‘The Black Archive #36: Listen’

❉ Written with clear intent and enthusiasm, grounded in research: as a reader, you can’t really ask for much more.

Listen made a bit of a splash upon broadcast.  Seen by some as deep, some as proof Doctor Who had gone off the rails, and some as the best episode of Coupling Steven Moffat had ever written, as with much of Series Eight it divided fandom.  I’m not sure where fandom rests on the matter now as I am not on Twitter or any forums anymore, shrill hysteria putting me off, but it’s still an episode I enjoy.

In his essay on the story, first-time Black Archive writer Dewi Small has decided to look at the story in two parts.  First, he tackles the tale itself with a psychoanalytic eye, and after this he looks at Clara’s role in it and discusses whether it’s all that controversial after all.

The first section of the essay is, for my part, the most successful by some margin.  Small shows an impressive weight of knowledge with his use of Freud’s theories to look at the Doctor’s behaviour and reliability in this story, and his side-on comparison of Listen with The Turn of the Screw works well.  He engages with key moments in the script in a way that’s approachable and logical, and writes with an easy style that is easy to digest.  It is clear, too, that he enjoys the episode, and that definitely works in his favour as he clearly wants to delve deeper into just why it resonates with him as a viewer and scholar.

Less successful is the essay’s look at Clara, not so much in the arguments being made or conclusions reached, all of which are fine, but because it feels muddled at times.  For example, mentioning the Bootstrap Paradox theory is all well and good, but focussing heavily on the ‘fear makes companions’ element of Clara’s speech to the boy in the barn with this theory in mind doesn’t really work, seeing as Clara never heard the Doctor say those words so it is not because of her that the Doctor uses them later on.  I know the point Small is trying to make, and later on he uses the theory with far more accuracy and success, but it’s an odd start that undermines the strength of this portion of his essay.

The printed version of this essay clocks in at under 90 pages in length, making it one of the shorter entries in this range as of late, but that doesn’t make it a poor one or one not worth your time.  I am not sure I came away feeling I had learnt something new or with a sense of revelation as sometimes occurs with these essays, but I felt sure I had read something written with clear intent and enthusiasm, grounded in research: as a reader, you can’t really ask for much more.

Next month (November 2019) sees Kerblam! in the spotlight, another episode from the post-1989 run of televised Doctor Who which I am told caused waves in fandom with some of its plot beats and messaging.  If that essay is as informed as this one, I am sure it’ll be worth any reader’s time and money.


‘The Black Archive #36: Listen’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99.

 Nick Mellish is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and author of Target Trawl. Sometimes, he blogs: http://tinternetmellish.blogspot.com

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