As much as Doctor Who season 12 has got right, there have still been a couple of areas that need improving carried over from season 11. First there’s the character development of the Doctor’s companions and second is the inelegant way this version of the show likes to tackle the theme-of-the-week. With episode 7, titled “Can You Hear Me?”, we have an outing that encapsulates these two issues in a nutshell. It’s far from a total washout, as it tries its best to deal with one of these problems, but I wouldn’t call it a standout, either.
Things start off as they mean to continue with some pluses and negatives. With the plot split between 14th century Syria, present-day Sheffield and outer space, this is the third episode in a row with the story spread across multiple locations/timelines. This is certainly a neat device when used sparingly but, along with “Spyfall: Part 2,” maybe it’s been overused this year. That said, the episode quickly establishes a winning spooky and somber tone in its early scenes, promising an outing that’s big on atmosphere and will get under the characters’ skin a little.
And this strong atmosphere persists throughout the first half of the story. One of the most memorable installments of season 11 was “It Takes You Away” for its slightly surreal, reality-bending narrative. There are pleasing hints of that here, chiefly in the bizarre image of the villainous Zellin’s fingers detaching from his body and jamming themselves into people’s ears. Monsters that feed off nightmares are a bit of a genre trope, of course, but peppering in weird, unique elements like this is how you make it fresh. Plus, his connections to classic villains the Eternals, the Guardians and the Toymaker will make hardcore fans happy.
Ian Gelder does a great job as the character, so it’s almost a shame when Rakaya shows up and takes over as the real big bad. Clare-Hope Ashitey is perfectly fine in the role, and the initial twist that she’s not a helpless damsel but the evil mastermind should be commended. However, writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall don’t do enough with the interesting concept of these two ancient, interlinked beings. There’s also a serious lack of escalation when Rakaya is freed, which means the episode doesn’t really feel like it’s building to much.
As for the character-based material, I wholeheartedly welcome the attempt to dive into Ryan, Yaz and Graham’s heads and tackle their fears and anxieties, though each attempt leads to varying levels of success. First of all, Ryan’s relationship with his friend Tibo was only briefly introduced in “Spyfall: Part 1,” so there’s not too much rich material to mine. What’s more effective is Ryan’s worry that he’s missing out on normal life by being in the TARDIS. It seems he’s growing dissatisfied by life in the Vortex. Could Tosin Cole leave the series in the season 12 finale? The actor’s new role might just suggest so.
Graham’s own inner life was very well portrayed in season 11, so Grace’s cameo – while it’s a pleasure to see Sharon D. Clarke again – is essentially treading over old ground. Still, the character admitting he fears his cancer may return was highly moving. Frankly, as this is something that many people out there who have suffered from illness may relate to, it might have been beneficial to have the Doctor give him that much-needed pep talk, instead of reacting with a peculiarly out-of-character bout of social awkwardness.
Finally, Yaz has been repeatedly sidelined throughout the last two seasons, so a dive into her past was much-needed. As with Graham’s own struggle, teenage Yaz’s feelings of being overwhelmed by the difficulties of school and bullies will also be relatable to younger viewers. It’s also a good idea to show us that Yaz used to be a very different person before she was put on the right track by an encouraging police officer – which explains her own career choice. Unlike with Ryan’s situation, though, it’s hard to see how this will affect her going forward.
As with every other real-world issue Chibnall has touched on across his era so far, opening up conversations about depression is absolutely necessary and you can certainly tackle it in Doctor Who – 2010’s wonderful “Vincent and the Doctor” did, for instance. Like many of these previous instances, however, the way it’s handled arguably limits the effectiveness of the episode on a dramatic level. Having a bunch of guest characters we either hardly know or literally just met discuss the week’s big theme in a coda isn’t quite as on-the-nose as the Doctor’s speech in “Orphan 55”, but it could be better.
I have to say, there are a couple of exceptional sequences this week that deserve credit. First of all, there was a brilliantly creative animated scene, in the form of a recap of Rafaya and Zellin’s origins that the latter puts in the Doctor’s head. Harry Potter fans will no doubt be reminded of The Deathly Hallows’ “The Tale of the Three Brothers” segment. Secondly, the Doctor also receives a vision of the Timeless Child, tying into the season’s big story arc. They appear to be a young black girl, which suggests this is the Doctor herself, in the youth of the Ruth Doctor. So, the Doctor is the Timeless Child? It’s looking that way.
In any case, “Can You Hear Me?” has some excellent ideas and noble aspirations, but some stodgy pacing and a lack of finesse are among the flaws that bring it down. There’s just not enough impact and emotion in the storytelling for it to be the episode of your dreams.
The final three installments of Doctor Who look extremely promising, though, with next week seeing the TARDIS arrive on the night Mary Shelley comes up with the idea for Frankenstein.
"Can You Hear Me?" had a lot of potential, and while it attempts to flesh out the companions and tackles an important theme, the execution lets it down.
Doctor Who Season 12x07