In the seventh episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, The Doctor discovers a set of impossibilities that are very possible, which leads the whole team to a nightmare. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of mental health, specifically suicide, anxiety, and PTSD.
Wow, this was a bold episode in terms of scope, first of all, and I think this is the first time we’ve seen immortal characters dealt with since the original run of the show? Zellin mentioned the Guardians and the Eternals at one point! “Can You Hear Me?” takes immortal beings like Zellin and Rakaya to a deeply creepy place, too. (Did they ever actually say Rakaya’s name onscreen? The only reason I know it is because I paused the episode at the end of my video during the closing credits.) Beings who are so old that they see existence as merely a means to entertain them throughout eternity! It’s so fucked up!
Yet throughout this, the episode manages to weave a deeply emotional plot covering multiple characters as each of them cope with their own mental health issues. It’s astounding to me how much depth is given to each of these stories in such a short span of time!!! So, let’s discuss.
When compared to some of the earlier series of New Who, series 11 and 12 are definitely a bit more light on companion stories. They’re not devoid of them, of course, but I think about how much of the lives of Rose, Martha, and Donna were explored throughout their tenure. So it felt refreshing to see more of the lives of Yaz, Ryan, and Graham, while also acknowledging that the three of them dealt with or are still dealing with mental health complications. And not just them! Tahira was coping with trauma and PTSD after witnessing something deeply horrific. Tibo, Ryan’s best mate… lord, y’all, watching his story unfold in 2021 while I am still abiding by quarantine rules? One of the most difficult things to deal with this past year–and this is putting aside all the normal anxiety/depression AND coping with grief–has been my realization of how much I used socializing as a coping mechanism. I was an introvert and a shut-in as a kid, and I have absolutely cultivated a life in my 20s and 30s where I try to get out of my house and see people as much as humanly possible. Being extroverted is a beautiful thing for me, and it works. I love feeling close to friends. I love being affectionate with friends! And coming to understand all the needlessly rigid constructions between “friend” and romantic partner” are mostly bullshit has added to that joy.
And since March, I have spent just three whole months with another human being around. I started quarantine alone—my roommate at the time spent the first six weeks or so with their partner. By the time things calmed down and they came back, I was already having to think about where I’d live next, given that I was on a very short lease. In August, I got this wonderful place I’m in now. I don’t have a bubble; most of friends have either moved away, a few have unfortunately passed away, and the rest… well, we barely take any risks. I’ve left my house for more than a grocery trip or bike ride exactly three times, and two of those trips were solo.
Tibo’s story is different than mine, but the set-up… Yeah. I can see myself in it. I can see how I used socialization to keep myself in line, and I can see how hard it’s been to adjust to spending 99% of my life entirely alone. I started coming apart at the seams; I had to work harder to stay organized and neat; and last month, my creativity and desire nearly dried up, which was terrible because it was in the midst of a time where I had to work so very much.
At the same time, I recognized myself in Yaz’s story. I recognized some of my friends and family members in Graham’s fears. Even though the teleplay wasn’t too detailed in terms of what Tahira went through, even that felt familiar.
So, we had all these disparate stories–of people going missing, of a mysterious man with a tattooed bald head appearing in dreams and in real life, of a woman trapped and begging Graham for help–that “Can You Hear Me?” brought together in a body horror nightmare about immortality and boredom. I bascially spent the entire reveal sequence slack-jawed? Ugh, that whole animated part was INCREDIBLE, and I think it was such a huge risk for the show, but it fit. So much of the story of Zellin and Rakaya felt timeless, almost like an eternal fairy tale, and the animation brought that element out. It would have been weird to have a sort of live-action flashback of what these two did to those planets? Thus, we got the exposition we needed to understand why this had all happened, but it’s executed in a stylish and efficient way.
And it needed to be that way because this script worked as well as it did due to how efficiently it communicated its ideas. We have to manage FIVE stories about mental health PLUS The Doctor having to contend with an immortal being tricking her into freeing his immortal superior. I know this stuff ultimately ends up being subjective, but I felt that “Can You Hear Me?” didn’t waste a second of screen time. Every moment here is in service of the main plot of the subplots, and that’s a fantastic thing to experience.
I suppose I’m also biased because of what this episode has to say about mental illness, vulnerability, and getting help. Don’t get me wrong; the immortal characters were deeply fascinating to me, and I do tend to like stories about how immortal beings cope with the fact that they can’t die. This episode is overwhelmingly negative in its depiction of Zellin and Rakaya, but they make incredible antagonists BECAUSE they are so detached from life. Living creatures are pawns on their manufactured board games. They literally set about to see which of the two of them could ruin a planet FIRST. It’s just… so completely fucked up? Seriously, so much of this episode and its story is enormously disturbing!
But it is not the point of “Can You Hear Me?” This certainly goes to a dark place. The only people Tahira knows are snatched up by the horrible creatures in her nightmares. I will NEVER be unable to see the terrible thing that Zellin does with his fingers. And the sheer scope of the horror that Zellin and Rakaya have unleashed on others is unfathomable.
And yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
What truly made this episode work for me was the care shown to each of these characters. In Yaz’s story, we learn that she once struggled with suicidal thoughts and ideation, something that Sonya now celebrates each year, thankful that Yaz is still alive. No one is “cured” over the course of the episode, but they are instead shown light: the light of love, of companionship, of friendship, of finding others like yourself. Yaz is alive because someone stopped to care about her and to assure her that she wasn’t alone. (Which is why her nightmares were what they were. I UNDERSTAND THEM NOW.)
Tahira found hope because she found others like her. People like Maryam cared for her. And that’s the place that Tibo eventually reaches, too, though not without some nudging from Ryan. God, there was a very revealing moment in Tibo’s story that helps support this notion of care and vulnerability. Remember that Tibo told Ryan that he thought Ryan would laugh at him if he told him the truth about what he was going through. That wasn’t a flippant comment; Tibo revealed a deep, painful truth at that point. He was terrified of not being believed. He was terrified of being perceived as weak. And that kind of mindset absolutely pushes people back into themselves.
Tibo got better–not cured, of course–because Ryan believed him, supported him, and then helped him get mental health care.
Not everything is resolved in this episode, though. Two of these subplots are left open. I’m glad that the show didn’t force Ryan to be responsible for Tibo’s mental health. Rather, he helped Tibo because that was his best mate! But Ryan wasn’t remotely qualified to help Tibo with his anxiety. However, the entire interaction does leave him guilty and confused. Is he spending too much time away from his friends? How are these experiences changing Ryan, and will he change so much that his friends no longer recognize him? It’s a very valid concern, and we’ve seen manifestations of this fear on the show before.
Yet it’s Graham’s fear that hit the hardest. Shit, it hit so hard that The Doctor was genuinely frightened. She doesn’t act like she does here unless she’s mortally uncomfortable with something. So while what she says when responding to Graham’s cancer fears is rough, I think we were seeing The Doctor’s own fears rear their head. She has lost companions before, but there’s something that is likely deeply upsetting to her about the idea of losing a companion to cancer. And she doesn’t say the right thing to Graham because of it! It’s an uncomfortable moment, bu it felt so real to me?
Also, who the FUCK is the Timeless Child???
Anyway, I honestly enjoyed this episode a whole lot. I would also like to never see that finger thing ever again.
The video for “Can You Hear Me?” can be found here for $0.99.
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