Can You Hear Me?

Posted in Episode by - February 10, 2020
Can You Hear Me?

Aired 09 February 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Doctor Who, like most good science fiction, has often been able to tackle difficult and topical issues directly or metaphorically, and “Can You Hear Me?” by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall brings mental health to the forefront in an adventure that sprawls from 1380 Aleppo to the furthest depths of space.

Given that Syria has become so wholly associated with warfare in modern times, the fact that Aleppo was once home to physicians renowned for their treatment of mental health is a fascinating one that unfortunately never receives its due exploration. In fact, this sentiment likewise applies to the native Tahira who is used to introduce the suitably creepy monsters that even the TARDIS cannot identify but who never actually becomes relevant to the much more grandiose plot that unfolds as the Doctor finds herself a pawn in the machinations of godlike entities, Zellin and Rakaya. This era hasn’t quite been as adept with exposition as previous showrunners’ and Doctors,’ and while the plot must by necessity slow to accommodate the exploration of the four leads’ greatest fears and the realization from Yaz and Ryan about how difficult it is to live out of sync with life back at home, these beings’ backstory being explained through an animated voiceover is- although novel- a huge amount of information to take in all at once with little buildup or payoff. There’s more than enough material here with the multiple settings and intriguing villains to fill at least another episode to adequately allow everyone to develop as needed, but explaining who Zellin is by referencing and only marginally differentiating him from many classic series entities such as the Eternals, the Celestial Toymaker, and the Guardians isn’t wholly effective and culminates in a victory for the Doctor that is entirely too quick and easy. Indeed, he’s more insidious and parasitic than any of the cosmic game players he references, and so the comparisons fall flat in any regard.

Far more effective, however, is the metaphorical roles of depression and anxiety that these beings fill. While the image of Ryan’s friend Tibo locking so many locks to keep fear out of his life is perhaps a bit too pointed, there is no denying the power of a figure quite literally whispering to and feeding off of another’s fears while he sleeps. With detaching fingers proving- at least during their first use- to be a haunting visual to accompany this fearsome visage, Zellin certainly makes a striking impact. As a result, Graham’s repressed fear about being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ryan’s lingering guilt about abandoning Tibo and fear of the creatures from ‘Orphan 55,’ and Yaz’s vivid memories about running away become all the more poingnant even in the brief time each as to develop. And while viewers are sure to take the Doctor’s inability to respond to Graham’s harrowing admissions about his fear differently with some praising it for realistically portraying the Doctor as a flawed being who does not always have the proper words to say and others despising it for exactly the same reason, the scene showing Tibo finally opening up about this fears is wonderfully written and performed and helps to bolster a storyline that had never shown itself to this point. The execution of the episode and its many personal plot threads may often be clumsy, but the payoff is often worth the disjointed ride, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated by the fragmented mystery building up to the revelation that Yaz once ran away that results in a beautiful scene in which she reconnects with the police officer who talked to her so long ago.

‘Can You Hear Me?’ is unquestionably a topical and high-concept episode, but there are unfortunately too many strands for it to effectively cover in such a condensed period of time. It knows what it wants to say and certainly aspires to showcase humanity’s ability to persevere and conquer anything no matter how personal, but it often struggles to dynamically convey its message without awkward or rushed exposition, creating something of a disjointed experience that nonetheless manages to lay some important groundwork for the young companions who are becoming more cognizant of the effects that time spent with the Doctor may have on their ability to continue living on Earth with their relationships intact.

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2 Comments on "Can You Hear Me?"

  • Carol Weaver

    Are you kidding? Dr Who has never been a platform for social issues, just an entertaining sci-fi programme, and it is being turned into a turn off. Chris Chibnall should read the reviews and he might realise that he has/had a heritage target audience who are disgusted with what has happened to the show. I know that every time we sit down to it these days, for how much longer I don’t know, I’m in ‘Oh no, not again!’ mode. It has become ridiculous. Social issues are very important, but this isn’t the place, and sci-fi fans are being driven (nearly wrote drivel) away. It’s not like writing a novel where you can make it about what you want. You can’t just write Dr Who for a target audience of people with social issues, hoping that some of them are Dr Who fans, and take a high-handed I don’t care atitude, you need to keep your audience base. People are fed up with it.

    • Kyle

      Yet it can be argued that the franchise has had a strong social consciousness from the very start. While not every issue will be as explicitly personal as mental health, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ absolutely dealt with depression and suicide while ‘Turn Left’ highlighted anti-immigration sentiments and ‘The Pilot, ”The Doctor Falls,’ and more broached the topic of homophobia. Even in a grander context, there’s little denying how much Thatcher’s policies influenced many of the stories of the Seventh Doctor era just as the power of the media heavily influenced ‘The Long Game’ as the series relaunched. With environmentalism focusing in ‘The Green Death’ just as in the current series, sexism a constant theme that especially featured on Peladon but that is still just as much today, and putting personal gain above evidence-based warnings as in ‘Inferno’ that still applies to those in power, it’s hard to say that this show has never been a platform for social issues. Indeed, the Daleks are founded upon racism, the Cybermen typefy the fear of an increasing reliance on machinery, and the Silurians exemplify the claims and rights of indigenous peoples across the globe. Every era appeals to certain people more than others, and more and different complaints will be lodged against it in the future with different actors, writers, and directors at the helm, but this has very much always been a show with its fingers on the pulse of modern society.

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