“Listen” served up one of Doctor Who’s spookiest scenes in quite a while when the Doctor, Clara, and young Rupert—future Danny—Pink (child actor Remi Goodling making an impressive debut) turned their backs on the—person? alien? monster? thing?— under the bedspread, waiting until it went its way “in peace,” unseen. Well, I say “unseen:” We viewers catch the briefest glimpse of something as it pulls the blanket off its head, just as the Doctor is asking, “Imagine a thing that must never be seen—what would it do if you saw it?” I can’t be certain, but whatever it is certainly looks like it has “attack eyebrows” to me…
The Doctor tells Rupert fear is a “superpower” we can use to “run faster… fight harder… [and] jump higher than ever”—a wonderful way to rob fear of its power to use us, instead. There are times when turning our backs on what scares us is exactly the right thing to do. There are other times, however, when we must face our fears, as the Doctor attempts to do in that outpost at the end of time. “Listen” dramatizes both approaches because we need both to help us navigate a life where fear is our “constant companion.”
“Listen” argues that being alive means being afraid. Not only that, but largely. When Clara tells the boy who will become the Doctor (and who is hiding under a bedspread for fear of being seen—surely no coincidence) that he’ll always be afraid, she’s speaking about all of us. Her assertion that “fear makes companions of us all” is a direct quote from the very first Doctor Who story, “An Unearthly Child.” Some long-time fans probably resent the idea that, yet again, Clara is cast as a formative influence on the Doctor (as when one of her temporal splinter selves suggested he take the “faulty” TARDIS from Gallifrey in “The Name of the Doctor”). I liked the callback, but you don’t have to like it or even catch it to appreciate the truth in Clara’s words. When we’re children, we may think grown-ups live free from fear; as we grow up ourselves, however, we realize the fears just change. For example, the thunderstorms that make my seven-year-old daughter cry don’t scare me (usually), but I’m terrified by the climate change modern civilization has unleashed. Your fears may not be mine, but we’re all afraid of something. And Clara is right: Fear can “bring us together,” motivating us to make much-needed connections of support, friendship, even love. Presumably the Doctor experienced this truth for himself as he grew—after all, he was a father and grandfather (I enjoyed seeing his “dad skills” in action)—because, when, in “An Unearthly Child,” he echoes Clara’s words, he also expands on them: “Fear is with all of us and always will be. Just like that other sensation that lives with it… Hope.”
“Listen” is Steven Moffat’s eloquent and entertaining statement that fear is not always our enemy. As Clara says, it doesn’t have to make us “cruel or cowardly,” but can make us “kind.” (The unexpected insert of John Hurt’s War Doctor at that point made me marvel, again, at Moffat’s tenacious long game—or at least at his ability to make me believe he’s playing one!) We don’t have to live as fear’s slaves.
It’s a statement similar to what the letter to the Hebrews tells us: We no longer need to live “held in slavery by the fear of death” (2.15)—isn’t that the root of all fears? For the author of Hebrews, however, our freedom from fear comes, not from ourselves—not from deciding that there’s nothing to be afraid of—but from Jesus, who took on our fears by taking on our flesh and blood, “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (2.14).
What scares you? How do you handle your fears?
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
The picture of the spooky figure on the bed was found at http://whatculture.com/tv/doctor-listen-review-contains-spoilers.php. The image of Clara under the bed was found at http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Listen_(TV_story).