Monday 10 February 2020

Reviews in Space & Time: Doctor Who 12x07 - Can You Hear Me?

Doctor Who 12x07 - Can You Hear Me?

We’re moving into the final stretch of Doctor Who series 12 now, and while many fans are already looking forward to the mystery of the Timeless Child being solved with its two-part finale there’s still time for a few more one-off adventures before then. Can You Hear Me? is adventure spanning multiple locations (this time across time and space), directed by Emma Sullivan and written by the combined efforts of Chris Chibnall and series newcomer Charlene James. The next episode preview following the end of Praxeus suggested a good old fashioned dose of Who-brand horror, but if there’s anything that this series has proven so far it’s that looks can often be deceiving.

The Doctor arrives in AleppoThe Nightmare Creature

After dropping her companions back off in Sheffield for a quick stopover, the Doctor is visited by a shadowy figure inside the TARDIS. Her investigation then takes her back 1380 Aleppo, where a girl is being terrorised by a giant creature. Back in Sheffield, the Doctor’s companions are also haunted by strange events - with both Yaz and Ryan also encountering the mysterious figure.

From Aleppo to Sheffield to an observation ship in deep space, the Doctor and her friends try to connect these mysteries together. But when the Doctor curiosity is exploited and an immortal being is released, the team will have to face their greatest nightmares in order to win.

Aboard a strange spaceshipThe immortal Zellin

Much like how Fugitive of the Judoon was a story shrouded in secrecy, Can You Hear Me? wasn’t the episode that its previews suggested. With its nightmarish creature on full display even before the opening credits, it was clearly not going to be the dimly-lit horror in ancient Syria many were expecting. Its ability to defy expectation should certainly be praised, but Can You Hear Me? quickly shows signs of potentially having too many ideas for its own good. On top of the repetition of spreading the story across three very distinct locations, Can You Hear Me? tackles multiple subjects – many of which could have easily been fleshed out to support their own individual stories. But packed into one 50 minute setting, at best these ideas often come across as underdeveloped – and at their worst seem to defy its very serious subject matter.

Can You Hear Me? boldly tackles the subject of nightmares (and fear in general), which in turn channels into an overall commentary about dealing with anxiety and general mental health awareness. It tackles these issues with both the supporting cast and the companions themselves, making it at its core a deeply personal story above anything else. But its villains are immortal gods that simply delight in destruction and human misery, which comes across as a rather basic construction around a subject so complex (and often wildly different from person to person). While nods to classic Doctor Who favourites like the Celestial Toymaker and the Guardians might be appreciated by long-time fans, they don’t quite have the threat or fear-factor beings of such power should command. The visual of Zellin’s detached fingers is as creepy as it is bizarre, but sticks out as an oddity that doesn’t really have any thematic sense within the story. Both he and Rakaya are very quickly dealt with, with it ultimately being what they represent being the enemy rather than the characters themselves. There are so good ideas floating around in there, but the constant jumping between locations doesn’t give them time to settle. The nightmares themselves could also do with considerable expansion, allowing themselves to properly fester within the episode rather than the brief flashes of terror they are.

At the very forefront of stifling any creativity this episode could have had is the Sonic Screwdriver. Complaints about its overuse are nothing new, and its current use in the series as a catch all solution goes even further back than its relaunch in 2005. But at least the classic series eventually had the idea to bury it when it became too much of a crutch, with the modern version it’s just become more and more egregious. Almost every problem the Doctor faces in this episode is solved by the Sonic Screwdriver, constantly giving readouts to its non-existent screen and performing every command at the touch of a button. It’s become such a staple of the modern series that there’s no way it’s ever going to fully go away (especially when there are toys to sell as well), but its prominence here robbed the episode of any semblance of tension. In Praxeus we got to see the Doctor use her brain and put things together based on information that her companions were able to give her. In Can You Hear Me? we see her escape capture simply by flicking it out of her coat and catching it. It doesn’t make for good storytelling, and the underdevelopment of the concepts on show here often simply come down to how the answer to a problem is now just the flick of a switch away.

The Immortal RakayaAn animated intermission

Visually the episode does have a lot going for it. While it might not be as grandiose as Praxeus, the juxtaposition between 14th century Syria, modern day Sheffield and deep space gives the story plenty of variety, as well as representing the intertwining of traditional horror, modern day issues and far out science fiction the story is trying its best to achieve. The spaceship is beautifully realised, blending familiar Doctor Who set design with unique traits such as its harp-like control strings. Can You Hear Me? even dabbles in animation, recounting the origin of Zellin and Rakaya in a way that makes it far more elegant and memorable than had it been delivered simply as dialogue. The story may be muddled but the direction is a constant, and Emma James shows a real skill for capturing the various kinds of stories Doctor Who can embody.

The use of the characters themselves isn’t outright bad either, in fact it deserves some good graces for once again doing something meaningful with Yaz. Granted the Aleppo part of the story could be outright removed when you consider that Tahira and Ryan’s friend Tibo could have easily been the same character (and in turn the manifestations of Tibo’s dreams could have represented his anxieties), but every cast member has a designated role in bringing the numerous story threads together. Ryan’s growth as a person continues as he tries to help his friend to open up to him, while Graham is tortured by memories of the past that it sometimes felt like even the show itself had forgotten. It’s unfortunate that Yaz’s backstory comes so late in the game that some will undoubtedly struggle to connect with her properly, because not only is it a strong piece of storytelling but it also fills up many of the gaps the character had. From being helped by a police officer when she was at her lowest, we can infer that her joining the police potentially comes from wanting to do the same for someone else. While it would have been better to see Yaz’s anxieties peppered throughout the show rather than dumped almost entirely into this episode, it does give context that she’s sorely lacked.

TahiraYaz's past

With the sci-fi fantasy element of the story wrapped up relatively quickly, a good portion of the conclusion is dedicated to tackling the subject of mental health head on. As something that affects one in four people in the UK alone further awareness is never a bad thing, and a platform like Doctor Who is the perfect place to tell people what they might need to hear – especially if they don’t know it themselves and therefore aren’t necessarily looking for it. Nothing about Can You Hear Me? is particularly subtle – even the title itself relates to the numerous cries for help that often go ignored. The episode tries to be direct, and that’s a good thing.

It’s easy to forgive a story’s shortcomings when it has genuinely good intentions, however the handling of the show’s final moments swiftly nullifies most of the goodwill this episode deserves. After having nightmares about his cancer returning, Graham opens up to the Doctor about his worries - with Grace being gone perhaps she is the person he thinks might understand the most. Her response? To explain that she’s still socially awkward and to pretend to start looking at the TARDIS, awkward bringing the conversation to a close without any words of comfort to Graham. In an episode that’s about finding the courage to open up to people about your anxieties, what kind of message does this send? Granted that it’s a reaction that many people do have when being confronted with such things, and if it was coming from any other character at any other point in the episode it might be a valid thing to raise. But to have the Doctor, the show’s supposed hero, to just skirt around one of her “fam” like that is really disheartening. 

Yes the Doctor is an alien, and so sometimes can’t relate to humans in a way we can to each other. But there’s a time and a place to convey that, and this episode wasn’t it. It was only a few episodes ago Graham was supporting the Doctor through her own identity crisis at the end of Fugitive of the Judoon. The worst part is that it isn’t even clear what the intent of that whole exchange even was. Graham has been largely reduced to the comedy relief of the trio, which is fine because it generally works. I don’t for a second want to believe that’s what the scene was written to be, but it’s hard when it feels so completely against what the message of the episode is. The Doctor didn’t need to make a grand speech about it or even give the right answers - sometimes all people need to hear is something. What the Doctor does here is barely an acknowledgment, and even if she’s been characterised as socially awkward just feels completely against what we’ve seen 13 to be. Even in their most aloof moments previous incarnations had that kind of time for their companions. Vincent and the Doctor’s handling of mental health might have been overly saccharine, but it’s intent always felt in the right place.

Ryan and TiboGraham and the Doctor

It might be part of a longer plan to start showing the cracks in the Doctor’s “fam”, as the trio begin to realise just how alien the Doctor is. There’s certainly already been hints of that in series 12 so far, and this particular episode also showed signs of both Yaz and Ryan beginning to worry about the effect of being away from home. And if that turns out to be the case then maybe it’ll be easier to look back on that moment in a different light. But again there’s a time and a place, and sandwiched between Tibo getting the help he needs and an end credit voiceover offering a helpline to viewers definitely wasn’t it.

Can You Hear Me? wanted to be bold. It had plenty of ideas, but lacked the time to develop them properly. It had something to say, and had it not spoiled it in the last few minutes it might have said it well. But it did, and that spectacular misstep makes it easily the weakest offering of series 12 thus far. I’ve had plenty of superficial issues with Doctor Who episodes in the past, but rarely has the show truly disappointed me like this. When writing reviews I’ve always tried to avoid the first person as much as I can, but at the end of it all they really are are my own reactions. And the Doctor really let me down here.

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