SERIES 12, EPISODE 7 | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
An important feature of twenty-first century Doctor Who, most notably in Russell T Davies’s tenure, has been the companions’ periodic trips home to touch base. Through seeing their ordinary lives, we learn who they are and get a sense of grounding to their adventures elsewhere in time and space. There hasn’t been much of this of late, so it’s a relief when Graham, Ryan and Yaz start Can You Hear Me? looking forward to some downtime in Sheffield.
Of course, no downtime lasts long in Doctor Who, and the three soon find themselves separately encountering a nightmarish force: Yaz sees a creepy man in black hanging around her flat; Ryan finds the friend he visits in a state of distress, stalked by the same man; and Graham is given visions of a woman trapped between two colliding planets. The Doctor, meanwhile, takes a detour to Aleppo, 1380, where she finds nurse Tahira under attack by ferocious creatures unrecognisable to the TARDIS. Joining together the clues leads them all to a space station in the distant future.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Neil Gaiman had returned to guest write another episode, as the god-like Eternals they encounter here, who prey on the nightmares of humanity, could have come from the pages of his Sandman comics, but they’re in fact the creation of Who newcomer Charlene James (with showrunner Chris Chibnall getting a co-writing credit). It’s a bold move for Who, which usually roots its threats in at least some vague pseudo-science, to confront our heroes with adversaries so seemingly supernatural, but it certainly works from a horror perspective; Ian Gelder’s smirking performance and his detachable psychic fingers make for one of the most chilling villains in a while; we bet the scene of a mother putting a nervous child to bed and reassuring her there are no bogeymen was repeated in many a household on Sunday night.
If there’s anything to criticise, it’s that the plot surrounding these villains becomes quite convoluted – yes, the animated backstory is gorgeous, but it doesn’t disguise the fact there’s a hell of a lot of exposition to get through; this results in the climax, in which the two Eternals get distracted from the task of giving us all nightmares to take a trip back in time and immediately get captured by the Doctor, feeling rather rushed. On the plus side, the reason the episode does power through a lot of this is because it has other, more interesting things to do, via exploring the nightmares of the various characters affected by these Eternals, and through that, the theme of mental health.
Yes, this is another ‘issue’ episode; mental health is a hot topic at the moment, with society moving towards taking it as seriously as physical health, and here it's tackled through a number of characters. With some, such as Ryan’s mate Tibo, whose life has gone astray due to his struggles and who needs to be convinced to get help, this is believably and affectingly handled. With others, not so well – it’s never quite clear what the character of Tahira is about other than the monster conjured from her imagination skirting close to being a retread of the one only Van Gogh could see in 2010’s Vincent and the Doctor. The episode bounces between handling the issue subtly and not at all so; perhaps it would all come together better if it didn’t start with the Doctor front-loading the theme by prancing into the Syrian hospital and declaring “these hospitals were good at mental health!” Overall, it’s not as coherent or sublime a handling as in the aforementioned pitch-perfect Vincent, but not much is, and as shown by its ending with a link to the BBC’s Action Line, this episode deserves credit for not only giving Who that rare thing – a coherent theme – but also for picking one that's relevant and important.
Where James and Chibnall’s script really stands out, though, is the work it does with the three companions. This may be more because of what came before it; a recurring problem throughout the previous seventeen episodes, since this Team TARDIS came together, is that only rarely have all three satisfyingly contributed to the narrative, never mind had actual character development; by separating them and peering into their individual nightmares, Can You Hear Me? manages to move forward our understanding of them.
Most notably, we get an insight into a crisis in Yaz’s past, which led to her becoming a police officer. This is the most substantial development the character’s had yet, and it’s good to see Mandip Gill finally getting some material with which to show she can act after a series and a half of standing in the background and occasionally saying “Spaceships? Oh, like police cars but in space.”
Graham, too, gets some solid material here, ending with the touching scene of him admitting to the Doctor his fears about his cancer returning; a very likely nightmare scenario for someone who’d been through what he has. It’s a shame the episode decides to counter this with a joke about her not knowing how to reply; we’ve seen various incarnations of the Doctor offer words of wisdom to the afraid before, and her not doing so here feels disappointing when an uplift is needed.
Ryan’s fears, meanwhile, are rooted in the idea that his travelling in the TARDIS might mean his friends move on without him, right up to the end of the world; another believable fear that develops our understanding of where the character’s at (though it’s a shame to have to be reminded of the dire Orphan 55).
Can You Hear Me?, then, gets the best use out of all three companions we’ve seen this series. That said, it could be too little, too late for Chibnall to be able to weave these developments into overall arcs like his predecessors Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were able to; sure, we now know Yaz had a self-esteem crisis three years ago, and Graham’s afraid of his mortality, but is this going to be reflected in their behaviours in other episodes? When it’s hinted that Ryan is considering leaving at the end of the series, we can’t help but want that to come to pass, so that the remaining companions will have more room to breathe come Series 13.