We're a month into Peter Capaldi's reign on “Doctor Who.” Donna Dickens has been doing a fine job covering the show for us weekly – here's her take on “Listen” – but the latest episode was both excellent and a good opportunity for me to check in on the state of the Doctor, Clara and everything else TARDIS-related, coming up just as soon as I admire the way I look from behind…
First, the bigger picture stuff. Because his Doctor is a bit more scattered than the last few, Capaldi didn't own the role from the opening moments the way Smith and Tennant and Eccleston did. But he and Moffat have quickly shaped Twelve into a distinctive, entertaining character, with as much of Malcolm Tucker as I imagine is allowable in the hero of a show aimed at kids. The Doctor is always a bastard on some level, but those qualities have lurked below the surface of his more dashing recent incarnations. Here, the rude, aloof Scotsman is there on display all day, every day, and that's fun.
As much of a pleasure as it is to watch Capaldi, though, by far the best thing about his arrival is the way that it's forced Moffat to turn Clara into an actual character, rather than a puzzle to be solved while she's busy mooning over Eleven. I know Donna's been concerned that it's too many tics being added all at once, almost to Mary Sue levels, but if you imagine Clara as a brand new character as of this season, then we're not getting to know her any more quickly than Rose, or Donna, or Amy, to name the three most successful companions of the modern era. Jenna Coleman has always had screen presence and an appealingly cheeky attitude, but now it feels like she's playing a person – and the exact sort of empathetic, patient human being this particular Doctor needs to have about him.
And “Listen” was a dynamite story of both the Doctor, his current companion, and a potential future companion for one or both of them in Danny Pink.
Moffat's a very clever writer, but sometimes he overthinks things. His most powerful idea – leading to the best episode of the modern era, “Blink” – was brilliant in its simplicity: here are monsters that can only hurt you when you're not looking at them. I don't know that “Listen” was at the level of “Blink” – though, as a story heavy on both the Doctor and his companion, it was more poignant than the amazing adventures of Sally Sparrow – but it also worked so well because Moffat pared things down to the very primitive, universal idea of the nightmare that there's someone hiding under your bed. Sure, there's fancy window-dressing involving the TARDIS' telepathic circuits sending the Doctor and Clara to various locations (including the very End of the Universe) because her mind is on her botched date with Danny, but at its core is something basic and terrifying: You are alone, it is dark, but is it just possible that something else is in there with you?
Even if there had been some kind of timey-wimey explanation for what the monster was – and there was certainly something hiding under young Rupert Pink's blanket, and possibly at the End of the Universe – “Listen” would have been a memorable outing, thanks to a tight Moffat script, and great direction from Douglas Mackinnon that lent all the proceedings a dreamlike quality befitting the Doctor's latest obsession. But what sent the episode to another level was the closing revelation that the Doctor's obsession with the dream – as well as his need for companions to help him combat fear for the rest of his life – came not from a real monster, but from Clara stumbling upon the Doctor as a terrified little boy (in the very barn that the War Doctor would later use as the location to set off the bomb destroying Gallifrey) and inadvertently playing the role of the thing that goes bump in the night.
Now, like so much of what Moffat does on the series, it's a trick he's played before, in that Clara was scattered throughout the Doctor's timeline and has already been there for key turning points in his life. (Like convincing the William Hartnell Doctor to steal the proper TARDIS.) But the childhood component of it – not to mention the notion that the Doctor was ever a small and frightened boy like the one we barely glimpse here – and Jenna Coleman's performance lent it enormous power, particularly in an episode where, in Danny's descendant (and maybe her own?) Orson Pink, Clara may have gotten a glimpse at how her own future will be shaped by her travels with the Doctor, just as it turns out so much of his life has been shaped by her.
There's the Mary Sue danger when you make a new supporting character this important to the hero's origin, but the work that Moffat and Coleman have done with Clara these last four episodes has been so effective and well-rounded that I'm not bothered by it. Mary Sue-ism only becomes an issue if the supposedly awesome character doesn't seem worthy of the artificial hype, whereas Clara's been earning all of it of late.
There have been some bumpy and/or repetitive moments in Moffat's tenure, but an episode like “Listen” is a reminder of what both he and “Doctor Who” are capable of at their best.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org