This week’s episode of Doctor Who was another one of those episodes where I had no idea what to expect before watching it. The BBC’s promotional efforts for the episode played things very close to the chest, revealing only that it would be a fairly creepy episode and the villain, Zellin (Ian Gelder), would be doing something involving dreams and nightmares. Aside from that, it was super unclear what to expect from the episode. And, frankly, I think it really worked out in this instance because Can You Hear Me? is one of those episodes that has to be seen to be truly appreciated and understood. So, did I like the episode? For sure, though I think it could have benefitted from being a two-part story. (Spoilers follow!)
Season 12, Episode 7: Can You Hear Me? (written by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall, directed by Emma Sullivan)
From ancient Syria to present day Sheffield, and out into the wilds of space, something is stalking the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends. As Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) 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.
I really enjoy stories about dreams and I really enjoy it when Doctor Who tries to do something new. For a show that’s filled with the kind of limitless possibility that Doctor Who has, it’s rather impressive how little the show has played around with dreams. Not that it’s never been done before (most notably in Amy’s Choice and Kinda), but Doctor Who rarely fully jumps into the realm of nightmares as much as it did with Can You Hear Me? – and it’s such a joy to see the idea tackled in such an interesting way here. While The Dream Lord (Toby Jones in Amy’s Choice) weaponized dreams in Amy’s Choice, Zellin weaponizes nightmares in Can You Hear Me?, especially after he’s able to release his partner, Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey), from her prison. But more on that in a moment.
There are two huge factors that contributed to this episode’s success. The first of these is the premise/atmosphere and the execution of it. Like I said, I really enjoy it when Doctor Who experiments with what it can be – and exploring the realm of dreams and nightmares is a really good way to do that. And, man, Doctor Who really goes for it with this episode. Firstly, Emma Sullivan (the episode’s director) managed to create one of those quintessentially creepy atmospheres that perfectly serve stories like this. Zellin and Rakaya made for some intriguing villains (though I wish there’d been a bit more time to develop them). Zellin, especially, felt suitably creepy for a story like this. I mean, the whole thing with him literally severing his fingers is haunting as hell. Most intriguing of all, however, was how the episode used the threat of nightmares. With a villain like Zellin literally taking peoples’ nightmares and harvesting them, it opens the episode up brilliantly to some neat dream sequences. And, boy, does Sullivan rise to that occasion. All of the dream sequences possess this borderline-Lynchian quality to them and they’re a real highlight of the episode. My favorite sequence, though, might just be an animated one where the backstory of Zellin and Rakaya gets explained to the Doctor. It’s just really neat. So, sure, the actual plot itself isn’t that interesting, but man the premise, villains, and atmosphere more than makeup for it. You’ll remember moments from this episode long after you’ve seen it.
The second, and most important, factor was the character development that happens throughout the episode. As anyone who’s read my reviews of the 13th Doctor’s era would know, my chief complaint has always been the lack of character development for the characters – especially the companions. Luckily, this episode is literally filled to the brim with good character development. Since the episode is all about nightmares, it’s a great opportunity for the show to explore the fears of its lead characters. For Graham, we see that he is frightened that his cancer will return. For Ryan, we see that he is worried he’s away from his friends for too long and that he’ll miss something important/be unable to save them from danger. And Yaz, oh Yaz. Not only do we see that she’s scared she’s using her adventures with the Doctor as a way of running away from her problems instead of confronting them, but we also finally get some good backstory for her. Here, we learn that roughly three years before she started adventuring with the TARDIS, she was suffering from some major mental health problems and even ran away from home. It’s the kind of development that really helps put Yaz’s whole character into a focus that’s been sorely missing thus far. And it really gave Mandip Gill something meaty to play with. The whole scene was truly beautiful, as was the scene between Ryan and his friend, Tibo (Buom Tihngang). In general, the episode did such a good job with the character beats and provided a really nice, really nuanced look at how mental health impacts these characters and their friends. I crave character development like this, so it was really nice to finally get some (even if I wish the Doctor had gotten a few moments of development like this, which seems like a missed opportunity given how perfectly this episode would have allowed us to explore more of the Timeless Child arc).
Unfortunately, those successes also reveal flaws with Can You Hear Me? and the 13th Doctor’s entire era as a whole. The episode-specific problem is that writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall seemed to have trouble balancing the two aspects of the story. Splitting up all of the characters right at the beginning and allowing us to follow them through their lives as they interact with the people who have missed them while they’ve been away with the Doctor was a smart decision as it opened up their lives to us a bit more than usual. And the gradual introduction of the creepier aspects of the plot worked really well in those scenes. But as soon as the plot properly kicked into gear, we sort of lost a lot of that character-driven momentum in favor of what was going on with Zellin and Rakaya. But then the episode just wrapped their plotline up really quickly and in a fairly unsatisfying way before dovetailing headfirst into some good character development to end the episode.
All of these elements and ideas are good, but it just feels like there must have been a way to better balance them all and give everything time to work and properly connect. Perhaps cutting the whole Aleppo plotline, giving the monsters that appear in that sequence to Ryan’s friend and just having the Doctor be completely off-screen for the first chunk of the episode might have worked better. But what I really think would have solved the problem would have been to give this story an entire second episode, letting James and Chibnall really take their time with each scene, giving moments (like the cool animated sequence detailing Zellin and Rakaya’s history) the moments they so desperately needed to breathe and carefully tying everything together in a more cohesive way. It was still an enjoyable episode, but it just needed more time to make all of its elements work as well as they could. More time would have allowed the characters’ dream sequences to better tie in with their development and it could have allowed more time for the episode to find a better way of defeating Zellin and Rakaya.
The other flaw brought up by this episode is how the 13th Doctor’s era has handled the development of its main characters in general. At this point, we’re eighteen episodes into this era. That’s eighteen episodes with only the barest of character development for a character like Yaz. While all of the companions have suffered a bit from a lack of character development, at least Graham and Ryan got some kind of development in their first season. Poor Yaz frequently barely registered as being in half the episodes she’s been in. And that’s because we’ve known nothing about her until now. The show kept saying her driving force was “wanting more from life”, but we never really got to see that until now and it would have been really nice to know last season that she had this part of her past that was ripe for exploring. So, while I feel the execution of Yaz’s backstory was done really well in this episode – especially with how realistic her mental health struggles felt – it also feels like too little too late. It feels like the show is preparing itself for her imminent departure and it makes this late-stage delve into her past land not as well as it should have. So, while I really loved this episode’s character work, I can’t help but feel like it would’ve landed better had this era of Doctor Who done a better job at sowing the seeds for this development earlier on, thus freeing the episode to explore these ideas with more depth than it’s able to as it has to properly explain Yaz’s backstory to us for the first time.
That said, I still believe that Can You Hear Me? was a deeply enjoyable episode. I love when Doctor Who experiments and does something that pushes the boundaries of what the show is and I really enjoy stories involving dreams and nightmares. That premise, alone, probably would’ve won my favor but when it’s combined with such interesting looks into the minds of our lead characters, you better believe I loved it. The episode features some of the best performances from the core cast that we’ve seen this entire run. Emma Sullivan’s direction was equally excellent, really playing up the creepier elements of the story’s atmosphere alongside the meaty character beats. The depiction of mental health was also truly wonderful to see, and it’s nice to see the show handling such a serious topic in such a good manner. This episode would’ve ranked higher than a 4/5 had the rest of the 13th Doctor’s era done a better job at developing the companions (so their development here didn’t feel as “too little too late” as it does) and if the episode had found a way to better balance the plot and the character stuff or was a two-part story that really got to take its time with things. Even so, Can You Hear Me? ranks as a highlight of the season for me and I hope the next three episodes are as strong.
4 out of 5 wands.