Sometimes, amongst all the noise and spectacle of a Doctor Who story, it’s the nuances that are most impressive. Watching Listen again, I was struck by one tiny but exquisite detail.
It’s on Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) second attempt at the date. She absent mindedly drops Danny’s (Samuel Anderson) real name, Rupert – a detail she’s not supposed to know and the catalyst for a new argument. At that point of the soundtrack, there’s the sound of a glass breaking. A nice, gently symbolic touch.
Listen‘s got lots of interesting little details like that in it, some adding extra meaning to the story, and some raising more questions than they answer. Let’s unearth a few more.
- The story’s title is offered to us three times, in three different ways. In the very first scene, where the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is meditating on top of the TARDIS (mind that lamp), his eyes snap open and he exclaims, “Listen!”. For no readily apparent reason. Then we’re in the TARDIS and the Doctor’s musing out loud, pre-credits and we see the word LISTEN scrawled mysteriously on a blackboard. Then the title card itself. We get it. The episode’s called Listen.
- The restaurant where Clara meets Danny has a roundel patterned ceiling, making it feel a bit TARDISy.
- Danny Pink is wearing a pink shirt. Now, this little detail feels wrong to me. I just don’t think he’s the sort of guy who would intentionally wear pink, because it would be like he’s trying to emphasise his surname. If anything, pink’s the one colour he wouldn’t wear.
- When Clara arrives, Danny’s excuse for not having the date sooner is, “family stuff.” As we find out, this episode’s going to be all about Danny’s family life; his childhood and Orson Pink, who is strongly hinted at being Danny’s descendant. About which, more later.
- During the date, Clara and Danny compare notes about a particularly frustrating female student. This is a clear reference to the show’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, during which schoolteachers Ian and Barbara are similarly flummoxed by their pupil Susan. Stay tuned, there are more links to the show’s very first story, and its first season, to come.
- When she returns home from her date, Clara predicts she’ll get a phone call from Danny. And she does, while she’s plugged into the TARDIS telepathic circuits, causing the ship to veer off course, etc etc.
- When the Doctor is explaining his theory about the dream that everybody has, Clara asks the Doctor if he has had the dream. He doesn’t say anything but we find out the answer is yes later in the episode, and Clara was the cause.
- When the Doctor’s explaining how the telepathic circuits work, Clara says she doesn’t want to know when she’s going to die. This is the second time this season Clara has said that, the last time in Deep Breath. This could be just misdirection, making us think that Clara’s doomed when she’s not. But it feels like it was meant to lead somewhere, a hint at a story arc which never eventuated.
- And speaking of which, there’s a major plot point about Clara being part of Orson’s family, the clear implication being that Orson’s a descendant of Clara and Danny’s. This isn’t how it turns out at all, and while it’s possible that Orson could be some the fruit of some other twisted branch of the Oswald and Pink family trees, that doesn’t feel like the intention. We know that Moffat was expecting Jenna Coleman to leave at the end of the series, and my bet is that Death in Heaven was going to end with her pregnant. But hey, we’ll probably never know.
- While we’re on paths untaken, one of the things which Danny gets riled about is when people refer to him as a killer. In Into the Dalek, he gets called a ‘ladykiller’ and here, Clara jokes that when he says he could kill someone, that really means something. Perhaps this story arc was not meant to end with Clara procreating with Danny, but with him killing her?
- There’s a running joke in this episode that Clara’s eyes are too large for her face. “Get them under control,” the Doctor says at one point. The makeup department has taken notes and assigned Clara nude lipstick. As Mrs. Spandrell, a trained makeup artist, pointed out to me, this draws the viewer’s attention away from her lips and accentuates her eyes. Clever, huh?
- Orson’s spacesuit is from Sanctuary Base Six and thus a big continuity booboo. There’s no attempt to hide it either; there are a series of big close ups where its logo is front and centre. So a detail overlooked there, and here’s another. I can just about accept that the Doctor sends Orson into the restaurant to summon Clara. I can just about accept that he doesn’t say anything, just beckon mysteriously. But why on earth does his wear the helmet in the restaurant? Only, of course, to preserve the eventual reveal of his face being the same as Danny’s, one scene later.
- So, Clara meets Danny when he’s a young boy and unintentionally rewrites his destiny. Later, she meets the Doctor as a young boy, and more intentionally, sets him on his life’s path. So Clara seems to have a thing about messing with men’s lives. She’s already a force for change in the Doctor’s life, running up and down his timeline. Though to be fair, she grows out of this habit. But next year, the Doctor picks it up and has a life changing impact on young Davros.
- Back to 100,000 BC. Clara picks up a line of dialogue from that story, which is “fear makes companions of us all.” In fact, you could argue the whole story’s been built around this moment. Amongst the many shout outs to the first story, and remembering that Into the Dalek deliberately references the second, Listen picks up on the third. Inside the Spaceship. It’s the other story in the Who canon where the Doctor suspects the presence of an unseen menace, only for it to be revealed that it was all his own paranoia.
Listen is a story whose title asks us to observe and pay attention, as a schoolteacher scrawling on a chalkboard might instruct her students. For me, there’s just as much to observe in the small touches (some random, some carefully planned) than in the broad brushstrokes of this chamber piece of an episode. That could be the very definition of being a fan.
LINK TO Paradise Towers: lonely little boys playing soldiers.
NEXT TIME… oh, the end of the universe has come. Grab every companion you’ve ever had, it’s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.