5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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You might not think so at first, but writing a universally acclaimed episode of Doctor Who can't be the unalloyed joy it’s cracked up to be. Well, actually it would be unalloyed joy, assuming that once you’ve parked the BAFTA in the loo (anything else looks like you’re trying far too hard, darling) you fling down the quill for good and take up drain unblocking. Then it’d all work out just fine.
But suppose you don’t? Suppose you still keep hacking away at the keyboard? Then, as the BAFTA gets dustier with every day that passes, there’s a question that keeps you flopping fretfully back and forth at night: how the hell do I top that?
Blink is a near-perfect little jewel. It’s original, it’s gripping, it’s endlessly surprising, and virtually every end is darned in so perfectly that you can’t see the joins. That, alas, is a lot to live up to.
It’s not that Moffat hasn’t tried. He’s really good at the dead simple stuff that scares us all to death, and since Blink he’s trotted out a lot more in the same vein. Some of it has been more successful (the terrifying Silence stuff), some less (“Don’t breathe”, the weak echo of “Don’t blink”, in Deep Breath). And some of it, unfortunately, has undone the good work of Blink (the relentless descarinessing of the Angels). None of it has approached Blink’s shiny, shiny perfection.
When the trailers for Listen ran at the end of Robot Of Sherwood, it was clear Moffat was taking another crack at full tilt scary. At least, that’s what it looked like. So does it succeed? Yes. And no. Very much no. And we’ve got an inkling that you know exactly what bits those apply to.
The teaser didn’t fill us with optimism. Not to diss Peter Capaldi, who gives it his all, but it’s a wee bit too clunky and graunchy. We’re definitely up for the idea that the Doctor talks to himself, but we can’t believe that when alone even he delivers monologues in the manner of a PowerPoint presentation. And the perfect hiding stuff reminded us way too forcefully of the Silence. Haven’t we been here before?
Fortunately Clara and Danny turn up to dial up the entertainment factor with their enjoyably disastrous date. It’s that soldier thing again. Hands up who was surprised to see it come back ? Yeah, thought so. We particularly like the intercutting here with Clara’s reactions after she gets home. ( Oh, and Clara’s dress. Nice.)
The Doctor’s reaction to Clara’s date (“I thought I’d better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home”) is a lovely reminder of how different this Doctor is from humans (and from his predecessor). And it’s back to the Doctor’s lecture, but this time with Clara there it works perfectly. Then we kick up about a thousand gears into the scary part.
The last time we were truly terrified in Doctor Who was in Day Of The Moon, with the pants-wettingly frightening scene in the children’s home. And whoa, another truckload of scary in another children’s home! What the significance of this is we haven’t a clue, but we thought we’d throw it in there.
All of this is what Moffat does best: utter terror from something very, very simple. When the rug-covered lump appeared on the bed, we were five again, peering through a crack in the door at Doctor Who (behind the sofa was way too close). It’s that good.
And there’s something else that’s frightening too: the Doctor. We’ve never seen him like this before, and while it’s a little unnerving, we think we like it. You can twist the Doctor in different directions while still keeping his essential shape, and for us a Doctor whose smile makes us shiver is still colouring inside the lines, if only just. Peter Capaldi is utterly mesmerising here, and the humour, thank all the deities in the universe, this week fits him like a bespoke glove.
And you know what? That’s pretty much the good bit. This isn’t an episode that can stand much rewatching: the scary’s utterly drained out of it on a second go, and it’s a lot easier to notice flaws when you’re not having the bejeezus frightened out of you. The next part isn’t bad or anything, but rough edges definitely creep in. We’re not crazy, for example, about the Doctor’s “Dad skills”. Venusian aikido’s one thing, but supernatural powers are pushing it. It’s like they’ve replaced the sonic screwdriver with the Doctor’s own finger.
An astronaut comes into the restaurant, and everybody completely ignores him. Considering the bad press around people going into public places wearing full-face masks, you’d think everyone would be screaming and hitting the deck. Then the Doctor asks Clara whether she has any connection with the new Mr Pink. What reason does she have for lying about it, other than pushing the plot forward?
We really like Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink: he has a wonderfully light touch with the awkward comedy which makes his scenes with Clara zing. We’re not so crazy, however, about him as Orson: the character seems pretty doughy and nothingy to us, although we suspect that’s a lot more to do with the writing than the portrayal.
And we arrive at the end of everything. This, we think, is a serious miscalculation. It’s using a flamethrower to light a birthday candle.
The end of time, the end of the universe, the end of all things. It’s terror on a whole other level. Or at least it should be: it’s been touched on before in Doctor Who, but never very effectively, and unfortunately this is no exception. Instead it’s just scrumpled up into a ball and thrown away. The whole point of the horror of this is that there’s nothing there. Why throw away this deep existential dread in favour of a minor chiller about a couple of creaky pipes? What a waste.
Despite all of this, one thing does work really well, and that’s Peter Capaldi’s performance. Even the second time through, the Doctor really scares us here. It’s breathtaking.
Otherwise? Oh dear. Oh deary deary deary dear.
We’ve said many times that it’s a lot easier to build up an exciting story than to resolve it. Endings are uphill work. You have to leave the audience happy that it has enough answers without patting it on the head too much and tying everything up in a tidy little parcel. None of that is easy.
So Steven Moffat takes a novel approach to the problem. He can’t top Blink, so he has to go in a completely different direction. You were expecting an alien? Something supernatural? Think again, because it’s not about that at all.
Was there ever anything scary under the blanket? Was there ever anything scary outside the door? Knocking pipes, or just knocking? Atmosphere moving the door, or a little visitor?
We don’t think there’s much debate. We think it’s abundantly clear that there was never anything there that didn’t have a rational explanation. They even hand us a big fat clue in the form of a creepily disappearing coffee that turns out just to have been half-inched by the Doctor. We all thought this was about the kind of creepy stuff Moffat’s turned out before, but this time, that’s so not the case. The shocker is that there is no shocker.
We don’t like it much: on the face of it the questions have been answered, but that doesn’t mean it’s emotionally satisfying. When you discover there was nothing to any of it, it makes everything you've been through seem curiously pointless. Nevertheless, we can’t say it’s not legitimate. Asked and answered. Fair enough.
What we do object to, however, and violently at that, is what Moffat hands us instead. It was never about whatever particular alien would turn out to be resident under the bed. (To be honest, with all that creepy dark bedroom stuff we couldn’t get the big blue fluffy thing from Monsters Inc out of our minds, so perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Not that we don’t love the big blue fluffy thing from Monsters Inc. But imagine the royalties.) Instead, it’s about fear. And not just any fear, either. The Doctor’s fear.
The clues are littered throughout. The Doctor doesn’t answer Clara’s question “Have you had that dream?”, because the Doctor's experience is the whole point of the episode. The Doctor asks Rupert ”Imagine the thing that must never be seen - what would you do if you saw it?”. Rupert replies that he doesn’t know, and the Doctor says “Neither do I.”’ And the lumpy creature on the bed is an echo of the boy Doctor sobbing under the covers. It’s not about the scary stuff. It’s about the Doctor’s reaction to it.
The Doctor, the Doctor, the Doctor. So far, that’s all this season has been about. In Deep Breath, entire dinosaurs turned out to be inconsequential compared to the importance of putting a microscope on the Doctor. You’d expect a bunch of that in a regeneration episode, of course, but it’s been just the same in the other episodes. Into The Dalek wasn’t actually about the Dalek, it was about the Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks. And Robot Of Sherwood’s leafy window-dressing is packed around the real subject: the Doctor’s feelings about heroes.
That’s dangerous stuff. Let the gaze get so inward-focused and everything becomes increasingly airless. But that’s far from being the worst part.
In our review of Robot Of Sherwood, we said that having people who’d grown up with the show now in charge of the magic kit was problematical. There, we were thinking of the thing getting obscured by dollops of fanwank as the writers flung artful callback on loving tribute. We only wish that was the total extent of the problem here.
Moffat is determined to carve his initials on the franchise he has such a passion for. That’s unsurprising: we’d probably all feel the same if we got our hands on it. But be very, very careful what you wish for. Currently this is causing two problems. One is a bad problem. The other is a very, very bad problem.
Let’s start with the slightly less toxic one first. That would be Clara.
None of this is about Jenna Coleman. She’s effortlessly knocking out of the park everything she’s been asked to do. It’s what she’s been asked to do that’s the problem.
We’ve said before that we thought Moffat’s favourite Doctor was River. That was then. Now it’s Clara. Once again, Moffat’s original creation, the companion, is running the TARDIS.
And we mean actually running the TARDIS. She’s driving the bloody thing.
That, of course, isn’t all. She’s taking action. She’s deciding what to do. Given that this episode is about the Doctor’s mental landscape, when it comes to the plot that matters she’s the one saving the day.
Worse, she does it in a peculiarly Moffatly way. His predilection for female characters who are mothers or dominatrices is obvious, and here Clara gets to be both. She does two lengthy and important stints of mothering, first of Rupert Pink as a warmup and then, much more importantly, of the boy Doctor. After all, that’s her job, right? Her only function in all of her lifetimes is to be the Doctor’s helpmeet. The sexism of this concept, especially when paired with the mothering aspect, is so breathtaking we’re not sure we need to say any more about it. Like a companion of yore, it’s screaming.
And there’s also the whips and chains side. In this episode, she biffs the Doctor for the second time. She orders him around. She tells him to shut up. She tells him to do as he’s told. (And yes, we know that’s an echo of what he’s said to her, but that doesn’t really change anything.)
Why Moffat likes these saintly mother/sexy dominatrix types so much, and why he can’t see how forcing so many of his important female characters into these roles is the epitome of a sexism he says he doesn’t feel, is none of our business. It’s his writing we’re here to critique, not his character. But as far as the writing goes, we detest it. Quite apart from the sexism, which just shouldn’t be there end of, presenting us with the same archetypes over and over is frankly pretty boring.
Again, that’s not the worst of it. The worst of this treatment of the companion is what it does to the Doctor.
Needless to say, we’re not against the companion being proactive. Thankfully, we’re long past the days of endless screaming and “What do we do now, Doctor?”. But let’s face it, it’s not her name on the title card, is it?
It says it right there. The Doctor’s supposed to be the lead character. But wait. Given that we said every episode this season has actually been about him, then Moffat’s getting that right, yeah?
Yeah, nah. That’s not how it’s been working. Clara has to step up, because the Doctor is not himself. In this episode, he’s (hah!) in the dark a lot of the time. He knows Clara and Orson are connected, but not how, and he’s out cold for a lot of the crucial stuff. (We can’t remember the last time we saw the Doctor so decisively hors de combat.) He’s constantly appealing to Clara for validation (“Can’t I, Clara?” “Shouldn’t it, Clara?”). And he comprehensively needs saving, first by Orson when he’s about to be swept out the airlock, then by Clara when he’s a blubbering Time Tot.
Which brings us to the very, very bad problem.
Moffat’s determination to leave his mark on the franchise doesn’t stop at creating characters who out-Doctor the Doctor. He wants to go further. He wants to get his hands dirty and fiddle with the machinery.
He’s not the first, of course. From Robert Holmes coming up with all the Gallifrey apparatus and the twelve regenerations to the Cartmel masterplan (new series fans: don’t ask. We’d be here all day), everyone’s wanted a go. Fair enough. We don’t demand that everything is set in stone. Change is good. But when you change stuff, you’d better make sure you don’t destroy it along the way. And we’re worried. For the first time since Moffat took the reins, we think he’s put a serious and permanent ding in it.
Twiddle things if you like. But you really, really, really shouldn’t mess with the basics. And the most basic of those basics is the Doctor’s essential mystery.
It’s all very interesting wondering what makes him tick. And that’s precisely why we shouldn’t know. Take a frog apart to see how it works, and you’re left with a pile of stinking guts and a dead frog. Fishing around in the Doctor’s past to find his mainspring doesn’t illuminate him, it diminishes him. And that’s a tragedy.
And even worse is the way it’s done. The Doctor is motivated by fear? The Doctor? And was only able to turn it around and draw on it because of Clara? Well, we’re sorry, but they can fuck right off with that. Moffat couldn’t have damaged the Doctor more thoroughly if he’d set out singlemindedly to stab him through the hearts. Yeah, we know the Doctor’s “Fear makes companions of us all” is a paraphrase of a very similar statement made by the First Doctor in his first story. That doesn’t give Moffat carte blanche to go as far as this.
That’s the worst of it, but there’s more. Putting all this stuff in has unpleasant spinoffs in the way it affects the Doctor’s behaviour. In this season we’ve already seen him acting without regard for the consequences for anybody else when he puts the Dalek back together. That was thoughtless, which is definitely within the Doctor’s remit, but things seriously ramp up in Listen.
The Doctor is so wrapped up in his own problems that he doesn’t do anything for anybody else. He scares Rupert, and his “turn your back” advice is rubbish (as you would expect from someone - ugh - riddled with fear). As with Into The Dalek, he’s so focused on trying to solve the problem that he’s dropping the ball in things that should matter. He’s oblivious to Orson’s desire not to go anywhere near the future again, taking him back there for no reason when he could have dropped him at home. He tells Clara to get into the TARDIS when he opens the door, but he gives no thought as to how she’s supposed to get anywhere from there if he’s munched by something. Okay, maybe he knew the TARDIS would take care of it, but that isn’t all: he allows, in fact encourages, Clara to meet someone from her own timeline. Which no. No, no. no.
And we doubt we’ve seen the end of it, either. It was pretty obvious the Doctor’s attitude towards soldiers was fuelled by his own stint as the War Doctor, and this episode underlined that with a chisel. Given what transpires in this episode, Danny is obviously going to be an important character. This means the whole navel-gazing soldiering thing is likely to go on and on and on.
Turn the audience’s expectations on their heads? All right, then. Fake out the whole expected scary creepy thing with a rational explanation? Go ahead, even if it does fall with a distinct thud. But mess with the Doctor at the most basic level? We don’t like that. We don’t like that at all.
We’ll give them this: they’ve definitely learned their lesson when it comes to scale. Every one of the episodes in this season thus far has been perfectly sized. It’s a pleasant change from the overblown epics they tried to force in in the previous season.
Danny says about the delay in organising the date “Took a bit of time. Family stuff”. No doubt that’s coming back to haunt us.
When Clara mentions the name Rupert in the restaurant, a glass breaks in the background. We couldn’t decide if this was cheesy or amusing. Eventually we settled on cheesily amusing.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
The news ticker talking about Orson Pink is exactly the same as today’s. Because everything today is exactly as it was in 1914…oh, wait.
PASS THE TIME HAIRPIN
Matthew Innes writes to say that we forgot to mention the horrible mangling of Gallifrey's time lock, which as he so trenchantly points out "has all the impregnability of Swiss cheese". Quite. He also asks: "If the Doctor can visit Gallifrey pre-Time War, couldn't he just camp out there until the time of Gallifrey's re-emergence, and locate it that way?" Sounds like a plan to us.
PERCHANCE TO DREAM
So is the Doctor's dream really a dream, or just a memory? We think it's a memory, but that he assumes it's a dream although he has suspicions about it. So he's checking human records to see if others dream it, because if so his theory about a perfectly hidden entity might be right. None of this, however, explains why if he's having a dream he would assume that humans are also having it. Shouldn't he be checking the Time Lord records? We bet the TARDIS has got 'em all tucked away somewhere.
ABOUT THAT BAFTA
We might not like the way Moffat’s treating the Doctor, but none of that’s in Peter Capaldi’s court. He’s spinning straw into gold here with a mighty fury. Just look at his expression when Clara goes to put her hands on his shoulders. Sublime.