I didn’t know who to say it to, so I thought I’d say it to you.
[Note: this review, like the episode itself, touches on themes of mental illness/depression.]
Let’s start with the most striking detail of this episode: Yaz, for a long time the most anonymous and vaguely drawn Doctor Who companion of the past decade, was here revealed to have a history of depression. Not just that, though: three years prior, she ran away from home, intending to commit suicide.
Can You Hear Me? stops slightly short of making this explicit, admittedly, but it’d be understating it to call this subtext. Yaz is running away, yes, but note the framing: Sonya is “worried you’ve left and you’re gonna do something stupid”, the policewoman is trying to convince her that “there’s so much ahead of you”, and coming home is “better than the other way”. Running away isn’t the issue; it’s what she might do next that’s cause for concern. The episode avoids saying the word “suicide”, yes, but you don’t have to read into the episode very far to see what they’re getting at – if nothing else, an anniversary meal to commemorate the day Yaz didn’t run away doesn’t quite fit the way the characters actually talk about this.
It’s worth asking, perhaps, how effective it is to frame it this way – and I mean that less in terms of whether the episode should’ve used the word “suicide” or not (Vincent and the Doctor uses it far fewer times than you’d expect and got the point across), but rather the metaphor of running away specifically. Granted, at this point it begins to get into questions of children’s TV, and what exactly is appropriate where; my sense, personally anyway, is that a line like “grades have gone a bit wonky, parents don’t get what’s up” is going to come across as patronising rather than striking a chord. (Actually, that’s a wider thing I’ve wondered about for years – does it do a disservice to young people to talk around the issue like this? Do, say, anti-cyberbullying campaigns, that frame the worst bullying as “you’re a loser” style taunts, give the wrong impression of how severe these things can be? Is that why so many people think it is as simple as just turning off the computer and walking away? Not a clue, but it’s been an ongoing idle thought over the years.) But, that said, you never know, and as is it’ll surely mean a lot to someone.
Even outside of that, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the episode was holding back a little. That’s come up before, a little, in The Witchfinders, the last time we noted that Yaz has a history of being bullied. Implicit-but-unsaid then, as now, is the idea that it was specifically Islamophobic bullying that Yaz was experiencing. There’s been an odd reticence, actually, to address Yaz’s faith across the series – Demons of the Punjab exists, yes, but I’d argue that episode was often more about Yaz’s family than Yaz herself. Interestingly enough, actually, we know that Juno Dawson, who wrote a Doctor Who novel about faith and religion, was told by the BBC not to dwell on Yaz-as-a-Muslim – for whatever reason, this era of the show, which has often engaged with religion in a way Doctor Who rarely has before, is strangely reluctant to admit to the faith of one of its leads. That’s not to say, for what it’s worth, that I’m suggesting Doctor Who’s first Muslim companion should’ve been driven to suicidal thoughts because of racist abuse – just that, in telling this story, they’re still perhaps a step or two away from anything resembling character specificity.
Which gets at one of the more obvious faults in this episode – it really, really should’ve aired last year. As it is, there’s a sense that someone in the production office realised that Mandip Gill was probably going to be leaving at the end of the year, in turn prompting a slightly-too-late attempt at giving Yaz some interiority. It’s not ideal: Can You Hear Me? would have benefitted a great deal from having something to build off of, or at least more than a throwaway reference to bullying in one episode. (After what Mandip Gill has been saying about a big plotline for Yaz this year, her secret finally revealed, it does make me wonder slightly if she felt it was always building up to this, or if that’s just PR-speak.) But, you know, equally, for the past few weeks now I’ve offered that caveat, suggesting these episodes are better when judged in isolation – perhaps after a few weeks of “this would be better if the episodes around it were better”, it’s time to concede that maybe things are starting to work?
Certainly, Ryan’s nightmare this week is, I think, the closest that a particular vision of the Chibnall era has ever come to working: it feels grounded and character-driven in the way that Doctor Who has clearly been intended to be but fallen short of in recent years. That Ryan’s worst fear is, essentially, a form of climate grief – cleverly tied back to Orphan 55, and the sense he’s missing his friends’ lives – is sublime. That’s a deft bit of character work, letting the science fiction resonate emotionally in a way it hasn’t in quite some time; between Orphan 55, Praxeus, and this, Series 12 is actually starting to feel not just incisive but almost vital in its engagement with that growing cultural sense of environmental anxiety. (It even goes some ways towards redeeming the clunky ending of Orphan 55, for me at least – it’s now consciously unresolved, that “you can still do something” speech having a degree more weight to it because it now seems like Ryan actually will.) Tosin Cole again is doing stellar work: of the four leads, it’s him who’s impressed me most across Series 12. Perhaps it’s a case of him getting better material than last year; maybe he’s just a better actor now. Either way, I’m now quite determined to watch 61st Street, the American drama he’ll be in next year.
And, again, Graham’s storyline basically works – with none of the same caveats I might offer about Yaz or Ryan’s. Given Chibnall’s Doctor Who has always been more interested in him than the other two companions, there’s more for Can You Hear Me? to work with – his cancer is long-established at this point, and Grace’s cameo has a weight and significance that Tibo’s appearance can’t sustain. (It’s sort of odd, isn’t it, that Grace has essentially entirely become Graham’s supporting character, and very rarely has any relevance to Ryan’s plotlines? Again, I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been Ryan reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away rather than Graham – here, at least, it’d make her appearance in Graham’s nightmare all the more poignant.) It’s not the standout moment of the episode, albeit with one exception I’ll get to in a moment, but it works: something that all involved are very good at, have done very well before, and are doing very well again here. I suspect few people would’ve expected Bradley Walsh’s performance to be the most consistently and reliably good bit of any given Doctor Who episode, but hey, it’s hard to complain too much.
Unexpectedly, then, Jodie Whittaker was the weakest part of this episode. Much like last week, actually – if you’d said to me at the start of the series that two weeks running that Mandip Gill as Yaz would leave a greater impression than Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.
Part of this is because she’s found herself stuck with a plotline that doesn’t quite work, running around and doing quirks at the latest iteration of a generic Doctor Who space god. Zellin and Rakaya – more consonant heavy names from Chibnall – don’t make much of an impression, Ian Gelder’s performance aside. That’s more of a dialogue issue than anything else: that sort of eternal being type character is hard to get right at the best of times, and Zellin’s dreary monologing was very much not “the best of times”. The detachable fingers is a nice image (though surely they should’ve gone into the ear the other way up?) and the animated sequence is a genuinely lovely experiment of the sort I wish Doctor Who would do more often, but really the best thing that can be said of Zellin and Rakaya is that their plotline is introduced and resolved in about twenty minutes. Even if they had been a little more interesting, though, the Doctor would still have been a little disservice by the nightmare plot – her worst fear is, uh, a teaser for an arc we still don’t quite understand? I get what it’s going for, but it’s plot over character, and it doesn’t particularly work. It’s not unlike how one of the duller parts of The Time of the Doctor was revealing what was in the Doctor’s room in The God Complex. You’d think, if it absolutely had to be an arc thing, that a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor might’ve been a bit more appropriate.
It gets at a wider problem, though, which is that I’m not actually sure anyone involved has a sense of this Doctor as a character. There’s a personality, yes, and a voice, a collection of quirks and tics and attributes… all of which, to my mind, still fall a little short of a character. This, admittedly, is often something that’s difficult to articulate – in part it’s a question of range and of flaws – but, handily, there’s actually quite a good example of this in the episode. A little surprisingly, the ending to Can You Hear Me? – the Doctor’s “I’m actually still quite socially awkward” response to Graham opening up about his cancer – has proven quite controversial, to the point that the BBC actually issued a statement about it. Some people love it; some don’t. What I found interesting about it though is that there’s certainly a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that is socially awkward, that would say something like that, and it could still read as touching. But at the same time, there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that’s more keenly, openly empathetic than her predecessors – there are two competing and contradictory versions of this character, the writing has never quite cohering. It’s no wonder Whittaker is starting to struggle with the part.
Ultimately, despite its flaws – which I spent longer on than I’d perhaps intended at first – I really, really liked Can You Hear Me? I’d quite confidently say it’s one of the best of both Series 12 and the Chibnall era as a whole – but it also points, quite clearly, to some improvements that will have to be made across Series 13.