“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
Episode 4 of the Capaldi Administration is the Scary One. You know the one I mean: the episode in every series which will try to ensure that you don’t go to sleep for at least a week. It’s Doctor Who Does Horror. Blink was an excellent Scary One. Hide was a slightly less good Scary One. And Listen?
Listen was a very, very bad Scary One.
It was promising. It was actually very promising. About halfway through I thought to myself, “I’m literally never going to bed ever again.” The premise: what if there is a monster hiding under the bed? What if there is something out there in the dark? What if when you talk to yourself you’re actually talking to something you can’t see? You know those dreams you have? Where you dream you wake up, and you convince yourself there’s nothing in the room, and then something grabs your ankle? (I personally have never had this dream, but whatever.) What if it’s real?
It’s like the Vashter Nerata and the Stone Angels rolled into one. It’s terrifying. There’s a scene where Clara hides under a bed in an apparently empty room which just captures that feeling of absolute, petrifying terror you get when you hear a noise at night perfectly. At times, Listen is chillingly pitch-perfect.
At times. But the episode is too bitty to sustain that tension; jumping between the scenes of silent dark and a rather clunky storyline in which Clara goes on a dinner date with Danny From School, it lacks the claustrophobic focus of Blink or Silence in the Library.
And that’s even before we discuss the awful, awful finale, in which Stephen Moffat perfects the art of Tell, Don’t Show with one of the most syrupily dull monologues I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. And I’ve watched The Time of the Doctor. The payoff is incredibly disappointing, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense even with the rest of the episode. (What was under the blanket, Stephen? Hmmm? Riddle me that if you will.)
And we keep running up against the fact that Capaldi simply isn’t up to the part. He has none of the charisma that the Doctor needs to carry the episode, especially now that Clara’s role is being considerably (and, it has to be said, gratifyingly) beefed up. Jenna Coleman is really growing into that part; but Capaldi isn’t growing into his. That’s a problem, for Doctor Who, especially when each of these episodes is geared towards exploring the Deep and Inner Psyche of the Doctor. It’s all very well exploring his Issues (and actually quite interesting, if done properly – see also The God Complex), but if the actor can’t consistently and convincingly portray those issues, it’s all rather pointless.
And while we’re talking about the Doctor and Clara: can I say how incredibly disappointed I was by the Doctor’s treatment of Clara. The Doctor actually, shockingly yells at her like she’s a child: “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD!” And does she shout at him? Does she argue, defy, stay put? Does she heck. This was simply awful. Would the Doctor have treated a male character like that? I’m not sure, but I know this felt wrong, and offensive. No, it doesn’t make it any better that she said it to him later.
I thought Into the Dalek was bad, but Listen takes badness to a whole new level. I’ve literally watched episodes of Star Trek better written than this, and they weren’t even the good episodes. The frustrating thing is that there were genuine flashes of excellence here; old Moffat excellence, the excellence that made Blink a fan favourite. But, like so many Doctor Who episodes recently, it simply – failed of its promise.