At the risk of alarming many friends, I confess I never really got Dr. Who. My first exposure to the character wasn’t the TV show. As a boy, I found a Dr. Who novel in a bookstore. The guy on the cover had a mop of hair and an improbably long scarf. He looked like a bandmate from Led Zeppelin. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, but it looked...interesting. Maybe.
Over the years, I caught a television episode here and there. Some were good, some were awful--rubber suited aliens chasing screaming people around. There was, of course, the language barrier--me trying to understand English as spoken by actual English people.
At the start of the 2014 season, a buddy (thanks Tony Simmons!) invited me to a premiere party where he and other Whovians planned to watch the first episode with the new doctor (played by Peter Capaldi). The episode was fun. Giant dinosaur wandering London, evil robots, sexy lizard lady. Good stuff, and I enjoyed it enough to watch the second and third episodes.
Then I watched the fourth, titled “Listen.” Something changed. It was brilliant. Besides the doctor, Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny (Samuel Anderson), there were only one or two other speaking roles. The story was at turns sweet and terrifying, with two scenes in particular that will haunt me for years. It was so good, I told Tony, “If they can produce one episode like that per season, it will justify the time I spend watching all the other episodes.”
What made “Listen” so good? Concepts, ideas. Ideas are the true, beating heart of good science fiction, and this show has them. Plus characters you can care about, because they are human in all the right and wrong ways. Fallible and foolish one moment, noble and brave the next. Just like real people. (It helps that the actors are spectacular.)
The show emphasized story over special effects, something we rarely see in science fiction movies and TV these days where budgets throw millions at CGI and ignore the need for a strong story and sharp dialogue. In addition, the episode contains a robust element of horror. Not the graphic, gushing stuff but rather the dread formed by creeping menace and real, relatable fear. Horror and science fiction make a potent combination when mixed in the correct amounts, and it was fun to enjoy a truly scary scene where the monster is never shown and there are no special effects.