Doctor Who: CAN YOU HEAR ME? Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: CAN YOU HEAR ME? Review

Tony’s hearing is fine – but was this episode tone deaf?

Can You Hear Me? by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall, has lots to recommend it – greater exploration of the Earthbound backgrounds of all three companions, a peak inside their secret heads at the nightmares that haunt their subconscious, the vaguest peak into the Doctor’s nightmare which advances the series arc, a chatty immortal villain, and a couple of main sets that look entirely gorgeous.

On the other hand, it also has elements that feel melodramatic, relatively random, ill-judged or at best as though they belong in a show with a younger audience, like The Sarah-Jane Adventures. The idea of stealing nightmares from humans of course has a distinct Sarah-Jane parallel in The Nightmare Man. The choice of Syria in 1380 as a forced background element feels chosen almost entirely for the line about it having been a haven of positive treatment for mental illness – beyond that line, we could have a previous nightmare-sufferer from any time or place. That Syria in 1830 is somewhere we haven’t been before is enough of course to say ‘Well, why not there?’, and that’s fair enough – and also, the rendering of the long shot of the city is gorgeous, and unusual, and not a little mind-bending, so absolutely, why not? The creatures from Tahira’s imagination though are tediously generic, more or less a rug with teeth, underlining a divide in Chibnall-Who – whereas traditionally, Doctor Who has struggled to render convincing insectoid monsters, they’ve been delivered with a spine-twinging realism in the last two series, whereas giant roaring monsters don’t seem to have moved on much since the days of the Magma Beast in The Caves Of Androzani or Aggedor from the Peladon stories. In fact, if we’re honest, they somehow feel like they’ve gone backward, at least in this story, with the unusual side-effect of actually lessening the scares and threat level here.

The chatty immortal psycho, Zellin, works well in some non-speaking scenes, a kind of Freddie Krueger for the 21st century, invading dreams and having his main danger invested in the fingers of his hand. But…can we talk about the fingers for a second?

Sticking fingers into ears. Hmm. The classic childhood gesture which translates absolutely as ‘I can’t hear you!’ (the response in most cases to the story’s title). We understand the principle of stealing nightmares, though we’re not sure if this renders the human donors no longer afraid of the things in their nightmares, or whether the fingers are simply ways to record and transmit those nightmares to Rakaya in her prison. Either way, when the danger comes from someone sticking their fingers in your ear, it carries a kitsch value that exceeds even a plasmavore who carries a straw with which to drain the blood of her victims in Smith And Jones. In fact, it goes beyond levels of kitsch which even Doctor Who can hold, and takes us back into Sarah-Jane territory, if not beyond even that. While there’s an argument to be made that someone breaking into your room at night and putting their fingers into you against your will is the very definition of nightmares for far too many children, the finger-in-the-ear solution feels, at least visually, like a cheesy cop-out. That’s a shame, because when he’s not being an avatar of Freddie Krueger or the Nightmare Man or a real-life home invader in the minds of the audience, there’s a touch of The Tall Man from the Phantasm movies about Zellin – self-assured in his intent, irrespective of the damage to his victims. But where the Tall Man’s weapons are spinning balls of knives and horror, Zellin prefers…erm…fingers. Again, the absurdity of it, the watering down from a shudder or a scream to an uncomfortable ‘Eww’ kills the potential body-horror and the tension in the threat, and gives the whole thing a kind of ‘one step up from fart gags’ feel.

If there’s a discord between the new, modern, deep threat and involvement of emotions of the ‘companions’ nightmares’ sequences and the icky-but-not-serious finger-in-the-ear nature of the Zellin threat, there’s also a conflict here between accepted best practice in narrative delivery – ‘Show, wherever possible, rather than telling’ – and the easy way out, which is to tell the audience everything they need to know in giant info-dumps. Info-dumps have been a source of fan criticism in the Chibnall era from almost the very beginning, a particularly notorious example being in The Ghost Monument, when the Doctor took time out from the forward motion of the story to read the explanation off the floor. If anything, the amount of info-dumping in this episode knocks The Ghost Monument into a cocked fez, requiring its own special animated sequence, a la Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as drawn by 8 year-olds to fill the screen with mostly meaningless images of stick-people chasing and killing each other while god-girl Rakaya explains how she ended up stuck in the orb between two almost-but-not-entirely crashing planets. It’s a technique that’s been used before of course – the introduction to the Eighth Doctor TV movie springs to mind, all Master-eyes and vaguely Dalek noises as the history of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master is explained for newcomers. There though, it at least feels necessary to drop out of the action and resort to telling. In Can You Hear Me?, by contrast, it feels as though even the creative team were exhausted by the back-and-forth of ‘Who are you and why are you doing this?’ that had already gone before between the Doctor and Zellin, and just went a different way so as not to have more static interrogation in the episode, knowing their solution to the ultimate problem in the episode was a fairly static stand-off too. The result on screen though was let down by the sudden change of style, the underwhelming graphics and the overall sense of papering over the dialogue.

That ending, too, is very much telling rather than showing – the build up has the newly freed gods essentially telling we the audience ‘We could kill you all now, and you could do nothing to stop us’ and then, for the purposes of scripting convenience, deciding to stretch their pleasure out instead – the equivalent of the villain explaining their cunning plan to take over the world to James Bond in such a way that it gives him time to stop them. And then it delivers a showdown which is little more than an exchange of words, a very on the nose ‘literally conquered her fears’ confection to trap these seemingly all powerful gods with a creature from Tahira’s nightmares.

It continues its ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ nature in the scene that’s been criticised by fans – the scene where Graham pours out his fears of the return of cancer to the Doctor, only for the Doctor to tell him she’s still socially awkward, and rather than offer him any words of hope or comfort or even consolation, to avoid the situation altogether. The BBC has said this was an attempt to show the reality of a friend having to suddenly deal with the fears of a cancer-sufferer and having no real assurance to give. That doesn’t seem to work for two reasons. Firstly, this is the Doctor – she’s been around for thousands of years, had hundreds of close companions, and in all her previous incarnations has been able to do something for her friends when they’ve been scared, or isolated, or alone. Even the Twelfth Doctor, who was at least initially utterly blunt in the face of a universe of death, would eventually have rustled something up about the importance of living for this day, making the difference you can make today or somesuch thing. More than that though, it’s a ‘telling’ issue. This Doctor claims to be socially awkward, seemingly when it suits her. But even in the course of this episode we’ve seen her arrive in a strange location, make a new friend, reassure them she will keep them safe, chat with one god, trade witticisms with another and save the day. The idea that she’s socially awkward is really supported nowhere in the showing of this era – our Doctor has usually pulled on her big Time Lord pants and got on with it when faced with social situations. In fact, her prescience in one-to-one discussions has actually become a stand-out characteristic of this Doctor, in stories like The Witchfinders, Kerblam! And Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror – she actually makes connections with individuals very easily, and is able to reassure them of their importance and their impact without so much as a stammer or a pause. That she can’t think of something to say to a supposedly close friend in what isn’t really a social situation feels like a cop-out, both by the character and by the writers, and it’s one that undermines the previous good work done to give this Doctor her own special skills.

Can You Hear Me? has, as we said, lots of good stuff – the various concerns of the companions in particular are beautifully rendered: Graham and the return of his cancer, plus the survivor-guilt of having not rescued Grace in The Woman Who Fell To Earth and also, arguably, of coming to terms with not taking revenge on Tzim-Sha when he had the chance; Ryan and his sense that the world of his other friends is moving on without him, and particularly in this episode, his learning exactly how much he’s changed, how much more capable he is of making a difference in his friends’ lives when he’s there, which twinned with the lesson of potential Earthly extinction dogs him with fears of what might happen to the planet if he’s not there to do his bit to save it in real time; and Yaz, seeming trapped between feelings of worthlessness and feelings of a destiny fulfilled, between running away and facing the challenges of life. All of this is fresh and deep and modern Doctor Who. It’s unfortunate that it’s all wrapped up in an actual plot that’s rooted in clunky almost Classic-style storytelling, with a uniquely Chibnall-era ribbon-tied solution, leaving the episode as a whole feeling like a cut-and-shunt affair of fantastic potential squandered through relatively unpolished script editing and delivery.

Oh, and one final thing. The Doctor not being willing or able to reassure Graham in his hour of need is one thing – social anxiety or no social anxiety, it’s a choice made. What’s perhaps more tone deaf of this Doctor is the thought process on which the episode actually ends: my friends have just been put through the wringer at the hands of someone who weaponized their nightmares against them… ‘I had a thought – Frankenstein!’ Really, Doctor? A living nightmare of reanimated corpse-parts in search of the meaning of its life and the destruction of its cruel, disinterested father? That this strikes this Doctor as the best adventure on which to take her nightmare-traumatized friends makes her come off as a highly self-revolving incarnation of the Time Lord, and one it’s perhaps growing more and more acceptable to call on her decisions and her treatment of her friends.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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