There is frequently a lot to criticize about Steven Moffat's writing, whether that's overused ideas, shallow characters, or more, and I've never been one to shy away from such criticism. However, I've also never shied away from giving praise where praise is due and stating the things that Moffat writes that I do like. I didn't expect to like “Listen” as much as I do, but it drew me in almost immediately and kept me mesmerized throughout. It's not perfect, of course—but what ever is? It contains a few of Moffat's more problematic tendencies, and reuses a lot of ideas, like scaring through the senses (in the vein of the Weeping Angels or the Silence) and “timey-wimey” plot-lines and paradoxes. In fact, there's really nothing new about “Listen” at all. Everything in it, Moffat has done several, if not numerous, times before. Yet despite all its repetition of old ideas, “Listen” surprisingly manages to become something completely different, something Doctor Who has never done before, breathing new life into a number of, frankly, tired ideas.
Kudos should also go to the production team for this story. Director Douglas Makinnon has created a suitably eerie and surreal atmosphere and the performances are top-notch throughout. The overall result is an episode unlike just about anything the show has ever produced, certainly since 2005. Some people will be dissatisfied with the ending, but nonetheless, I would rank it as one of the best stories since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner and certainly the best that he has scripted himself in that time.
Perhaps one of the most refreshing things about “Listen” is the ambiguity. New Doctor Who has not really done a lot of ambiguity, “Midnight” being the most notable exception. Even the classic series rarely tackled it. While many Doctor Who stories can seem bizarre and strange, there is almost always a tidy explanation that makes itself known by the end, clearing up most, if not all, of any ambiguity the story previously had. It's perhaps even more surprising to see such ambiguity from Steven Moffat. While Moffat is fond of mysteries (including ones that continue over multiple episodes and seasons), he is also fond of resolutions that tie everything up and explain it all. Those resolutions don't always work perfectly and there are plotlines left hanging from time to time, but in those cases, one tends to get the impression that they're hanging because he just hasn't gotten round to resolving them yet or he's forgotten about them. In all cases, they seem designed to be resolved eventually. In the case of “Listen”, its ambiguousness seems carefully designed to stay that way. Indeed, I would say that the absolute worst thing Moffat could do would be to resolve the uncertainties of this episode in a future episode.
The ambiguities are part of what makes this episode work so well, and they're very cleverly handled. Do the “perfect hiders” really exist? If not, what is under the blanket on young Rupert's bed? What is outside the airlock of Orson's crashed time vessel, and who wrote the word Listen on the Doctor's chalkboard? In every case, there is a possible alternative explanation to the hidden aliens, all of them stated at some point by one or more of the characters: The Doctor wrote the word himself and simply forgot about it, something the Doctor could easily do; another child is simply playing a trick on Rupert; and the sounds outside the time vessel are actually interior sounds of the machinery with the opening door being activated simply because the Doctor unlocked it, just as the Doctor suggests. Indeed, in every situation, the alternative explanation is actually the more likely—or would be if this were anything other than Doctor Who. And that's the beauty of it. Doctor Who routinely discards the more logical explanation and makes the reality be that there truly is a monster hiding under the bed. It does this so routinely that we now expect the monster to be real, that throughout most of this story we never even consider the possibility that there is no monster. “Listen” turns Doctor Who's own tropes on their head by throwing in the unexpected revelation that there is no monster, that there never was a monster. Yet it goes one step further by not taking Doctor Who's usual route of explaining everything and leaving open the possibility that maybe there is a monster after all. It's not all tied up in a nice bow.
Personally, I go for the interpretation that there is no monster, that it's just the Doctor's paranoia driving the whole situation. It works for me. But other people are likely to have other interpretations, and that's good. I never would have expected Steven Moffat to pull off a story like this, but he has wonderfully surprised me here.
But there's more to the story than just its ambiguities. It needs characters to drive it. “Listen” has just a small cast of characters, which means it can spend time developing each of them. I continue to be impressed at Clara's characterization this season. Her relationship with Danny Pink is continuing believably, if in a somewhat sitcom-ish manner. I'm glad that the show is continuing to develop her life away from the Doctor, although I'm also concerned that, so far, the only life away from the Doctor we get is her love life. It would be nice to see a little bit more of her teaching life as well.
Steven Moffat is very fond of introducing us to characters, particularly companions, both as adults and as children, not necessarily in chronological order. From Madame Pompadour to Amy to River Song, at some point or another, the Doctor encounters them as children. He even kind of creepily stalks Clara's childhood while trying to solve the mystery of who she is in Series 7. This time, it's Danny's turn to appear as a child, and Clara gets to meet child Danny along with the Doctor (and have a more extensive interaction with him). Clara also gets to meet the child Doctor at the end, which is a full twist on the usual pattern. The ending is likely to be somewhat controversial with some fans. It once again makes Clara a significant influence on the Doctor's life, after already being split throughout the timestream and being influential on his entire life from the moment he leaves Gallifrey for the first time. This time, she gets to influence some of his early life. To be honest, I rather prefer the influence she has here. It's not as far reaching, and is a much better development of her character than the predestined “Impossible Girl” storyline.
Admittedly, this one is kind of predestined too. Steven Moffat loves time travel paradoxes, specifically the time loop where characters experience the outcome of events before causing those events. It's a popular trope in a lot of science fiction. It can also be a dangerous trope for a writer though, as it removes character agency. Characters end up performing tasks because they are predestined to. When done well, these predestined tasks still end up being things the characters would naturally choose to do; when done poorly, the characters behave in random, illogical ways. Moffat has a mixed track record with this style of story (considering how often he employs it, it's perhaps not that surprising). Stories like “Blink” pull off the time loop trope very effectively. “The Angels Take Manhattan”, on the other hand, is a perfect example of how not to do a time loop story. In that story, characters literally do things for no other reason than they read it in a book, often with the Doctor telling them they have to. The characters have absolutely no agency of their own in that story (and most importantly, they don't gain agency by the end). “Listen” is, perhaps, the perfect example of how to do a time loop well. The time loop is much more subtle and the characters fully choose their actions, despite those actions, in a sense, having already been preordained. The characters aren't consciously thinking about what has been predestined, and as such, behave in a manner consistent with who they are. Of course, Orson Pink's presence suggests that Clara will eventually join the long line of Moffat's female characters whose stories all end with romance and babies, but that's a concern for another day.
While I've loved Peter Capaldi's Doctor so far, I think this is the story where his character really comes together. We see a wide range to his Doctor, including a smile or two. I love the dynamic that has developed between him and Clara. Indeed, I think the twelfth Doctor and Clara make a much better pair than the eleventh Doctor and Clara did. Their relationship is just so much more believable and natural. I think they could cut back on the jokes about Clara's appearance, however. The Doctor's starting to resemble Strax in this regard, and that's not a good thing.
This story very clearly continues the theme present throughout the series so far: that of identity, and understanding oneself. Capaldi's Doctor, while intense and determined, is clearly unsure of himself. From “Am I a good man?” two episodes ago to being afraid of the dark, this Doctor hides a vulnerability beneath his stern, callous seeming exterior. He may be 2000 years old, but he's on the first of a new set of regenerations, so it's almost like he's a child again, discovering himself much like the child Doctor in the barn was discovering himself.
But it's not just the Doctor searching for an identity; Danny Pink is too. From changing his name to his insecurities about his soldiering past, he's trying to find himself just as much as the Doctor. I'm looking forward to when they will inevitably meet. Only Clara really seems to know herself at the moment.
"Listen” is a wonderful and somewhat surprising episode. It's nice to know that Doctor Who can still be surprising, and particularly nice to know that Steven Moffat can pull it off. Series 8 is shaping up to be the best series in that last few years, and I hope it keeps it up.