LISTEN

You might not think so at first, but writing a universally acclaimed episode of Doctor Who can't be the unalloyed joy itís cracked up to be. Well, actually it would be unalloyed joy, assuming that once youíve parked the BAFTA in the loo (anything else looks like youíre trying far too hard, darling) you fling down the quill for good and take up drain unblocking. Then itíd all work out just fine.

But suppose you donít? Suppose you still keep hacking away at the keyboard? Then, as the BAFTA gets dustier with every day that passes, thereís a question that keeps you flopping fretfully back and forth at night: how the hell do I top that?

Blink is a near-perfect little jewel. Itís original, itís gripping, itís endlessly surprising, and virtually every end is darned in so perfectly that you canít see the joins. That, alas, is a lot to live up to.

Itís not that Moffat hasnít tried. Heís really good at the dead simple stuff that scares us all to death, and since Blink heís trotted out a lot more in the same vein. Some of it has been more successful (the terrifying Silence stuff), some less (ďDonít breatheĒ, the weak echo of ďDonít blinkĒ, in Deep Breath). And some of it, unfortunately, has undone the good work of Blink (the relentless descarinessing of the Angels). None of it has approached Blinkís shiny, shiny perfection.

When the trailers for Listen ran at the end of Robot Of Sherwood, it was clear Moffat was taking another crack at full tilt scary. At least, thatís what it looked like. So does it succeed? Yes. And no. Very much no. And weíve got an inkling that you know exactly what bits those apply to.

The teaser didnít fill us with optimism. Not to diss Peter Capaldi, who gives it his all, but itís a wee bit too clunky and graunchy. Weíre definitely up for the idea that the Doctor talks to himself, but we canít believe that when alone even he delivers monologues in the manner of a PowerPoint presentation. And the perfect hiding stuff reminded us way too forcefully of the Silence. Havenít we been here before?

Fortunately Clara and Danny turn up to dial up the entertainment factor with their enjoyably disastrous date. Itís that soldier thing again. Hands up who was surprised to see it come back ? Yeah, thought so. We particularly like the intercutting here with Claraís reactions after she gets home. ( Oh, and Claraís dress. Nice.)

The Doctorís reaction to Claraís date (ďI thought Iíd better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him homeĒ) is a lovely reminder of how different this Doctor is from humans (and from his predecessor). And itís back to the Doctorís lecture, but this time with Clara there it works perfectly. Then we kick up about a thousand gears into the scary part.

The last time we were truly terrified in Doctor Who was in Day Of The Moon, with the pants-wettingly frightening scene in the childrenís home. And whoa, another truckload of scary in another childrenís home! What the significance of this is we havenít a clue, but we thought weíd throw it in there.

All of this is what Moffat does best: utter terror from something very, very simple. When the rug-covered lump appeared on the bed, we were five again, peering through a crack in the door at Doctor Who (behind the sofa was way too close). Itís that good.

And thereís something else thatís frightening too: the Doctor. Weíve never seen him like this before, and while itís a little unnerving, we think we like it. You can twist the Doctor in different directions while still keeping his essential shape, and for us a Doctor whose smile makes us shiver is still colouring inside the lines, if only just. Peter Capaldi is utterly mesmerising here, and the humour, thank all the deities in the universe, this week fits him like a bespoke glove.

And you know what? Thatís pretty much the good bit. This isnít an episode that can stand much rewatching: the scaryís utterly drained out of it on a second go, and itís a lot easier to notice flaws when youíre not having the bejeezus frightened out of you. The next part isnít bad or anything, but rough edges definitely creep in. Weíre not crazy, for example, about the Doctorís ďDad skillsĒ. Venusian aikidoís one thing, but supernatural powers are pushing it. Itís like theyíve replaced the sonic screwdriver with the Doctorís own finger.

An astronaut comes into the restaurant, and everybody completely ignores him. Considering the bad press around people going into public places wearing full-face masks, youíd think everyone would be screaming and hitting the deck. Then the Doctor asks Clara whether she has any connection with the new Mr Pink. What reason does she have for lying about it, other than pushing the plot forward?

We really like Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink: he has a wonderfully light touch with the awkward comedy which makes his scenes with Clara zing. Weíre not so crazy, however, about him as Orson: the character seems pretty doughy and nothingy to us, although we suspect thatís a lot more to do with the writing than the portrayal.

And we arrive at the end of everything. This, we think, is a serious miscalculation. Itís using a flamethrower to light a birthday candle.

The end of time, the end of the universe, the end of all things. Itís terror on a whole other level. Or at least it should be: itís been touched on before in Doctor Who, but never very effectively, and unfortunately this is no exception. Instead itís just scrumpled up into a ball and thrown away. The whole point of the horror of this is that thereís nothing there. Why throw away this deep existential dread in favour of a minor chiller about a couple of creaky pipes? What a waste.

Despite all of this, one thing does work really well, and thatís Peter Capaldiís performance. Even the second time through, the Doctor really scares us here. Itís breathtaking.

Otherwise? Oh dear. Oh deary deary deary dear.

Weíve said many times that itís a lot easier to build up an exciting story than to resolve it. Endings are uphill work. You have to leave the audience happy that it has enough answers without patting it on the head too much and tying everything up in a tidy little parcel. None of that is easy.

So Steven Moffat takes a novel approach to the problem. He canít top Blink, so he has to go in a completely different direction. You were expecting an alien? Something supernatural? Think again, because itís not about that at all.

Was there ever anything scary under the blanket? Was there ever anything scary outside the door? Knocking pipes, or just knocking? Atmosphere moving the door, or a little visitor?

We donít think thereís much debate. We think itís abundantly clear that there was never anything there that didnít have a rational explanation. They even hand us a big fat clue in the form of a creepily disappearing coffee that turns out just to have been half-inched by the Doctor. We all thought this was about the kind of creepy stuff Moffatís turned out before, but this time, thatís so not the case. The shocker is that there is no shocker.

We donít like it much: on the face of it the questions have been answered, but that doesnít mean itís emotionally satisfying. When you discover there was nothing to any of it, it makes everything you've been through seem curiously pointless. Nevertheless, we canít say itís not legitimate. Asked and answered. Fair enough.

What we do object to, however, and violently at that, is what Moffat hands us instead. It was never about whatever particular alien would turn out to be resident under the bed. (To be honest, with all that creepy dark bedroom stuff we couldnít get the big blue fluffy thing from Monsters Inc out of our minds, so perhaps thatís not a bad thing. Not that we donít love the big blue fluffy thing from Monsters Inc. But imagine the royalties.) Instead, itís about fear. And not just any fear, either. The Doctorís fear.

The clues are littered throughout. The Doctor doesnít answer Claraís question ďHave you had that dream?Ē, because the Doctor's experience is the whole point of the episode. The Doctor asks Rupert ĒImagine the thing that must never be seen - what would you do if you saw it?Ē. Rupert replies that he doesnít know, and the Doctor says ďNeither do I.Ēí And the lumpy creature on the bed is an echo of the boy Doctor sobbing under the covers. Itís not about the scary stuff. Itís about the Doctorís reaction to it.

The Doctor, the Doctor, the Doctor. So far, thatís all this season has been about. In Deep Breath, entire dinosaurs turned out to be inconsequential compared to the importance of putting a microscope on the Doctor. Youíd expect a bunch of that in a regeneration episode, of course, but itís been just the same in the other episodes. Into The Dalek wasnít actually about the Dalek, it was about the Doctorís hatred of the Daleks. And Robot Of Sherwoodís leafy window-dressing is packed around the real subject: the Doctorís feelings about heroes.

Thatís dangerous stuff. Let the gaze get so inward-focused and everything becomes increasingly airless. But thatís far from being the worst part.

In our review of Robot Of Sherwood, we said that having people whoíd grown up with the show now in charge of the magic kit was problematical. There, we were thinking of the thing getting obscured by dollops of fanwank as the writers flung artful callback on loving tribute. We only wish that was the total extent of the problem here.

Moffat is determined to carve his initials on the franchise he has such a passion for. Thatís unsurprising: weíd probably all feel the same if we got our hands on it. But be very, very careful what you wish for. Currently this is causing two problems. One is a bad problem. The other is a very, very bad problem.

Letís start with the slightly less toxic one first. That would be Clara.

None of this is about Jenna Coleman. Sheís effortlessly knocking out of the park everything sheís been asked to do. Itís what sheís been asked to do thatís the problem.

Weíve said before that we thought Moffatís favourite Doctor was River. That was then. Now itís Clara. Once again, Moffatís original creation, the companion, is running the TARDIS.

And we mean actually running the TARDIS. Sheís driving the bloody thing.

That, of course, isnít all. Sheís taking action. Sheís deciding what to do. Given that this episode is about the Doctorís mental landscape, when it comes to the plot that matters sheís the one saving the day.

Worse, she does it in a peculiarly Moffatly way. His predilection for female characters who are mothers or dominatrices is obvious, and here Clara gets to be both. She does two lengthy and important stints of mothering, first of Rupert Pink as a warmup and then, much more importantly, of the boy Doctor. After all, thatís her job, right? Her only function in all of her lifetimes is to be the Doctorís helpmeet. The sexism of this concept, especially when paired with the mothering aspect, is so breathtaking weíre not sure we need to say any more about it. Like a companion of yore, itís screaming.

And thereís also the whips and chains side. In this episode, she biffs the Doctor for the second time. She orders him around. She tells him to shut up. She tells him to do as heís told. (And yes, we know thatís an echo of what heís said to her, but that doesnít really change anything.)

Why Moffat likes these saintly mother/sexy dominatrix types so much, and why he canít see how forcing so many of his important female characters into these roles is the epitome of a sexism he says he doesnít feel, is none of our business. Itís his writing weíre here to critique, not his character. But as far as the writing goes, we detest it. Quite apart from the sexism, which just shouldnít be there end of, presenting us with the same archetypes over and over is frankly pretty boring.

Again, thatís not the worst of it. The worst of this treatment of the companion is what it does to the Doctor.

Needless to say, weíre not against the companion being proactive. Thankfully, weíre long past the days of endless screaming and ďWhat do we do now, Doctor?Ē. But letís face it, itís not her name on the title card, is it?

It says it right there. The Doctorís supposed to be the lead character. But wait. Given that we said every episode this season has actually been about him, then Moffatís getting that right, yeah?

Yeah, nah. Thatís not how itís been working. Clara has to step up, because the Doctor is not himself. In this episode, heís (hah!) in the dark a lot of the time. He knows Clara and Orson are connected, but not how, and heís out cold for a lot of the crucial stuff. (We canít remember the last time we saw the Doctor so decisively hors de combat.) Heís constantly appealing to Clara for validation (ďCanít I, Clara?Ē ďShouldnít it, Clara?Ē). And he comprehensively needs saving, first by Orson when heís about to be swept out the airlock, then by Clara when heís a blubbering Time Tot.

Which brings us to the very, very bad problem.

Moffatís determination to leave his mark on the franchise doesnít stop at creating characters who out-Doctor the Doctor. He wants to go further. He wants to get his hands dirty and fiddle with the machinery.

Heís not the first, of course. From Robert Holmes coming up with all the Gallifrey apparatus and the twelve regenerations to the Cartmel masterplan (new series fans: donít ask. Weíd be here all day), everyoneís wanted a go. Fair enough. We donít demand that everything is set in stone. Change is good. But when you change stuff, youíd better make sure you donít destroy it along the way. And weíre worried. For the first time since Moffat took the reins, we think heís put a serious and permanent ding in it.

Twiddle things if you like. But you really, really, really shouldnít mess with the basics. And the most basic of those basics is the Doctorís essential mystery.

Itís all very interesting wondering what makes him tick. And thatís precisely why we shouldnít know. Take a frog apart to see how it works, and youíre left with a pile of stinking guts and a dead frog. Fishing around in the Doctorís past to find his mainspring doesnít illuminate him, it diminishes him. And thatís a tragedy.

And even worse is the way itís done. The Doctor is motivated by fear? The Doctor? And was only able to turn it around and draw on it because of Clara? Well, weíre sorry, but they can fuck right off with that. Moffat couldnít have damaged the Doctor more thoroughly if heíd set out singlemindedly to stab him through the hearts. Yeah, we know the Doctorís ďFear makes companions of us allĒ is a paraphrase of a very similar statement made by the First Doctor in his first story. That doesnít give Moffat carte blanche to go as far as this.

Thatís the worst of it, but thereís more. Putting all this stuff in has unpleasant spinoffs in the way it affects the Doctorís behaviour. In this season weíve already seen him acting without regard for the consequences for anybody else when he puts the Dalek back together. That was thoughtless, which is definitely within the Doctorís remit, but things seriously ramp up in Listen.

The Doctor is so wrapped up in his own problems that he doesnít do anything for anybody else. He scares Rupert, and his ďturn your backĒ advice is rubbish (as you would expect from someone - ugh - riddled with fear). As with Into The Dalek, heís so focused on trying to solve the problem that heís dropping the ball in things that should matter. Heís oblivious to Orsonís desire not to go anywhere near the future again, taking him back there for no reason when he could have dropped him at home. He tells Clara to get into the TARDIS when he opens the door, but he gives no thought as to how sheís supposed to get anywhere from there if heís munched by something. Okay, maybe he knew the TARDIS would take care of it, but that isnít all: he allows, in fact encourages, Clara to meet someone from her own timeline. Which no. No, no. no.

And we doubt weíve seen the end of it, either. It was pretty obvious the Doctorís attitude towards soldiers was fuelled by his own stint as the War Doctor, and this episode underlined that with a chisel. Given what transpires in this episode, Danny is obviously going to be an important character. This means the whole navel-gazing soldiering thing is likely to go on and on and on.

Turn the audienceís expectations on their heads? All right, then. Fake out the whole expected scary creepy thing with a rational explanation? Go ahead, even if it does fall with a distinct thud. But mess with the Doctor at the most basic level? We donít like that. We donít like that at all.

OUTTAKES

SIZE MATTERS

Weíll give them this: theyíve definitely learned their lesson when it comes to scale. Every one of the episodes in this season thus far has been perfectly sized. Itís a pleasant change from the overblown epics they tried to force in in the previous season.

QUALITY TIME

Danny says about the delay in organising the date ďTook a bit of time. Family stuffĒ. No doubt thatís coming back to haunt us.

SMASHING

When Clara mentions the name Rupert in the restaurant, a glass breaks in the background. We couldnít decide if this was cheesy or amusing. Eventually we settled on cheesily amusing.

THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

The news ticker talking about Orson Pink is exactly the same as todayís. Because everything today is exactly as it was in 1914Öoh, wait.

PASS THE TIME HAIRPIN

Matthew Innes writes to say that we forgot to mention the horrible mangling of Gallifrey's time lock, which as he so trenchantly points out "has all the impregnability of Swiss cheese". Quite. He also asks: "If the Doctor can visit Gallifrey pre-Time War, couldn't he just camp out there until the time of Gallifrey's re-emergence, and locate it that way?" Sounds like a plan to us.

PERCHANCE TO DREAM

So is the Doctor's dream really a dream, or just a memory? We think it's a memory, but that he assumes it's a dream although he has suspicions about it. So he's checking human records to see if others dream it, because if so his theory about a perfectly hidden entity might be right. None of this, however, explains why if he's having a dream he would assume that humans are also having it. Shouldn't he be checking the Time Lord records? We bet the TARDIS has got 'em all tucked away somewhere.

ABOUT THAT BAFTA

We might not like the way Moffatís treating the Doctor, but none of thatís in Peter Capaldiís court. Heís spinning straw into gold here with a mighty fury. Just look at his expression when Clara goes to put her hands on his shoulders. Sublime.