Doctor Who: “Can You Hear Me?”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

I was surprised by how much I liked this episode! I really, really liked it! It takes the time to explore the companions as characters, which is something the show has desperately needed for a season and a half, while also delivering a thrilling, scary adventure. It’s also very sneaky! Much like “Fugitive of the Judoon,” this episode starts out apparently being one thing — monsters attack a hospital in 1380 Aleppo — and quickly pivots to become something much more interesting. And, in my opinion, much more frightening.

Not that the creatures attacking the hospital aren’t scary, but the episode’s real threat, Zellin, is nightmare fuel (and brilliantly played by Ian Gelder). The way his fingers detach from his hand and fly out to bury themselves in his victim’s ears in order to harvest their nightmares is creepy in the extreme. As for the companions, I enjoyed getting glimpses into their lives on Earth as well as their deepest fears: Graham’s concern that his cancer will come back (and that his wife Grace blames him for not being able to save her); Ryan’s worry that one day he’ll return home and his friends will have moved on without him; and Yaz’s…um, something to do with running away and no one caring, I think? Her fear was less clear to me than the others. We also get a reminder about the Timeless Child in the Doctor’s nightmare, which makes a hell of a lot more sense as something that would frighten the Doctor than the manifestation of the Doctor’s fear behind the door in the 2011 Eleventh Doctor episode “The God Complex,” which turned out to be…the crack in time. Yawnsville. Should have been the War Doctor sitting in that room, but whatever, it’s been nine years, I’m over it. Mostly.

Zellin’s trap of getting the Doctor to free his partner Rakaya is well executed and surprised me. I loved that the two of them are Immortals, cosmic beings whose lifetime spans eternity, and who look down on the Doctor as something tiny and insignificant. (I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in the 1983 Fifth Doctor serial “Enlightenment,” in which an Eternal discovers the Doctor is a Time Lord and says with some amusement, “A lord of time? Are there lords in such a small domain?”) It’s true that the manner by which the Doctor triumphs over these all-powerful Immortals is a extremely hand-wavey, but for better or worse I’m used to that from Doctor Who.

I thought Tahira was a good character — charismatic, strong, and able to adapt to her surroundings. (Actress Aruhan Galieva did a great job.) She would fit right in as a regular character, and indeed her presence reminded me how desperate I am for Doctor Who to feature a companion from another time period (or planet), rather than always being from contemporary Earth.

Quibbles? I have a few. I was worried Graham was going to leave the TARDIS when he has his heart to heart(s) with the Doctor about his fear of the cancer coming back. Instead, the scene ends with a joke about the Doctor being too socially awkward to have this conversation, which is disappointing. I’m glad he’s staying — I love Graham — but I think a deeper conversation in that moment would have really cemented the relationship between Doctor and Companion in a way that hasn’t really happened for any of the current cast. (There were some hints that Ryan might leave. I don’t feel as much of a connection to him, so if he did go I don’t think I’d miss him all that much.) I liked the ending a lot. Unfortunately, it was immediately followed by three more endings. All those extra endings actually contain good character work, especially with Yaz going to see the police officer who inspired her when she was younger, but I think those moments might have worked better had they been weaved more skillfully into the narrative rather than tacked on at the end. It reminded me of the movie The Return of the King, where I kept thinking the story was over but there were twenty more minutes of endings to sit through. But these are just quibbles. I really did like the episode!

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! Ian Gelder, who plays Zellin, previously appeared as Dekker in Torchwood: Children of Earth, and also provided the voice of the Remnants in last season’s “The Ghost Monument” which is when we first heard about the Timeless Child. Ryan sees the Dregs from this season’s earlier episode “Orphan 55” in one of his nightmares. The episode bears a slight resemblance to the disastrous 2012 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Power of Three” (also written by Chris Chibnall), in which the Doctor is at first reluctant to believe the villain is a Shakri because they are “myths in Time Lord history,” an almost identical reaction to the Thirteenth Doctor learning her foe’s name is Zellin. And that’s it for the neepery!

No, I’m just kidding! There is a major moment in the episode when Zellin references, all in the same speech, the Eternals, the Guardians, and the Toymaker! The Eternals are elemental beings of enormous power but zero imagination, who are forced to use other sentient life forms, like humans, for their emotions and creativity. They only appeared on Doctor Who once, in the aforementioned Fifth Doctor serial “Enlightenment,” having stolen various ships and their crews from Earth to have a boat race through space. The Guardians are the closest thing the Doctor Who universe has to a theology. Basically, the White Guardian represents all things good and the Black Guardian represents all things bad — God and the Devil, if you will. Like the Eternals and the Immortals, they pre-date the known universe. The Guardians first appeared in the 1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Ribos Operation,” in which the White Guardian tasks the Doctor to find the hidden segments of the Key to Time with a warning that the Black Guardian will try to stop him and take the Key for himself. Later, during the Fifth Doctor’s era, the Black Guardian manipulates companion Turlough into trying to kill the Doctor. It doesn’t work out. The Toymaker is a reference to the 1966 First Doctor serial “The Celestial Toymaker,” in which a powerful cosmic being traps the Doctor and his companions in his domain and forces them to play games for their survival. There are lots of theories about what the Toymaker is — an Eternal, a lesser Guardian — but after “Can You Hear Me?” I’m tempted to say the Toymaker is an Immortal like Zellin and Rakaya. (By the way, the Toymaker was played by Michael Gough, best known as Alfred in the 1980s-90s Batman movie series, but he also appeared on Doctor Who again as Hedin, a Time Lord, in the 1983 Fifth Doctor serial “Arc of Infinity.” Even more interesting, Gough was married to Anneke Willis, who played companion Polly Wright in the last season of the First Doctor’s tenure and the first season of the Second’s.)

I’m really enjoying how Doctor Who is embracing the show’s long history and mythology this season. I definitely felt its absence last season. Next up, a visit with Mary Shelley at the famed Villa Diodati!

6 responses to “Doctor Who: “Can You Hear Me?””

  1. R. Francis Smith says:

    Loved it loved it loved it. Even my spouse, who has been skeptical about this season, declared that she liked this one.

    They’re definitely writing Ryan out. There’s been stuff throughout the season, little hints, Ryan questioning, and now this… yeah, I’ll be completely shocked if this isn’t his final season. (Honestly, lasting more than two seasons is a rarity in a companion, so any that show up next year are into extra innings, I suppose.)

    I was out of my seat over the mentions of the Eternals and the Guardians, but it was the deep dive of the Toymaker that made my family have to hush me. I love that this season is actually, you know, about Doctor Who! I remember how frustrated I got with Davies initially being very coy about the show’s history — it was Family of Blood before we even really got into there being previous Doctors, and that was after he’d regenerated once in the new series! Moffat was of course less coy, as a life-long fan, but I was worried Chibnall was taking us back to that early coyness. No longer.

    You know what I’d love? Another Two Doctors sort of thing — I acknowledge that the old series actors have really aged out of it, but I know, how about David Tennant, he’s even worked with Chibnall and Whitaker (simultaneously) before — to really ground for the companions that yes, this is the same person, she was this fellow, and a few bodies later she’s this lady, and that’s how it is. (Grounding it for certain viewers, too. Of course.)

    Anyway, back to it… great neepery about Michael Gough. I always forget it was him, easily done since you can’t go back and watch it. I was insufferable about rattling off the story titles of appearances of the three types of immortals (double points for both the Guardians and the Eternals being in Enlightenment, of course!) so that was lovely.

    My teenager sat with me later and pondered about what “current day” is to the Doctor. So I went on for a bit about how the Time Lords clearly exist linearly in respect to Gallifrey (no matter when Gallifrey is in relation to the rest of the universe and ugh my head hurts) and _mostly_ in respect to other Time Lords, except when things go awry and a Time Lord crosses his or her own time stream. Even then, it’s still one Time Lord meeting the “contemporary” of another, just with other selves present. Anyway… not quite her question, it turned out. She was wondering about how the Doctor just kind of slides forward in Earth “present” and, well, I said, that’s just a necessity of TV and what’re you gonna do? But! says I, not all companions have been from “present day”!

    And she was like, “Really?” And that’s when I realized what you mentioned above: boy, have they stuck to that in the new series. (Although she then pointed out to me Nardole, fair enough. River Song, of course, does not count. Adam was from the future by a few years, but who cares about him. And I can’t believe we forgot to talk about Jack! Although again, he wasn’t there very long, really…) But I told her about Vicki and Stephen both being from the future, and Katarina and Jamie and Victoria all being from the past, and then I stopped listing examples although there are _of course_ many more. Including Adric being from another dimension entirely…

    Anyway, it was a fun discussion but it really did drive home how much they’ve leaned into the companions representing the audience. Which they should! Except maybe three representatives of the audience is a lot. The last time there were three regular companions, two of them were aliens, after all… I dunno. I’m glad they’re putting in more effort to give them all some development, definitely, but it might be okay to drop back to just Graham and Yaz next year, although again, extra innings…

    I have thoughts. 🙂 I like not being bored, good job to them.

    P.S. Weird to be meeting Lord Byron next episode, presumably, after meeting his daughter at the start of the season. It _has_ to come up…

    • Nick says:

      It’s funny, I was also just thinking about how much I’d love to see Jodie Whitaker in a multi-Doctor story! Tennant would be fun, of course, but I wouldn’t mind seeing her interact with Peter Capaldi, either!

  2. Matthew Kressel says:

    I loved this episode too. Creepy and surprising as you say. It was my understanding that in the flashback, Yaz was considering suicide. In the version I watched there was a BBC card flashed at the end for a mental health hotline. So her fear was wanting to kill herself. I think they were playing coy with that a bit, so as not to trip any content censors.

    • Nick says:

      Interesting. I was unsure who she was talking to in her nightmare, not the police officer but the other girl. I take it that was supposed to be her sister, but she looked different. And what anniversary were she and her sister marking with a dinner? It sounded somber, like the anniversary of someone passing away. I was confused how it all linked up!

      • Matthew Kressel says:

        I am guessing that their sister killed herself, and they were marking the anniversary of that. Pretty heavy for Doctor Who.

        Also, yeah, it would have been a great moment for the Doctor to empathize with Graham, to show how she has seen too many people come and go, that she has “died” many times. Instead, they played it for laughs, which actually worked against the scene in my opinion, and made the Doctor seem kind of cold and indifferent.

        • Nick says:

          I agree it really worked against the scene. If they’d gone deeper it could have been a great scene, one for the ages, instead of the forgettable gag it is now.

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