(Hard to do this one without spoilers, so warning, massive spoilers below.)
The fourth episode of the season, “Listen,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat , is an unusual affair, very creepy, partly slapstick, and assuredly timey-wimey. I’m not yet sure what I think about it. At times, the episode seemed a little disjointed – perhaps intentionally so? At other times, we get more of the Clara-Danny Pink relationship and even some insight into the Doctor’s character, in addition to a plot that feeds off the childhood fear of something under the bed.
The episode starts with the Doctor musing to himself: what if there’s something so good at hiding that it only manifests itself when it wants to, something that is always with you, and that it’s the prickling you feel at the back of your neck, or the sensation that there’s something under the bed, ready to grab you by the ankle when you set your feet on the floor? We then cut to Clara and Danny, out on a date that quickly becomes disastrous. Clara storms out and returns home, only to find her way into her bedroom partially blocked by the TARDIS. The Doctor plugs Clara into the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits to move along Clara’s time line, but Clara is still thinking about her date and they arrive in Danny’s past, where young Mr. Pink encounters something underneath the blankets. From there, the Doctor returns Clara to the restaurant, where she tries to salvage the date, but once again things go wrong, culminating in the entrance of a man in a space suit. He turns out to be Danny’s great-grandson, an errant time traveler stranded at the end of the universe until the TARDIS rescues him. As if that weren’t enough, Clara’s next effort to use the telepathic circuits leads to a barn, presumably on Gallifrey, where Clara comforts a frightened boy – the Doctor as a child? – telling him that his fear isn’t a weakness but a strength.
There was a great deal to like about the episode, from the apparently star-crossed relationship between Clara and Danny – his inadvertent double entendres (“We can move straight to extras”) were particularly funny – to the realization that the barn with the young Doctor is the same barn that the War Doctor used for the Moment, to Clara telling the young Doctor that “fear is a superpower,” which the Doctor then echoes to young Danny. The episode had a number of straight-out funny moments, including the Doctor’s “bedtime story” to young Danny: “Once upon a time…goodnight,” as the Doctor touches Danny on the forehead, causing him to fall asleep instantly. The Doctor explains to Clara that the TARDIS is in the bedroom “In case you came home with your date,” as though the bedroom wouldn’t be in use in such a situation. And I loved the use of the toy soldier: in young Danny’s room, Clara uses toy soldiers to “protect” Danny from any monsters under the bed. When Danny observes that the one Clara designates as the leader is broken, and carries no gun, Clara replies that he’s obviously the leader, as he’s “so brave he doesn’t need a gun,” while later in the episode Clara gives the same toy soldier to the young Doctor.
I’m not a huge fan of the continual insults the Doctor heaps on Clara. (“You’ve taken your makeup off.” “No I haven’t.” “You must have missed a spot.”) I know this Doctor is more alien, less in touch with the social niceties that humans observe, but after a while it just sounds cruel.
My biggest problem with the episode is that there’s no real payoff to the main plot. The monsters under the bed aren’t real and, in fact, the dream that everyone has about monsters under the bed may just have been the result of the Doctor’s experience as a child.
Every piece I’ve read or podcast I’ve listened to about this season has commented on what an outstanding job Peter Capaldi has done in his role, and how, given a meatier role, Jenna Coleman has had a chance to shine, and I agree. Capaldi’s Doctor is curmudgeonly and funny, often simultaneously, and his conflicted nature – “Am I a good man?” – brings a welcome bit of soul-searching to the part. He has a much healthier contempt for humans (to wit: this episode’s line about “puny brains”) than his predecessor. I thought Coleman, freed from the need to be the Impossible Girl and the endless banter with Eleven, has been outstanding this season.