Doctor Who: 12.07 Can You Hear Me?
This week's episode had the perfect formula to be a classic episode of Doctor Who. Nightmares, malevolent villains, trips to the past present and future, some much needed development of the three companions, social issues and some loving references to old episodes. There was a lot packed into Can You Hear Me? But did it find the right balance?
For the most part, yes. We got some insight into Yaz, Ryan and Graham's lives that has been sorely missing since the early days of series 11. The exploration of their nightmares, courtesy of the Ian Gelder's Zellin and his wet willies of doom (more on that later), gave us some insight into where their minds are now. Ryan finds himself worried for the future of the Earth, haunted by the Dregs from Orphan 55, but most significantly was his connection to his best friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) who has found himself isolated and struggling with his own mental health issues. There were some genuinely heartfelt scenes where Tibo opened up and Ryan worked hard to try and help him in his moment of need.
Graham meanwhile, still feels the guilt for Grace's death - Sharon D. Clarke making a welcome return in a dream sequence where he finds himself facing a recurrence of his cancer. The scene at the end of the episode where he tries to talk to the Doctor was telling too, the Doctor's own social awkwardness failing him when he needed her the most.
Most importantly, series 12 seems to be giving Yaz a personality and back story after largely being just there last series. Mandip Gill is good but has lacked something meaty to work with (except perhaps Demons of the Punjab). But last week she got to play Doctor on her own and now we saw what drove her to the confident woman we see now; bullied in school and looking to run away from her life three years ago, it was her encounter with Nasreen Hussain's policewoman that saw her forge her own identity and career.
Yes, there are sure to be those trolls out there who moan about Doctor Who's wokeness (we even wrote something about that here), but the focus on mental health was well intentioned and for the most part, sensitively done, Buom Tihngang and Tosin Cole captured the struggle and support around male depression sensitively and believably. The throw away line about Fourteenth Century Syrians handling mental health was a little on the nose however, in its set up of the subject. Ryan and Tibo's scenes were more than enough, coupled with Yaz's own past anxieties that perhaps not as resolved as she might like.
Talking of the past, I struggle to see what the trips to 1380 Aleppo really brought to the episode. The thrilling monster attack was all a red herring for the real threat and Aruhan Galieva's quasi-companion never really amounted to much, disappearing somewhere early in the third act. Can You Hear Me? might have been tighter, had it dropped the historical element entirely, maybe drawing out some of Tibo's experiences further as he discovers where Ryan has really been travelling. Instead, his reactions are largely swept under the carpet, though we do get that final scene in group therapy to cement his story and return to the issues of mental health that run throughout the episode.
The biggest draw of the episode is Ian Gelder's malevolent Zellin, a creepy black robed figure of a man that appears in your bedroom and steals you away. The scene where he first disconnects his fingers and inserts one into Tibo's ear is genuinely disturbing - as are the rows of fingers hung in his space laboratory, though the idea does become a little hokey once the Doctor and her companions also fall foul of his trap - to release his own companion Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Gelder is superb - creepy, understated, with a menacing presence throught and a penchant for throwing is some amazing classic Doctor Who references (the nods to the Celestial Toy maker, the [Black and White] Guardians and the Enlightened certainly put a big smile on my face).
The animation sequence was an innovative exposition dump too, playing perhaps into writer Charlene James' strengths as a playwright. Unfortunately the release of Rakaya and the evil immortals' trip to Eartg ends up as something of a let down. Bar the creepy presence of Zellin in a child's bedroom to tell her the bogeyman are all real, we don't get to see any of the nightmares unleashed and the Doctor's take down two very powerful villains feels under developed.
There is plenty to enjoy in Can You Hear Me? While there are some strong performances from all involved and a few chills early on, it isn't quite the scare-fest it could have been. Something then of a mixed bag like last week's Praxeus, though perhaps the stronger of the two thanks to Gelder's creepy villain and some engaging material from Cole's Ryan and Tihngang's Tibo and an insightful backstory for Yaz . If anything, it's the Doctor that is one of the weaker elements this week, but some much needed development of the companions is nothing to complain about.