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...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 5004: DOCTOR WHO: Nothing at the End of the Plot

Saturday:


"Listen" certainly seems to have pushed the right buttons for most fans of the show, garnering near universal praise from the online communities: an acting tour de force, an intricate character study, and the rest. So I know I'm in a minority on this one.

And there must be some irony there, because "Listen" is a shaggy dog story to which the punchline is "the Emperor has no clothes".



"Why has evolution not come up with perfect hiding?" asks the man who lives in a machine that does – or at least is supposed to do – exactly that.

"Why do we talk to ourselves when we know no one is listening?" he asks when he knows his machine listens to every work he says… and broadcasts them in episodic chunks on the BBC(!)

The story opens with this typical piece of Moffat sleight-of-hand, and he proceeds to run through his usual playbook of directing you to think one thing and then pulling the rug from under you. He does it twice with the identity of the person in the spacesuit, for example.

This is the episode's biggest cheat: the "monster" on the bed. No, the cheat isn't the "did we just save him from a kid in a blanket" line, it's that Clara – who just climbed under the bed to show there was nothing there – does not just whip the sheet off whatever it is. Or at least call out the Doctor for stopping her.

And again we have non-linear intervention in childhood creating someone's future. Clara here is appalled to think that she is now responsible for Danny's past as a soldier which she clearly has trouble relating to as all the misfiring jokes attest.

It ought to be clever, this lifting the veil on how we all change each other by our interactions but rarely see the consequences separated from them as we are by time.

But this is all so familiar now, after Reinette, Amelia, Kasran Sardick, Melody/River Song, and Clara herself. So when Clara ends up doing it again to the Doctor himself, forgive me I stifled a groan.

(With all the repeats of Moffat tropes in this I was tempted to call this "Listen Again"!)

And it very much raises again the issue of consent: how can it be okay for Clara to change people's past this way, which we can explicitly link to her continuing to hug the Doctor even though he has said he doesn't like it. The message here seems to be it's okay for a girl to do that to a man because he has to change, or more bluntly grow up and stop being afraid of that thing that happens in the dark and in beds.

More interesting, potentially, is when we see it flipped when Orson hints to Clara that she is the one caught in a destiny trap now, as it's pretty obvious that if she is Orson's great-grandmother, then she and Danny have to... Does that mean Clara has no free will? Or is that her choices – getting Danny to ask her out for this drink – have set a train of events in motion. After all, if you exercise free will to jump out the window, you can't blame gravity for your lack of further choices in what inevitably follows.

In Marvel's "Days of Future Past" – comic not movie version – or rather the much longer follow up strip "Days of Future Present", knowing that their child from the future means that they have to be together actually drives a couple further part. Is Orson Pink, by telling her and potentially putting her off Danny, creating a Grandfather Paradox? Not every Grandfather Paradox has to involve killing your (great) grand-parent.

But anyway, and speaking of paradox, the answer to the mystery is that the Doctor, by investigating his childhood dream, sort of caused it himself.

All of the rational explanations could just be true. (As long as you ignore the big cheat of the possibly-child on the bed.) The Doctor wrote "listen" on his blackboard himself and forgot, as he later accuses Clara of forgetting her own childhood. When your coffee goes missing, it might just be the Doctor. The knocking sounds on the door of Orson's time capsule might just be the metal cooling and shrinking.

Do we infer that the Doctor being a Time Lord (eventually) the events in that barn on, let's say it, Gallifrey, somehow "imprint" themselves on the Universe so that the dream is repeated throughout time? Or that it's a coincidence that Clara causes the child Doctor to experience what a lot of people have dreamed? Perhaps it's just that I have never had a dream remotely like that, and it bugs me that – once again – Moffat has taken his own experience as universal, rather than subjective. (See also, though more entertainingly, Clara and Danny retreading the autobiographical relationship paths of "Coupling"). And Moffat's life experience comes across as boys need to grow up and have relationships with girls; which is why girls need to force themselves upon him.

Thematically, the Doctor causing his own nightmare feels satisfying, but irritatingly it's another ontological paradox, another Moffat sticking himself in as first cause.

Alex was particularly irritated by Moffat expropriating "fear makes companions of us all", reducing the first Doctor from a wise old man to a parrot quoting parables, which is at least up there with "Timelash" suggesting that HG Wells never had an original idea he didn't copy from a trip with the Doctor. (Does that sound familiar?)
What most infuriated him was Moffat, for the millionth time, being so arrogant as to make a continuity reference and get it wrong because he assumes he must be right in everything and not need to spend a moment checking (starting with the "Time Agents" in his very first story – Greel assumesdoes not work). It's actually "Fear makes companions of all of us," but Moffat just assumes he's right. He's saying he wrote these words and he can't even write the right ones.

But I'm even more bugged by Moffat's own "fear is a superpower" (which he'd already used in "The Time of Angels") ending up a paradoxical "gift from time", as the New Adventures used to have it. Clara hears it first from the Doctor, then tells it to the child who will become the Doctor. So where did it come from?

Well possibly the TARDIS, taking him "where he needs to go", but still.

And we're also doing fan service, tying up three (and more) continuity points: the Doctor's worst day as recounted to Jo in "The Time Monster"; the moment, as he tells Martha in "The Sound of Drums", when as a child of eight he gazed in to the Untempered Schism; and the unasked question of why the War Doctor chose that particular barn in which to do the deed in "The Day of the Doctor". (With a side nod to not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords and just a hint of "Lungbarrow" and a family of cousins in "all the other boys".)

So it's another copying from Russell with more attempted justification for "I never stopped running", which I've never seen as right. He stopped long enough to go to the Academy and take his exams twice, didn't he? He took a TARDIS and went adventuring; that's more than just running away.


And if I'm being picky… the end of the Universe is not going to look like that. There's still a star in the sky! The Stelliferous Era – the Age of Stars – is going to last a hundred trillion years, but that is an eye-blink to a Universe that is going to go on a hundred trillion times a hundred trillion times longer. When the last star burns out, the sky will be full of black holes that eat most of everything that's left, and then slowly evaporate into Hawking Radiation. And once they're all gone, all that remains is dust that escaped the gravity wells infinitesimally gradually, over eons and eons, falling to bits by proton decay until there are only scattered photons barely warmer than absolute zero. The long, cold dark is very long and very cold indeed.

(Enough time even for me to get a few reviews done!)

And I know it's really not the point, but it does bug me that the "things that come out in the dark" don't even get to wait for the real dark.

Unless, unless… could it even be deliberate – that though we're told it's things coming out of the dark, the truth is that things come out of the pink? And the message is don't listen – don't blink – to what you're told and instead use your eyes to make your own observations…

"Listen" is full of the Doctor and Clara making mistakes, but because they don't tell each other what they know, actively deny each other information – the Doctor orders Clara back into the TARDIS; Clara makes the Doctor take off from Gallifrey without knowing where he's been – then they don't learn from this. If Clara had just explained she'd been distracted and piloted them into in Danny's childhood, not her own… If she'd said something about what she suspects is her timeline's connection to Orson… if she'd just told the Doctor "I may have just accidentally caused your dream" then… well, the plot would have collapsed like a bubble of air.

And because the direction cuts away, we don't get the whole picture of either of their points of view either. Did the Doctor see anything when that door opened? Why does he seem to feel the plot is resolved at the end when he underlines the word "listen" on his chalkboard? (Particularly when he missed the key revelation to Clara.) Either he's just been a bit of an idiot or she has. Occam's razor: Moffat has.

These ambiguities are what the series is playing on at the moment, a more metaphorical take on "Who", perhaps, than the season six arc, but it's still all bit "ooh, I'm so ambiguous, I am. Or am I?"

Fear is more complicated than a super-power (and more common: we can't all fly. That's why that's called a super-power): it can paralyse as well as empower; it can make us procrastinate as well as set us running; it can be an incredibly conservative force – as we've seen in the Scottish referendum, only most recently. Clara's fear of embarrassment (perhaps to partially redeem what I said above) drives her failure to explain – and disarm – the plot to the Doctor. But not everything in life can be a farce. Part of the illusion of "Listen" is that it uses the series' history and quotes, and Moffat's usual storytelling gimmicks, to dress up Robert Holmes' riposte to Mary Whitehouse about scaring the little buggers as though it's something profound.

And "sometimes it's good to scared" is fine as far as it goes but it just isn't that profound.

A lot of it is very, very good. Jenna Coleman is outstanding, whether it's being brave for Rupert Pink when something sits on the bed or realising just what she's done when she grabs the child Doctor's ankle. The direction manages to take some shonky stock horror scenarios and make them genuinely tense or tender or even moving as required. Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink is much more interesting than your usual male Doctor Who companion – or male Moffat character for that matter – with a habit of emotional hand-break turns that suggests something broken and an interesting past even (or especially) before Clara starts messing with it. The one outstanding visual of the episode – the Doctor's zen meditation atop the orbiting TARDIS – will stay in the mind for a long time. And Capaldi himself dances a line between terrifying and hilarious, and continues to give his Doctor an alien, not quite getting it vibe, and terrible, aching yearning to know.

But still we end with the Emperor telling us that there was nothing under the bed, it was all just scary misdirection, he has no clothes on. Which is at least a cheeky admission of sorts, I suppose.

Next time: Let's do this properly by crashing the TARDIS into someone else's genre, or in this case Doctor Who does "Hustle". Take the money or open the box? In "Time Heist".

2 comments:

frank fair said...

I thought it had it's cake and ate it with it's ambiguity. For me, it wasn't saying there was never a monster (after all it wasn't Clara with the chalk or under the bed-I HOPE) The episode was saying that whether there was a monster or not, there should be no fear in being afraid.
And with the final scared child being the Doctor, it said that everyone gets scared. A great message for children.

And for little Tommy, who wouldn't sleep afterwards, the parents could always say there was no monster,it was just the pipes settling etc. The same way all parents have had to since pipes were in houses.

But for grown-up Frank and others like me there was a monster, in the dark, unseeable, listening. There could be a monster now...And there's still nothing wrong with being afraid. Heck for Who fans we enjoy the fear..

Welcome back Elephant.

Holly said...

Basically Andrew had every one of these problems with the episode, except the "this isn't even the end of the Stelliferous Age!" one, which was me. :)

All that pink light made me think of hydrogen, and if there's still hydrogen it's definitely not the end of the universe.