~Spoilers ahead! ~
12.7 Can You Hear Me? – Charlene James & Chris Chibnall
Story & Review
Can You Hear Me is primarily a story on mental health. It takes on this subject with sensitivity and it has clearly had an impact on viewers. The human drama is well written and realistic, without being heavy handed. We also get some more fleshing out of Yaz’s character and a focus on the companions but this is done at the expense of an interesting science fiction plot.
The episode initially splits the Doctor and her companions up, the latter on a rare stop home with the Doctor following a signal to 14th century Syria. The mystery that the episode wants us to invest in is the nightmarish man that appears separately to Yaz and Ryan, the vision that Graham experiences and a mental hospital in Aleppo, 1380 that has been attacked by huge gorilla-like creatures and what connects them. The answer is unsatisfactory because there is no real reason for Zellin, the immortal being spreading nightmares amongst Team TARDIS and Aleppo, to span across time and space beyond an attempt to make the episode feel epic.
The episode is basically bookended by scenes in a hospital in Aleppo and features a young woman called Tahira, our tag-along of the week. The opening scenes show her stealing away from the mental hospital and returning home. She warns a fellow resident of the creatures, Chagaskas, that she sees at night. This could have been the entire setting of the episode, but is lost amongst the main mental health narrative. In fact, Tahira is so forgotten by the story line that she barely reacts to the TARDIS, time travel or space, taking it all in her stride. She then conquers her fear off screen to conveniently save the day later when the group confront Zellin and his fellow immortal, Rakaya. It’s as if the episode wanted Tahira to be an important character, but with her relegated to the background for most of the episode, this is ineffective.
The antagonists, immortal beings Zellin and Rakaya are explained to us just after the halfway point. Zellin having successfully set a trap for the Doctor to free his eternal companion Rakaya, we learn that they will now head to Earth and harvest nightmares from humanity. They are then promptly defeated wreaking little havoc despite the promise of being ‘gods’. In total they get about 11 minutes of screen time, a wasted opportunity.
The focus of the episode is on fears, mental health and nightmares. Despite this, the nightmares themselves get very little attention. These nightmares were an interesting psychological insight to the companions – and a great hook – but we spend about 1 minute in each companion’s nightmare and about 30 seconds in the Doctor’s. This is a simple but interesting aspect of the episode and would have been served better by a simpler villain with less potential.
By the climax of the episode, we have the Doctor escaping by spontaneously waking up from her nightmare, using the Force to free her sonic and then essentially sonicking the gods away in the prison that she had previously sonicked Rakaya free from. There is an attempt to suggest that you can conquer your fears and defeat adversity but not enough is made of it. This episode amounts to people in rooms, talking and that’s just not entertaining science fiction.
- The Doctor chattering away to herself when her companions aren’t there is good fun and it shows her need for them.
- Graham gets all the best lines, here the one where he starts to say he could find the location of the planets with the use of a space A-Z
- The exposition in this case was in the form of an animated sequence telling the story of the Gods which was really nicely done
- I enjoyed that the Doctor operated the viewing platform like strings on an instrument
The inclusion of the Immortals makes the world of Doctor Who feel a little bit bigger which I’m on board with and would have liked to see more of
There are more references to the Timeless Child, though we’ve not seen anything new which would have been good by this point
Monster of the Week
This week we have the Chagaska and the Immortals. The first are a pretty generic beastie, though we see very little of them.
The Immortals are a cool addition to the Whoniverse. I like the concept, the character design and the implications of beings who have far more power than the Doctor. I especially like the creepy Zellin and his detachable fingers. This power would have been more effective had they been a bit more difficult to defeat, however.
Seven episodes into the series and I’m tired of all the Messages in this series. I believe in the importance of normalising mental health issues and talking about your problems but it feels like each episode’s message is thought of first with the story is written around it. It’s a little unfair to put my frustrations on this specific episode, but it’s a pattern where the sci-fi aspects of the show aren’t prioritised. This edutainment is making Doctor Who a slog to get through.
To more specific complaints, the Chibnall era seems to be marked with stories that attempt to feel epic through the use of multiple locations and times but fail to work because they don’t tie into the larger story. Here, Aleppo as a setting didn’t add anything to the story. If it’s some attempt to present Aleppo at its height in contrast to the war-torn land today, featuring it for a few minutes doesn’t make any meaningful statement.
This episode evokes Amy’s Choice, The God Complex and Vincent and the Doctor but isn’t as good as any of them. Compare that awkward scene at the end of the episode where the Doctor fails to comfort or even respond to Graham’s fears that his cancer might return to how well Eleven comforts Amy in Vincent and the Doctor when she thinks they didn’t impact the artist’s life:
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things. And, if you look carefully, maybe we did indeed make a couple of little changes.
This episode had potential. I wish we could have seen the gods in action rather than jump from spaceship to spaceship for example. At the end of the episode, the Doctor confronts the Immortals, saying that she’s that ‘little bit smarter’ than the gods thought she was – but all she does is sonic things, the solution is not clever either. Better, perhaps would have been seeing someone break free of their nightmare by conquering their fears .
Overstuffed, poorly paced and with grand villains that are easily defeated, Can You Hear Me? works in some parts but largely fails to be entertaining for its 50-minute runtime.