This is beautiful. Nothing I can say beyond that is really necessary. You can stop here if you like.
Still here? Well, let’s see.
I didn’t think this was beautiful the first time through. Even if we grant, as some fan theories have conjectured, that evolution is different in the Doctor Who universe and actually does produce “perfect” (as opposed to, say, “superlative” or “finely-tuned”) adaptations, I think we’d have to ask why the Doctor knows about lions and blowfish but not, say, the butterflies and moths (look up Kallima inachus for just one example) who are as good at disguise as lions and blowfish are at hunting and defending themselves. This is not a pedantic bit of science fiction trivia, but a fact about nature that any reasonably well-educated schoolchild knows.
Furthermore, “why do we talk to ourselves when we’re alone?” has several perfectly viable answers, such as “verbalizing thoughts helps us clarify and develop them” and “speaking aloud helps us feel less lonely.” I’m not sure I’ve ever dreamed of something under the bed (other nightmares, yes; feared something under there while awake, probably; but not both), nor do I habitually have cups disappear when I’m not looking (though I must admit there’s one that seems to have vanished without trace from my office, so maybe…).
The episode seemed to be going out of its way to say, “hey, you know that feeling when…?” and I kept answering, “not really, no. Where are you going with this?” Taken along with the fact that this episode had been hyped as “the scary one,” all of this looked like yet another Moffat ploy to create another supposedly terrifying gimmicky monster out of childhood games and fears, and that he’d blown it this time.
But as you know if you’ve seen the ending, none of these quarrels really matter much. Whether these experiences are universal is irrelevant as long as the Doctor has had them.
The ending doesn’t solve all mysteries, though. Even on the second viewing, I still didn’t feel certain I knew what the shape under the blanket was, or what had opened the door in the ship at the end of the universe. Is there some obvious solution I’ve missed? Were they truly uncanny phenomena related only by the Doctor’s attitude toward them? Were they mundane events (a child misbehaving, an automatic door) the Doctor never went back to confirm? Were they coincidences? All in our characters’ heads? Can a shared hallucination steal a blanket?
“Fear makes companions of us all” dates back to the very first Doctor Who story. “Never cruel nor cowardly” invokes not only “Day of the Doctor,” but also the way the Doctor was described by those who were shaping his destiny in the 70s. And here, using that old timey-wimey magic to interweave the three main characters’ origins in the most profound of ways, Moffat allows Clara to shape the Doctor’s destiny at almost the earliest possible point, trumping even “The Name of the Doctor.” It’s a breathtaking move, almost impertinent. But a beautiful move, so entirely pertinent.
Clara is now, more than before, perhaps more than anyone else will ever be able to be, the most important person in the Doctor’s entire life. And yet still, wonderfully, she is what “Hide” declared her to be: a “perfectly ordinary girl.”
It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is Moffat’s answer to “Hide.” I imagine him kicking himself for not being able to use that title for this, for which it would actually be appropriate. At least “Listen” is the same idea (and both are reminiscent of “Blink”), and of course fits almost as well by the end. Aside from the title, there’s the small cast, the nocturnal settings, the haunting motif, the suited time traveler from farther down the family tree, and the inversion of terror into reassurance, the fear of being hunted into the comfort of being loved. Note the fourth-story position, which both episodes share with “The Doctor’s Wife,” another spooky-flavored glimpse into the Doctor’s origins. There’s little doubt what kind of story Moffat was aiming for here, and as much as I’d like to carp that he missed the target on this one…he really didn’t. It’s a bull’s-eye, damn his clever boots.