and through a distraction during psyche-navigation wind up meeting a younger version of Mr. Pink (Remi Gooding). The creepiness is back for a bit with a creature or kid or something under a blanket, but in a matter of minutes that subsides again to get us back to Clara’s retry of her dinner date.

Then, in one of the best reveals in a long time, we’re introduced to Orson Pink (Anderson again), a time-traveling astronaut from the future who is (probably) the great-grandson of Clara and Danny/Rupert, the spitting image of the latter except that he has more hair. Not that it would have made sense for the Doctor to be lurking around the restaurant in a space suit, but whom else did any of us think was in there at first? Definitely not the closest thing we now have to a River Song equivalent for the current companion couple. With Clara back on board the TARDIS, the trio head to the End of the Universe (making her date just barely taking place at the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” a nice [intended?] nod to former Doctor Who writer Douglas Adams) for a slight detour on the way to yet another twist: a visit to the childhood of ‐ not Danny/Rupert again, as we first assume ‐ but the Doctor himself. Clara, the impossible girl, makes the impossible appearance in a barn on Gallifrey to provide the origin of the “nightmare” from the Doctor’s youth.

We’ve been to that barn before, of course, as the flashback appearance of John Hurt reminds us, and maybe we’ll want to revisit last fall’s special “The Day of the Doctor” episode for the connection. Normally I’d be against so much convoluted continuity (I never hide my preference for one-off episodes), but it’s easy to ignore that particular significance of the scene for now. Another great importance to Clara’s interaction with Li’l Doctor is that she seems to provide the backstory for why he’s in need of companions. That would be where “Listen” fits into Series 8’s focus on exploring who the Doctor is. Yes, it also figures into more of his biographical being in fitting with The Moment, but the link between having his leg grabbed and hair caressed as a young Time Lord trainee to his relationships to everyone from Ian and Barbara up to Clara and (presumably soon) Danny/Rupert is more relevant for now.

The Doctor is proven wrong again in “Listen,” a few times in fact. He’s certain they’ve arrived at a moment in Clara’s childhood, but they haven’t. He’s sure there’s actually a monster of some kind underneath people’s beds, but there’s not. Clara, meanwhile, is becoming too potent in how much more knowledgeable she is than her two significant others, whether it’s in her being regularly more right than the Doctor or holding a key to his background that he’s unaware of or being aware of Pink’s real name and he not understanding how or holding a key to his background that he’s unaware of. She is a teacher, but that doesn’t mean she has to always be the smartest person in the room (Pink is a teacher, too). I’d like to see her a little more curious or a little more surprised now and again. Even when she meets Orson she has a look like she’s thinking, “well, yeah, this makes sense.”

“Listen” is an episode that is incredibly concise, and that’s terrific coming after that Series 8 opener that had no business having an extended running time. “Deep Breath” has a scattered story, while here we get one that’s merely diffused with care. Showrunner Stephen Moffat wrote this installment, which offers a little for everyone by moving through a tri-fold mash-up of the typical creepy episode, the typical solo astronaut on the edge of space episode and the typical tease at the Doctor’s origins episode, with a brewing love story serving as a thread going in and out of those segments. And it’s quite funny in a way that never compromises whichever tone is being employed at the given instance ‐ even if the Doctor’s jokes about Clara being wide-faced do sound more like Strax’s dialogue. Capaldi’s delivery is impeccable, regardless of whether or not I can always comprehend what he’s saying with that accent; speaking of which, Clara’s joke at his accent’s expense was pretty great, too.

As far as continuity is concerned, I do think it strange that this is the second episode in a row not to feature an appearance from the mysterious background character Missy (Michelle Gomez), given her double showing in the first two installments of this series. If this continues, we might just forget she’s out there, figuratively underneath the bed of the show. Anyway, I’m going to make a prediction at this point for Missy’s Promise Land: Danny the Soldier Boy is going to wind up there at some point where he means to bravely give his life for Clara and the Doctor. He has too much guilt from something to not need that kind of selfless act (his version of Rory’s watching over Amy for 2000 years), and he’ll thereby be the means to pull the series into that world, likely for its climax.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.