There is a lot of good in Listen. The cinematography is crisp and moody. The pacing is leisurely without ever feeling slow. Its premise allows for quiet moments where scenes can live and breathe. Each actor puts in a solid performance that keeps one engaged. The atmosphere is effectively eerie and foreboding. Yet none of this made up for its major weakness. That weakness being the question: Why is any of this happening?
Stories which fold over to end up mirroring themselves can be immensely rewarding. As viewers we feel rewarded for paying attention without being acknowledged directly. Everything feels as though it has a purpose. Nothing was a waste of time. Given there was a reason to be watching in the first place. When no such reason is evident, then the experience becomes alienating and disappointing.
Such is the case with Steven Moffat’s Listen. The Doctor has become comically paranoid over the concept of solitude, aloneness, that he’s rambling to himself – convinced someone is hiding in the shadows…LISTENING. Then the story unfolds. Having the Doctor go to such great lengths (like the end of the universe) to find the truth about something he doesn’t understand is a great premise for an episode. It also works as a metaphor for Clara and Mr. Pink coping with the idea of being alone for the rest of their lives. But WHY is The Doctor so utterly consumed with this notion all of a sudden?
Instead of ranting about how evolution creates perfect predators but not perfect hiders (a bafflingly weak argument – especially from The Doctor) we could be seeing what triggered his fascination. A pseudo answer is given at the end that shows how the initial seed for such thoughts were planted in his subconscious, but it does nothing to explain why NOW. This is a fear he’s always had. So why isn’t he ALWAYS trying to figure this out? Why does THIS Doctor NEED to know NOW?
My theory is this will all come up again…some time. Much of this is similar to tropes Moffat has done before. Most notably the random insert of a suddenly jacketless Doctor Telling Amy to remember what he told her. This paid off on the season finale as he revisited the past through the crack in time. Moffat used to be much craftier in his introduction of questions not meant to be answered for years at a time. An odd comment by a new foe. Vague references from a woman out of sequence. Clues sprinkled throughout entire seasons. Now it appears he’s flatly leaving shit out.
The other major weakness of the episode is the previously mentioned ending. We’re meant to believe that the TARDIS has taken them to a time in the past on a planet that is taken OUT of time. A place The Doctor supposedly doesn’t know how to find. How did this happen? Again, answers that I’m sure are meant for a later time. A tease to let the audience know that getting there IS possible, crammed into this episode as a detriment to this story.
Ambiguity is a powerful thing. When applied effectively it lets each viewer experience their own version of the story. It will mean something different to everyone. When misapplied, you end up with half a story and a bunch of dangling plot lines (Remember Prometheus?). Listen could have been a perfect episode had it managed to tell its own individual – complete – story with hints and ambiguities of things to come.
In regards to the acting: Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson have a natural chemistry that makes them human. Peter Capaldi is the best thing about this episode. Even if what he’s saying makes no sense, he says it so well. There were definite shades of Hartnell, Baker, and Smith in his performance, while making it all his own. He was energetic, funny, and a little scary. Exactly what The Doctor needs to be. Sadly the story was not what Doctor Who should be.