Doctor Who & The Monsters Under The Bed

[Spoilers for "Listen", the fourth episode of Season Eight.]

"Fear makes companions of us all." It was the last line Clara said this week, but it's not the first time we've heard it. The Doctor said almost those very same words 34 seasons and two thousand years ago, in the very first Doctor Who story ever. He was still a young and inexperienced Time Lord back then — only in his early 200s. It hadn't been very long since he'd run away from Gallifrey, since he'd stolen the TARDIS with his granddaughter and fled into the vastness of time and space. But it looked like everything had already gone horribly awry. On what may very well have been his first ever adventure with human companions, things went very wrong very quickly. He'd barely stepped out of the TARDIS when he was captured by cavemen. He and his companions were held prisoner in a creepy, skull-filled cave. There didn't seem to be any way out. And for a few moments, the Doctor let fear overwhelm him. As his companions tried to escape, he just gave up. "I'm sorry, it's all my fault," he moaned. "Oh, it's hopeless, hopeless."

His companions back then, of course, were a pair of teachers from the Coal Hill School — the same school where, decades later, Clara and Danny would be teachers, too. And it was the teachers who managed to snap the Time Lord out of it. For the first time since Ian and Barbara barged their way onto the Doctor's time machine, he stopped being grumpy and threatening and started to help them instead. He pitched in. Offered advice. Tried to be kind.

"Fear makes companions of all of us," he explained to Barbara back there in that cave. "Fear is with all of us, and always will be. Just like that other sensation that lives with it... Hope. Hope, that's right."

Now, all these seasons later, we know where he learned to think that way. From a frightening night when he was a little boy. From a dream that wasn't really a dream. From a monster that wasn't really a monster, but another Coal Hill teacher instead. Clara teaches the Doctor something she learned from the Doctor in the future — the kind of beginning-less, time wimey event that Jenna Coleman says they call "a Moffat loop". Clara tells him fear is a superpower. It's okay to be afraid. Being scared can be a strength.

We've known for a long time now that the Doctor didn't have a happy childhood. In fact, as Alasdair Wilkins points out in his review for The AV Club, showrunner Steven Moffat has been hinting at it for years, since the very first episodes he ever wrote for the show. The Ninth Doctor tells us in "The Empty Child" that he knows what it's like to be left out in the cold. In "The Girl In The Fireplace," Madame de Pompadour can sense that the Tenth Doctor was once a lonely boy. "The Doctor didn't run away from Gallifrey because he fitted in perfectly, after all," Wilkins writes, "and this night—one of many, apparently—spent cowering in fear is just the beginning of the journey that led him to discover courage." Clara — so good with children, so good with the Doctor — teaches him that he can turn all those cold and lonely nights into a good thing. Fear can make him kind. And it does. Having been a frightened child himself, the Doctor can't help but come to the rescue of frightened children all over the universe.

That, of all the terrible things he did during the Time War, is what seemed to haunt him the most: the 2.47 billion frightened children he thought he'd killed. It's no coincidence that when the time comes to commit his most terrible deed, the War Doctor heads back to the very same barn where he was a frightened child himself. And Clara is there again that day — that monster who is really a teacher — to remind him of the lesson neither one of them knows she already taught him. Whatever he remembers of that night, it has clearly stuck with him. "Never cruel or cowardly," is the promise he says he has made — and those words echo the same words the future Clara whispered in his ear in that same barn when he was just a little boy. Another Moffat loop. And one that helped to define who the Doctor is: someone who strives to be a hero, someone who faces his fears, who stands up to the monsters under his bed every Saturday night while the rest of us hide behind our couches. A brave solider without a gun. And so, he puts The Moment away and decides not to blow up Gallifrey.

But there's a dark side to all of this. Clara has meddled in the Doctor's timeline — and in Danny's, too. The consequences are still being felt generations later, by a time traveller — maybe her own great-grandson — who carries the same toy solider the young Doctor and Danny Pink did. She seems to have helped inspire all three men to lead dangerous, difficult lives. Trying to be a hero means not only confronting terrifying things, but also making mistakes sometimes. Mistakes that haunt you. All three men have been scarred by what they've done — something Clara fails to recognize at first when she makes her insensitive comments to Danny — and she's partially responsible for those scars.

Their lives can be lonely, too. We see it in Danny Pink, who doesn't seem entirely comfortable in civilian life, who can't hold back the tears in his classroom. And we see it in Orson Pink, the time traveller who finds himself stranded at the end of the universe. All alone for six months. Letting fear get the best of him. Imagining monsters who probably aren't there.

The Doctor, of course, has been travelling much, much longer than that. And these days, he must be spending quite a bit of time alone — there hasn't been anyone else living on the TARDIS since Amy and Rory moved out all the way back at the end of Season Six. As a young Time Lord trapped in that cave all those years ago, it was his companions who kept him from being overwhelmed by fear. Alone, he seems to indulge it; it takes him to dark places. And by the end of "Listen" we realize that he, too, has started to imagine monsters that might not really be there.

Because the fear doesn't go away. It's still there whether you're eight years old or 200 or 2000. And that's a good thing. The key is knowing when to listen to that dark companion. And when to listen to your human companions instead.

Other thoughts:

- The big debate, of course, is whether there actually was a monster this week, or not. I fall on the "not" side, except in the case of the thing under the blanket. In the brief glimpse we got, that sure as hell didn't look like a kid. I wonder if Moffat might come back to it by the time all is said and done. Did it a look a little Sontaranish maybe?

- In his review for Tor, though, Chris Lough is convinced there is a monster: "Another nicely done twist. The Doctor imagines a monster under the bed and 2000 years later actually tracks down a real creature that matches the characteristics of his fear."

- On the topic of the Doctor's fear: it was only three weeks ago that the Eleventh phoned Clara to tell her his new incarnation was "more scared than anything you can imagine right now."

- The Doctor isn't the only one who has been driven to see patterns where there are none. I can't help but think Moffat was poking a bit of fun at Whovians who scramble our brains trying to figure out what he's up to.

- Some funny sound work this season. In "Deep Breath", the cloister bell sounded once when the Doctor passed out just before the opening credits. And there was a cartoonish "boing" when he knocked himself out doing the telepathic link with Madame Vastra. This week, a glass breaks in the restaurant at the very same moment when Clara says the words "Rupert Pink" to Danny.

- "Sontarans perverting the course of human history!" When the Doctor regains consciousness at the end of the episode, he says the very same words Tom Baker said upon regenerating into the Fourth Doctor. It seems to be a reference to the very first Sontaran episode (and Sarah Jane's first episode, too): "The Time Warrior" from the Third Doctor's run in the 1970s.

- The man with the coffee in the children's home where Rupert Pink lived was played by Robert Goodman. He also played two different characters in two episodes of classic Who from the '70s and '80s. 

- "I don't take orders, Clara." At the end of the episode, the Doctor vaguely echoes what he had to say about soldiers and Daleks during "Into The Dalek" two weeks ago.

- On a similar note, I love the moment when Clara does make a flirtatious remark this week: "Do you have your own mood lightning now? Because frankly the accent is enough." The Doctor literally does a double-take. As if she's broken the new code of conduct.

- I also love how, behind all the grumpiness, they've established that the Doctor still very much cares about Clara The look on his face after he tells her he's given Rupert the "Dan the solider man" dream and she crumples onto the TARDIS console is fantastic.

- Another great detail: Clara telling the TARDIS that she doesn't need a preview of her death.

- "The deep and lovely dark; you'd never see the stars without it." That line echoes the fear theme, I think. Something bad that allows something good. It also reminds me a little of a line that Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter, says in that very first episode of Who: "I like walking through the dark, it's mysterious."

- At first, I was confused about why the TARDIS took them back to the Doctor's childhood. But re-watching, it was much more clear to me. As Clara links up with the telepathic network, the Doctor gasps in his sleep. So: he distracts her and they head to his childhood in the same way that the phone call distracted her and took them to Danny's childhood.

- Same thing goes for Clara's decision not to tell the Doctor that she does have a connection with Danny. It confused me the first time, but she's trying very hard to keep a wall between her life on the TARDIS and her life outside it.

- In his AV Club review, Wilkins also points out how well the Wally/Waldo thing echoes the themes of the week: "a nice way of again acknowledging the Doctor’s tendency to go searching for things that may or may not be there."

- If you want to read more about "Listen", that review for The AV Club and the one from Slate are both especially great this week.


Read our next recap, "The Ever-Changing Face of Doctor Who" or our previous recap, "Doctor Who & The Myth of the Hero" here.

This post posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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