Doctor Who: Trauma! And Ruthless Deities Infiltrate Subconscious
Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a second and send your entire cast to a group therapy session, you know?
This week’s episode, Can You Hear Me, is one of those where the theme takes precedent over the story. I mean, what is this plot, really? A couple of immortal demi-Gods with a fetish for fucking up the lives of mortals come strolling on to Earth to finger the nightmares out of people’s brains because they get high off snorting human fear. This is nonsense, really, but God, somehow, this is one of the best episodes of the season.
And that’s because, while the story is obviously intently silly, the thematic elements really lift this into something special. Much like It Takes You Away last season, Can You Hear Me isn’t so much about the strange little story that’s being told, but rather the impact it’s having on our cast at large.
You start with nightmares and you basically give your writers (this week’s episode comes courtesy of new Who scribe, Charlene James, for those who are interested in that kind of thing) and directors a chance to get real weird with it. At the centre of this episode are three nightmares: those that belong to Yas, Ryan, and Graham, and what they reveal about our assistants probably marks this as the most interesting episode for the lot of them.
I’ve loved Yas since the start, I really have, and Mandip Gill’s performance has always had this kind of melancholy to it that I really like
because I’m a hopeless emo gay. She always has a gentleness with the people she meets, no matter the circumstances she meets them in, and that’s traced back here to Yas as a teenager. Fleeing from home, her nightmare sees her recurring on the same road that she almost fled from, that hazy dream-logic bringing her sister between her and escape – it’s a genuinely unsettling sequence, one that feels almost Lynchian (as much as a teatime family show can get away with it, anyway) in those sharp changes between big wide shots and claustrophobic close-ups, Yas’s state of mind reflected in the changing frames. In reality, her nightmare ended when an intervention by a passing police officer offered her the shred of hope that she’s been searching for. It’s the sort of thing that could come off a cheesy done wrong, but James brings a wry, dry wit to proceedings, and Gill imbues Yas with that kind of teenage irritant stubborness that my small heart always wants to see helped.
I was really impressed, to, with Toisin Cole this week – he’s not my favourite performer on the show, but here, as he deals with his fears of disconnect from his old life, he really brings it. His nightmare revolves around the burning Earth he left behind and the friends he abandoned with it, and Cole actually manages to bring some real discomfort to this feeling of dissonance between his old life and his new one. Back in the real world, by the end of the episode, he has taken steps to connect with his best friend, going as far as to encourage him to speak about his depressive episodes with the people close to him. Ryan is still fearful by the time the story is out – that kind of fear, that we are leaving behind the people we love, isn’t one that we can close with a neat bow, and Cole delivers on that lingering dread beautifully.
For Graham, that fear manifests in a relatively obvious way; his cancer returns, and Grace is back, only to tell him that he has a few hours left to live with her in his life. It’s simple, but Bradley Walsh has consistently delivered on Graham’s deep grief at the loss of his partner, not to mention the shadow of dread of the life he nearly lost, too. It speaks to how well that this show has managed to develop her even off-screen, that when Grace came back, only for a few moments, it feels like a gut-punch. Trauma isn’t a new place for television to dive into, but it’s not somewhere I expected Doctor Who to paddle towards anytime soon.
Really, this is an episode about the human capacity for suffering, and that’s a bold-ass place for this show to go. What we contain in our subconscious is often too frightening for us to go near, but this episode allows for our main cast to face up to it and make changes to try and mitigate that terror, to unwrap the fingers (heh) of the stranglehold that it has on our lives. For the demi-Gods who come to munch of it, that terror is a weakness, but here, Yas, Ryan, and Graham find ways to turn it into strength. This episode might not be the greatest in terms of intricate plotting, but in terms of the message it sends, it’s a powerful one – and easily one of the best of the season so far.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here and hey, how about checking out my movie blog, No But Listen? If you just stop by for these recaps, then might I draw your attention to the fact that my first book, Rape Jokes,was released in between the last couple of seasons, and, oh, just so happens to have a few five-star reviews, not that I’m counting? As ever, thank you for reading, and drop your take on this episode in the comments below!
(header image via BBC)