The Worldly Power of Fear, Doctor Who: Listen, Reviews, 14/09/2014

This opening scene is the most explicit of several suggestions
throughout this season emphasizing the Doctor's mysticism.
But more on that later.
One thing that immediately struck my girlfriend and I on watching Listen, which we both agreed was brilliant, is that Peter Capaldi can sometimes play the Doctor as if he is completely unstable. I don’t mean this in the sense of his being ethically unstable or unreliable, as I considered in my discussion of Deep Breath. I mean it in the sense that Capaldi’s Doctor, in this episode, at times appears mentally unstable.

This can be a very good thing, because Capaldi plays a brilliantly unstable Doctor. It also means that it’s incredibly useful as a narrative device. Steven Moffat, when discussing this episode in promotional press appearances, said this episode started from wondering what the Doctor ever did on a normal day when nothing happened. He’d go looking for trouble.

In this case, he goes looking to investigate a hypothesis, like the scientist that he is. Given that evolutionary processes can result in creatures that are optimally suited to their ecological niches and cycles, such as hunting and defense, there must also be creatures optimally suited to hiding. If, like humans and Gallifreyans, there are creatures capable of surviving optimally in a diverse number of environments, then the hiders must likewise be capable of an equivalent flexibility.

Is it a monster? For the first time, really, in Doctor Who, it
doesn't actually matter.

That’s what Listen, as an episode, does. The narrative and the cinematography never settle on whether there is ever actually a creature that satisfies the Doctor’s hypothesis. There’s only ever that one moment in little Rupert Pink’s bedroom in the children’s home* when we see a strange, blurry figure behind the cast as the blanket falls to the floor. The climactic confrontation in Orson Pink’s timeship at the end of the universe could just as easily be a hull pressure breach as an actual attack.

* Children’s homes are sensitive subjects in Britain right now, given the Rotherham sexual molestation scandal currently rocking Britain with what I have long considered an obvious truth: that children isolated in orphanages are subject to exploitation by the people with institutional power over them. I was a child in St. John’s when the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal came to light. This is an old, obvious truth to me.

Listen ultimately isn’t about a traditional monster in the Doctor Who sense. If you’re familiar with the history of the show, you understand how reliance on traditional monsters can more often cripple the program, despite their place at the show’s heart. Just think of the Quarks and have some whiskey. This is a meditation on the mental instability that can arise when you’re restless and afraid.

Further parallels between Clara and Danny: Samuel Anderson,
like Jenna Coleman, has now played a reiterated version of
himself in the show.
In every circumstance where the mysterious Ultimate Hider appears, it could just as easily be fear playing tricks on a character’s mind. Rupert is alone and orphaned in a group home. Orson is isolated, wrecked in a distant corner of the universe of space and time for six months, trapped on a lifeless world. The Doctor, as we discover, has lived constantly with fear since childhood.

That fear would seem to be the root of a nihilism that has appeared in Capaldi’s Doctor since Deep Breath, where he told the lead clockwork robot point blank, “There is no promised land.” He’d been looking for it himself, but it doesn’t exist. Similarly in Listen, his attempt to comfort Rupert is emotionally ineffective, telling him only that fear will always be a part of one’s life until Clara orders him to shut it.** There is a bluntness to how the Doctor expresses life’s danger and apparent ultimate emptiness that is often mistaken for nihilism.

** This is another interesting part of the Doctor-Clara screwball comedy relationship. Their barbs are never hurtful until the situation gets serious, and I (and I’m not the only one) get the feeling that if Clara leaves the show this season, it will lie in both of their mouths running off a little bit too much at each other, just as Clara and Danny almost mess up their budding romance here.

But there is no nihilism to the Doctor’s belief in the universality of fear and the non-existence of a promised land or paradise that transcends material existence. Clara is the voice of affirmation here, in the flashback sentence to the Doctor’s own childhood, but the choice and the worldview is the Doctor’s own. And it’s just as I discussed in my essay in the volume Doctor Who and Philosophy, about the Doctor’s nature as a kind of Overman.

Anthony Coburn first wrote that "Fear makes companions of
us all," which inspires the young Doctor in Listen, making a
temporal circle around the first truly inspiring lines in the
history of Doctor Who.
The Doctor never stops being afraid. “Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly,” calling back to a line about the ethical nature of the Doctor in the novelizations of Terrance Dicks. That notion recurs continually in the work of Moffat and of Paul Cornell, who wrote fantastic novels for the Virgin Publishing era and two brilliant television stories in the Davies era. Fear is, instead, a form of armour and inspiration, an energy to encourage you to fight a frightening world.

Too often, we humans are quite pudding-brained in our motivations for moral and ethical behaviour, believing that we need to have a transcendent power to reward us for good actions, or at least to punish us for our bad ones, to maintain good behaviour at all. One of the central messages of Doctor Who, in this episode and in many others, is that goodness comes from our own worldly desires and powers. It’s satisfied not in the decisions of a transcendent force that is sometimes called God, but in the practical motives and results in our actions to make the world a better place, even though we may only be able to do a little bit at a time.


  1. I thought "never cruel or cowardly" was Terrance Dicks.

    1. Fixed, and thank you. I think I've heard it so much from Cornell and Moffat that I forget its actual origin sometimes, especially when I'm writing a review in immediate reaction to an episode.