‘The cruelty of their own minds directed towards themselves … It must burn them’
Doctor Who once again continues its Further Adventures in Wokeness. This week, the mental health crisis! Two malevolent “Eternal Beings”, Zellin and Akara, have decided to amuse themselves for eternity by feeding off the nightmares of humanity, having identified us as pathetic saplings governed by our fear, shame and paranoia. There are also monsters running round a psych hospital in 14th-century Aleppo, for reasons of their own.
This would be fertile ground for Doctor Who anyway, given that the show lives off nightmares and monsters under the bed and that special place behind the sofa. But new writer Charlene James delivers something more, with a rare chance to explore the internal lives of Team Tardis. As the Doctor drops her chums back for a home visit to Sheffield, it’s not long before Zellin and his creepy removable fingers are getting under their skin and exacerbating their darkest moments.
In a further welcome development for Mandip Gill, we get to see Yaz’s past struggles with bullying and self-esteem issues. Ryan also can’t shake the feeling that his new freewheeling intergalactic lifestyle has plunged his abandoned best mate Tibo deep into depression. And Graham has a more acute form of survivor’s guilt, haunted by dreams of Grace, the wife he was unable to save (a welcome return cameo from Sharon D Clarke), and paranoia about his cancer returning. Not even the Doctor is safe, plagued in her own dreams and visions by clues about the prophecy of the Timeless Child.
Certainly, this show has rarely felt further away from the jolly adventures of a Silurian detective, her lesbian lover and their Sontaran butler. However, what it does do is allow Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor another one of her trademark empowering speeches, forcefully warning Zellin and Akara that humanity’s ability to carry on through whatever challenges the mind may throw at us is a unique example of our strength and resilience. And Tibo ends up getting the help he needs. All we need now is a helpline.
‘Try not freak out, yeah, but you’re on a floating space platform trapped in a gravitational pull between two colliding planets ’
As has often been the case this year, the adventure itself is somewhat secondary to the theme here. Aside from the fact that you do actually need a plot, the whole business with Akara being imprisoned between planets, orbs, quantum fluctuation locks and whatnot was the least engaging element of Can You Hear Me? The Aleppo subplot also felt a little random. Certainly, it allowed for bonus wokeness. The plight of Tahira points out that atrocities in Syria are nothing new, and the Doctor gets to offer another history lesson, telling us: “Islamic hospitals were known for the enlightened way they treated mental health problems.”
Life aboard the Tardis
The Doctor is demonstrably lonely at being without her “fam”, even for 24 hours. But it’s something she might have to get used to. This episode dropped the strongest hint yet that Team Tardis might be about to disband. Ryan in particular is unsettled by not being there for Tibo through his depression. “Is this our life now,” he wonders to Yaz, perhaps learning true responsibility, “travelling with the Doctor?” Yaz points out that she told them they wouldn’t return from their adventures the same, but the idea of developing at a different rate to that of his loved ones and inevitably growing apart is starting to sit uneasily.
At any rate, Chris Chibnall has hinted at doom on the way. He said this week: “In Spyfall Part One, [the Doctor and the team] are buoyant and they’re having fun. Where we leave them at the end of episode 10 is an entirely different place.”
A story based around nightmares would do well to deliver some proper nightmare fuel. And Can You Hear Me? does not disappoint, the claw-around-the-face moment proving a particular standout, while Zellin’s creepy detachable fingers persistently unsettle. It’s a fact that probably the most marked improvement this year from Whittaker’s debut series is that Doctor Who is scary again. Amen to that.
Mysteries and questions
Meanwhile, details are emerging about the imminent two-part finale. With the episodes now named as Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children, it will come as no surprise that the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies will take centre stage. “It’s a big, big Cyberman story, that last two-parter. There are a lot of Cybermen coming in this series,” Chibnall told the Mirror. “It might start with one Cyberman, but you’ll see a lot. It’s as epic and emotional as the opening two-parter. I know it takes place across a big distance from space, there’s fantastic spaceships, there’s Cybermen.”
But is that really there all is to their return? Next week’s episode is a historical one, featuring Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, and reveals that it was an encounter with the Cybermen that inspired the former to write Frankenstein. Or possibly just the one? Could Captain Jack’s warning “beware the lone Cyberman” be a reference to Frankenstein’s actual monster – an abomination arising from the actions of those who would seek to amend humanity? Space and time will tell.
Deeper into the vortex
Good to know that the Doctor is an excellent tap dancer in a crisis. You never know when you might need that.
Maybe it’s just me, but I wasn’t entirely sure what big anniversary Yaz and her sister Sonia were marking? Was it just the day that Yaz didn’t run away and got her confidence? Slightly odd ritual.
Speaking of which, as we were following Yaz through a home visit, it was a shame not to see another appearance from Shobna Gultai as her mum.
Meanwhile, exciting news from a different corner of the Whoniverse. John Barrowman may not be coming back on TV this year, but Captain Jack will be returning in a new series of the excellent Big Finish audio plays. Excitingly, he’s being paired up with Alex Kingston’s River Song, and Camille Coduri’s Jackie Tyler to boot. Which is surely the very ultimate in fan service. “It’s like Jack is the male River and River is the female Jack,” said the actor.
It’s time to visit Mary Shelley and Lord Byron as the series careers towards a conclusion. Get ready for The Haunting of Villa Diodati.