Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doctor Who: is anyone listening?

[Spoiler alert: if you haven't already seen the Doctor Who episode "Listen", this review will completely ruin it for you. I'd rather ruin it after you've seen it.]

There are a few welcome innovations in the New Doctor Who (as distinct from the 1963-89 period, which, depending on your tastes, can be distinguished by a preface of "Old", "Original", "Classic", or, quite understandably after last week's episode, "Real"). One new delight is the occasional creepy story. The old stories featured monsters that supposedly sent the children of 60s and 70s Britain hiding behind their tatty post-war sofas, but it was rare that their parents went back there with them.

That has changed with stories like "Empty Child" ("Are you my mummy?") and "Blink". In the case of "Blink", we also had a story with an unusually clever mystery plot: all the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place only at the end. Even the genius of Douglas Adams didn't bring that to the old Who -- "City of Death"'s time-splintered Scaroth, whose piloting ineptitude sparked human evolution, would not be converted into a truly sparkling riddle of a plot until Adams resurrected him in his first Dirk Gently novel. The clever-creepy stories are the highlights of the New Who.

The latest episode, "Listen", was supposed to be one of them. In fact, it tried to top everything that had gone before. Not only did all of the mysteries evaporate in the last five minutes, but the creepy villain along with them. Unquestioning Who devotees may also whoop at a little nugget of detail from the 50th-anniversary "Day of the Doctor" story.

("Day of the Doctor" may be my favourite of all of the new stories. And not just because John Hurt got to endlessly mock David Tennant and Matt Smith as shallow successors of the True Who -- although nothing beats his reaction when they both responded to attack by whipping out their sonic screwdrivers: "What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?" It also managed to handle three different plots, which wove together smoothly, and it contained some clever science-fiction ideas, in particular the mind-wiping device being used to turn enemies into allies because they couldn't remember which was which.)

But back to "Listen". It was a great idea, but it lacked in the execution. In the end the scary ghostly whatever turned out to be a figment of everyone's overactive imagination. Fine. But in that case, the story that we'd watched had to make perfect sense in light of this revelation. Are we really supposed to believe that, after a woman went into little Rupert Pink's room to comfort him after a bad dream, another boy followed them in and climbed onto Rupert's bed and hid under the blanket? Or that the Doctor, who after 30 years of adventures we have been lead to believe is a clever and observant character, was so easily fooled by a prank-making little boy? And don't tell me that the Doctor's powers of observation were blunted by his trauma over a dream he had over a thousand years ago!

We were also given no reasonable explanation for the very definite knocking at the door of the spaceship at the end of the universe, and it doesn't make much sense that the Doctor's very personal nightmare managed to freak out all of the other characters as well. Yes, we've all had nightmares, and we've all been afraid that there might be a monster under the bed. But I for one have never dreamed of the damn thing grabbing my leg, and having revealed the specific cause for the Doctor's molestation anxiety, it's a bit strange that Clara, young Danny, and slightly older Orson all had the same dream.

You may call this picky. You may have thrilled at this triumph of an episode. Good for you. But while it's tedious for an audience to be picky, it's sloppy for the writers not to be. Stephen Moffat has written all of those great scary stories, and he was certainly capable of taking this one and tweaking the wrinkles out of it.

Are the Doctor Who writing team just too high on success to notice any more? Does Moffat bring in his new script, and they all just fawn over it? "It's a gem! It's a winner! It's your best yet! Don't change a single line!" That's not a helpful reaction. Someone should take the good script, pick it to pieces, and put it back together as something incredible. Because with this story that was certainly possible. And while they were at it, they could have chopped out all that motivational slush about fear in the last five minutes. The Doctor gave young Rupert an excellent speech about the power of fear under the watchful eye of Blanket Boy, and there was no need for a rehash during a counselling session moody montage at the episode's end.

Someone on the writing team should be providing some tougher criticism. And someone should be listening.

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven


  1. Oi! What about a spoiler alert.

  2. Except, although the characters seemed to accept the explanation, there are things we, the audience, see or hear that the other characters do not. We get a glimpse of "something" not especially child-like taking off the blanket, we hear the cloister bell ringing. Just because we have an alternative mundane explanation of what's going on, doesn't mean it's *always* the right one.

    1. Yes, I forgot the possibility that some of this stuff shows up in later episodes, and doesn't turn out to be so simple after all.

  3. Spamming comment sections on other websites with your link is pretty lame. Still, you wannabe writers have to get readers somehow I guess

    1. I read several online reviews and, like many others, took the opportunity to share my opinion in the comments section. Your second sentence, which I interpret as an 11-word exclamation point, also raises the topic of advertising. It is a sad fact that a few members of the world's literate English-speaking internet-capable population are not aware of this blog. I do what I can to help them out. Highway billboards are coming soon.

  4. Moffat Who is targeted to a bi-level audience of 1) sitcom-level viewers who don't expect something labeled "sci-fi" to make sense and are happy to be superficially entertained on a moment-to-moment basis and 2) po-mo-meta people who groove on symbolism. To the BBC, that's good enough.


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