By Devan Coggan
February 10, 2020 at 08:28 PM EST
Credit: James Pardon/BBCAmerica
S12 E7

Doctor Who can never resist a good nightmare. Some of the Doctor’s most malevolent foes have either fed off of our fears (like the Minotaur in “The God Complex”) or learned how to manipulate them (like the Dream Lord in “Amy’s Choice”). This week’s episode “Can You Hear Me?” introduces baddies who can do both, two immortal, celestial creatures meddling in the universe’s dreams. Bad dreams come to life? Ancient gods laying a trap for the Doctor? Creepy severed fingers, zooming through the air? At first, this episode seems to have all the makings of a solid horror outing, but instead, “Can You Hear Me?” tries to be something far more ambitious. Over the course of the hour, writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall attempt both a creepy mystery and a deep exploration of mental health issues — with mixed results.

After a half-season’s worth of adventures, the Doctor’s companions make a pitstop back in good ol’ Sheffield, planning to catch up with family and friends. Soon, however, they find themselves plagued by nightmares and strange visions. Ryan is worried about his friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) and his mental health, while he himself can’t shake the guilt he feels about Earth’s fiery fate in “Orphan 55.” (He’s still haunted by the Dregs and the idea that his home planet may one day become a barren wasteland.) Graham is still struggling with the loss of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke, making a welcome cameo return) and also fretting about whether his dormant cancer will return. And Yaz gets one of her deepest, most introspective moments yet, as she reflects on her rebellious younger years. (More on that later.) Even the Doctor is having troubling visions of what appears to be the inscrutable Timeless Child.

Leaving Yaz, Graham, and Ryan behind in the 21st century, the Doctor follows a strange signal to Aleppo in 1380, where she meets a young woman named Tahira (Aruhan Galieva), who’s dealing with mental health issues. Tahira’s nightmares of monstrous beasts have suddenly come to life, and the Doctor soon realizes it’s the work of a figure named Zellin (Ian Gelder). With his tattooed bald head and his penchant for lurking in dark rooms while people sleep, Zellin is pure nightmare fuel — he detaches his gross, bony fingers, sticks them in people’s ears, and then uses them to harvest their bad dreams. It is, without a doubt, one of the most horrifying things Doctor Who has depicted on screen in some time, and I look forward to Zellin’s disgusting fingers haunting my nightmares for weeks to come. Ick.

The Doctor’s investigation leads her to a distant corner of the galaxy, where a mysterious woman is imprisoned between two crashing planets. She triumphantly frees this captive, only to realize that Zellin played her: The woman in the capsule, Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is his immortal partner, and she was locked away because she’s evil as hell. Oops. Zellin and Rakaya, it’s revealed, are Eternals — not to be confused with the upcoming Marvel movie starring Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden. These Eternals are an old, uber-powerful race first introduced back during the Fifth Doctor’s run, immortal gods who treated the universe’s mortals as their playthings. As we learn through a brief, fable-like animated sequence, these particular Eternals made a wager as to who could wreak more havoc on two adjacent planets, until those planets’ inhabitants rose up and imprisoned Rakaya between them. Zellin has been capturing nightmares and feeding them to her for all these years, and now, they’re free to make some mischief again (and stick more fingers in people’s earholes).

For being such an all-powerful threat, the Doctor manages to dispatch with the Eternals rather easily. In fact, multiple things in this episode feel like interesting ideas that are never fully executed: The Eternals feel campy rather than fully scary, Tahira’s story never gets its due, and even the themes of mental health feel tacked on. Sure, the episode deserves points for even attempting to tackle mental health, but it doesn’t seem like it knows exactly what it wants to say about the subject. At one point, “Can You Hear Me?” seems to be saying that it’s important to talk to friends about our struggles, but the episode ends with Graham doing just that and the Doctor ignoring him, deflecting his heartfelt confession with a joke.

Perhaps the most moving part of the episode, however, centers on Yaz. Our spunky Sheffield police officer has often felt like the least-developed passenger aboard the TARDIS, so it’s a welcome change to see this episode delve into her psyche a bit more. We learn that before Yaz pursued police work, she was in a dark place, being targeted by bullies and running away from home. An encounter with an older police officer (Nasreen Hussain) supported her when she felt alone and helped her see a path out of the darkness. It’s an interesting idea, that a young woman who’s spent her life trying to outrun her problems is now on the run with the Doctor. What will happen when she — and the Doctor, and Graham, and Ryan — decide to stop running?

TARDIS log notes:

  • I love, love, love the interface for the alien viewing platform, where you control the ship by plucking strings like a harp. The Doctor spends so much of her time pressing boring buttons or waving the sonic in the air, so it’s refreshing to see an alien control mechanism that feels tactile and, well… alien. More, please!
  • Another thing I loved: that awesome animated sequence recapping Zellin and Rakay’s imprisonment. It had a mythic or fable-like quality, in line with the Eternals’ self-proclaimed god status, and it felt like something I hadn’t seen from Doctor Who
  • I’m still a sucker for a trademark Doctor speech about the enduring goodness in humanity: “You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic; they’re magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilts. They face them down every day, and they prevail. That’s not weakness. That’s strength. That’s what humanity is.”

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