“This whole section’s covered in fingers.”
Only on Doctor Who. I don’t think any other series would be crazy enough to show the villain’s fingers flying off and attacking people on their own. That’s a good thing, though. The one thing Doctor Who can’t be accused of being is ordinary. The fingers detaching themselves and flying around was actually quite creepy. Sticking themselves in people’s ears… not so much. The generic monster with big teeth has also lost its impact now, through overuse, but maybe it’s OK that the monster was generic this week, since it was there to represent a creature from a nightmare. In any case, the real monsters here were Zellin and Rakaya, the bored gods, finding nasty ways to amuse themselves throughout eternity.
Similar ideas have been tried before, and some of them got name-checked, in a lovely little bonus for fans of the classic series. The Eternals (Enlightenment) “have their games”, the Guardians (The Key to Time Season) have their power struggles and the Toymaker (The Celestial Toymaker) “would approve”. Well, he might approve of the cruelty, but I’m not sure he would approve of the methods. They might appeal more to the Dream Lord, who didn’t get a name-check, perhaps because his modus operandi is a little too similar to Zellin’s for comfort. Then again, this has felt like a season where quite a few things have been a little too similar to past triumphs.
When you introduce a godlike foe into Doctor Who there is always an extra frisson of danger. They can’t be killed, and their power is on another level. These stories only have three resolutions. The god has to either decide to go away and leave the Doctor alone for the time being, perhaps because he has proved himself in some way, or the Doctor has to escape for the time being (with or without the help of a randomiser!), or the god has to be trapped somehow. The problem with trapped gods is that somebody can always stumble along and let them out, and then it’s not always easy to put them back in their box again. For another story that follows this pattern, see Pyramids of Mars. The difficulty with this approach is finding a believable way to put the god back in the box, and a clever way to do that is to turn his own powers against him somehow. Here, the latest (and one of the best) temporary companion this season, Tahira, literally conquers her own fears, and uses her nightmare against Zellin. She is the latest in a long line of female characters who empower themselves, and it is good to see this era doing that in more ways than just the Doctor being female.
We have also been tackling some major issues this season, often in a frustratingly preachy way, but Can You Hear Me? has the theme of mental health problems, anxiety in particular, running through it and actually very cleverly integrated. The only slightly clumsy bit was the Doctor’s history lecture to nobody in particular:
“Islamic physicians were known for the enlightened way they treated people with mental health problems.”
Thank you, Miss. Which page of the text book were we supposed to be looking at again? But for a change the Doctor had some good things to say about humans, and that was long overdue.
The extent to which mental health issues effect so many people was represented beautifully by the Doctor’s three companions. Ryan’s old friend Tibo was suffering with anxiety; we had a flashback to Yasmin’s school days, when she was running away from her life; and then we had Graham acknowledging he is living in fear of the return of his cancer. Two of those were dealt with beautifully. The third, not so much. Tibo was encouraged by Ryan to join a support group, and finally heard those words that matter so much to somebody suffering with mental health problems:
“It’s not just you.”
A kindly police officer talked Yas into fighting on with her life, and then we had a beautiful moment where she returned to see her rescuer three years later. Both of those resolutions tugged at the heartstrings. What happened to Graham baffled me, though. Maybe it was supposed to indicate that finding help isn’t always straightforward, but he was brave enough to open up to the Doctor, his best friend in a way I suppose, and the Doctor had no words of comfort for him.
“I’m still quite socially awkward.”
Perhaps just being there was enough, but no. I don’t think that’s good enough. You could think up all sorts of excuses for this: the Doctor is an alien; the Doctor has her own issues, etc. But in the end she just continues to be a difficult version of the Doctor to warm to. How many hundreds, or thousands of years has she lived now? How much experience does she have interacting with humans? And she can’t bring herself to find some words of comfort for a friend or, dammit, use some future medical tech to scan him and cure him of any lurking nasties.
So I had a few gripes with this, but overall it was a far superior episode to the vast majority of this very variable season. The use of the asylum in Aleppo was an inspired way into a story about mental health. Zellin was very scary and Rakaya was awe-inspiringly dangerous. Tahira was probably the best one-off companion of the season. The best-buddy friendship between Ryan and Tibo felt very real and honest. Best of all, there was a fabulous bit of animation to represent Zellin and Rakaya’s history. I love that kind of visual inventiveness.
A really good episode then, but also one that might just help a few people in need. Despite the misfire with Graham talking to a brick wall of a Doctor, the key message here was to ask for help. It’s there if you look for it. You just might not find it in a blue box. RP
The view from across the pond:
There are times when the phrase “I didn’t see that coming” is ridiculously appropriate. Episode 5, for instance, Fugitive of the Judoon, is one such example; whether we’re talking about Jack or the Doctor, I can say honestly, “I didn’t see that coming!” Getting one of those episodes in a season is lucky. To get more than one… that’s amazing. This is especially true considering Chris Chibnall hasn’t been delivering the most positive of messages. Twice this season, we’ve been effectively yelled at for not taking care of our planet. (Albeit in fairness, one of those wasn’t Chibnall’s writing, but as showrunner, I expect he has some say in things, and I expect him, of all people, to understand the show, so I still hold him responsible.) So this week, the seventh of ten episodes for our season, I wasn’t expecting to compliment Chris Chibnall. But I ask myself, since this does very little for the overall story arc… barely even acknowledging it for that matter, short of a brief flash again… why do I feel Chibs needs to be congratulated?
First, it’s properly scary. The giant sloth creatures (Chagaska) get a great pre-credit intro with their hand wrapping around the face of one of its victims. That hand is scary enough but coupled with the close-up scream in front of the pseudo-companion Tahira, we’re back in front of a monster that is all terror. This can’t be reasoned with. Couple that with “Freak hands” Ian Gelder’s Zellin, who appears and disappears at will and whose fingers fly off on their own, we’re given a double feature of terrifying enemies. The nightmare man that Zellin is offers us insight into our “fam” and we see the lows in their lives and watching him exploit that is both heartbreaking and scary. Think Freddy Kreuger, but actually scary rather than all dimwitted puns.
Next, it has an appropriate use of humor, something I think is absolutely critical in Doctor Who. (Note the word “appropriate”; it’s not done to such an extent that it takes away from the fear factor.) Graham yet again takes top prize with: “You get me an A to Z of the universe and I’ll be able to stick my finger straight… oh, no, I’ve got no idea!” The Doctor gets a few lines this time too, including her calm “oh, come on…” Ryan’s jibe at Graham about images from his mind being “dark and weird” was another good one, and back to Graham once more for his witty comment about coping with Grace’s death, so it “stops me getting stuck in the past” were dialogue triumphs!
Another reason to applaud the episode is that it actually utilized its modern special effects to great extent. The Chagaska on the ceiling was outstanding. The two planets colliding were beautiful. But the use of transitions between dreams was amazing. The animated sequence was unique too; something I wasn’t sure I liked because I don’t know if it was needed, but I did appreciate because it was experimental, and we need that sometimes. It didn’t have to be a big thing, and it wasn’t… it was just an interesting transition for the episode and is brief enough that it takes nothing away.
I also want to credit the writers for continuity. We didn’t have to go crazy with it, but the mere mention of Eternals, the Guardians, and the Toymaker were all great “shout-outs” to the past. Fans of the old series like myself will appreciate the references. Fans of the new series may be intrigued enough to research them or maybe they take them as just other enemies and move on. Either way, it did not take away from the story, but it let us know the writers actually are paying attention to the series origins. (Feel free to peruse Enlightenment, The Ribos Operation, or The Celestial Toymaker for more information on these races, respectively.)
And while at it, the Doctor is a hero again as Yaz sums her up in a simple, but elegant way: “She’s basically the definition of impossible”. The cast is on point again, this time all shining. I’ve noticed a lack of spark from Jodie in comparison to her cast this season, but this time they all shined. Tahira (Aruhan Galieva) was a fantastic pseudo-companion; delightful having someone from 14th century Syria on board the TARDIS and she plays the part beautifully. (Wouldn’t it be wild to see someone in the crew that isn’t a member of modern society?)
Finally, the biggest reason to applaud this episode was that it’s full of positive messages. I had truly started to think that the Doctor was done looking at the human race as “indomitable” (Ark in Space), when along comes this episode calling us magnificent. She shows us that Tahira actually conquered her own fears because that’s what humans do: we face our fears and keep going because we are amazing. As if that weren’t positive enough, the episode teaches us that 14th Century Syria was actually aware of mental health issues driving home a small point of education in a meaningful way. Then it goes on to help address issues of mental health in our time, most notably through Ryan’s friend. It wasn’t perfect, but it was offered and I could not help but be reminded of Vincent and the Doctor when the episode ended, offering a similar hotline for people who may experience similar issues. I mean, this was why I fell in love with the series to begin with all those years ago: hope and kindness. Oh and don’t think for a moment I did not appreciate the scene with Yaz and the cop who offered her a lifeline. There was such truth in the cop’s words about how much more we come to understand with age that I had to congratulate the writer. Was this Chib’s contribution or his co-writer, Charlene James? Whoever wrote that did a great job. (I loved when Yaz went to see the cop at the end!)
Were there problems with it? Sure. Zellin and Rakaya are more powerful than the Toymaker, Eternals and Guardians, but the Doctor defeats them far faster than any of the others. I accept this mostly because the Doctor is far older now and should have a few more tricks up her sleeve. If they were not established as being basically “gods”, I’d be annoyed that twice this season the TARDIS has been invaded, but I guess “gods” get a free pass. I also knew almost instantly that the creatures were projections of Tahira’s mind, so that lost any shock value before it was announced, but it plays a fairly small role in the episode, so I won’t hold that against anyone. I did think the scene where the Doctor flips her sonic out of her pocket and into her hand was about as idiotic as Tom Baker using his voice to break glass in The Power of Kroll, but again, if that’s the extent of my criticism, I can live with that happily.
In the end, I don’t know who to say thank you to: Chibnall or James, but when I walk away feeling good about life having just been in the company of the Doctor, I call that a success, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t see that coming. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Haunting of Villa Diodati