The stuff of nightmares. That’s always been Doctor Who at its best. There are certainly enough images and ideas in Can You Hear Me? to instil a few nightmares in younger viewers. A ferocious bestial monster lurking on a ceiling; a creepy old bald man who can materialise in your bedroom with a puff of black smoke; his detachable fingers lodging in your ears… But is this Doctor Who at its best? Not really. It does try hard, though.
For a start Can You Hear Me? looks superb. The pre-titles sequence in Aleppo 1380 is gorgeously lit in sunset gold and after-dusk blues. The transitions in and out of dreams and nightmares make for beautiful swirling montages. And the peculiarly simplistic animation that depicts the Immortals’ origins seems original while also being reminiscent of an entry in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
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Like a lot of recent Doctor Who, there’s an intriguing build-up, a lot of dotting about across the planet and time zones, in such a way that you’re not sure even the writers have joined up all the dots, let alone the viewer. Why Aleppo 1380? Why Sheffield 2020? And then the express train of mystery and anticipation skids to a halt so that two or three people can stand still in a room and try to explain what’s going on.
You can’t fault Chris Chibnall for harnessing fresh talent, and this week it’s Charlene James, a playwright who won acclaim for Cuttin’ It, a 2014 National Theatre drama tackling female genital mutilation. In 2018, she wrote two episodes of A Discovery of Witches for Sky, but Who is obviously a step up. It’s a decent debut, although of course it’s impossible to know where her input ends and the guiding hand of His Chibs takes over. Surely James’s homework didn’t include her going back to look at the early days of Doctor Who.
For fans only, Zellin, the ghastly villain, acknowledges his antecedents. He references the Eternals from fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s story Enlightenment (1983), the god-like Guardians, who reach back to Tom Baker’s Key to Time season (1978/79), and even the Celestial Toymaker, thwarted by the first Doctor in 1966. Zellin neatly overlooks his own similarity to Ilin (Art Malik), a gamemaster as recent as 2018’s The Ghost Monument, whose kinship with the Toymaker I noted at the time.
Zellin begins sinister enough, and seems to be several steps ahead of the Time Lord, but once he and his freed associate – predictably – set their sights on Earth and are standing in a British street ready to gorge on human fears, they become markedly less than god-like and just another dreary couple with peculiar needs.
One major concern of series 12 has been the blandness of the Doctor’s three sidekicks, their lack of personality and emotional depth. Graham is reliably amusing but Yaz and Ryan too easily drift into vapidity. Will they be remembered in years to come like Rose Tyler, Amy and Rory? Decades later like Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith? Unlikely.
But Can You Hear Me? goes a good way towards fleshing them out. It digs into their backgrounds, so that we see again Ryan’s best mate Tibo (Buom Tihngang), glimpsed in Spyfall, and Yaz’s stroppy sister, Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar). All to the good. More importantly, it exposes their doubts, fears and, yes, nightmares.
We learn that Yaz was bullied at school and three years earlier was a runaway, and thus has an unexpected bond with her sister and the policewoman who found her on the Moors. Ryan’s fear is the Earth burning within his and his aged best mate’s lifetime, and it leads him to question his long-term absence from his friends’ lives. Jovial Graham, understandably, is plagued with anxiety that his cancer will return more aggressively. (Lovely that he dreams of his dead wife Grace but gets no succour from the “still socially awkward” Time Lord.) Some of this detail is peppered throughout the episode but it also comes in a slab at the end. The final act may seem heavy and slow but at this stage such deepening characterisation is vital.
Doctor Who rarely tackles mental health. This is a growing topic for TV drama and is handled well here, with Tibo, who seemed buoyant in the basketball game in Spyfall but has now troughed and is experiencing a bout of depression. No one should complain that this frivolous sci-fi series is attempting to address it, even if it sits a little uneasily in a storyline about god-like beings projecting nightmares, exploiting fears and feeding on the pain of others.