In an interview with the Daily Express in 1977, then-current Script Editor of Doctor Who Robert Holmes described the series as being “geared to the intelligent fourteen-year old”. Over the years it’s prided itself on the way that it has tackled difficult subjects in a way which is easily digestible for a younger audience, from ecology and environmental matters, to racism and xenophobia, and nuclear war.
Tonight’s episode – ‘Can You Hear Me?’ – returned to a topic it’s touched on before, in the form of mental illness. It’s certainly a sensitive area to address at the best of times, but in a series which has already attracted criticism in some quarters for a perceived lack of subtlety in some of its messaging in earlier episodes, it’s even more challenging to try and deal with it in a way which doesn’t feel clunky or forced, at the expense of telling a decent story at the same time. At worst, it could come across as being akin to one of those “very special episode” moments you find in American sitcoms, where you get bludgeoned relentlessly with a pressing issue-of-the-week.
The concern is that if you get it wrong, it can feel like a crashing change of gears, and could come across as external to the world that’s been created for this week’s adventure. In the show’s first attempt at tackling the issue of depression – Richard Curtis’ sublime ‘Vincent And The Doctor’ – it was handled with a deft touch, which was neither showy nor egregious; it was a touching look at how even a great figure from history like Van Gogh was tortured by his own demons, and that not only were these sorts of struggles not new, but that anyone watching the show while going through similar turmoil could take some solace in the fact that they weren’t alone.
While worked reasonably well into the overall story of ‘Can You Hear Me?’, there were a couple of moments where it felt almost as though inserting mental health issues were used in lieu of previous character development, which is unfortunate. Here, we get hints dropped about the significance of an anniversary for Yaz (Mandip Gill) and her family, but we only get to learn later on that it marks the date when – three years earlier – she was pulled back from the brink of potentially doing something extreme, after being bullied at school and finding herself psychologically in a very dark place, when her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar) raised the alarm with the Police.
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While it’s a brave move for a high-profile family show to bring up something like this, it’s does feel a little like more could have been done to set this up and foreshadow it, rather than running the risk of seeming like it’s been thrust upon one of the companions at random, solely for the purpose of making a point, instead of it feeling like an organic development. Take the case of Ryan (Tosin Cole), who – in his first appearance – we were told was dyspraxic; however, other than the odd mention here or there, it seems to have been mostly forgotten. While you don’t necessarily want to define a character by a trait, there’s been very little else to pad him – or, indeed, Yaz – out besides, which makes these characteristics feel even more exposed and pronounced.
It also felt a tad forced having Ryan’s best mate Tibo (Buom Tinhgang) going through a similar experience, as – again – we didn’t have a lot of previous knowledge of him as a person (having previously made only a brief appearance at the beginning of ‘Spyfall’ (Part One), so it’s almost as though mental illness was being used as shorthand for having a defined personality, rather than trying to fill in the gaps in a more meaningful way. The only redeeming thing about this was that Tinhgang played Tibo with a refreshingly straight bat, and the sort of normalcy that did more to convince you of him being a three-dimensional entity than anything in the actual writing.
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It seems that there are cracks growing in Team TARDIS, as they seem to be thinking about what lies ahead; Ryan in particular has started to question the life that he and the others are leading, especially as this latest escapade took place a little too close to home. Ryan’s not usually one for such a level of introspection, so it’s nice to see him having a little more depth; however, with news that Tosin Cole has apparently signed up for an American TV series, you can’t help wonder whether this is preparing us for something. The sudden burst of character development this week – as with Yaz – may sadly prove to be too little, too late.
The story itself is solid enough – a trap laid across time and space to lure the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, taking advantage of her curiosity and need to help those in peril. For fans of the show, ears would have pricked up at the mention of Zellin (Ian Gelder) and Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey) both being Immortals, especially as Zellin name-checked a number of other races and beings who’d been in Doctor Who before, like the Eternals, the Guardians and the Celestial Toymaker (going all the way back to 1966 in the case of the latter). It’s a nice bit of fan service, which thankfully doesn’t take anything away from the story itself.
However, the villains’ plot does seem to have been falling a little bit on the side of the overelaborate – there didn’t really appear to be much reason to have taken the Doctor all the way back to Syria in 1380 as part of it, and might have been more contained if it had all taken place in Sheffield, with the focus on the Doctor’s companions, by having just their friends and families targeted. It also appears to have been one of those cases where a monster was drafted in simply for the sake of having one, rather than it serving the story – there were plenty of chills and creeps as it was with Zellin’s detachable fingers, which will have no doubt made bedtime challenging for the nippers after the episode ended.
The pacing of the story seemed strangely off, with the villains dealt with about 10 minutes before the end; while this gave time for the point of the tale to be driven home, it seemed a rather odd change of pace and tone, and made the whole episode feel overlong. Considering it was called ‘Can You Hear Me?’ – a clear reference to the importance of listening to people in need – there was one of the most misjudged bits of writing in a long time, where Graham (Bradley Walsh) opens up about his fear of his cancer returning, only to have it awkwardly brushed off by the Doctor, making a joke about her social awkwardness. It fatally undermined the message of the episode, and felt rather cruel and dismissive in the process.
All in all, this was only a partly successful attempt to fuse a reasonably adequate storyline featuring archetypal Who baddies with a discussion about serious social issues. To answer the question posed by the title, yes, we could hear them; it’s just unfortunate that it ended up itself sadly being rather tone deaf at times. Alas, it wasn’t a “very special episode” after all.