❉ Sweet dreams are definitely not made of this.
“Being generous, I’d say that Can You Hear Me? is a plea for people in psychological pain to be heard, and that by sharing that pain it becomes less powerful and crippling. Less generously, in execution that serious point was rather fumbled.“
“You’re alone in the dark.”
Can You Hear Me? was the opposite of last week’s episode, Praxeus. Despite an apparently piecemeal structure that took in several 21st century Earth locations, the latter was actually well structured and thematically unified. This week, Can You Hear Me? had an off-kilter narrative that was reflected in wildly different changes of scene, from the distant past to deep space.
To summarise: two higher life forms – immortals – see human emotional pain as a stimulant to be enjoyed, harvesting nightmares from the members of the Earth’s population who are “scared and vulnerable”. One of them, Zellin (Ian Gelder, camply sinister), uses the technique to kidnap the Doctor’s friends to a Monitor Platform in space; she follows, and is tricked into releasing his consort Rakaya (Clara-Hope Ashitey, riffing on Daenerys Targharyen from Game of Thrones, 2011-19) from her spherical prison, caught between two colliding planets.
That was a well though out twist, but the denouement, sealing the immortals in the gaol Rakaya had just vacated by turning their thought-stealing technology against them, seemed a bit convenient and over too quickly. If they were as all-powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing as they claimed, why didn’t they anticipate how the Doctor would turn the tables on them, particularly as Zellin had been clever enough to trap her in the first place?
Perhaps the reason Can You Hear Me? felt so uneven was because the underlying theme was a very sensitive one – mental health. This was referenced in all the episode’s time zones, from Syria in 1380 with Tahira (Aruhan Galieva, who had suspiciously contemporary dialogue), a resident of one of “the oldest hospitals in the world” with progressive ideas about the treatment of the mentally ill, to Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang), who suffered from depression and loneliness: “I get down and shut myself off.” Equally, the nightmares the immortals stole were subconscious expressions of the dreamers’ anxieties and worries.
I suffer from mental health issues myself, so I was pleased to see the subject being given prominence in my favourite TV series. On the other hand, I felt that the extended coda – Tibo bringing his issues to a support group, a mixed up, pre-police Yaz being talked out of running away by a mentor figure, Anita Patel (Nasreen Hussain), and Graham trying to confide (ineffectively) in the Doctor about his cancer – although a well meaning invitation to the viewers to share their troubled states of mind, as the title of the episode suggested, rather cramped the intriguing Zellin/Rakaya storyline. If the idea was to contrast the immortals’ detached attitude to human psychology – “The cruelty of their minds directed towards themselves” – with the prosaic reality of individual mental anguish, it didn’t come off and made the story unbalanced.
The grim scene where Graham was told by an avatar of his dead wife, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), that his cancer had returned and he only had two hours to live, didn’t sit well in a story that included Zellin’s detachable, flying fingers, but it did indicate how all over the place tonally the story was. I can’t decide whether the visualisation of his spare digits being plugged into a ‘nightmare storage system’ was an example of grand guignol or just hilariously silly. Rather better was the brief scene of Zellin and Rakaya, to all intents and purposes gods, looking down the far end of a dingy, terraced street, a far more effective combination of the fantastic and the every day than the script aspired to be. The Chicasta, a cross between a gorilla and a werewolf, was a rather arresting monster, too.
The tonal oddness continued with the animated sequence that outlined the history of the two planets Rakaya became imprisoned between. While the illustration style was pleasingly quirky – and unexpected – it was really a failure of the writing, as it was exposition expressed as animation. It was as if the director had read it and then said in the production meeting, ‘Guys, they really aren’t going to take through this much info-dump dialogue. Please, can’t we do something else?’ They did, and it was nice, but it was papering over the narrative cracks.
The real joy in this story was Ian Gelder as Zallin (for the record, he has a real Game of Thrones pedigree, as Sir Kevan Lannister). Admitting to being in the “slipstream” of Rakaya, he was by far the better villain, savouring the delicious eloquence of dialogue like “We immortals need our games, Doctor… this dimension is a beautiful board for a game.” His name-checking of other Doctor Who immortal characters the Celestial Toymaker, the Guardians and the Eternals will have sent many a fan boy to bed happy.
The theme of psychological angst among the TARDIS crew was rather perfunctory. It’s been done before, and arguably better, in Toby Whithouse’s The God Complex (2011). Ryan’s story even borrowed from that episode, as he inherited Amy’s nightmare of deserting Rory and returning when he was old and helpless, just as Tibo was here. I don’t know if it was the way this thread was written or acted, but Ryan didn’t seem that bothered about Tibo’s fate. In a brief scene, Graham had to deal with his own fears about cancer in the face of an uncharacteristically off-hand Doctor, while she was the vessel for another plug about the season arc, the Timeless Child, which didn’t seem to affect her. The only person who really seemed to learn from her issues was Yaz, even if the reason for her deserting the family home was never specified. And what was the anniversary dinner with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar) for? Did I miss something?
Being generous, I’d say that Can You Hear Me? is a plea for people in psychological pain to be heard, and that by sharing that pain it becomes less powerful and crippling. Less generously, in execution that serious point was rather fumbled.
Still, full marks for trying and giving the BBC Action Line details at the end of the episode. I’d like to think that did a lot of good.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.