3.5 out of 5 stars

When the BBC feels it has to respond to complaints generated by an episode of Doctor Who it underlines how social media, in particular, has shifted the way fans interpret the meaning of stories and character motivation. While the majority of viewers reconcile themselves to their own perspective, some fan responses go beyond constructive critique these days. An entitlement about the series, not uncommon with other franchises such as Star Wars, dominates online discussion and many fans aren’t shy in making the producers aware of their opinions. But are they, in fact, simply dictating how they believe characters and situations must play out to those in control of such franchises? The response to “Can You Hear Me?” suggests this, but the scene being criticised also evokes different personal reactions in a range of viewers.

“Can You Hear Me?” is not only an interesting episode—a blend of the traditional, the surreal, and with an atypical approach to story construction—but it also attempts to address another hot button issue. We’ll get to that in a minute. It opts for a cold opening after a run of episodes where the opening titles kicked in immediately. It’s a sequence set in Aleppo, 1380, where we meet Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) and, based on her compulsion to steal from the local traders, realise she’s a troubled kleptomaniac taking refuge in a local hospital. Judging by these scenes, this may be based on the Arghun Al-Kāmilī hospital, opened in 1354, which had a charitable function, described online by Nasim Hasan Naqvi, to provide “shelter, free food, medical treatment and other facilities to the most vulnerable mental patients”. So, the situation and The Doctor’s later assessment (via another slightly irritating info dump she’s often lumbered with) of compassionate mental health care in 14th-century Syria isn’t in dispute.

It’s a rather specific time and place, and some reviewers and commentators have offered that these scenes could’ve been set in any location. It’s a fair point but I think writer Charlene James, who co-wrote this with Chris Chibnall and has previously addressed teenage mental health and issues about communication in her work, wanted to demonstrate that the compassionate treatment of such problems is centuries old and doesn’t discriminate based on race, religion, gender, or age. There were places to seek help in 14th-century Syria and similarly there are in 21st-century Sheffield, and perhaps that’s what the story’s settings and structure is initially engaging with.

Tahira has deeper problems than stealing from the souk. She believes her nightmares are real and will manifest and attack the hospital. Later that night, her demons (evocatively visualised through shaking POV camera work, shadows flitting across walls, and glimpses of a creature), kidnap her friend and ransack the hospital. It’s an atmospheric teaser, creepy and disorientating. We’re then back to the TARDIS, with The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) having brought Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Ryan (Tosin Cole) back to Sheffield, despite arriving 77-minutes late.

While they agree to meet the next day at lunchtime, the end of the scene is interesting from The Doctor’s perspective. She’s seemingly happy on her own, in her own company, but there’s still a sense that these friends have become important to her. “Finally, a bit of peace and quiet,” she claims, but the expression on her face as they leave tells a different story. Rather than find time for herself and be alone she’d rather “nip straight to tomorrow lunchtime.” Before she can consider it the TARDIS is invaded by the roar of a creature, the brief appearance of the alien Zellin (a terrific performance from Ian Gelder) and a warning that this vision originated in Aleppo. Given something she can now poke her nose into, The Doctor sets off to Syria.

Meanwhile, the story is structured in such a way as to finally allow us room to separately explore the social and family lives of the companions. Yaz meets up with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), Ryan checks in with his mate Tibo (Buom Tihngang), whom we last saw briefly in “Spyfall: Part 1”, and Graham has a card game with Fred (Michael Keane) and Gabriel (Everal A Walsh). Each of these interlocking subplots is a refreshing examination of their backgrounds and how travelling with The Doctor’s affected their sense of self, time, and place. Granted, these are developments that should’ve been threaded into stories on a regular basis, but their function here’s also to support the narrative’s theme about the fragility of their psychological wellbeing given the constant danger they subject themselves to.

These reconnections to life in Sheffield reveal to the companions that, as time passes in the TARDIS, they can miss changes within their relatives and friends. For example, Yaz discovers her sister can cook and Ryan finds that Tibo has retreated into his flat and become lonely, isolated, and paranoid. Graham’s card game turns to discussions about his remission from cancer and the death of his wife Grace. In all instances, they actually lie to their friends about where they’ve been. Yaz has been on secondment, as we know, and reassures Sonya that the recent problems in Gloucester were “nowt to do with Russians”. Ryan has missed Tibo’s messages because he claims his phone’s been playing up. Graham’s been on a cruise. Again, the themes of communication, trust, and honesty are writ large. The fibs about travelling in the TARDIS are coping mechanisms. As Graham suggests, it stops them all “getting stuck in the past.” Reconnection with family and friends is shown as a vital element in dealing with deep-rooted problems.

Yaz marks an anniversary with her sister. Three years ago she ran away from home, unable to face her problems, was fortunate enough to encounter a sympathetic police officer, and her life turned around. While she reflects on this past, the TARDIS lands in an Aleppo where fears and nightmares have left their own traces of destruction and The Doctor finds she has no companions with whom to share her thoughts. Tahira’s survived the carnage alone, but a creature clinging onto the roof remains. However, it disappears after threatening them and The Doctor’s unable to trace it using her sonic screwdriver. It’s clear it’s not some figment of Tahira’s imagination, not simply a projection of her mental instability.

This resonates with the visions that trouble Yaz, Graham, and Ryan. Graham’s card game is interrupted by a psychic message from space, where a woman’s seemingly trapped between two colliding planets. She begs him to help her. When Yaz falls asleep at home, Sonya thinks back on what happened three years ago when she called the police to look for the runaway, suicidal Yaz. Yaz dreams of this provocative moment in her life but wakes up abruptly to discover Zellin standing in the living room. Challenged by her, he disappears in a puff of black smoke. After seeing Tibo’s normally clean flat is in a mess, physical signs that he is struggling and is having nightmares about “dark, messed up staff”, Ryan stays over with him. However, he witnesses one of the strangest, surreal moments in modern Doctor Who. Zellin, clearly the “bloke” in his dreams that Tibo’s started to see in reality, appears in the flat and, raising his hand, detaches his fingers and sends them flying into the room. One digit plants itself in Tibo’s ear and begins to drain out whatever’s in his mind before snatching him away in a cloud of smoke. It’s a truly bizarre, unsettling vision—like something out of a David Lynch film. There are lots of symbolic and folkloric meanings in the use of the fingers, as indicators of elemental forces and signs of the spiritual path the innocent must take, for example. It’s the hand of God or, as we discover, a particular god.

We uncover some further background to Tahira’s troubles after she meets The Doctor. Her family were killed and, like Yaz, she went on the run. She found safety in Aleppo. Now it seems everyone at the hospital’s been taken by the creatures she and The Doctor have seen. Tahira boards the TARDIS and The Doctor examines a strand of fur caught in one of the walls of the hospital but analysis tells her it doesn’t exist. The creatures have never existed in the TARDIS database. “Someone’s targeting us,” she concludes when all three companions report their disturbing experiences to her. They journey to an orbiting platform in deep space in the distant future, having found the location in Graham’s vision via the TARDIS telepathic circuits.

They discover the final collapse of the planets, first seen in Graham’s vision, is being prevented by a geo orb locked in place, apparently with the mysterious woman trapped inside. Even odder, there are sections of the platform covered in fingers broadcasting a psychic signal to the woman. All this is held in place by a quantum fluctuation lock which, to The Doctor, indicates the orb’s a prison. The Doctor accepts the woman needs rescuing rather than considering the reason why she’s locked in there in the first place. However, Zellin hoodwinks her into believing the woman is his victim rather than his equal. After Tahira discovers her friend from the hospital and the strange creature of her nightmares are also being kept on the platform along with Tibo, Zellin appears and claims the Chagaska creature is a creation he has wrought directly from her worst fears. Challenged by The Doctor’s companions, his fingers do the walking and they are subdued, forced to face their fears.

Yaz returns to an empty highway, where the police officer and her sister, sensing her weakness, finally abandon her. Ryan experiences the consequences of forgetting Tibo and his friends, seeing an aged Tibo waiting for him to return as the world burns, a vision of Hell as the Dregs he encountered in “Orphan 55” go on the rampage. Graham fears the return of his cancer, his imminent death confirmed by his late wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and is plagued with guilt about failing to save her in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. This is all playing out unbeknownst to The Doctor, busy chattering away to herself about how to crack the quantum lock and showing off without an audience again.

Zellin introduces himself. He’s been watching The Doctor stumble her way around the universe. To her, Zellin’s a mythological creature, a god from another universe. A god-like, eternal being, he name drops The Eternals, The Guardians, and The Celestial Toymaker as fellow immortals who also have a habit of manipulating less fortunate mortal souls. There are echoes here too of The Dream Lord in Steven Moffat’s “Amy’s Choice” (2011). They need their games to keep the boredom at bay, to offset the curse of immortality. Zellin can change form and regenerate his physical body to provoke the fears and nightmares of his “scared and vulnerable” mortal victims. Interesting to note that he challenges The Doctor about her own obsession with humans, suggesting she’s playing a game with them to ease her own pains about immortality too. He also picks up on the fact that humans are as cruel to themselves as they are to others. As we’ve seen with The Doctor’s companions and their families and friends, they direct pain onto themselves. They are their own worst enemies—if their visions of doubt, guilt, and pain are anything to go by.

The “almost clever” Doctor has in fact freed Zellin’s counterpart Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey) from her imprisonment. Zellin has used The Doctor’s own penchant for instinctively blundering into situations against her and used the Chagaska to target the humans in Aleppo to bring her to the platform. Not entirely sure what has just happened, The Doctor is treated to a little story from Rakaya, rendered in a playful, animated interlude (shades of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) depicting her and Zellin’s wager over two planets and which of them they could bring to destruction first. Chaos, war, and carnage reign but then the populations of these worlds realised what these gods were doing. They united and set their worlds into collision and trapped Rakaya in a prison between the planets for eternity. It’s a clever, unusual way to explore the myth at the heart of the story. A depiction of mortal souls denouncing their gods becomes a metaphor for humans overcoming their fears, violence and doubt through the power of collective action and cultural commitments and banishing the ‘gods’ that feed on the nihilism and vulnerabilities projected into their nightmares.

Having enjoyed dining out on all those human nightmares, Rakaya is positively itching to go to Earth and really indulge herself but, as she and Zellin depart, The Doctor gets a finger in her ear and we briefly see her own anxieties about the Timeless Child. As an ordinary terraced street full of humans with “tiny, ephemeral flashes of existence” is drained of its collective nightmares—including a terrific scene (which could’ve been written by Moffat) where a child, promised there are no such things as bogeymen, is confronted by one that answers back—The Doctor affects her escape.

The problem here, as has been raised by many, is how she manages to get her sonic screwdriver from her pocket and into her hand manacled above her head. Putting aside the issue that the sonic’s doing double overtime in the story, very much back into its ‘get out of jail free’ mode, it’s not really clear how she does it. I’m prepared to accept the benefit of the doubt, after watching carefully, that she’s wedged it against the structure she’s chained to and has then forced it out of her pocket, propelling it into her hand. I don’t believe she’s suddenly developed telekinetic powers and I’d be disappointed if this was replaying Luke Skywalker’s ability to free his lightsaber from the ice in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) here. Let’s not dwell on “The Ambassadors of Death” (1970) where the Third Doctor performed a ‘magic trick’ with a computer tape.

However, that’s the least of the problems as the story promises to move up a gear and, hopefully, depict some great scenes of chaos and destruction. However, Zellin and Rakaya’s reign of terror doesn’t get started because the episode doesn’t have time to indulge them. This is a shame because I’d like to have seen more of that, just to emphasise their threat, and I’m sure if this had been 10-minutes longer it would’ve felt more satisfying when The Doctor turns the tables on them. Still, it affords us an amusing moment where Ryan explains what’s been happening to Tibo with an accurate and detailed insight that has, on most previous occasions, escaped him.

The Doctor reasons that Tahira survived the Chagaska attacking Aleppo because they’re actually her own nightmares given form by Zellin. They wouldn’t kill Tahira, their creator. Using this creature to lure Zellin and Rakaya to Aleppo, and the idea that these immortal gods can be recaptured in the prison by manipulating them with Zellin’s leftover fingers, comes across as throwing too many ideas together to fashion a somewhat anticlimactic resolution. It’s not entirely clear why they would want to go to Aleppo at the beck and call of the Chagaska but it gives The Doctor an opportunity to brag about how brilliant humans are, prevailing over their fears and doubts to the extent that Tahira can now control the Chagaska, and has “literally conquered her fear.” Using the fingers and the Chagaska, The Doctor manipulates Zellin and Rakaya’s own fear of being trapped in prison for eternity and, like errant genies, they are put back in their bottle.

The coda to the episode is again not structured that well, but it’s difficult to see how this could be folded into the main Zellin and Rakaya plotline. It does provide resolution to the issues explored by Yaz, Ryan, and Graham within the theme of facing their fears but it is debatable how successful this is and very much depend on your personal experience. With Yaz and Ryan, it does feel more satisfying. In a flashback, we see how Yaz was persuaded to turn her life around by PC Anita Patel (Nasreen Hussain) and in the present-day Ryan persuades Tibo to seek mental health advice. However, it’s here we get to the bone of contention with many who complained to the BBC or vented on social media.

Under the impression that given her title she might have some professional capacity to advise him, Graham opens up to The Doctor about his fears that his cancer might return. Her reaction was not what some were hoping for and the scene plays against the expectation that The Doctor will offer the right kind of sympathetic advice as, morally and emotionally, that’s what we would hope she would do. However, and this is from a personal perspective, it’s incredibly difficult for anyone, real human or fictional Time Lord, to be able to find the right words in response to Graham’s fears. Her lines actually play to that discomfort, to our own sense of inertia and awkwardness in that situation. She’s not being callous or unsympathetic. Let’s also think about it in terms of The Doctor as an immortal being, as someone who sees companions come and go, age or die, over thousands of years, then trying to respond to the fears of someone who has been given all but a brief reprieve. She listens and she’s honest about her reaction and Graham actually accepts that because he’s already experienced these fears. He unburdens himself and accepts that he’s not being judged or offered false hope. In answer to the very question in the title of the episode, then, yes, The Doctor does hear him.

Overall, “Can You Hear Me?” is a thought-provoking episode, full of interesting ideas and concepts that deserved a slightly longer runtime. It uses surreal, disturbing images that younger children may have found rather frightening and, unusually, it uses animation to tell a myth in flashback. It’s a rich storyline that encourages philosophical and sociological debate, touching on the use of mythology and religion and the secularisation of society, our existential fears, mental and physical health. The structure is atypical but the lives of the companions, their own fears and guilt, and the effect of their absence on those left behind, is actually integrated rather well into the battle between the eternal gods and their mortal victims at the heart of the story. Ian Gelder steals the episode with a juicy, ripe turn as Zellin and it’s great to see Gill, Walsh, and Cole working with emotionally resonant material, further expanding on their characters and their notions of trust and faith. The position of the companions’ home lives relative to the speed of life they experience with The Doctor is also an important touchstone here. How long can they as mortals cope with these rapid changes?

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Cast & Crew

writers: Charlene James & Chris Chibnall.
director: Emma Sullivan.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Ian Gelder, Aruhan Galieva, Buom Tihngang, Bhavnisha Parmar, Michael Keane & Anthony Taylor.