“Can You Hear Me?” starts off modestly in 14th century Syria, but develops into a pretty wild journey across time and space. The script, by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall, turns out one of the more imaginative adventures in recent seasons, and manages to convey such an important message about mental health with heart and without any cringe.
This episode, for personal reasons, became a favorite.
Warning: spoilers ahead…
“Can You Hear Me?” succeeds on multiple levels. While by no means stunning or game-changing, the special effects used here, from ancient Aleppo to Zellin’s detachable fingers to the vista of two planets in the far future threatening to crash into each other, were very well done. The direction was a step above most episodes; Emma Sullivan got the most out of the cast and visual effects department in this story and managed to tie everything together beautifully.
But the core of the episode’s success revolves around the script by James and Chibnall. Here, they put together a wonderfully creepy tale about mental health and nightmares, anchored by threads about the side effects of traveling with the Doctor. Seeing Ryan awkwardly reconnect with his friend and Yaz’s uncomfortable dinner with her sister were spot-on.
It’s something we don’t see explored too in-depth in Doctor Who, although we saw some stabs at it with recent prior companions Amy, Rory and Claire. But here, because the series under Chibnall has added depth and insight into the companions’ lives and families more than most others, we get to see the consequences of traveling with the Doctor and how being gone impacts those they leave behind. It adds an interesting contrast to the TARDIS as a family vs the biological family they leave behind. Ryan and Yaz’s conversation late in the episode, about how long can they keep living their lives traveling with the Doctor, feels like a bit of foreshadowing. Also telling: the Doctor immediately offering to take them to see Frankenstein, as if (even subconsciously) she needs to offer a proverbial carrot to keep her companions enticed. It begs the question: who needs who more?
The theme of the episode around mental health was beautifully done. As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life, I found the topic was handled here was with care and a great deal of warmth and honesty. The flashback to Yaz speaking with the police officer about running away and “moments” that can pass – I was genuinely moved. It was a great piece of writing (and boy did I feel it as a parent when the policewoman commented about being older and having wisdom but no one wants to hear it).
There are a few less successful pieces to the episode, even if they are not really “bad”. Zellin (and later, Rakaya) are okay as villains, but I am leery to see the Doctor face off against god-like beings. It feels very old school (looking at you, Guardians and Eternals), and clearly the episode knows it’s a bit of a callback by namedropping the Celestial Toymaker. Zellin is properly creepy as the bad guy, but Rakaya never felt developed beyond her one-note introduction as the “more powerful” Immortal and her desire to farm humanity’s nightmares. The resolution to the story felt rushed, although given how much was packed into the story it is understandable.
And props to the production team on the fairy tale-esque, children’s book presentation on Rakaya and Zellin’s backstory. Lovely, lovely stuff.
In the end, “Can You Hear Me?” offers up a mystery spanning space and time while deftly weaving in themes about home, regret and mental health without being too on the nose. Everything about the episode works, and delivers on its initial promise in a way this season has been successful. It’s a 180 from the prior season, where some stories started off with promise but crashed mid-to-late in the game (looking at you, “It Takes You Away”). It feels like production crew has hit its stride, and I’m eager to see where the rest of the season takes us.