The eighth series of the revived Doctor Who was first experienced in an unusual way. In July 2014, the first five scripts leaked online, prior to broadcast, courtesy of the mythical bandit Marcelo Camargo. The general consensus was that they were strong; the clockwork cyborgs and Dalek shenanigans drew fans in. (It’s a fascinating experience, reading what’s essentially prose Doctor Who and knowing that you’ll soon see it realised, word-for-word, in live action.) But the clear highlight was the fourth script, a remarkably restrained and atmospheric horror piece by Steven Moffat, titled “Listen”.
But then something happened. Halfway through page 61, as Clara hides under the bed of an unidentified child, she overhears a conversation between his guardians: “Well he’s not going to the Academy, is he, that boy? He’ll never make a Time Lord.”
I’m willing to admit that this line gave me a bit of a start. Not because the idea of depicting the Doctor’s childhood appealed to some base, fannish, continuity-fetishising level of my mind. (OK, it did, but that’s not the point.) No, what I found startling was the writer’s choice to take what was shaping up to be a very good episode, a lyrical, thoughtful meditation on the nature of fear and loneliness… and suddenly plug it into the very core of what Doctor Who is about. Anyone can write an epic about the Doctor’s secret origin, or his ultimate doom, or the ancient secrets of Gallifrey. Directly invoking the show’s basic mythology is the cheapest, easiest route to creating the sense that a story is big and important. No, what makes “Listen” special is how it only unveils its status as an Important Doctor Who Story once it’s independently proven itself a truly great piece of television, loaded (like all the best Doctor Who) with exciting new concepts outside the show’s well-worn central ideaspace.
A week later, it turned out that the leak was much bigger than previously thought: the episodes themselves began to appear online, albeit in the form of unfinished, black-and-white workprints. The first episode showed up on torrent sites. Then the second. Then the third. Then – and here’s where it gets interesting – the fifth episode, the mostly unremarkable “Time Heist”. The pirates actually delayed releasing “Listen” until it was all they had left, making it the de-facto finale of their early little unofficial half-season – a strangely thoughtful decision.
In the cold open, the Doctor, having travelled alone too long, has become obsessed with the idea that there exists some species which has evolved to be utterly impossible to detect; that such beings might stalk our every footstep. Researching, he finds that dreams of having one’s ankle grabbed by something lurking under the bed are unusually common throughout human history, and speculates that these reports represent encounters with such beings; that everyone has their own “silent passenger”… listening. Even as an undeveloped idea, it’s genuinely unnerving. “Listen” might be the first time the show has functioned as horror effective on an adult level, easily outstripping any of the bug-eyed latex monsters we like to believe had us “hiding behind the sofa” as children.
More than that, the idea is Lovecraftian, and in a more authentic sense than the usual pop pastiches. “Listen” is about the overwhelming terror at the prospect of understanding; the idea that there are certain realities which, when perceived too completely, will irreversibly illuminate some unimaginable terror fundamental to the world we know – and all without falling back on the stuffy Victoriana and tentacle-fetishism that so often pervade the cosmic horror genre.
The scope is both vast and intimate. From an objective viewpoint, “Listen” is the final Doctor Who story, being set largely on the last planet, after all life in the universe has seemingly succumbed to extinction. However, from the Doctor’s perspective, “Listen” is the first story; the tale of the half-forgotten dream that sent him on his way.
In the course of the episode, the Doctor and Clara encounter numerous strange phenomena – a mysterious message on a blackboard, a strange figure under a blanket, a bump in the night. Moffat carefully offers the characters (and the audience) two possible explanations for each of these occurrences: that they’re simply a coincidental series of mundane misunderstandings, or that the Doctor is being toyed with by those unseen “silent passengers”.
Here’s something that occurred to me – a third possibility. What if the culprit is neither a physical creature nor an overactive imagination, but something liminal – a force or entity somewhere in the space between the two? When we’re told that these entities cannot and must not be observed, it’s difficult not to think of Schrödinger’s cat in its box, both alive and dead. As the audience, we know that our perceiving them will collapse the two possibilities to a single answer. But the same logic holds diegetically, too. Remember, this is Doctor Who we’re talking about; an endlessly retroactive multi-author text. Unless we’re told what’s going on, there is no true answer – reality remains amorphous, and the entities remain undefined.
Consider. Time Lords possess a form of telepathy. The Doctor is the Time Lord who has travelled the most. As a child, he had a frightening, inspiring experience; one he misidentifies as a dream if he even remembers it consciously. Across thousands of adventures, he’s carried that experience with him; right at the core of his telepathic mind. What if the dream’s prevalence throughout human history is the direct result of the Doctor’s presence around humanity? What if the night she clasped the child Doctor’s ankle, Clara was instilling a memory that he would broadcast into millions of human minds over the course of his lives, inadvertently writing his own fears and dreams into the fabric of human civilisation? This logic is consistent with Moffat’s long-held idea that the word “doctor” gained its meaning from the Doctor’s interference throughout the universe. It even explains why the dream isn’t as widespread in our reality as it seems to be in the show’s – because we don’t have a Doctor to spread it to us.
At this point, it’s useful to consider Alien Bodies, a 1997 novel written by Lawrence Miles, and widely considered some of Doctor Who‘s best prose fiction. Moffat was one of the book’s early admirers, and while Miles’s later blacklisting by the BBC makes it unlikely that Moffat will ever acknowledge this, he has made liberal use of Miles’s ideas throughout his own Doctor Who career.
One idea introduced in Alien Bodies is the existence of “conceptual entities” – beings who exist purely in the form of ideas, having no physical form, able to influence reality only by affecting other characters’ perceptions. What concept, then, is more likely to become sentient than the deepest childhood fear of the universe’s most prolific telepathic adventurer? If something exists within the mind of every person, who can truly say it isn’t real?
The novel also introduces the terrible force known only as The Enemy – a race or entity locked in battle with the Time Lords, but whose name and nature are only ever hinted at by oblique, contradictory clues, and might not even be fixed. Lesser BBC Books writers would eventually explain them away with some alien technobabble or other, but the power of Miles’s original idea remains, and it’s not hard to imagine it knocking around Moffat’s unconscious mind as he wrote “Listen”.
Violated boundaries and forbidden knowledge abound. The Doctor attempts to bargain with the intruder in Rupert’s room, letting it escape with the secret of its nature intact. Clara upsets Danny by mentioning his birth name; a name she learnt only by intruding upon his childhood. (Murray Gold’s music for the episode is excellent, but he can’t match the pulsating intensity of the Gravity score used as a placeholder at points in the leaked workprint, which made Rupert’s simple wave feel like a horrifying portent.) Next she encounters Orson, whose very existence has implications for her own future; something she did not want a preview of. (Some of the best Doctor Who stories are minimalistic and theatrical, featuring only three or four characters. In this sense, “Listen” is a televisual counterpart to stagey, high-concept oddities like Miles’s novel Dead Romance or Robert Shearman’s audio drama Scherzo.) And then we have the Doctor, standing at the door of Orson’s spacecraft, ready to risk everything to see who’s knocking. This is the moment he chooses to recite, without context, a previously unmentioned nursery rhyme.
As if in reply, a soft – but distinct – voice whispers Listen from behind the door. We could simply attribute this to the Doctor’s imagination, but if we accept the existence of the entities, it (along with the message on the blackboard) becomes something far more disturbing: a distorted, living echo of the very word Clara, in her moment of pity, used to address the child in the barn.
With Clara back in the TARDIS, the door begins to slide open, but we only see the Doctor’s reaction. His face falls, eyes widening as he gasps faintly. Next his expression relaxes to one of searching confusion, as if he is struggling to comprehend what he sees. The Doctor is concussed when the air shell is breached, and the episode’s thematic momentum is transferred to Clara. Attempting to fly the TARDIS to safety, she accidentally finds herself intruding upon the Doctor’s childhood. This is a space that the show has scarcely even alluded to in its 51-year history, and suddenly it’s not only being depicted but intruded upon by its future. As with Danny, by journeying into his youth, she has effectively journeyed into the Doctor, intruding not just upon his past but upon his essence. This is open-childhood surgery. One wrong move, one misguided influence, and his entire journey is unmade, every life he’s ever saved extinguished, the cosmos unravelled. And she knows this. It’s like the moment the Fourth Doctor stepped on the land mine in Genesis of the Daleks, only infinitely more dangerous. We see the horror of it in her eyes when she realises where she is (a moment elevated by Gold’s decision to score it as something frightening). But Clara, ever the carer, simply cannot bring herself to abandon an unhappy child, even though comforting him means risking reality itself. (Like all the best time-travel stories, “Listen” is also about something very real: as well as being the Doctor’s literal child self, the boy represents the Doctor’s inner child, with Clara’s access to him mirroring the deepening of their present-day relationship. The episode’s nighttime setting and themes of dreaming are the perfect substrate for this feverish mind-trip.)
Reeling at the magnitude of what she has done, she seals the breach of her intrusion at the last possible moment. Never mind his name or his grave: Clara has discovered the Doctor’s real secret, one buried so deeply even he is not aware of it. Should he learn her part in his origins, the results would be incalculable. She’s just implanted the intermingled fear and compassion which have driven him all his life, and there’s no telling how it would affect his mental and spiritual state (let alone their personal relationship) if he understood the nature of her actions. “Don’t look where we are. Take off and promise me you will never look where we’ve been… Just take off. Don’t ask questions… Do as you’re told.” Her sincerity proves too much: perhaps for the first time in his life, the Doctor sets aside his curiosity and accepts that there are some things he should not know.
Clara’s last line to the child Doctor, “Fear makes companions of us all”, is a streamlined version of one of William Hartnell’s lines in “An Unearthly Child”, the first Doctor Who serial. That line, “Fear makes companions of all of us”, is not a climactic philosophical declaration, but an off-the-cuff remark the Doctor makes to Barbara. (It’s not even in the lauded first episode, but the serial’s generally unwatched Stone Age section.) It’s the first time “companions” are mentioned in the show, but there’s no indication that this was intended as an iconic or defining moment – they didn’t even bother to phrase it particularly well. With “Listen”, Moffat takes this line and makes it foundational; enshrines it in the young Doctor’s mind at what might be the most critical moment of his life. The Companion is a pillar of the show, routinely mentioned in the same breath as The Doctor, The TARDIS, and Regeneration. But what is a companion? What fear makes of us. Fear of the unknown; fear of being alone; fear that we will one day understand the things that really drive us.
Given Moffat’s frequent use of the bootstrap paradox, whereby an event causes itself via time-travel in a stable loop, it’s worth taking a moment to note that this is not an example. Yes, Clara’s broader speech about fear being a superpower is paraphrased from something the Twelfth Doctor told her earlier; something he remembers from a childhood dream. But the power of fear to forge bonds of companionship is not something Clara is relaying as part of an endless feedback loop – it’s an entirely human conclusion, and it’s all hers. In “An Unearthly Child”, the First Doctor is now quoting Clara, and it’s a one-way transaction.
The face of the child Doctor is almost invisible in the broadcast episode, but from what we can see, his hair has been styled to resembles the slicked-back wig Hartnell wore in the role. In the leaked workprint, we get a slightly better look, and can see that the child even resembles a young Hartnell in facial structure.
Over the years, episodes like The Brain of Morbius and spin-offs like the novel Lungbarrow have suggested that the First Doctor was not really the *first* Doctor; that our hero has a dark and mysterious past. “Listen” is a strong rejoinder to this idea. Together, the visual resemblance to Hartnell and the appropriation of his early dialogue create a strong (if indirect) sense that the child is indeed a young First Doctor. The episode practically invites us to re-examine Hartnell’s performance in light of its revelations, to search his quirks and mannerisms for traces of the damaged youth within – perhaps he was the Unearthly Child all along. The little boy holding back tears beneath his blanket clearly has no mythic backstory, no convoluted past, and he will clearly grow to become the First Doctor; the sequence is so sensitively written and performed that any other reading feels, in retrospect, redundant and cumbersome – even Elizabeth Sandifer’s striking theory of the Doctor as the exiled Master of the Land of Fiction. It was Moffat who plotted the section of Paul Cornell’s novel Human Nature suggesting that the Doctor was originally a human scientist from Victorian England who invented the TARDIS and founded Gallifreyan civilisation; the willingness of “Listen” to discard this, once the single idea he was keenest on getting into the show’s world, is a modest testament to his development as a writer. This is how you make your preferred version of Doctor Who “canon”: just do such a bloody good job of it that nobody else will have the nerve to contradict you. The only way to add satisfyingly to the origin presented in “Listen” would be to go… quite abstract.
Fredric Brown’s 1948 short story, “Knock”, is a clear influence “Listen”. For the most part, Brown’s story is unremarkable; its fame stems entirely from its staggering opening lines: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…” These sentences were themselves inspired by a 1904 text by Thomas Bailey Aldrich: “Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, Tripoli or Paris. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!” After successfully distilling Aldrich’s image down to its raw, primal, minimalistic horror, Brown proceeded to expand it into unnecessary sci-fi (something about alien zoos). In his own adaptation, Moffat avoids this mistake: “Listen” is laced with ambiguity regarding the “knocking”, preserving the power of Aldrich’s conceptual horror with a careful refusal to commit to any declarative statements about its nature. The Orson Pink storyline knowingly literalises the important lines of “Knock”, switching “last man on Earth” to “last man in the universe” (a surprisingly small change, narratively speaking).
Between his 22nd-century origins, evident connection to her sort-of boyfriend, and claim that one of his great-grandparents was a time-traveller, Orson raises several questions for Clara. The obvious implication, and perhaps what spurs her to put the moves on Danny soon after, is that they’re fated to hook up; that Orson is their descendant. (Clara’s deep affection towards children has been one of her central traits as far back as “The Snowmen”, so it’s interesting to see how she reacts to the idea of starting a family; this thread is revisited in “Kill the Moon”, where the probable presence of her own future children on Earth is part of the moral equation.) She’s fantastically out of her depth here. There’s a great sense of dread; a sense of spiralling out of control in a universe whose cold and intricate logic is becoming increasingly clear, a universe where you can accidentally shape someone’s identity by retroactively meeting them as a child halfway through a first date. This is Moffat’s Coupling writ cosmic. (In the series finale, Danny dies childless. Moffat suggests that Orson might just be a nephew, but I would venture an interpretation more in line with the series’s themes: Orson is from a possible future where Clara chose domesticity with Danny over adventuring with the Doctor.)
When the intruder in Rupert’s room removes its blanket, the camera lingers for a fraction of a second. The intruder is out of focus, but it looks gnarled, dark, stocky, and nothing like the proffered explanation of a child playing a prank. The characters never see it, and so never suggest an explanation. We can preserve the episode’s central ambiguity by imagining it’s a child in a Halloween mask… but it looks, for all the world, like the demonic incubus in Henry Fuseli’s infamous oil painting, The Nightmare. Even the intruder’s position on Rupert’s bed echoes Fuseli’s depiction of the creature seated on the limp body of the sleeping woman. Indeed, the actor under the blanket was Kiran Shah, who had previously portrayed a literal manifestation of Fuseli’s Nightmare in Ken Russell’s 1986 horror film Gothic. (Incidentally, Sigmund Freud is reported to have kept a reproduction of The Nightmare in his Vienna study. If we look very closely at the book the Doctor is reading in the opening scene, we can see just enough words to tell that it’s Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams – specifically a page discussing “condensation”, the tendency of dreams to represent multiple elements with a single symbol.)
“Corner of the Eye”, a short story Moffat wrote in 2006, features creatures called Floofs – squat little bald humanoids who, having evolved perfect hiding abilities, like to stalk people and cause trouble. When the similarities in “Listen” were pointed out, Moffat claimed not to even remember writing the story. Given that it falls far short of the episode’s maturity and density, it seems best to treat it and the Floofs simply as early, half-formed manifestations of the same unconscious drives or anxieties. What’s intriguing here is that the nightmare image of the stunted, humanoid night-stalker is apparently rooted deeply enough in Moffat’s mind that he managed to express it in two Doctor Who stories, almost a decade apart, without even realising it. And understandably so: it’s an incredibly powerful and applicable image, with parallels ranging from sleep paralysis experiences to stories of abduction by alien Greys, so it’s an ideal embodiment for insidious, abstract terror. It’s even tied to the word “nightmare” itself, which has its etymological root in mara, a Germanic term for similar goblin-like creatures thought to sit on the chests of troubled dreamers. A malignant force known as the Mara also appeared in the Fifth Doctor serials Kinda and Snakedance, which Moffat once described as “the two best Who stories ever”.
In fact, elements that resonate with “Listen” are scattered throughout Doctor Who history. In 1972’s The Time Monster, the Third Doctor reminisces about a miserable time in his childhood, “the blackest day of my life”, and was somehow comforted by a daisy shown to him by an ascetic monk. Moffat previously touched on this in his first script for the show proper, 2005’s “The Empty Child”, with the Ninth Doctor’s “It’s never easy being the only child left out in the cold, you know”, and again with Madame du Pompadour’s visions of the Doctor’s “lonely childhood” in 2006’s “The Girl in the Fireplace”. The Doctor also tells her that he himself is what monsters under the bed have nightmares about – a future echo of the ouroboric encounter which defines “the Doctor” as much as it defines “the monster under the bed”. In “Listen”, Moffat runs with the idea of the Doctor as an outcast youth, carefully ensuring that the ultimate nature of the “blackest day” is left mysterious.
At a climactic moment in 1986’s gloriously terrible The Trial of a Time Lord, the Valeyard – an evil future Doctor of sorts – torments the Sixth Doctor by conjuring illusory hands out of the ground; hands which grasp at his ankles. This was originally just a naff cliffhanger, but after “Listen”, we can read it as the Valeyard’s using his intimate knowledge of the Doctor’s past against him, besetting him with manifestations of his own repressed childhood horror.
Further resonances exist in other media. Lance Parkin’s 2005 novel The Gallifrey Chronicles mentions that, when the Doctor was a small child, his mother read him the legend of Grandfather Paradox, a rebellious young Time Lord who murdered his grandfather before his father could be conceived, thus becoming “a shadowy half-man, simultaneously alive and dead, murderer and victim.” For a long time after, the child Doctor feared that Grandfather Paradox was lurking under his bed, or making the noises he heard in the night. It’s worth noting that Grandfather Paradox originated in Lawrence Miles’s novels, and is explicitly one of the aforementioned “conceptual entities” – a being whose substance is thought itself, and who is defined largely through the text’s cautious abstinence from depicting him directly… just like the entity in “Listen”.
In addition, the episode quietly acts as a coda to “The Day of the Doctor”. Most overtly, it reveals that the War Doctor planned to end the Time War (and his own life) in the barn where he languished as a child, retroactively imparting a more sensitive, sentimental aspect to John Hurt’s performance – a significant addition for a character difficult to develop on-screen given the actor’s age and status. On another level, the scene situated at the very beginning of the Doctor’s journey serves as a counterpoint to the special’s cameo by Tom Baker as the Curator, a distant future incarnation of the Doctor. Together the two scenes (aired within a year of each other) act as symbiotic bookends to the show’s entire history, combining to form a definitive take on the Doctor’s nature; a cosmic journey from fear to enlightenment with human companionship as the catalyst. (It’s oddly satisfying to watch them back-to-back.)
The closing montage, which drifts across the players as Clara’s musings on the nature of fear tie the episode’s threads together, has a peculiarly academic quality. Guillermo del Toro ends several of his films in exactly the same way, even describing The Devil’s Backbone as an “essay” on ghosts rather than a film about them. “Listen” is similar: as much an essay on its chosen dimensions of Doctor Who as it is an episode of the show.
The last shot is dizzyingly powerful: the entirety of Doctor Who captured with the symbol of the brave unarmed soldier, watching over the stars. A startlingly new angle on the core values of the show, this image serves as a thought-provoking alternative to that of the TARDIS itself, and seems less an example of the eighth series’s fixation on soldiery than an explanation for it. The leaked workprint actually has an even more elegant closing shot – instead of cutting directly from the eye to Clara’s hand placing the toy soldier on the windowsill, it fades gradually from the eye to a shot of the night sky itself, then drifts down to rest on the soldier. (Another editing misstep was opening the episode with a shot of Earth, which should really be another field of stars to mirror the ending.)
The penultimate shot, the child’s eye gazing sleepily at the night sky, is even more stunning (and saying that it’s stolen from 12 Monkeys is not a criticism.) How many of his future selves are dashing about the very stars he’s looking at, overthrowing corrupt rulers, helping people, losing people? We can almost imagine the infinite path that lies before him, tracing its way throughout the cosmos like a web of constellations. Consider: since that fateful November broadcast in 1963, just how many children have dreamed of being the Doctor? How many young minds, entranced by the show’s heroic adventures, have pictured themselves in the TARDIS, bounding across time and space, healing the ills of the universe one world at a time? This child never dreamt it… he just did it.