There are a lot of things going on in the 4th episode of series 8, Listen; the music is sparse, and used very carefully; visually, there are a lot of reds and blues; there is a lot of mirroring and parallels in the stories and characters; really too much to cover all in one blog post. So for the sake of this blog, I’m going to focus on the idea of loneliness. Being alone is a universal fear that is especially poignant for the Doctor, and while on the surface it appears that the theme of this episode is fear, I think the deeper theme is the fear of being alone.
This episode starts with the Doctor alone, soliloquizing. There are two great alone shots here that I’d like to point out
The first with the Doctor sitting in the lotus position on top of the TARDIS with the earth behind him. Neil Armstrong once said, “”It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth… I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”*The second is the interior TARDIS shot. I think this is the first big sweeping shot we’ve seen of the inside of Capaldi’s TARDIS. This far off shot, just emphasizes how big and empty the TARDIS can be, and how small and alone the Doctor looks in comparison.
Clara comes in from her date with Danny and she is alone. Her house is empty and instead of the normal soundtrack, all you hear is sirens in the distance. The Doctor is alone. Clara is alone.
Isn’t the shot with the Doctor looking in the three mirrors interesting. A Time Lord looking into three mirrors. Past, present, and future perhaps? The Doctor’s image, alone, is reflected in every pane. When Clara’s image is eventually reflected in the mirror, it is only in one panel. Clara is present for the Doctor, but that is all she will ever be. He may have companions for awhile, but in the scheme of all time and space he is alone. It reminds me of what Clara said in Hide, “We all must be ghosts to you.”
Doctor: “You know sometimes when you talk to yourself, what if you’re not.”
Clara: “Not what?”
Doctor: “What if it’s not you you’re talking to. Proposition! What if no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow. What if that prickle on the back of your neck is the breath of something close behind you.”
Clara: “How long have you been traveling alone?”
The Doctor is very excited about the idea that he may never truly be alone. Clara’s response is to ask him how long he has been alone. The idea that the Doctor does not do well alone is not a new one to new Who. In recent memory, both Amy and River have told the Doctor that he should never travel alone, not to mention how badly things went for Tennant’s Doctor when he traveled alone too long. For the Doctor: alone = bad.
At the children’s home Clara looks up and sees a lone boy in the window who waves. Rupert seems to be the only child in this children’s home – that we see anyway (unless you count the one under the bedspread). Rupert is alone in a room by himself and afraid. Alone = afraid. A lot of the time in the children’s home there isn’t background music, rather every incidental noise is louder, Clara’s footsteps, the rattle of the door, ambient voices, even Clara’s breathing, all louder, further emphasizing that unsettled feeling when you are alone.
Clara: “Nice room. You know, you should have more than one chair. What do you do when people come round?” Rupert lives in this room alone. He needs only one chair. When Clara is setting up the soldiers for Rupert, there is one lone one without a gun. She makes that one the boss. In this shot you see she is wearing a ring that looks a lot like an eye. I’ve talked before about Clara’s role as the one who sees. She is the one that sees clearly what Rupert needs.
And speaking of Clara’s role as the one who sees:
Doctor: “What’s wrong with your face. It’s all eyes. Why are you all eyes?”
And later: “She’s doing that all eyes thing. It’s because her face is so wide. She needs three mirrors.”
Continuing the idea that the three mirrors represented time, or past, present, and future, the fact that Clara is “all eyes” and she needs “three mirrors,” further solidifies Clara as the one who sees, and in the doctors case she can see his past, present, and future. And then there is this image:
Clara and the Doctor travel to the end of time to where the Doctor had found Orson Pink. There is no background music, only the hum of the base systems, and the Doctor talks about how quiet it is.
Doctor: “Look at him now, Robinson Crusoe at the end of time itself. Last man standing in the universe. I always thought that would be me.”
In case you’re rusty on 18th century fictional characters, Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked alone on an island for 28 years, just as Orson was accidentally stranded in time until he was discovered by the Doctor. The Doctor admitting that he thought he would be stranded alone at the end of time is a very telling insight to his own belief about his fate. Later, the Doctor says that at the end of the universe “everything is dead.” The Doctor expects that everything around him will die, and he will be left alone. Doctor: “Six months stranded alone, I suppose it might be tempting… company.”
The Doctor says plainly that danger and death can seem preferable to the desperate feeling of being alone.
When Clara is scared, she asks why they can’t flee from whatever is outside the hatch; the Doctor responds that he “needs to know.” He then gives an impassioned speech about finding creatures that are perfect at hiding. “What would those creatures do when everyone was gone and there was only one man left standing in the universe?” he asks, pointing to himself. If such a creature did exist then the Doctor will never be truly alone. He is so desperate to find such a creature that he orders Clara back to the TARDIS and he puts himself at great risk by opening the hatch. Ironically, his fear of being alone causes him to push Clara away, to keep her safe.
In the barn we find the Doctor as a child. The visual here is really interesting. He’s alone in a barn. His bed is behind these bars. It almost looks like prison bars. But his bed is raised. A raised platform, but behind bars. Doesn’t that describe the Doctor well? He is raised above others because of his intelligence and nature of being a Time Lord, but this same intelligence and nature can be like a prison to him. Because he is destined to be alone, he is not free to live and love fully.
The reveal that Clara is the creature under the bed is one of the best moments in series 8. The thing that the Doctor feared but also seemed to crave, the creature that would be with him and never leave him truly alone, is Clara, his companion. Clara sits on the edge of the young doctor’s bed and tries to calm his fears. When I first heard Clara say that “fear makes companions of us all,” I thought she meant that fear goes with all of us, all of the time. Fear is our companion. It wasn’t until I was watching The Forest of Fear a few months later and the first Doctor said these same words to Barbara that I saw a different meaning. When the first Doctor said to Barbara that “fear makes companions of us all,” he wasn’t saying that everyone was afraid; he was saying that sharing fear makes us all friends, it gives us something in common, it binds us together, it makes it so we are not alone. Clara expresses a similar idea when she says, “Fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home.”
The Doctor is afraid of being alone and he was looking for something, a creature that might be with him until the end of time. The conclusion of Listen, what Clara tells the young Doctor, is that his fear can draw in companions, other people to share your fears with, and then you are never alone.