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Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me? (Review)

Do you have any idea where those planets might be?

You get me an A-Z of the universe, and I’ll be able to stick my finger straight… no. I’ve got no idea.

The twelfth season of Doctor Who at least has a little more ambition than the eleventh.

In some ways, Can You Hear Me? feels like a companion piece to Praxeus. Both episodes adhere to a relatively similar structure, albeit applied in a slightly different way. Both Can You Hear Me? and Praxeus cannily split up the TARDIS crew for the first half of the episode, hopping between a series of seemingly disconnected narratives that eventually intertwine in the second half. Praxeus did this with a global adventure, scattering the characters across the planet. Can You Hear Me? attempts to do it with time and space, a story stretching from ancient Aleppo into the deepest void.

“It’s all gone a bit Colin Baker here, right?”

It’s notable that this is a mirror of the approach that Chris Chibnall took to the plotting of Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. Spyfall, Part I was a global adventure that sent the crew across the world. Spyfall, Part II then attempted to shake things up by having the Doctor journey through time. It’s an interesting approach to narrative, albeit one that fits with the Chibnall era’s larger approach to plotting. The Chibnall era often plots episodes like old four- or six-parters, offering setting, plotting and cast shifts with each act that often seems to compress the narrative into forty-five minutes.

Can You Hear Me? grapples with big ideas. It has a fairly consistent set of internal themes. Like Orphan 55 or Nikolai Tesla’s Night of Terror, it is at least “about” something in a way that too few of the surrounding episodes are willing to be. The episode is also willing to go large in terms of scope, to tackle the sort of scale and spectacle that is often missing from surrounding episodes. All of this is very good. However, there’s also a certain lifelessness to all of this, a sense that the show has so much ground to cover that it is more exposition than story.

Eye see!

On paper, there is a lot to like about Can You Hear Me? This is an episode that includes actual character development for the supporting cast, especially the perennially under-served Yaz. It allows the regular cast to drop back into their everyday lives, which helps provide a sense of context for them. More than that, it is an episode that broaches important questions for these characters, particularly concerning their long-term plans to stay with the Doctor. It features monsters that work on a thematic level. It also offers a strong and important message to young viewers at home.

However, it also feels more like a checklist than an actual episode. It is a collection of interesting elements arranged like a bullet point list, bouncing from one idea to the next without any real sense of flow guiding it. Can You Hear Me? often feels like a rough draft of a much stronger episode.

Fingers in the air.

To be fair, a lot of what Can You Hear Me? is attempting to do is fairly straightforward, and probably stuff that the Chibnall era should be doing on a more regular basis. The Chibnall era draws rather heavily from the Davies era, most obviously in its decision to anchor its supporting cast in something approaching the real world. Yaz, Graham and Ryan are all from contemporary Sheffield. They also have clearly defined lives and strong ties to that time and place. And so their adventures with the Doctor represent a disruption of that.

This is a familiar set-up. It is basically the default Doctor and companion dynamic from the first four seasons of the revival series. Rose, Martha and Donna were all scooped out of the world by the Doctor and were confronted with the challenge of reconciling their adventures with more mundane realities. The Davies era included many episodes set in contemporary Britain – Rose, Aliens of London, World War III, Boom Town, chunks of The Parting of the Ways, The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts, DoomsdayThe Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, The Lazarus Experiment and so on.

These episodes helped to create a firm sense that the companions had one foot in the TARDIS and one foot in a life recognisable to contemporary audiences. The Davies era often used extended families to explore this dynamic – Rose and Mickey and Jackie, Martha and her family, Donna and Sylvia and Wilf. The show rarely went five episodes without checking in on some combination of these supporting characters, which helped to maintain a constant sense of drama and tension.

The Chibnall era clearly aspires to that sort of storytelling. It is notable that Arachnids in the U.K. served the same function as and arrived at the same point in the season as Davies’ London-set two-parters like Aliens of London and World War III, Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel and The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Similarly, the holiday special Resolution also returned to contemporary Britain, recalling Davies era Christmas specials like The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned and The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II.

The road less travelled.

However, the Chibnall era lacks the sort of commitment necessary to make this sort of storytelling work. It wants the pay-off without the set-up. In the Chibnall era so far, only The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Arachnids in the U.K. and Resolution are set exclusively in the contemporary United Kingdom. There were also small segments of Spyfall, Part I set in Sheffield, but these do not build a strong rapport with these characters and their background.

This isn’t a problem of itself. The Moffat era disengaged with the contemporary United Kingdom to the point that its recurring cast included a Victorian lesbian, a Silurian and a Sontaran. However, when the Moffat era wanted the show to invest in an Earth-based relationship, as with Rory Williams in the fifth season or Danny Pink in the eighth season, it committed. Before he joined the regular cast, Arthur Darvill appeared in seven of the Eleventh Doctor’s first thirteen episodes. Of the first thirteen episodes of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, Samuel Anderson appeared in eleven.

The problem with the Chibnall era is that it wants the benefits of a strong connection to the contemporary United Kingdom without putting in the necessary work. Can You Hear Me? offers the gang a long-overdue return to Sheffield, in time for Yaz to have an “anniversary” dinner with her sister, Graham to play cards with some old friends, and Ryan to catch up with Tibo. While all of this is welcome, it would mean a lot more if the show had devoted any energy to demonstrating the importance of these connections to the characters.

This is most obvious at the climax of the episode, with Yaz and Ryan reflecting on the impermanence of their time on the TARDIS. “How long is this going to last, Yaz?” Ryan asks. “Travelling with the Doctor?” Again, this feels like a necessary and logical conversation for these characters to have, confronted with the realisation that the Doctor has helped to pull them out of their regular lives and into a family fantasy show. However, it also feels extremely cynical that this is the first time that they’ve really had this conversation, just one story out from the series finale.

Yaz we Khan.

Again, the Davies era was very good at this sort of plotting. Sure, Jackie layered on the foreshadowing in her conversation with Rose in Army of Ghosts, just one episode before her departure in Doomsday. However, the entire season was built around the idea of the impermanence of the Doctor’s relationship. Rose was confronted with an abandoned companion in School Reunion, while got to see the Doctor outlive Madame du Pompadour in The Girl in the Fireplace, long before she broached the topic with the Doctor in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

Similarly, Amy Pond had that impermanence baked into her relationship with the Doctor from her first appearance in The Eleventh Hour. The Doctor even staged a couple of false breaks from the Ponds in episodes like The God Complex, but could not make it last. Clara Oswald was introduced dying, but spent her final two seasons preparing for departure – from the anxiety that ran through Mummy on the Orient Express to the death wish that ran through episodes like Under the Lake and Before the Flood.

Doctor Who is smart and savvy enough to trust its viewers to understand that these relationships cannot last, and so that sort of departure feels like an inevitability. As such, while that conversation between Yaz and Ryan at the end of Can You Hear Me? feels necessary in terms of developing the companions as actual characters, it also feels very overdue. It seems like a conversation that might have been prompted by the companions’ anxieties in Spyfall, Part II or even their encounter with Captain Jack Harkness in Fugitive of the Judoon.

This is a lot of time to spend on a seemingly innocuous part of Can You Hear Me?, but it gets at the issue with the episode. Can You Hear Me? is doing a lot of important and necessary stuff, but is doing it much later than it really should be and in a very perfunctory sort of way. Again, this is perhaps the paradox of discussing the Chibnall era. Even doing the most basic stuff in terms of character development seems like a revelation. A Davies or Moffat era episode that would have approached this material so clumsily would be a disaster, but this is almost refreshing.

Here there be monsters.

To be entirely fair to writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall, there are some nice moments in Can You Hear Me? There’s something very charming in Yaz’s awkward return to the family flat to meet her sister. “Did you cook?” she asks. “Can you cook now?” It’s a nice, subtle way of illustrating how life as moved on around Yaz. Graham confesses to his friends, “Traveling helps me, dunnit? Stops me getting stuck in the past.” It would be nice to see that lure of escapism as a means of emotional avoidance developed, as it was with Clara, but even having Graham acknowledge it is nice.

The plot structure of Can You Hear Me? is clever, scattering the TARDIS crew through time rather than space. It neatly relies on the idea of the TARDIS as a time machine in a way that the Moffat era took for granted – “missed birthdays, restaurant bookings… and please, just learn how to use iPlayer” – but it’s welcome to see. When the Doctor drops the crew off, promising to pick them up at lunch the next day, she idly muses, “Maybe I’ll just nip to tomorrow lunchtime.”

Again, Can You Hear Me? demonstrates the appeal of having a four-person cast from a production point of view, as splitting up the cast limits the demands on any one actor and allows them to shoot their scenes in isolation without having to worry about scheduling. Can You Hear Me? splits them across time in a manner similar to Spyfall, Part II, much like Praxeus sent them off to various parts of the planet surface. It is a very efficient approach to producing a show like this, and Chibnall deserves some credit for his willingness to use it.

At the same time, Can You Hear Me? suffers from the same problems as Praxeus. Splitting up the cast into several different strands of plot means slowing down the narrative momentum, as the characters each have to have their own set-up and introductions and escalations. As with episodes like Orphan 55 or Fugitive of the Judoon, Can You Hear Me? feels like a compressed classic series four-parter. It’s easy to imagine two episodes in Aleppo, one in Sheffield, and one on the alien ship. However, trying to cover that much ground so quickly often grinds Can You Hear Me? to a halt.

Gods among men.

Can You Hear Me? is shrewd enough to understand that it has some very severe problems with exposition. The second half of the episode largely consists of Zellin and Rakaya standing around and delivering monologues, followed by more monologues explaining the strategic gaps that they left in their earlier monologues to ensnare the Doctor. It could easily get very draw, even allowing for the fact that Ian Gelder is a tremendously menacing presence and probably exactly the kind of actor that you want delivering these sorts of ominous threats.

The solution to this problem is at least novel. The Chibnall era has never been as good at exposition as the Davies or Moffat eras – consider Davies’ description of the Time War in episodes like Journey’s End or Moffat’s explanation of the Weeping Angels in Blink or demonstration of the Silence in The Impossible Astronaut. However, an animated sort is at least a visually interesting companion to another long monologue explaining the back story to these ancient threats.

To be fair, the basic ideas underpinning Zellin and Rakaya are clever and effective. These characters work well as metaphors for things like abuse and depression. “It was like it was draining something from him,” Ryan tries to explain of what Zellin is doing to Tibo, a strange man looming over his friend in his bedroom. “There was someone in his head.” The notion of a monster that literally whispers darkness into a person’s ears as they sleep is haunting and unsettling.

More to the point, there are lots of little aspects of the episode that work. The Chibnall era has largely tried to “prestigify” the series, playing everything very straight and very dry. There is little room for the sort of weirdness that elevated It Takes You Away. With that in mind, there are lots of lovely little touches. Zellin’s “monitor platform” is a nice thematic reference to the era’s preoccupation with observation, and the fact that Doctor plays the scientific instruments like musical instruments is inspired. Zellin’s detached fingers are the right combination of silly and spooky.

Scientific instrumentation.

Like Orphan 55 or Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, it helps that Can You Hear Me? builds to solid thematic ideas. The episode hinges on Tahira taking control of the bespoke monster than Zellin created for her. “How do you control it?” Zellin demand. Yaz spells out the theme of the episode, “She literally conquered her fears.” It’s not necessarily earned in narrative terms, as there’s just too much going on for Tahira’s arc to feel developed and paid off. However, Can You Hear Me? at least understands the mechanics of how an arc is supposed to work.

So much of the Chibnall era has struggled to be “about” anything in a meaningful way. What is the point of The Ghost Monument or The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos? What were Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II actually saying about new technology beyond some vague understanding that social media is probably evil? At least Can You Hear Me? is about something, and about it relatively clearly. It’s an episode about mental health, and about the need to open up and talk to people about these sorts of problems.

Ryan forcing Tibo to talk to his friends is a beautiful scene, especially for younger audience members. It also intersects nicely with Yaz’s memories of running away. It also ties into Graham’s own efforts to talk to the Doctor about his own fears, even if the Doctor doesn’t know how to respond. It does also lead to one of the most hilariously grim punchlines in the entire history of Doctor Who, when the Doctor listens to Graham talk about the body horror of cancer and subsequently jumps to, “I was thinking, Frankenstein.”

However, while these sorts of ideas are good, Can You Hear Me? falters in the execution. It struggles to put all the pieces together in a way that leads to a satisfying story. Indeed, there are several points in Can You Hear Me? where it seems like the script has a rough idea of what a particular scene should be, but no idea how to actually realise it. This is most obvious with Ryan’s nightmare, which tries awkwardly to connect his guilt abandoning Tibo to an otherwise-unmentioned lingering anxiety around the events of Orphan 55. It doesn’t work. At all.

“Have you seen Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Dracula yet?”
“No, why do you ask?”

This problem is also apparent with Zellin and Rakaya, where it seems like Can You Hear Me? has a rough idea of the narrative shape of its antagonists, but no idea how to actually define them. So Can You Hear Me? ends up defining Zellin and Rakaya largely by what they are not. Zellin gets a big speech in which he attempts to distinguish himself from the franchise’s other immortals. “The Eternals have their games. The Guardians have their power struggles. For me, this dimension is a beautiful board for a game. The Toymaker would approve.”

It’s a clumsy speech on a number of levels. Most obviously, it assumes an emotional investment in a bunch of aliens who haven’t appeared since the original run of the show. It also defines Zellin by contrast, effectively listing similar aliens that he is not. However, it also blurs the distinction. Apparently despite the fact all the immortals are different, the Eternals are defined by their “games” while Zellin sees the universe as “a beautiful board for a game” and the Toymaker “would approve.” So, in effect, there’s no real conceptual distinction between Zellin, the Eternals and the Toymaker.

This could be a clever illustration that actually all immortal beings are the same, treating the entirety of existence as a game. This was very similar to an argument that the Twelfth Doctor made in The Woman Who Lived about the importance of maintaining a mortal perspective. However, there is very obviously a clear difference between Zellin and the Toymaker. While Rakaya’s back story suggests that the two played games to amuse themselves, the bulk of Can You Hear Me? suggests that Zellin is more a parasite that feeds on humanity rather than playing with them.

Like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus, Can You Hear Me? continues to suggest a more dynamic and effective iteration of the Thirteenth Doctor. At its core, Can You Hear Me? is the story of the Thirteenth Doctor casting off a predatory and monstrous deity that has decided to feed on mankind. It’s an aggressive allegory, but one that fits comfortably within the show’s history of dealing with gods and monsters in episodes like The Rings of Akhaten.

Heal thyself.

Similarly, there’s something very clever in the decision to send the Doctor back to Aleppo. While the companions enjoy their time in Sheffield, the Doctor gets to visit “one of the oldest hospitals in the world.” It’s a very clever little hook for the Doctor’s small solo adventure, and one that almost helps justify adding Tahira to an already overcrowded narrative. As with Spyfall, Part II and Praxeus, there is something very surreal in the way that the episode insists on adding a surrogate companion to an already overcrowded TARDIS crew.

That said, there is a sense of some balance existing in the universe. Can You Hear Me? offers Yaz more character development than all of her appearances to this point. However, it also leans heavily into the “Yaz-as-default-companion” mode that quietly informs a lot of her time in the TARDIS. As with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or Praxeus, Yaz gets to fill the very traditional role of companion. The Doctor delegates the task of explaining space flight to Tahira. “The Doctor reckons we’re in a building. Among the stars.”

It’s a thankless piece of handholding, one which seems to have been assigned by default to the companion with the least number of lines in the episode, to give them something to say and do. It recalls the Doctor and Amy delegating the boring work of explaining the TARDIS to Canton Everett Delaware III in The Impossible Astronaut, with Rory complaining that it’s “always [his] turn.” It’s interesting that attempting to develop Yaz’s character is not mutually exclusive with this approach to her characterisation.

It’s all very clumsy. Can You Hear Me? knows what it wants to say, but it struggles to articulate itself clearly. As a result, a lot of the episode feels like a collection of bullet points, reading more like a beat sheet than a finished script.

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