Friday, September 18, 2015

8.4 Listen

Stop your crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons-of-bitches
Who are waiting to exploit your life away
                Ewan MacColl

Is it ever so slightly incredibly racist for your one black character to be called “Mr Pink”? The black guy in The Mutants was notoriously called Mr Cotton. 

Has the Doctor’s relationship with Wonderful Clara gone beyond “Sherlock says amusingly inappropriate things, bless him” and become actually abusive? The remark about her make-up; the remark about what she looks like from behind: those are not things which an actual actual person would put up with from another actual person.

Matthew Waterhouse said that 80s scriptwriters cared so little about Adric that he had to assume he was playing a different character in each script. This week the artful dodger; next week, the comedy Bunter who munches his way through the entire buffet; then a geek who betrays the Doctor because it seems the logical thing to do; then a side-kick who hangs out with Uncle Doctor. I wonder if Jenna Coleman approaches Wonderful Clara the same way. Last week, flirting shamelessly with Robin Hood; this week, too shy to make small talk with a colleague over dinner. Two weeks ago the joke was that Danny was painfully shy and Wonderful Clara was bubbly and forward. 


Am I perhaps giving the impression here that I’m prepared to talk about everything apart from the actual episode? 

I try to be fair as well as subjective. Different people want different things out of TV shows. The kinds of people who like Doctor Who are no longer the kinds of people Doctor Who wants to be liked by. (S’triangulation, innit?) Other people liked this story. It was up for a Hugo and everything. It deserves a serious critique, not just me informing you whether it made me go “yummy” or “yuck”. 

But I am going to go with my gut instinct. 

I hated it. 


I didn’t hate it because it messed around with the Doctor’s background. I didn’t hate it because it was the second story to mess around with Doctor’s background in three weeks. I didn’t even hate it because it broke a long standing taboo and included flashbacks to the Doctor’s lost boyhood on Gallifrey. I hated it because it messed around with the Doctor’s background in an unimaginative and predictable way that didn’t even make sense on its own terms. 

Two weeks ago, we were told that the Doctor became the Doctor when he met the Daleks and realized that being the Doctor was all about not, definitely not, rampaging around the universe destroying all other forms of life. 

This time, we learn that the Doctor is the Doctor because Wonderful Clara visited him when he was a little boy and recited some motivational poster slogans about not being afraid of stuff.

What makes the Doctor the Doctor is not being evil and not being scared. 

Well, yeah. That’s sort of implicit in being the good guy. I am not sure it’s the sort of thing we need origin myths to explain. 

There is a scene in Very Old Who – The One About the Budgie From Atlantis, I think – where Doctor Jon cheers up Jo by telling him a story about his childhood. Turns out he had a mentor on Gallifrey who opened his mind on his darkest day. (He forced him to look, to look properly, at a daisy for the first time. Very Zen.) It was, even then, a little disconcerting to hear the Doctor talking about something which happened when he was “a little boy”. But Barry Letts ensured that there was a back door in his conjurer’s box. Yes, he slightly demystifies the Doctor by revealing that he had a mentor and a childhood. We didn’t even know the name of his planet in those days. But then he drops a tantalizing hint about “the Doctor’s darkest day” and leaves it hanging in the air. The Doctor is made slightly less mysterious and slightly more mysterious at the same time. 

The childhood scene in Listen merely makes the Doctor more ordinary: implies that he would always have been ordinary if not for the intervention of Wonderful, Wonderful Clara. Gallifreyan childhoods appear to be indistinguishable from Earthly childhoods: barns, doors with latches, mothers with long aprons. 

I remember the days when new Time Lords were grown in vats.

I get that bedrooms are children’s dens, and beds are where you dream and where Santa comes and where Teddy lives, but the adults-in-children’s-bedrooms thing is starting to feel uncomfortable. Wonderful Clara (a qualfieid teacher) sneaking into a boy’s bedroom in a children’s home? Is she out of her mind? The fact that the Doctor met Clara when she was a little girl and Clara met Danny when he was a little boy and now Clara met the Doctor when he was a little boy is starting to feel slightly creepy as well. 


I don’t hate Listen because it was an exact re-run of ideas that Steven Moffat has used, oh, three or four times before. I hate it because they are unimaginative, predictable ideas. 

“What” muses the Doctor to himself “If no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow? What if the prickle on the back of your neck, is the breath of something close behind you?” 

“What”, we all say in unison, “you mean, exactly like the Silence?”

“Did we come to the end of the Universe because of a nursery rhyme?” asks Wonderful Clara? 

“Not a nursery rhyme”, we all exclaim, “like ‘tick tock goes the clock’ in Season 6 and ‘do you hear the whisperman’ in Season 7?”

I understand that, in folk memory Doctor Who was scary. Kids had nightmares about Doctor Who monsters. 

We remember the One With the Spiders because people don’t like spiders and the idea of a giant telepathic spider that can jump on your back and mind-control you is a terrifying idea. Also a Buddhist allegory, but mostly just a terrifying idea.

We remember the One With the Maggots because maggots are disgusting and squick you out, so giant ones are even more disgusting. 

We remember the Daleks because they were creepy and shouty and wanted to kill ua. They forced you to work in coal mines and exterminated the whole work force if it caught one of them slacking, like a particularly unpleasant P.E teacher I once had.

Same goes for the Autons. Lots of people are creeped out by waxworks and dummies. Even people who aren’t have occasionally had bad dreams about waxworks coming to life. Dummies and toys and house hold appliances coming to life and trying to kill you is a scary idea.

But Moffat seems fixated on the idea that a scary story isn’t a story about the kinds of things people are scared of – spiders and lizards and death and cross country runs. It’s a story about being scared; a story about fear. 

His best creations, the statues that come to life when you aren’t looking at them, play on that idea. So do his worst creations; the invisible telepathic piranhas that live in your shadow. And also his exactly the same creations, the evil monsters you instantly forget about five seconds after you saw them. 

So now we have his once-more-with-feeling creations: the creature that is so good at hiding that no-one knows it exists but everyone is terrified of it anyway. “What” asks this story “if the monsters-under-the-bed were real?”

“You’ve done that one before” we all cry “In The One With Madam Pompadieu. And The One About The Dolls House In the Block Of Flats.”


What we are left with is not so much a story as three linked vignettes.

Wonderful Clara goes on a date with Danny. They are both nervous, so it’s a disaster. “First date nerves” are somehow thematically connected to “being terrified of the dark” and “thinking there might be an existential threat at the end of the universe” but there is no narrative connection. We aren’t told that Wonderful Clara messes up the date because the Evil Fear Monster is magnifying her Negative Emotions and Feeding On Them. It would have been better if we had been. 

The Doctor and Wonderful Clara go back in time and visit Danny when he was a little boy. Danny is terrified of the Under The Bed Monster, which Clara assures him does not exist, and then everyone is terrified by a hiding-under-the-bedspread monster. It goes away without revealing whether it existed or not. 

The Doctor and Wonderful Clara go forward in time and meet one of Clara and Danny’s descendents, who is earth’s first time traveler. He has accidentally been sent to the end of time and is planning to set up a restaurant there convinced that there are invisible Under-the-Bed-Monsters banging on the airlock of his moonbase spaceship thingy. Everyone runs away before discovering if they really were or not. 

There is quite a decent prologue of a paranoid Doctor, alone in the TARDIS, convincing himself that he is being followed around by an undetectable alien entity. I quite liked that bit. Capaldi will probably put it in his show-reel. I even almost understood it. The Doctor convincing himself that the universe is full of malevolent entities you can’t see or feel is a bit like a little child convincing himself that there are monsters under his bed.

Then there is the epilogue where Clara visits the Doctor when he was a little boy and tells him that it’s all right, he doesn’t need to be scared of the monsters-under-the-bed, and that anyway, fear can be a good thing. 

Is the idea that the events in the story can be looked at from two points of view — one, in which there really was a monster in Danny’s room, and one, in which everyone was spooked by a kid in a blanket? Is the idea that Wonderful Clara, by going back to see the Doctor when he was a little boy and repeating some of his own platitudes at him, retrospectively changes things so that the Doctor never became scared and paranoid at all? But he did. We’ve just seen the episode. 

I understand that the Doctor has a terrible recurring nightmare in which he wakes up in the night and something under his bed grabs his ankle. (And everyone else has the same nightmare as well, for reasons which are never even hinted at.) And I concede that the moment where Clara hides under the Kid-Doctor’s bed and grabs his ankle to stop a Bad Thing happening, is quite clever. The terrible scary thing the Doctor dreams about is really a Wonderful thing. I read somewhere that that happens in Shamanic initiations — you make friends with the thing in your dream that terrifies you and it becomes your totem animal. But I don’t get what is supposed to have happened in the story. The Doctor has no reason to be scared of the Bed-monster: it was only Clara. But he is scared of it. He’s told us so. And Clara can’t ever tell him what really happened.

Why doesn’t Clara come right out and tell the Doctor how the little boy in the orphanage and the big boy at the end of the universe were related to the guy she was on a date with? The answer “because she’s an idiot” does not seem consistent with what we already know about her. In The Dalek One the Doctor refused to allow the similarly colour coded Journey Blue onto the TARDIS because he “doesn’t like soldiers.” Hello, Sgt Benton. Hello, Captain Yeats. Hello, Ben Jackson. Hello, Ian, probably. Hello “his name was Ross” from the Sontaran One. Was “not liking soldiers” only written in to give wonderful Clara a pretext to keep her relationship with Danny a secret from the Doctor? 

At least, with Nicholas Courtney no longer around, there is no danger of us ever having to deal with the fact that the Doctor’s very best friend in all the universe was, er, a Brigadier.

In the Doctor Who universe, stuff seems to be capable of just spontaneously popping into existence. People can have memories which aren’t memories of anything. The Doctor tells Danny that fear is like a superpower — it makes you cleverer and more alert. Wonderful Clara goes back in time and repeats this to the baby Doctor. So the grown up Doctor is passing on to Danny something that someone once said to him “in a dream”. But Clara was only passing on what the Doctor said to her, which was… Where did the idea originally come from?

It gets more complicated when you try to give innocent little remarks big complicated meanings. In the very first ever story, Doctor Bill told Barbara that “fear makes companions of us all”. He meant was that he was cross about the two teachers barging onto his TARDIS and they were cross about him dragging them back to the stone age, but they were going to have to work together to escape from the cavemen with posh accents. Clara whispers “fear makes companions of us all” at Kid-Doctor — but now it has a complicated philosophical message, or at any rate, a trite philosophical message. “Fear is like a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that's okay, because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I'm going to leave you something, just so you'll always remember, fear makes companions of us all.” 

Of course, the Doctor didn’t understand what Wonderful Clara meant. Or else, he didn’t properly remember it. She said “Fear, itself is a companion” but the Doctor thought she meant “You have to make friends with people you don’t much like when you are scared.”


Does anyone know if probationary teachers at modern comps have to be interviewed by the board of governors? We know from Sarah Jane that friends of the Doctor can sometimes spot each other when they meet. I can imagine the chairman of the Coal Hill School governors being introduced to Wonderful Clara and saying (with a twinkle in his eye) “I expect you are nervous about your first proper teaching job, but don’t worry as a very good friend once said to me ‘fear makes companions of us all.’” 

No. That way fan fiction lies. 


In summary, “yuk”. 

A big big thing in the Doctor’s life was when an earth girl snuck into his room and told him to feel the fear and do it anyway.