Moffat had once said his approach to Doctor Who after taking over would be “dark fairy tales”. It was apparent early on with the Eleventh Doctor (“The Beast Below”, “The Vampires of Venice”) but got drowned out with the ongoing Silence arc. After establishing the Twelfth Doctor and the season’s mystery, Moffat takes us back to a story that immediately feels like one of his classic stories.
I admit, I’m a fan of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who work. During the early years of the show when Russel T. Davies was the showrunner, Moffat wrote an episode (or two) every season, and I found his stories to often be the most memorable of their respective seasons (everyone knows “Blink”, but you can’t forget “The Girl in the Fireplace” or “The Empty Child”). I have a number of friends and Who fans who don’t care for Moffat even a little bit, and hey – I respect that. But I was thrilled when I discovered Moffat was taking over the reigns of the series after RTD left, and in doing so Moffat gave us the best premiere episode for any Doctor (“The Eleventh Hour”), an overarching story for the Eleventh Doctor’s run (The Silence / River), and shaking up the status quo regarding the Doctor’s lives by giving us the War Doctor and a new set of regenerations. At the very least, you might appreciate that he doesn’t stick with the same-old.
Even being a Moffat fan, I still felt the 7th season (his third and Matt Smith’s final one for the show) was the weakest season of Who since the RTD era. The stories felt off after Amy and Rory left the show. It picked up again towards the end despite some clunkers (“The Rings of Akhaten” and “Cold War”, I’m looking right at you) and a weak Big Bad (The Great [lack of] Intelligence). Maybe Moffat was just running out of gas? He won’t be running the show forever, and I wondered if he would be bowing out with Smith. To my surprise, Moffat stayed on, and on a storytelling level I’ve been curious where he would take the series.
“Listen” evokes the horror vibes of “Blink”, which is a good thing. Here, we see the Doctor consumed with an obsession to understand the historic fear of the dark and why people fear something being under their bed. This is interspersed with Clara and Danny’s awkward date, which is a little bit grating but smooths out once we get into the meat of the story. “Listen” also plays with the conventions of visual horror stories, with the ongoing (and often humorous) rationalizations for whatever goes bump in the night. And of course, we see some cross-time shenanigans and a lovely cameo near the end that explains a key moment from the 50th Annivesary episode, “The Day of the Doctor”.
Old school fans of the series my scoff at some of the material presented towards the end of the episode regarding the Doctor’s past, but frankly, it’s not a big deal. I’m glad to see some of the demystification (is that even a word) of parts of the Doctor’s life. This stuff isn’t sacrosanct, people.
If there’s anything to dislike about “Listen”, it would be the ongoing faux-tension around Clara’s relationship troubles, and the ambiguity around the episode’s resolution. The former continues to feel forced and I don’t feel Danny is much more than a two-dimensional love interest. Sure, we’re told things about him, and we know he’s suffering emotional scars from combat, but it is presented in such a detached and artificial manner that it quickly grows tiresome.
There’s also a few Easter eggs for long-time fans to enjoy, and I don’t mind Moffat throwing these in here. They don’t distract from the plot and most will not pick it up. But for those of you that do, pick up your NoPrize at the door.
“Listen” feels like Moffat writing classic Moffat. Unfettered by any ongoing story arc material (that we know of) and simply writing a classic “hide behind the sofa” Doctor Who story, Moffat mostly succeeds at striking gold. “Listen” is possbily the best episode of the season, and continues a strong showing for the 8th series.