Spoilers — limited, but important ones are included.
I think everyone was expecting another “Blink” with this episode. Therefore, the challenge was to make it unexpected. To maintain the fear, when we feel like we know what we’re getting into. Moffat succeeded. I’ve watched it twice and I don’t know what to do with myself right now, y’all.
The “monsters” of this episode are similar to the Weeping Angels and the Silence. There’s a brilliant and haunting opening monologue from the Doctor about how evolution has perfected many ways of hunting and defending, but what about hiding? Why is there no perfect hider? The answer, of course, is that if there is a perfect hider, no one would ever know. The Doctor wonders if, when you talk to yourself, it’s because someone’s listening. If the prickle on the back of your neck is someone who’s there with you, who you’ll never see. If that dream we all have, where we wake up in the middle of the night and think someone’s there, isn’t a dream at all. What would these perfect hiders do? The Doctor turns around to see the word “Listen” written on his chalkboard.
Two things: The first thing Moffat does so brilliantly is make Clara a person with real agency in this story, I don’t want to overlook that. Much of it is staged around her date with Danny Pink, and it’s too early to say whether this season’s arc will really redeem Moffat from his woman problems, but in this episode at least, her decisions were natural and meaningful and had an effect on the course of the story. She was terribly, terribly brave that first time she dives under the bed! I also love that she always defends Danny’s name automatically, even when she’s upset with him. I thought her emotions about Danny made sense throughout, actually, and most of that happens in subtext, so it’s excellent acting on Coleman’s part, and I love the way they shoot Danny/Clara scenes in those quick back-and-forth flashback things so you get the emotions and reactions immediately without over-explaining. I also do love the Doctor/Clara interactions, the way he’s so entirely confident that he knows how humans work yet he doesn’t actually care about it, so he gets it hilariously wrong and never even notices.
The second thing is that “Listen” is not limited to one place or one time. Usually with a scary story, you’d try to keep things small, even confined to one house, but in this case it’s not the Doctor stumbling on something. It’s his idea from the start, and he can search all time and space, so it was wise to give the episode more room. We go to Danny’s childhood, we go to the far future and the last man in the universe, and we go other places I won’t mention, all in search of these silent, invisible listeners. All those places are terrifying. Honestly, in all the universe, is there anything scarier than the space under your bed at night? Maybe the one challenger is that famous short story, “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
It seems to turn out that maybe it was all in people’s heads the whole time, that there never were listeners, but honestly, I don’t believe that. I think it’s been resolved where Clara thinks that’s what happened, but this will come up again later. She’ll have to tell the Doctor where she’s been and what she thought happened, but it won’t be true. I don’t have any other actual, “This is gonna happen” theories, but if there are listeners, that would make a lot of sense with what I said last week about the Doctor being a story and this season using stories to twist reality. The listeners would be the ones listening to the story.