Doctor Who – “Can You Hear Me?”

“Can You Hear Me?”
Doctor Who: Series 12 – Episode 7
Written by: Charlene James & Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Emma Sullivan

Synopsis: From ancient Syria to present day Sheffield, and out into the wilds of space, something is stalking the Doctor and her friends. As Graham, Yaz and Ryan return home to see friends and family, they find themselves haunted by very different experiences. Who is the figure calling from beyond the stars for help, and why? And what are the fearsome Chagaskas terrorising Aleppo in 1380? To find the answers, Team TARDIS embark on a mission that forces them to face their darkest fears.

One of my recurring issues with this current run of Doctor Who has been its lack of meaningful character development for Graham, Yaz and Ryan; especially when compared to the clear character arcs that we’ve seen for other companions in this series. While they do have some clearly defined traits and personalities, there doesn’t really seem to be much motivation for them travelling with the Doctor; or even any exploration into the families and friends they leave behind. Following on from the ‘home scenes’ that we saw in “Spyfall – Part One”, we get to see the companions reuniting with friends and family to provide better context for what they are leaving behind, and what anchors them to Earth. Exploring their home lives is vitally important in getting us to care about these characters as people, rather than just props of the TARDIS. Finding out what they are leaving behind every time they step through those blue doors adds a whole new layer of personality to the characters beyond the superficial archetypes they currently inhabit.

Of all the companions, Yaz is the one seriously in need of development and as such, the reasons behind her return to Sheffield are wrapped up in a mystery to engage audience interest. The fragmented flashbacks are designed to intrigue viewers, and I have to admit that I expected her to reveal that she left home because she was struggling to come out as gay – and the anniversary dinner with her sister was in fact a celebration of that moment. It feels like a missed opportunity, as it would have given us a whole new dimension on Yaz’s character, and also subverted the cliché of her and Ryan hooking up at some point. To be honest, the actual reveal that she had run away from home after being bullied fell flat for me. It seemed like an attempt to theme the episode on mental health – as evidenced by the promotion of a helpline at the end of the episode – and I think the series has done better with this topic with the classic episode, “Vincent and the Doctor”.

The scenes with Ryan and his friend Tibo did a much better job at looking at depression, and I really liked that it wasn’t fixed with a swish of the sonic screwdriver and that Tibo’s depression wasn’t just a side-effect of the villains. I also liked how it subverted the usual depiction of black men as alpha males, and instead explored how mental health can affect anyone. Ryan has been a terrific character since his introduction, exploring vulnerabilities of young men through his struggles with dyspraxia and his sensitive nature. It was interesting to see Ryan and Tibo awkwardly broach the topic of depression and mental health in an honest way, and even later when Graham confides in the Doctor about his fears, expecting an easy answer and receiving a socially-awkward response, felt realistic. The Yaz reveal just didn’t have the same impact – partially because it was set-up as the mystery and it didn’t offer anything fundamentally different about the character, and I’d be surprised if it informed her behaviour in future episodes.

Much like “Praxeus”, this episode had a grand sense of scale with locations as varied as Ancient Syria, modern-day Sheffield and an exotic space-ship orbiting two colliding planets. The plot was equally as eclectic with nightmare monsters, immortal beings and some rather freaky finger work. I can’t have been the only person wondering which orifices those fingers were going to end up in! Zellin (Ian Gelder) did a brilliant job at giving off a creepy vibe as the pale, bald fingerer hiding in people’s bedrooms. I was freaked out before he started sticking his fingers in people’s ears to give them nightmares – and the Chagaska were an interesting new monster design, looking like Sid the Sloth from Ice Age on steroids. I also liked the ethereal quality to Clare-Hope Ashitey’s character, and the weird chemistry between her and Zellin as two immortals playing games with civilisations. There was also neat name-drop to the Eternals, Guardians and even the Celestial Toymaker, to demonstrate how the Doctor had encountered similar ‘gods’ before.

The actual plot involving Zellin and his nightmarish digits seemed secondary in importance compared to the nightmares that the Doctor and her friends were going through, and I would have liked more of a focus on those nightmarish moments and how they impact the psyche of the companions. The episode felt reminiscent of “Amy’s Choice” and “The God Complex”, both of which used the concept of nightmares and dreams to delve into the subconscious of the companions and examine their relationship with the Doctor. While the misdirection over the trapped immortal was a nice second-act twist, it did mean that the episode was more convoluted than it needed to be. It felt a bit too packed with plot towards the end, and I think some bits could have been cut from the story (the whole Aleppo side-plot) to better streamline things.

Creepy, but lacking in depth sometimes, “Can You Hear Me?” focused its attentions on the Doctor’s companions after several episodes that have spotlighted the Doctor herself. The focus on Yaz and the subtle origin of her decision to join the police force were much welcomed additions to her characterisation, although the character still needs some more work. Much like its title, “Can You Hear Me?” may struggle to get its voice heard above some of the other episodes we’ve seen this series, but I appreciated its attempt at established the home lives for the Doctor’s companions, and hope that future episodes build upon the foundations laid in this adventure.

Score – ★★★ ½

Next Episode: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”
The Doctor and her gang arrive at the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva in 1816 on the night that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The plan is to spend the evening soaking up the atmos in the presence of some literary greats, but the ghosts are all too real, and the Doctor is forced into a decision of earth-shattering proportions.

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