This is such a strange and unusual episode, but when Steven Moffat writes something strange and unusual, it’s often a belter. That’s definitely the case here, in what’s more of an anthology than a single story, in which it’s deliberately not clear whether there’s even a villain or a monster. It’s an exploration of a philosophical musing, as detailed in a brilliant opening soliloquy by Capaldi – I love it when The Doctor talks to us.
There are three distinct acts, each telling their own mini-story, linked by the Doctor’s curiosity and Clara’s clearly awful relationship with Danny. It’s a little odd to make him so pivotal to the episode when it’s only the second time we’ve met him, and the first thing they do here is argue because he loses his temper. When we next return to the date, it’s his turn to storm out because he clearly has issues with women he can’t control. I don’t see the motivation for either of them to pursue this relationship past this double-fucked date, as they’ve both clearly demonstrated that they’re unsuitable for each other.
But luckily, my many qualms about the relationship don’t alter how brilliantly Moffat uses it here, as the spine around which the mini-stories are built. Danny is much more likeable when he’s a tiny child called Rupert, and this segment is Moffat continuing his mission to make people scared of literally everything, from electrical faults, to the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, to misplacing a cup of coffee.
A lot is made of the ambiguity as to whether the monster is real, but you do see a brief glimpse of whatever was under Rupert’s blanket, and it certainly doesn’t look like a human child. Then again, in the Orson Pink segment, I don’t think there was anything outside, it makes sense to me that it was just the ship creaking. It’s entirely possible that there’s a monster in one bit and not the other, but either way it doesn’t really matter – the entire point is that you can believe what you want to believe, and the moral is that it’s ok to be scared, even if it turns out to be of nothing.
We only know what’s under the bed for sure in the final segment – it’s Clara, grabbing herself a tiny Time Lord. The ambiguity here is around the identity of said Time Child, and I choose to believe that it’s the Doctor, mainly because of the barn thing, but also because otherwise it wouldn’t be as good. Although it does mean that Clara repeating the Doctor’s earlier “fear is a superpower” speech back to him is the exact kind of bootstrap paradox the Doctor discusses in the next series.
It’s great to see Moffat tackling a standalone mid-series episode – doing something that’s not connected to a wider arc allows him to flex the same muscles he did when RTD was running the show, and it’s this type of writing the show’s going to miss most when he’s gone.