Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 7
“Can You Hear Me?”
Doctor Who explores the power of nightmares and how they can fuel insecurities while the reality of travelling with The Doctor starts to occur to the companions.
Nightmares have been a common fixture in Doctor Who stories whether something that people thought was a nightmare actually exists, some external force causes a particular nightmare, something manipulates nightmares or some other connection to bad dreams. It’s an easy storytelling device to fall back on because audiences can easily latch onto it since we all have nightmares, we all understand how impactful they can be and it’s an easy way to exploit visual imagery that commonly scares people.
There are a lot of bizarre choices in this episode and the nightmare concept isn’t something it leans into all that successfully which is bizarre because it would have been such an easy thing to do. It’s a lot more successful from a characterisation point of view because it references long established things the characters have been dealing with. I’ll get into what those are and what they mean as the review progresses as well as how well done it is.
The episode begins similarly to “Spyfall Part 1” with the companions all returning to their own lives and participating in a slice of normality for a brief time. Stylistically it’s very different with a more melancholy feel as the focus is more on what has been lost rather than what makes those slower paced lives worth celebrating. Yaz arrives home to find only her sister there, Ryan visits his friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) who wonders why he hasn’t had a response to his messages in months and Graham catches up with some friends for a game of cards.
Graham’s contribution to this slice of normality is the most positive. The conversation is about the issues he has such as the cancer that could return at any time and the loss of Grace but he tries to put a brave face on it by talking about how travelling helps take his mind off things and he keeps moving forward after Grace’s death because he has to. It may be a little on the nose to have a scene featuring characters who get together and only talk about what the main character is dealing with but it does provide a reminder that these two things are a big part of this character and shows that he is still dealing with them. It would have helped if the dialogue had been more natural. It’s clear the intention was for the scene to play out as if Graham’s friends were concerned about his well-being but the reality is that it comes across as if they simply exist to draw attention to Graham’s lingering emotional issues.
Yaz and Sonya are having a dinner to mark the anniversary of something that isn’t easy for either of them to talk about. It’s something that the episode reveals at a later point but it’s left as a mystery early on. This worked fairly well as their conversations were unburdened by unnecessary exposition. One of the clumsiest things found in dialogue is characters who have the same information talking as if one of them doesn’t. It’s enough to know that they’re taking the time to mark an occasion that means something to them and has a less than positive slant to it. There’s an awkwardness to how Yaz and Sonya interact that ties into a shared problem all of the companions have -that I’ll explore later in the review- and a distance between them that seems hard to bridge. Sonya appears to be aimless based on the conversation about another job she was fired from and Yaz is deeply concerned about her future which further hints at what Yaz is dealing with beneath the surface.
Ryan’s visit to Tibo is the strongest of these. Like Yaz and Sonya there’s an awkwardness to their interactions and the two actors do an excellent job making their conversations feel entirely natural. Tosin Cole in particular is very natural in these scenes which really stands out. Tibo is having a really tough time as Ryan pays him a visit though it doesn’t seem to be caused by anything specific. He’s simply struggling and doesn’t feel like himself. It’s impacting every aspect of his life and Ryan picks up on it because he knows what Tibo is like when he’s himself. The implication is that the alien threat of the episode is what has caused this bout of depression but to me it seems like there’s far more to it than an external influence plaguing his dreams.
The companions visiting their friends and family highlights a shared issue they all have that is addressed at the end of the episode. They all come home to find that things are different to how they were when they were last home. The exception to this is Graham who finds that nothing has changed with his friends though the issue is still highlighted through him being different and being unable to dial into their pace of life. Tibo points out that Ryan hasn’t been around so has no idea who he is or what he’s been going through and Yaz has missed so much of the lives of her family that she is having trouble relating to them on any particular level at this point.
This is something that modern Doctor Who has dealt with through every incarnation of The Doctor and every companion he or she has had to some extent. They have all been irreversibly altered by their experiences with The Doctor and not always for the better. They can all claim to have a greater understanding of the universe and their place within it but other aspects of their lives suffer because The Doctor doesn’t live life at the same pace. She did warn them that they wouldn’t return the same as when they left but what that actually means is starting to be realises by them. Most profoundly affected so far is Ryan who is really thrown by missing out on his friend descending into depression and not being around to help him deal with it. Yaz appears to see this as positive and reminds Ryan of what they were all told. I get the impression that Ryan doesn’t accept this and may be having doubts about continuing this journey because of the negative impact it has on those close to him.
Graham is somewhere in-between though comes to realise he has been treating these adventures as escapism without actually dealing with his issues. He opens up to The Doctor about being afraid that his cancer will return and send him back to square one. His fears are somewhat unfounded as he has been medically cleared for quite some time but he can’t hide from the lingering fear forever and the events of this episode have forced him to face it. The Doctor listens to him but doesn’t have the social skills to say anything helpful. It’s an amusing scene that serves as a reminder that The Doctor is an alien who struggles to understand the complexities of Human relationships while also making a casual yet effective point about the importance of listening. Listening is vitally important as it helps people feel like they aren’t isolated. Simply discussing issues can be helpful in itself and this conversation works really well because Graham isn’t looking for The Doctor to offer a solution to this problem; all he wants is to vocalise his fears and have them be heard by someone he trusts to confide in.
This is repeated in the reveal of what anniversary was being marked for Yaz. A flashback to three years ago reveals that she ran away from home. It’s mentioned that she was being bullied at school and her grades were slipping though I get the sense that she isn’t running away just because she was being bullied; that seems to be a symptom of the issue rather than the cause of it though the episode doesn’t go into detail. The cause of her running way isn’t important but what she feels is. A kindly Police Officer (Nasreen Hussain) is able to identify some of how Yaz feels in that moment and offers her advice that encourages her to come home to face it rather than running away from it. It’s a really good exchange with a lot of weight behind it thanks in large part to an excellent performance from Nasreen Hussain who comes across as sympathetic, experienced and invested in Yaz as a person. Mandip Gill does a lot with very little dialogue and does a great job playing a younger Yaz who is completely lost at that point in her life. Most of the talking is done by the Police officer but it’s clear that her words resonate and the implication is that Yaz became inspired to become a Police Officer because of this very conversation. It was a nice touch to use the wager as a way to bring it into the present day so that Yaz could go to her and let her see how impactful those words were at a key point in Yaz’ life. When she goes to see the Police Officer and she sees that the advice she gave worked it was a really touching moment that felt earned.
In general, the focus on mental health and how many different forms that can take is really strong in this episode. There are a number of examples of people struggling to maintain their own well-being and each of them are unique to those experiencing them. The episode has positive things to say about the power of opening up about those issues as well as how effective simply listening to the problems of others can be. I’ve had issues with how this season is handling making their episodes be about something but this is a great example of that because it feels relevant to the characters and their current situation rather than being a forced attempt to draw the attention of the audience to something.
The alien threat of the week was less than interesting though a big part of that was how little focus it was given. Zellin (Ian Gelder) was a well performed and creepy presence. He was nicely over the top and does a decent job matching wits with The Doctor in a few key scenes but never quite rises to the threat level suggested by his reputation. The Doctor even talks as if he exists in mythology as far as she’s concerned so there should have been more of an occasion to this threat instead of the easily dispatched distraction that he ends up being.
His plan makes no real sense when any thought is applied to it. The Doctor being drawn to Aleppo and meeting Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) feels somewhat pointless in the grand scheme of things. It’s a common trait this season to have random people scooped up into the adventure and experience the enormity of the TARDIS so that we can have the discovery moment repeated every week but it doesn’t always make sense to do this. Tahira ends up being someone who is able to conquer her fears and have that play a part in defeating Zellin which shows the others that it’s possible to overcome their fears but this could have been achieved in some other way. Zellin is an immortal and does mention that he was bored which offers some justification for his actions though it’s far from an engaging motivation.
Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ahitey) has almost no character to speak of and deserved to have greater significance given her cryptic psychic messages. It’s no clear why her feeding on the nightmares of the entire Human race would necessarily be a bad thing and he appearance is far too brief for her to resonate in any meaningful way. It’s bizarre that such a visually interesting episode in terms of the alien orbital platform and the colliding planets would have such underwhelming nightmare imagery. Graham’s worst nightmare being visualised as him sitting on a hospital bed having Grace tell him he would be dead in a couple of hours is far from the best way to depict this for example.
The Doctor’s nightmare receives some attention though it’s largely a repeat of what we already know. She sees a child in robes with The Master’s words about Time Lord history being a complete lie are replayed in her mind. It does reinforce what she’s thinking about and what bothers her but there was surely a better way to visualise this to give it some real impact. There’s also a missed opportunity here as there was a rare chance to explore what The Doctor has nightmares about considering she routinely stops the things that others have nightmares about.
A reasonable episode that excels in drawing attention to the mental well-being of the companions and those around them though suffers with a less than effective alien threat. Having the companions return home and have melancholy interactions with those in their lives is a really effective way of drawing attention to the mental health of all concerned. Graham is reminded of the things he’s trying not to think about, Ryan catches up with a friend who is badly struggling and Yaz realises how much of the lives of her family she has been missing. All of these draw attention to the fact that travelling with The Doctor massively impacts their lives and not always in a positive way. Ryan in particular is affected because he had no idea how much his friend was struggling and seems to be having doubts about his decision to travel with The Doctor. In general the episode does a great job exploring the mental health side of it as everyone concerned has their own unique experience and the episode has positive things to say about the power of opening up as well as how effective it can be to simply listen. Graham opening up to The Doctor shows how valuable that can be and Yaz having someone reach out to her at a key moment had a profound impact on her.
The alien threat of the week was less than interesting due to a lack of focus on it. In theory Zellin should have been a much bigger deal than the episode allowed him to be but his plan didn’t make much sense and his motivations weren’t in any way interesting. Rakaya had no character to speak of and it wasn’t clear why her feasting on Humanity’s nightmares was such a bad thing. It’s also odd that an episode that boasted such striking visuals did such a poor job visualising the nightmares. Focusing on the mental health aspect was definitely a good idea but it came at the expense of an engaging villain story that could have been much better served with a bit more work.
- nuanced and varied accounts of mental health issues
- the indications of the negative impact of travelling with The Doctor
- Ryan’s interactions with Tibo
- showing the power of simply listening through Graham opening up to The Doctor
- Yaz remembering her prior encounter with a kindly Police Officer and the impact this had on her
- the alien threat of the week being underwhelming due to a lack of focus
- almost no character to Rakaya
- less than impressive visual representations of the nightmares
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