*****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
Stylishly directed by Emma Sullivan, Doctor Who 12.7, “Can You Hear Me?” was written by current showrunner Chris Chibnall and Charlene James, and is a solid, if not exceptional, outing in what has largely been a hit-and-miss era from Chibnall. “Can You Hear Me?” isn’t among the best of the series, but it occupies a comfortable, entertaining niche of the “Doctor Who” canon.
Can You Hear Me?
The year is 1380, the place is Aleppo, Syria (a nation currently marred by tragedy and civil war today). Young Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) is worried about a plague of nightmares infesting her city. The nightmares are reified and become ‘monsters of the id’ (perhaps a subtle nod to “Forbidden Planet”, itself a nod to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”). 14th century Syria is represented in a very stylishly theatrical interpretation with a rich color palette (well done, director Emma Sullivan!). Seeing others in her city taken away by these nightmarish manifestations, Tahira has the intelligence to avoid the blind panic of the others, and not attract the creature’s attention.
Aboard the TARDIS, the family of companions, Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are all feeling a bit homesick for Sheffield when the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) gives them a day’s liberty in their hometown; a nice break from the craziness of their intergalactic adventures as well as a chance to catch up with their friends and family. Ryan goes off to see his agoraphobic mate Tibo (Buom Tihngang), while Yaz catches up with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar). The Doctor being the Doctor, she drops them off a bit later than hoped…making said friends and family worried.
Yaz arrives late at her sister’s, while Graham settles in with his friends for a friendly game of poker. During the game, Graham is cleaning up and catching up with his friends, telling them that he’s “been traveling” (to put it mildly) as a means of coping with the loss of his beloved wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). During the game, Graham receives startling visions…visions of a young woman with white hair, trapped in some sort of cell, calling for help. He also catches fleeting glimpses of two burning planets. Needless to say, his mind is no longer on the game…
Staying at his shut-in friend Tibo’s flat, Ryan is awakened late at night by the sight of a mysterious, tattoo-headed intruder named Zellin (Ian Gelder) who detaches his fingers at will, sending each of them on an independent courses, one of them lodging in the ear of the sleeping Tibo…
Meanwhile, Yaz crashes on the couch of her sister’s during their movie night (as she swore she wouldn’t). As she sleeps, one of Zellin’s ‘probes’ reaches her mind and gives her a vision of herself as a young woman three years ago…running away from home, and her chance meeting with a kindly, compassionate police officer named Patel (Nasreen Hussain). This was a time when young Yaz was a frightened, rebellious young woman, unsure of herself and her future…
Homing in on psychic signals from 14th century Syria, the Doctor decides to go there solo, letting her companions enjoy their catchup time with their friends and family. She quickly realizes, after arriving in a deserted Aleppo, just how much she’s come to rely on them at this point. She meets a hiding Tahira, who warns the Doctor a menace that is taking members of the town and making nightmares real. The Doctor encounters one of the fanged, clawed beasts and realizes she needs her crew back for this one…
In Sheffield, the Doctor realizes the same nightmarish beast she encountered in ancient Aleppo is also targeting her companions as well. She takes her friends (and Ryan’s agorophobic mate Tibo) back aboard the TARDIS and returns to the 14th century. The Doctor realizes something is feeding off of the fears and nightmares of humans across the centuries, both in old Syria and modern Sheffield.
Realizing whatever it was is no longer in the 14th century, the Doctor takes her crew, and Tahira, back to the TARDIS to track down the source of the nightmare manifestations. Using Ryan’s visions as a starting point, the Doctor hooks him up to the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits to learn more (why she doesn’t conveniently mind-meld with him, as we’ve seen her do earlier this year, is not explained). With his head connected to a device that looks like it came from Doc Brown’s laboratory, the Doctor is able to see the young woman and the burning planets that Graham saw during his poker game earlier.
The TARDIS wastes not a moment, and yanks itself across spacetime to a remote space station in the far reaches of the galaxy…. a station in a fixed orbit around a pair of colliding planets. Team TARDIS and Tahira exit the trusty old police box, with the ahead-of-her-era Tahira displaying more awe and disbelief than fear. Tahira’s reactions are hardly those of a frightened ‘primitive’ by any means (the Doctor notes that ancient Syrian culture was far in advance of its western counterparts of the same era).
Exploring the station, the TARDIS crew learn that the two colliding planets are stopped just short of impact by a powerful energy bubble…a bubble which contains what appears to be a smaller vessel of some kind. There is a scale model of the bubble aboard the station as well.
Before long, Yaz, Graham and Ryan are separated and later captured by Zellin, who holds them in shackles (or their futuristic equivalent) while his detachable ‘fingers’ do the walking once again, probing inside of their minds for their greatest fears and nightmares. For the Doctor’s companions, their greatest nightmares aren’t primitive monsters, but rather their own guilt… the greatest monster of all.
Yaz is taken back to her days as a runaway, during her encounter with Patel. Graham is taken back to a doctor’s office, where he sees his dead wife Grace (who was his former nurse), telling him that his cancer has returned and will kill him in a matter of hours. The nightmare image of Grace also manipulates Graham’s helplessness over not being able to save her life. Zellin is richly feeding off of the guilt and fears of the TARDIS companions…
At this point, I readily concede that the sci-fi concept of a creature with the ability to exploit our characters’ weaknesses and fears is a very old (and arguably tired) one, but in this case, it’s used smartly to explore the depths of the Who crew, much in the same way the otherwise dreadful “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989) used it to tell the story of Dr. McCoy’s euthanasia of his father. No, none of this is new, nor is the idea of psychic vampires feeding off of human frailty (that one is centuries-old), but why argue when it’s used well?
Using the recently collected fears as fuel, Zellin is able to reach into the craft (a prison cell, actually) and release his own exiled companion, Rakaya (Claire Hope Ashity), and the two self-professed ‘gods’ will now be able to feed freely off of the nightmares of beings throughout all of space and time…
In a scene that is downright embarrassing for its sheer silliness, the Doctor, also in shackles, is ‘somehow’ able to get ahold of her sonic screwdriver (yeaaaah, right) and undo all of the locks. This scene is right up there with the cliche of the western cowboy jumping off a cliff and landing upright on his horse’s saddle. Released, the Doctor is off in pursuit of Zellin and Rakaya…
In Sheffield, Zellin and Rakaya are roaming the deserted late night streets, draining psychic fuel off of the nightmares of the sleeping locals (nightmares which they’re manipulating for maximum effect). The scene reminds me very much of the vampire Lestat (Stuart Townsend) and Queen Akasha (the late Aaliyah) feeding off of the blood of worshippers in the 2001 film adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Queen of the Damned.” It has that vibe to it; as if someone in the writers’ room saw the film and said, “we could do that for Doctor Who…”
A lovely animated sequence details how Rakaya and Zellin set the two planets into war with each other, and eventually set them on their collision course. The people of the two planets rebelled against their capricious, diabolical ‘gods’ and even imprisoned Rakaya shortly before the end of their two worlds was imminent. In short order, the Doctor and her companions (including Tibo and Tahira) lure the two ‘gods’ back to ancient Aleppo and locks them both into the energy bubble prison, forever trapped with one of their own psychic monsters for all eternity. This is the sort of comeuppance one would expect from the 9th or 10th Doctors, and it reminds us that the Doctor can be very wrathful when she chooses to be.
The ending sees Tahira returned to ancient Syria, and Rian saying goodbye to his mate Tibo, who is finally seeking therapy to treat his crippling agoraphobia. Yaz also visits police officer Patel, who showed her kindness and changed the course of her life three years ago.
We then see Graham trying to have a heart-to-heart with the Doctor about his cancer scares, but the scene goes for a cheap laugh instead as a distracted Doctor makes a silly quip about how she’s supposed to say something meaningful, blah, blah, blah. With everyone returned to their own time, and the Doctor reunited with her team, the Doctor asks her companions if they’d like to meet Frankenstein (I’m assuming she means a visit to Mary Shelley)…
Summing It All Up.
“Can You Hear Me?” (a nod to the Bowie song) is well-directed by the aforementioned Emma Sullivan. 14th century Syria is stylishly realized in a richly theatrical style… like Cecil B. DeMille on a BBC budget. Beautiful blue lighting soaks the sets, and the ancient city is brought to a vivid, slightly surreal life.
I also very much enjoyed the animated flashbacks of the ‘gods’ and their role in the cosmos. That was the kind of stylish experimentation I wouldn’t mind more of down the road, if it could be inserted into a proper story matrix. I also enjoyed the references to earlier classic Doctor Who (1963-89) lore, including a reference to “the toymaker” (1966’s “The Celestial Toymaker”), as well as the “Guardians” (multiple 4th and 5th Doctor stories) and the “Eternals” (1983’s “Enlightenment”).
The dream/nightmare sequences also have a haunting quality that rings authentic as well. Grace’s return is a bit more fitting than her awkward temptation in last season’s “It Takes You Away” which squandered the opportunity; here it is wisely used to explore Grace & Graham’s relationship during a difficult time in his life (his terrifying bout with cancer). Yaz’ arc with police officer Patel also explores a nice piece of her character’s history, when we see her as an angry young runaway. Both Bradley Walsh and Mandip Gill do very well with their respective moments.
Once again, Ryan is the fifth wheel; his story with his agoraphobic friend could’ve been better used to explore his own dyspraxia (an acute lack of physical coordination), something the character clearly still struggles with, as seen in the recent “Telsa’s Night of Terror.” Part of the problem I have with Ryan is that he’s simply not as interesting as either Graham or Yaz. Tosin Cole also plays him very two-dimensionally; a good looking kid who doesn’t really have a lot going on inside. If they have to shed a companion someday? I’d be okay with Ryan remaining behind in Sheffield.
I also had a major issue with the scene where Graham confides in the Doctor about his cancer fears. The Doctor acts like she’s looking for her f–king car keys the whole time as Graham pours his heart out to her. A potentially great moment is reduced to an unfunny comedic bit at the expense of both characters. Instead of making me chuckle, this moment just pissed me off. I wish this Doctor could show a genuine sustained moment of depth now and then…her flightiness and superficiality is getting downright old.
“Can You Hear Me?” is stylishly directed, and offers intriguing exploration into the TARDIS companions’ inner lives. While nowhere near the hot mess that was “Orphan 55”, it doesn’t quite reach the height of “Fugitive of the Judoon,” (or even the whimsically adventurous “Tesla’s Night of Terror”), but it’s certainly entertaining enough, despite a few stumbles and cliches. This is one of those Doctor Who stories I could imagine gaining a future ‘underappreciated gem’ status someday.