Series 12 Episode 7 09/02/20. Episode reviewed by Sean Alexander.
“The cruelty of their own minds directed toward themselves.”
This second series of Chris Chibnall’s ‘reimagining’ of modern-day Doctor Who could be mistaken for Doctor Woke. Now, this isn’t going to be another tedious rant about how the show has become all PC and demographic-ticking in its current incarnation (various websites, blogs and social media platforms are available for that, if one desires) but it would be remiss of me to mention that Chibnall’s Doctor Who has become issue-led rather than plot-driven. ‘Can You Hear Me?’ isn’t even the show’s first occasion at looking at mental illness and offering a helpline ‘for those affected’ after the end credits (2010’s ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ got there first, albeit with a somewhat less preachy mandate) and as a first-time writer to the show (the latest in countless new scribes commissioned by the current showrunner) Charlene James does at least find a fresh angle to using sci-fi mental health in a tangible, albeit fantastical, way. And that is where the episode’s problems largely begin and end.
As the Doctor makes her occasional house visit to the companions’ spiritual home these days of Sheffield – dropping off Yazz, Ryan and Graham into their otherwise humdrum lives of family catch-ups, FIFA contests and card schools respectively – the TARDIS is momentarily invaded by a mysterious bald man, whose signal is traced to Aleppo, Syria, in 1380. There she discovers the sole survivor of a beastly onslaught by dinosaur-like monsters. For some reason, Tahira speaks great English in a British accent even before the TARDIS’ translation circuits start doing their thing; whilst elsewhere Team Fam are similarly being assaulted by visions of bald men, an entrapped female and – in Yazz’s case – an avant-garde deserted road where her sister Sonya speaks enigmatically to her from one direction, whilst a uniformed police officer (recalling Yazz’s own day-job pursuit) stares at her from another. So far, so curious.
Rescuing Tahira from the devastated hospital where she either worked or was a patient (I may have missed this point amongst all the growing exposition) Team TARDIS reunite to head off to the source of Graham’s vision of two worlds almost colliding and a bubble of…something wedged in between. There, the rather unhygienic process of finger-in-the-ear mental extraction seems to be powering the bubble at the centre of this extinction event (the bald man’s fingers zoom off like mini-pen drives to insert themselves into their recipients’ ears…which is enough to give hygiene-conscious viewers nightmares alone). Literally sucking the nightmares out of people’s brains, before uploading them into whatever is trapped at the centre of the geo-orb and its Atlas-like sandwich filling between two dying worlds. We learn all this not from some carefully structured plot development, but as a result of the sledgehammer Doc-splaining that has come to define the Chibnall era as much as fairy tale subtext did his predecessor or working-class ennui did the guy before. Up pops the slap-headed Zellin, an immortal from outside this known universe who namechecks both the classic series’ Guardians and Toymaker, before revealing that the trapped woman is anything but. She is another immortal for whom the pain and suffering of others is sustenance not punishment, engaged in an eon-long wager with Zellin to sit out eternity without dying of boredom in the process.
There is, of course, more than just a precedent to all this, whether writer Charlene James is doing it or not (but then, given the now obligatory co-writer credit for each of these newbies, it’s just as likely Chibnall himself has inserted it to keep an increasingly fragmented fanbase onside). 1983’s ‘Enlightenment’ told a similar tale of immortal boredom amongst the almighty, but that time on sailing ships in the vacuum of space rather than this more humdrum affair between collapsing planets. This time, much as Space once sang, the female of the species is much deadlier than the male, and while Ian Gelder’s Zellin may get all the episode’s best lines, his counterpart Rakaya is the more powerful of the two; not trapped but cocooned within the geo-orb, and feasting on rather than fearing all those nightmares from sleeping people.
Okay, time to address the elephantine issue in the room: given we have Ryan’s friend living in his own mess, Ryan himself visioning a future where Tibo is left on a burning Earth, Yazz forced to confront her maybe-suicidal escape from homelife and teenage pressures three years ago, and Graham imagining himself back on a chemo-drip with late wife Grace giving a fatal prognosis, the worthy attempt to encourage talk about mental health issues is of course timely and praiseworthy. It’s a shame though that this is all delivered with about as much subtlety as Douglas Adams’ fish wrapped around a brick. It curtails an episode about immortals who are dispatched by one (out of presumably billions) of their victims actually manning-up and defeating their fears. Leading to a protracted, sharing-and-caring denouement in which Tibo attends his first therapy session, Yazz visits the policewoman who may have saved her life on a lonely highway, and even Graham talks to the Doctor about his fear of cancer returning. That’s a big problem if you decide that each week the monster or the villain is only there to prompt us to discuss some important issue; and hardly a rare case in a series that has so far had female recognition, climate change, plastic pollution and the full story behind the invention of the lightbulb carefully and correctly explained. As people already point out, Doctor Who was doing this back in the early 1970s when such liberal, hippy-love issues were still a hangover from the days of free love and sit-down protests. But in a modern age of fake news, generation woke and another fifty years of the planet royally f**king itself to kingdom come, it just comes across as needy and playing catch-up. In fifty years, Barry Letts’ vision of the future as a polluted mess destroyed by corporate greed has become just another Greta Thunberg speech, as we continue to pump gas, cut down trees and pat ourselves on the back for recycling every plastic bottle. The world has moved on, and not for the better, and Doctor Who needs a more modern take on stuff it was a pioneer in discussing back in the day.
As someone who’s experienced his own fair share of mental health problems, I feel validated by its inclusion in my favourite show. But at times it feels Doctor Who these days is more about the soapbox than the speaker. Maybe it’s all part of Chibnall’s reimaging of the Hartnell-era TARDIS and its historical mandate to teach viewers about the past (something that this season hasn’t done quite as much as last) but I approach each episode now with a weary air of ‘I wonder which contentious subject Team TARDIS will have to defeat this week in a metaphorical way?’ There’s much to like with this reboot of an increasingly navel-gazing stewardship under Steven Moffat that saw the First Doctor meet the Twelth before becoming the Thirteenth (which itself followed ‘Mondassian’ Cybermen, as if Joe Bloggs in the audience actually cared). But if the upcoming Mary Shelley episode does little more than bang the drum for chick-lit Gothic horror, only a barnstorming Cyberman smackdown remains before the curtain falls on another series. I for one won’t be climbing on any soapbox in the meantime.