Doctor Who: 12-07 “Can You Hear Me?” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who is one of television’s great pantheons of weird. Even when straining against sinister forces, the show has always managed to maintain strangeness- whether through concept or costume. It’s the spirit and commitment to whimsy and magic that has made the show a unique cultural juggernaut. Equal success comes when relating the everyday to be magnificent or terrifying, which is true of Series 12’s seventh episode, Can You Hear Me? which uses real-life struggle conflated with ethereal villains to tell a galaxy-spanning story about the strength of humanity- and while rather inelegant, manages to ride on waves of ambition and good intention.
The first Who episode to have a question mark in the title, Can You Hear Me? is conceptually intriguing, beginning with an atmospheric visit to 1380 Aleppo, for our first cold open since Spyfall. It’s textbook, with monster POV shots, screaming folk and mystery aplenty. Aleppo feels quite superfluous, but it and guest character Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) may be an allegory between safe refuges for women and Yaz’s plot- along with its status as an early paragon of mental health understanding. Away from the sinister Syrian spookiness, The Doctor drops the gang home for a catch-up, before she’s drawn to Aleppo by a pre-universal threat- discovering a sinister force invading her friends’ minds, and vivid visions sent to Graham.
The first half of Can You Hear Me? is rather more leisurely than prior outings- we’re allowed to take in more of Team TARDIS when they aren’t in it. Graham has a card session with his old bus-depot mates, Ryan drops by his visually depressed bestie Tibo (Buom Tihngang) and Yaz has an initially mysteriously melancholy anniversary meal with sadly distant sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar). It’s to the credit of debuting Who writer- and only second black writer ever on the show- Charlene James (with another Chris Chibnall credit) and fellow newbie director Emma Sullivan that they feel appropriately personal- the villains of the characters personal lives are lain bare, and the dread builds in each scenario. The strange, dreamy tone is much like my Series 11 favourite, It Takes You Away.
The disconnect that travelling with The Doctor creates has always been a bounteous well for writers. It relays that there are personal consequences to the adventure, threats away from the alien, parallel yet different development to those you care about. Ryan has anxiety of missing out on life events- representing that uncomfortable, distant alienation you can have with time spent away, despite still feeling like you should have familiarity. I’m glad that Ryan takes Tibo’s anxieties seriously without ridicule- positive male friendship is important! During Ryan’s nightmare, Tibo suffers a Rory-esque fate and we even have the return of Orphan 55’s Dregs. He’s still feeling mental ramifications from that story- playing into a sense of climate anxiety to combine with his fears of life passing him by.
Graham becomes stressfully aware of his own mortality, with a cruelly familiar grief dream- haunted by the ghosts of both the returning Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and his cancer. It’s our most honest insight into Yaz yet- how she was feeling at home, maybe even what pushed her to join the police and TARDIS crew. The police officer (Nasreen Hussain) segment is lovely, and moulding it around the 50p story is simple but truly moving- her talk of Yaz’s struggle being a moment, and moments changing- that it wasn’t just her alone, resonates robustly with the theme. My problem is, she was crying out for this *last* series. It’s a flashback that informs her prior decisions, but not where she is now- which is what we should be learning.
Can You Hear Me? is done with considerably more tact as a “topic” story, as I would hope one about mental health would be, thanks to consultation from mental wellbeing charity Mind. It tries to be frank about anxieties and fears, despite feeling less textured than maybe the show’s best representation of a mental health struggle in Vincent and The Doctor. This is Doctor Who of course, and like the Krafayis in Vincent, Can You Hear Me? too has an antagonist to parallel the struggles- even he’s more directly villainous. Ian Gelder as Zellin has a calm demeanour, belying a mocking and condescendingly smug malevolent glee, aesthetically scary for the young ‘ins with the surprisingly chilling detachment of his fingers (which apparently, the sonic is effective on). It’s a highly visually artistic production all-round, with creative lighting and transitions. The fantastic VFX shot of the space platform gives way to an interior of angular mirrors and shapes, deep black surfaces, contrasted brighter neon colours and peculiar design elements like stroking the ethereal wires to zoom in on planets.
Some of the dreams themselves could’ve been a bit more mysterious or traumatic- less flat- to press home how vulnerable nightmares can make us feel. It’s a shame that Thirteen’s dream moment doesn’t dive into her psyche, outside of another arc tease. She has a chuckle-worthy flip phone with daft ringtones now and gets some killer puns (has The Doctor ever said “I’ve got time” before?), but outside of another brief look into how she copes by herself- more monologuing, apparently, annoyed that she can’t share with others- bounding into action when there are signs of life- we don’t get to dive into her fears.
The animated sequence is a wonderfully imaginative way to convey exposition though and leaves details to fill yourself. This occurs rather late into the plot, however, which takes a bit of a tumble after Zellin’s more powerful chum Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is unwittingly released by Thirteen, The Doctor’s cleverness turned against her, and the terrible two feast on the Sheffield populace’s minds. The visual of nightmares flowing into Rakaya and Gelder’s delicious revelry in telling a poor child the boogeyman is real is potent, yet they’re swiftly defeated- Tahira conquers her fears, thereby controlling the Chagaska monster (what about the monster evokes her specific fears or journey though?) It’s rushed but reads wholesomely- like Thirteen’s wonderfully passionate speech about humanity states, the beauty of our kind is how we just keep facing our struggles- and even Gods fall against our will.
It’s why the not-quite-the-Guardians work as an analogy. As Zellin says, we feel so much- our minds are inwardly cruel. These Gods are representative of the taunting, sneering bad guys of the voices in our brains. So maybe it’s poetic that they’re dealt with early enough to leave interpersonal troubles left to talk through- they’re rather campy anyway. Our cast’s hidden struggles remain a part of them and are beginning to be addressed. It’s blunt, yet there’s an earnestness to these scenes- no demeaning simplicity to them.
Yet with so much to like, the piece doesn’t quite smoothly coalesce. Tahira ultimately defeats the baddies by conquering her fears- why not one of our mains? Their struggles feel quite external to everything else, especially in Yaz’s case. Yaz running away is thematically like The Doctor doing the same, so why not mentally connect the two to help defeat the menace (of which there’s precedent in the Series 11 finale?). The intention is always there, yet rarely enough bravery to get fully into the issues (Yaz and Tibo don’t speak directly about their problems or symptoms). I worry this might be the full extent we get inside their minds, and why it feels late.
Graham seeking reassurance from Thirteen reads confused- it’s consistent as she’s largely hiding her true feelings still (does she fear the truth, or have an inability to accept it?)- but the dialogue choices and framing to Graham’s emotional honesty feels off. The official BBC response is that the intention was to acknowledge how hard it can be to deal with those conversations- by showing Thirteen struggling, it was to sympathise with all those who may have found themselves in a similar position. Which does ring truer- we don’t always have the right words to say to our loved ones at the right time, which can lead to feeling guilty- plus Graham seems relatively happy to talk, while Thirteen listens keenly.
Reassurance or positive insight might be beyond her right now- her loss of meaningful connection is affecting her relating to the people she supposedly loves, contrasted to their open and supportive natures. Ryan, Yaz, and Graham all seek, receive or give support, yet Thirteen’s mind is still erratic, isolated. Is she trying to protect her friends, while struggling to process losing everything again? Ryan and Yaz ponder if their TARDIS time is running out- especially true if they’re not opening to each other fully for support. On they go- escaping thoughts, lives, responsibilities. There’s a collective togetherness between them in that final shot, yet uncertainty on their faces. Ironic, for a story about opening up. Thirteen’s fam will certainly give her a word for not reaching out when they discover the truth of Gallifrey.
As someone with a history of mental health struggles in myself and family, I find it hard to dislike Can You Hear Me?’s noble, well-intentioned message, and strive to give interiority via personal anxieties and fears to our characters- even if it is quite late in the day. The power of opening up, talking about your issues and listening to others is evident, even if not explored to perhaps the fullest, most courageous extent. The largely delicate way it encourages the audience to talk though is admirable, even if that intention doesn’t always translate into success. It’s a story with clever visual flourishes with a keen character interest to match its ambition, marking a solid Who debut for writer James and director Sullivan- even if the sillier elements don’t always gel ideally with the theme, and the resolution feels pressed. Three more episodes to go then- next stop, Villa Diodati…