Can You Hear Me? is the seventh episode of New Who’s twelfth series, and for my money it’s one of the worst in a series that’s had more than its share of duds. Thirteen’s companions return home for an overnight visit, and all of them encounter bad dreams, a shadowy figure standing over them at 2am, and in Graham’s case visions of a woman in prison, calling for help. The Doctor’s detective work establishes that the woman’s trapped between two colliding planets, prompting a rescue, only she is more than she seems: her freedom has been engineered by the shadowy man everyone’s encountered overnight, and now the two of them, immortal godlike beings, can rain psychic terror down on the earth.
The feel is very Doctor Who Gothic: despite the supernatural plotline, there’s a lot of naturalistic action taking place down on Earth, in small murky rooms; the sense is of enclosure and imprisonment. This is an episode that’s explicitly about mental health and the various darknesses lurking in the human psyche – depression, anxiety, nightmares and the claustrophobia thereof. This is rich soil, and so it’s a shame that the episode mishandles it so dramatically.
The problem is mainly one of pacing: there’s a lot of time spent on the companions’ relationships with the family and friends they’ve left behind for their adventures with the Doctor – Ryan’s friend Tibo has slipped into depression in his absence; Yaz is late for dinner with her family – which, while it makes for some great character work and some unusually sober reflections on the psychosocial effects of travelling with the Doctor, detracts fatally from the prison plotline. The history of the immortals Zellin and Rakaya is told via a Burtonesque animation that effectively establishes their menace and their seemingly limitless power; only for the pair to be summarily defeated in about five seconds flat, nightmares repressed back into a tiny spherical prison, as if all psychological horrors could be dealt with so neatly. This is the narrative throughline of the episode; its failure reduces the power of the companions’ emotional journeys towards dealing with their personal baggage.
There are other missteps: we’re told that Yaz’s visit to her family is occasioned by the celebration of an ominous anniversary, but it’s not until nearly the end of the episode that we learn that she ran away as a teenager and apparently returned almost immediately (thanks to the intervention of a friendly police officer); the impression we get is not so much TRAUMATIC INCIDENT as it is “rebellious teenager doing what teenagers do”. It’s…kind of wrongfootingly odd that Yaz and her family mark the occasion every year.
Then there’s the conversation Graham and the Doctor have at the end of the episode: Graham confides in the Doctor about his fear of his cancer returning, and the Doctor says:
I’m still quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something.
This is not so much offensive (as the apparently multiple emails of complaint to the BBC it elicited would attest) as, again, wrongfootingly odd: a bit of clumsy tell-not-show dialogue that doesn’t even seem to fit Thirteen’s established character – where is the calm, compassionate officiate of Demons of the Punjab? The BBC says that “The intention of the scene was to acknowledge how hard it can be to deal with conversations on this subject matter”, but it feels more like a sidestep than an acknowledgement; like the show truly doesn’t want to deal with something as mundane and mortal as a cancer diagnosis on an ongoing basis.
A connected question: I wonder what the presence of Zellin and Rakaya says about the Doctor? The episode doesn’t draw any explicit parallels, but all three of them are legendary immortals who are often named in fear: is Thirteen’s character closer to their indifference to human suffering than we’d perhaps like? Many of the comments on Caroline Siede’s A.V. Club review of the episode speculate that she is cold, distant and doesn’t particularly care about her companions; I don’t think this is a reading completely supported by the show, but there certainly is something avoidant about her – witness all the times she’s refused to discuss Gallifrey with her fam. She is, like Yaz, running: from her past, from a kind of… emotional commitment. So, a possible reading of her conversation with Graham is not that she doesn’t care about him, more that she wants to avoid thinking about his mortality and death. Which is why, in turn, the episode avoids dwelling on it: from one perspective, ultimately the show doesn’t care about the Doctor’s companions; they can die or leave the Doctor, and the show will go on.
Can You Hear Me?, then, is an episode that’s heavy on character work but light on the plot and thematic coherence that would make emotional sense of that work. It frankly squanders its potent nightmare-imagery, and what could have been a fascinating diversion to 1380s Aleppo, by trying to do too much with too little airtime – something Doctor Who has often struggled with since Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. I’d hesitate to call it the weakest episode in a series that also gave us Orphan 55, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and part 2 of Spyfall, but it’s certainly up there.