Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me?

"She's basically the definition of impossible."

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Lots of good stuff, but too many disparate threads that don't entirely gel together. A few subplots that should have been trimmed out and turned into entire episodes on their own. A lot of moments that feel like reheating of earlier Chibnall scripts. A few lovely character moments and a gratuitous reminder of the whole 'timeless child' business.

It's the season 12 theme song. Join in on the second chorus.

That said, this is the first time that it can be said – after centuries of fighting injustice, the Doctor finally gets fed up and just gives the bad guy the finger.

I'm starting to enjoy the subgenre of 'The Doctor's friends all split up.' If nothing else it gave us the reasonably funny gag of the Doctor repeatedly forgetting they weren't with her and giving out the exposition as if they were there. Bonus points for that becoming relevant to the plot later on when they all get captured while her back is turned.

There are two good episodes competing for space here, and as a result we don't really get to see either. In one we visit a base (Hospital) under siege from imaginary monsters in 1380 Aleppo, Syria. In the other, the people of Sheffield are being tormented by nightmares which are being inflicted on them by an immortal space god who's taking those nightmares and feeding them to a different immortal space god who's currently trapped in a particularly pretty space bubble between planets. This is all part of a scheme to trick the Doctor into freeing his immortal space god friend so they can go back to roaming around amusing themselves at everyone else's expense.

And that second description is actually a good example of the main problem the script has. Is Zellin, the immortal space meanie, targeting the people of Sheffield to get the Doctor's attention, which is kind of required for his plan to work? Or is he just harvesting nightmares from Earth folk because we're so good at being cruel to ourselves in our dreams and the intersection with the Doctor's friends was just a coincidence? Which is what Zellin sort of implies is the case. And if that's the case, why harvest the good folk of Aleppo's medical center to get the Doctor's attention, which is what Zellin definitively says he was doing? And if that's the case, why did the trapped god send her message to Graham in Sheffield when they'd gone to the effort to draw the Doctor to 14th Century Syria? For that matter, could Zellin and his girlfriend in her space bubble communicate to plan this, or was both of them hitting 2020 Sheffield just a massive coincidence?

All of that could have been cleaned up if the Aleppo section had been split out to its own episode. Or if all of the Doctor's friends' nightmares had come to them in Aleppo, but that would have necessitated axing Ryan's friend Tibo – more about him in a moment, as well as ditching all of the Yaz plotline, more about that in a moment as well.

Here's the problem with the Aleppo plot in a nutshell. We're told by the Doctor, in a ridiculously expository speech, that the Islamic physicians were really good at addressing mental health issues. We're obviously being told this because someone involved wanted this episode to have 'Big Important Themes' about addressing mental health issues, hence Tibo's support group and the nice cop that probably saved Yaz' life. But it really had the effect of making me think, 'OK, that's cool. Let's see that. Show me Aleppo in 1380. Teach me a little about their culture, because I literally do not know a single thing about it and you've whetted my appetite to experience it vicariously through the TARDIS crew. Just for once, in this modern era, do Verity Lambert proud and give us an entire episode in a historic culture that educates us while it entertains. Let's do that!'

But, of course, barring one cannon fodder nurse early on the only citizen of Aleppo we meet is Tahira who's written and played as 'cool street kid from today who just doesn't use contractions much.' And that's disappointing.

Let's talk about Yaz. I like the mystery of her plotline, i.e. she and Sonya apparently have an annual celebration that does not include their parents, but nobody's really saying what it's about. Ultimately we find out that three years ago Yaz was (it's strongly implied if not explicitly stated) going to commit suicide. Sonya called the cops, who sent a nice officer who sat with Yaz and gave her some really good advice in a really helpful and productive way. As a side effect, we're led to believe that's what led Yaz to law enforcement. That's a pretty big thing to introduce to us after knowing her this long, and I thought they handled it with a nice amount of sensitivity. I just don't think it was a particularly good fit with the rest of the story and I wish they'd included it in a different story where it didn't jar as much. Your mileage may vary. Like I said, 'Big Important Theme' of mental health issues was obviously intended to be part of the mix here. It does undercut the theme a little to simultaneously reveal that your nightmares are just being caused by mean space aliens while making a broader point about getting help for depression. That way lies Scientology.

As for Ryan, I cannot have been the only one to consider, even for a moment, that they were about to reveal to us that Ryan had had a boyfriend in Sheffield all this time and it had just never come up. The way Tibo said 'Will you kip here tonight?' was setting off all kinds of alarms on that front for me. Additionally, the two just had what I can only describe as an open sincerity about the way they interacted with each other that read as more than platonic friends to me. Am I alone on this one?

The only other thing I really want to say about this one is that it established and maintained a nicely unsettling tone of dread which a lot of other episodes have tried to achieve and failed. 'Hide' comes to mind as one that would have given its eye teeth for this week's tone but couldn't get there. 'Listen' came close, intermittently, but couldn't sustain it for the whole episode. The sound cues this week were particularly well done in service of the tone, but honestly, all of the elements were working to the same script – no pun intended – where the tone was concerned.

Pictured: A much more interesting episode that you'll never get to see.

Bits and Pieces:

-- There's a drinking game to be had in spotting elements from 'The Power of Three,' but your liver won't thank you for it. And definitely don't drive after.

-- The 'Gods' backstory about setting the planets at war against one another for fun was unlike any Doctor Who info dump I've seen before, and I liked it. It reminded me very much of the 'Origin of Love' scene from the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

-- Would Tahira really be out shoplifting in the city if she's worried about her nightmare monsters attacking?

-- A disembodied finger sticking out of someone's ear just looks... mildly inappropriate.

-- The design of the space station reminded me of Space Station Camera from 'The Two Doctors.'

-- There was something so sweetly affectionate about the way Sonya said 'You do' to Yaz while Yaz was sleeping.

-- I really want to know more about how Islamic physicians treated mental health issues. How did they define them? Diagnose them? Dammit, I really, really want to see that episode.

-- I was thinking how 'call merge' would be a super useful function on a phone, when I realized that I have absolutely no idea if we can already do that or not.

-- Hearing back from a medical call you've been on and finding out that things worked out okay, never, ever happens. If anything that cop under-reacted to Yaz showing up. Honestly, you just get used to never finding out.

-- I wonder if Graham would have preferred the finger goo Clara had to stick her hands in to perform basically the same exact function. Probably.

-- It doesn't get stated nearly enough, if ever, but Graham's grieving process for Grace is about the healthiest I've ever seen portrayed on film or television. We saw him work through the stages last year and now he's at a point where he can comfortably talk about Grace and be sad, but not overwhelmed. If you refuse to give Chibnall credit for anything else that he's done on this show, give him some respect for the healthy portrayal of grief we've seen.

-- We get references to the Eternals, the Guardians, and The Celestial Toymaker all in the space of fifteen seconds or so. Somebody's letting their fan flag fly.



Quotes:

The Doctor: "Me? Very busy. Busy busy. Maintenance. Correspondence. Correspondence about maintenance."

Tahira: "Who are you? I've never seen you here before, Doctor."
The Doctor: "Ah. My brief is quite wide ranging."

The Doctor: (answering phone) "Just in 14th century Syria. Is it lunchtime tomorrow already?"

The Doctor: "Tahira's from Aleppo in thirteen eighty. I've explained about the TARDIS and that you're from 700 years in the future."
Tahira: "I'm really not ready for today."

Graham: "Is it going to hurt?"
The Doctor: "No. Probably not. Maybe. Yeah."

Yaz: "This whole section is covered in fingers!"

The Doctor: "Zellin was thought to be a god."
Zellin: "I blush."



I hate to keep saying this, but it's again true. I liked almost all of the elements here, but they badly needed pruning to make a more coherent story. And I don't think I'll ever forgive them for making me want a 14th century Aleppo story that I'm never going to get to see.
Six out of thirteen Doctors.

Next week, we visit the house that led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, and arguably inventing the genre of science fiction. I wrote a song about Mary Shelley once. No, I'm sorry, you'll have to Google it.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

3 comments:

sayla0079 said...

Good ep, it was interesting seeing the dfferent nightmares (though honestly when I read the episode summery before it aired I thought this would be the doctor's breaking point since we all know its coming).Can't wait for the Mary Shelly ep.

TheShadowKnows said...

"I really want to know more about how Islamic physicians treated mental health issues."

The Doctor probably just meant the mentally ill weren't declared witches and burned at the stake in medieval Islamic societies, which may well be true (and which does compare favorably to certain nearby regions of the world at the time). I seriously doubt any premodern peoples were able to effectively treat mental illness in any meaningful sense.

Anomaly21 said...

Yep, just another Series 12 'good ingriedients messy receipe' ep. The whole 'god/Toymaker/Eternals' idea and that arty backstory scene were really good, but the companion stuff and Tamara felt a lot more weak/modern/topical than It Takes You Away to me.
Series 12 so far;
1.Spyfall(pt1-7/10,pt2-4/10)
2.Tesla-7/10
3.Praxeus-5/10
4.Can You Hear Me-4/10
5.Orphan 55-3/10
6.Fugitive Judoon-2/10
Series 11 at this point;
1.Tsuranga Conundrum-8/10
2.Woman Fell Earth-7/10
3.Rosa-7/10
4.Kerblam-6/10
5.Demons Punjab-6/10
6 Ghost Monument-5/10
7.Arachnids UK-3/10
Can't wait for the Frankenstein ep(Can You See Me turned out a little better than it's trailers, but otherwise my reaction to every trailer was the same as my eventual score lol)