It’s a trope as old as time itself. Exploit/show character’s fears within their nightmares and bring them to life in order to know more about them. And it’s used with good reason in this week’s Doctor Who, with an emphasis on a more-leisurely pace as opposed to the frantic back-and-forth of the series thus far. It’s an improvement and one that I think actually pays off.
A lot of this is due to the script by playwright Charlene James (alongside showrunner Chris Chibnall who has piggybacked on again), who manages to come up with a simple premise that’s revealed slowly, and with just enough elements to continue to be compelling throughout. That, combined with an important message (admittedly still hammered in with the heaviest of fists) and it all adds up to a neat little episode that harkens back to a simpler time in the show’s history.
We’re back in Sheffield first however, as the TARDIS fam temporarily return to their normal lives. Graham gleefully goes off to play cards with some friends whilst Yaz is late to a somber anniversary dinner with her sister, Sonya. Yaz’s stubbornness continues to grow, and there’s a dark palette to the episode that signifies something’s not quite right in these opening moments. Ryan goes to visit his best friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) after missing his calls for months, and it’s clear he’s not in a good way. His apartment is a mess and his demeanor is soft and shaky… and he’s being haunted by a ghostly white man that trespasses into his room at night. Not only that, but Graham’s concentration is halted during his card game as he witnesses flashes of an imprisoned woman in an unknown cell between two colliding planets. Of course this is all related, but how?
Not wanting to doss around in Sheffield, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor heads off to 1380 Syria, where a medical center has been overtaken by long-clawed fierce unknown creatures and left only Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) alive. The creatures themselves are bombastic and gorilla-like mixtures of CGI with practical close-ups that are probably strong enough to carry an episode by themselves, yet here they’re unfortunately used as window-dressing. The Doctor scans hair from the creatures only for the TARDIS to tell her they don’t exist, right before she takes Tahira with her to see what’s going on with the gang. Not only has Tibo disappeared, but the bald and tattooed man he was warning Ryan about (Ian Gelder’s Zellin) soaked him up and infected his brain with his own severed fingers. Yes. You read that right. Zellin’s nightmare-hopping hobby involves removing his fingers of their own accord and plunging them into his victim’s ears in order to transfer the nightmares elsewhere. It’s a visual that works far better than it sounds and actually lends itself rather well to the eerie tone the episode’s first half keeps up.
The TARDIS follow’s Graham’s visions to a ship hovering outside of an extinction event – in this case two colliding planets, and it’s a gloriously sci-fi enthused set down to the bone. Blue neon panelling and metalwork fill the screen, allowing director Emma Sullivan to play with what she’s given. It’s another episode with little in the way of action, but it suits the laid-back storytelling on display. However it doesn’t take long for Zellin to reveal himself and imprison the fam in their own personal nightmare chambers.
Gelder’s scenery-chewing villain is ripped straight out of the monologue-hungry British rogues gallery. An eternal being hungry to find ways to pass the time by inflicting torture and torment on people by feasting off their nightmares and making some of them a reality (hence the beasties in Syria who are also on the ship, hooray!). The standoffs between Zellin and The Doctor compose more of a defiant conversation you’d expect from a Doctor/Master interaction, with Whittaker’s usually-chatty Time Lord oddly short on words and heavy on reluctance. She’s slowly beginning to form a personalised version of the character here, and it’s nice to see.
Meanwhile we’re treated to the nightmares of the characters we (sort of) know and love, and… unfortunately they leave a lot to be desired creatively. Graham’s details the return of his cancer in vicious form, hooked up to chemotherapy as an indifferent Grace (a returning but brief Sharon D. Clarke) watches on with boredom. Yaz’s is perhaps the most ambiguous as she sits on an empty countryside road as a police officer flashes in and out of her presence – a nod to the unknown dinner her and her sister were having. Ryan’s meanwhile dictates Tibo growing old without his best friend, forced to endure the Earth burning to the ground alone, without anyone by his side. If you haven’t guessed it by now, there’s an emphasis on mental health in this week’s episode, and Tibo’s depression is perhaps the gateway for this week’s theme… then suddenly some Dregs from ‘Orphan 55’ flash on screen for some reason. It’s an odd choice (was Ryan ever actually scared of them?) but I suppose you need to get as much use out of the costumes as possible. Unless it’s another comment on the burning of our planet, but I’m getting off track here.
Zellin reveals he’s lured The Doctor here by implanting the visions in Graham’s memory, and her plan to release the tortured prisoner between the colliding planets actually just releases his equally-sinister eternal colleague Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey). If there’s one thing to pick apart within this episode’s surprisingly thoughtful narrative it’s how dialogue-focused everything is. More than ever plot points and twists are kept to conversations within the same set, followed by The Doctor waving her sonic screwdriver at a button and claiming to have fixed yet another caveat. ‘Can You Hear Me?’ manages to get away with it, just, by having a decent premise and sense of worldbuilding to fall back on. Zellin and Rakaya’s history as cruel Gods destined to torment two separate worlds could have just been more boring exposition, but was instead accompanied by a colourful and endearing animated fable that stuck out from anything the show’s tried in quite a while.
The eternals imprison The Doctor and head off to wreak havoc on humanity thanks to their abundance of nightmares and thoughts of self-hatred. The Doctor’s nightmare touches on The Timeless Child arc that the series is following, though the location of which strangely looks like Captain Jack’s homeworld as glimpsed in Torchwood. Just speculation though, a glimpse of a child is all we get before she wakes up and frees herself thanks to the sonic. That was easy… again.
There’s a short sequence of Zellin terrorising a young boy in bed who’s just been told the boogeyman doesn’t exist which evokes the simpler, horror-concept episodes that the show has toyed with in the past. The emergence of the eternal is nicely handled and ‘Can You Hear Me?’ actually manages to ramp up tension for the first time in the show in what feels like an absolute age. With that in mind it’s unfortunate that the eternals themselves are re-imprisoned within about ten seconds once everyone is freed. They’re scared off with Tahira’s nightmare monsters for all eternity before you can ask why it was all so easy.
This failure to end the narrative on a high note is all to serve the greater good however, as the episode’s epilogue goes all in on the mental health angle as the companions all discuss their biggest fears and regrets over their pasts and their future in travelling with The Doctor. Ryan bids a heartwarming farewell to Tibo temporarily, but asks him to talk to someone about his feelings whilst he’s away. Yaz and Graham manage to duke it out for the most affecting and emotional moments though. We learn that Yaz’s anniversary dinner is of a time where she attempted to run away three years ago, and that the officer from her dream (Nasreen Hussain) stopped her from doing something she would have regretted by just talking to her. This raw emotional reveal opens up Yaz’s recent behaviour quite a lot, and Mandip Gill’s performance has rarely been better. In fact, everyone seems to be upping their games here.
It’s Graham’s confession to The Doctor of his fear about his cancer returning that leaves a lasting impact though. Not least because The Doctor doesn’t have a socially-acceptable response for him, and instead tries desperately to leave the subject and move onto the next adventure. This insecurity actually suits Whittaker’s Doctor well, and I’d rather her take on a socially-anxious amusing dialect than her current verbal diarrhea one. She tells Graham that she’ll think of something reassuring to say when it’s too late… does that mean this series at some point she’ll be too late to say it?
An interesting episode then, and one with lots to say. It’s just a shame that so much of it is said rather than shown but compared to some of the other adventures we’ve had recently I’d take this over those anyday. ‘Can You Hear Me?’ could have benefitted with a two-parter running time, to let the concepts and tension rack up even more and allow the dream sequences to take full advantage of the creativity behind the camera. Still, it’s a nice standalone that edges us closer to more teased reveals. Let’s see if the rest of the series can keep up this level of enthusiasm. I really hope so.