Warning: This review contains spoilers for Can You Hear Me? If you haven’t seen it yet, please come back after watching!
Team TARDIS answers calls for help from deep space, 1380s Aleppo and Sheffield.
Can You Hear Me? starts with an interesting premise delivers some sorely needed backstory for one of the companions and explores an issue that it is clear that Chibnall really likes – the impact of the companions’ travelling in space and time on those left behind in the shape of Ryan’s friend Tibo. Almost coincidentally, this story has been broadcast at the start of Mental Health Week and does have some messages about mental health and toxic masculinity which are important to hear.
The story starts with the basis of fears and focuses on nightmares as something for the two villains of the piece to prey on and the story does this suitably creepily. A major factor here is the performance of Ian Gelder as Zellin, who doesn’t do much but laugh softly in the first few moments of his time onscreen, but imbues it with such menace as he appears in people’s darkened flats and the effect used when his fingers disconnect from the rest of his hand is really effectively done. The threat is helped greatly by the direction by Emma Chambers, and helps to make him and later Rakaya feel like a real threat to both the Doctor and the Universe as a whole. That was something that was really lacking from Whittaker’s first series and her second has seen a vast improvement in this respect and I especially liked the idea of Zellin being a God that was bored. Speaking of direction, and to address the point more broadly, I’ve been very pleased with the way the show has played around with lighting of the TARDIS this season, exemplified here by the appearance of Zellin in the control room. Zellin’s fellow immortal, Rakaya, is equally sinister once freed from her prison, keeping two planets apart that the pair have spent a long period of time trying to destroy. I do feel that their combined threat is dispatched a bit too easily, having hyped up the ability of the immortals to change their form at will, but are completely undone by the sonic screwdriver. The creature extracted from the nightmares of Tahira doesn’t look fantastic, sadly, in a story that looks stunning, even if it does contribute to one of the episode’s strongest moments in the cold open.
The use of nightmares as a plot point allows us to see the fears of Ryan, Graham and Yaz in turn, with Ryan fearing the impact his absences are having on his best friend, Graham worrying about his cancer returning and wallowing in his survivor’s guilt and Yaz revisiting her feelings of abandonment after running away from home. The Doctor is also subjected to this, meaning that we do get a further glimpse of the Timeless Child as well as a reminder of the Master’s message relating to Gallifrey and as we are in the last stretch of this series, it’s nice to get a reminder of where we might be heading in a few weeks time. Potentially, this story could have been helped by being a two-parter, with the reveal that Zellin has made the Doctor fall into a trap being a cliffhanger, giving the story more time to breath and explore the nightmare and fears in a bit more detail.
It is Yaz’s nightmare that really stands out, with her subconscious mind feeding her an image of her sister Sonya, who we see earlier in the episode celebrating an anniversary (presumably of Yaz coming back home), urging her to ‘do it right this time.’ This is much-needed development for Yaz, who really suffered last series’ focus on Graham and Ryan’s relationship and their grief at the loss of Grace. This gives us a hint at Yaz’s life before she met the Doctor and before she joined the police, with the arrival of the police officer and the talk she gets, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, inspiring her to potentially become a police officer, although the story doesn’t explicitly state this. It also allows us to see more of the relationship between her and her sister – which is really lovely. Ryan’s nightmares circulate around an Earth on fire and the Dregs from Orphan 55 combined with the struggles that he sees his friend Tibo having at the start of the episode. Tibo serves to reflect what could have potentially happened to Ryan had he not gone with the Doctor after Grace’s death. I think this works well too by bringing back a character that we have seen previously this series – Tibo appeared in the opening to Spyfall, Part One as one of Ryan’s friends who he was playing basketball with. Of the three companions, Graham’s dream scene feels as though it falls a little bit flat and is a bit too predictable, but his talk with the Doctor at the end of the episode is good, even if the Doctor doesn’t come across fantastically in her response to him.
Do it right this time. I won’t be calling anyone. No point. You’re weak. You run. Nobody’s coming, Yaz. You’re alone in the dark.
The story also focuses on an issue which Chibnall seems quite keen to explore, the issue of what happens to those left behind by those who go traveling with the Doctor and the impact of adventures through time and space. This was previously addressed in The Power of Three, where Amy and Rory had to choose between their lives at home and their lives with the Doctor. Ryan and Yaz here have a conversation at the end of the story regarding this, which seems to imply that one of them will be leaving at the end of the series. I think there is possibly too much potential with Yaz, but potentially one or both of Graham and Ryan may be leaving at the end of the series, leaving us with a significantly less crowded TARDIS. Ryan certainly seems quite shaken up by the events of this episode and his concern for his friend and the life that he is missing out on might just drive him to leave the TARDIS. These companions are certainly not in the same place they were at the beginning of the series.
Yes! Gods back in their box. We need to get this back to the monitor platform and all those people out of the TARDIS jacuzzi. Come on!
The Doctor takes a back seat to her companions for the majority of this episode, with the focus on their home lives more, but Whittaker continues to develop her Doctor. I’ve seen some criticisms of her conversation with Graham as calling her glib and uncaring about his medical concerns which I understand. Not to say that her reaction is right, but I don’t think it’s exclusive to this incarnation of the Doctor – I can certainly imagine Peter Capaldi or Tom Baker reacting in a similar fashion. I really liked the fact that the Doctor was at somewhat of a loose end once the companions left until she had a mystery to solve and she was pretty good in her scenes with Zellin and Rakaya and thought that the moments where she forgot – or genuinely didn’t know – she wasn’t with the companions were great.
Verdict: An interesting premise which is largely executed well, but with some niggles. It is good to see Yaz get some backstory and development here though. 7/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Clare-Hope Ashitey (Rakaya), Ian Gelder (Zellin), Aruhan Gailieva (Tahila), Nasreen Hussain (Anita Patel), Buom Tihngang (Tibo), Willie Jonah (Old Tibo), Bhavnisha Parmar (Sonya Khan), Sirina Saba (Maryam), Amanda Liberman (Mum), Everal A Walsh (Gabriel), Michael Keane (Fred), Anthony Taylor (Andrew) & Sharon D Clarke (Grace O’Brien).
Writer: Charlene James and Chris Chibnall
Director: Emma Sullivan
Behind the Scenes
- Ian Gelder previously portrayed Dekker in Torchwood: Children of Earth, as well as playing the voice of the Remnants in The Ghost Monument.
- The first televised Doctor Who story to feature animation in any form.
- The Eternals are alluded to in relation to Zellin – the Doctor previously faced off against other Eternals in Enlightenment and Ghost Light and reference is also made to the Toymaker.
Probably the flashback chat between Yaz and the police officer, and the return to give her the 50p.
Now listen to me – Earth is not your plaything. You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic, they’re magnificient. They live with their fears, doubts, guilts. They face them down every day and they prevail. That’s not weakness, that’s strength. That’s what humanity is.