Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Can You Hear Me? covers similar territory to Amy’s Choice from the era of the Eleventh Doctor, only much, much darker. Whereas the 2011 story explored the world of dreams, this one most definitely concerns nightmares. And nightmares are exactly what this’ll give your kids if you let them watch this, for rarely has the new series been so unreservedly the stuff of nightmares. I don’t know whether Doctor Who still has a mandate to appeal to a mixed age audience, but I don’t think I’d be showing this to a child under 12 if I wanted a peaceful night’s sleep. There hasn’t been an episode so guaranteed to promote night terrors since… well, Night Terrors. So, pull your comfort blanket right up to your chin, clutch teddy tight to your chest and let’s take a look at Can You Hear Me?
The Doctor takes her companions back to Earth to visit their friends and families, but in one way or another, they each start being bothered by nightmarish visions. Ryan’s friend Tibo is embarrassed at the fact that he’s plagued by nightmares and has seen a mysterious dark figure in his room; Yaz is experiencing nightmares herself, in which she’s on a deserted stretch of road with a mysterious policewoman and Graham gets mysterious waking visions of a young woman trapped somewhere and begging for help. Meanwhile, the Doctor has followed a signal in the TARDIS to Aleppo in ancient Syria, where nightmarish creatures have killed everyone in an early hospital building, leaving behind only a girl called Tahira (Aruhan Galieva). Could she be responsible for the appearance of these creatures?
Seeing the nightmare creatures in the pre-credit sequence (for this episode, unlike the rest of the season so far, has a pre-credit sequence), you might be mistaken for thinking that they are the scary heart of this story, but you’d be mistaken, for there is far more nightmarish fare on the way. Begged by his friend to keep him company overnight, Ryan sees the shadowy figure of which he spoke. The sinister Zellin (Ian Gelder) holds aloft his hand and the fingers detach, flying across the room to stick in Tibo’s ear and suck out his bad dreams. It’s nightmarish stuff indeed and you can see why I’d think twice before showing this to a child! It’s the sort of thing that you can imagine plaguing the dreams of a youngster; the sinister man in the room whose fingers come off etc. Somewhere out there, there’s a father who’ll think it’s hilarious, in the aftermath of this episode, to stick his finger in the ear of his sleeping child. You’re a sick bastard, you know that?
As it turns out, Zellin is capturing the nightmares of humans and beaming them across the galaxy as nourishment for his partner Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who has been imprisoned between two planets. But wait a minute – Rakaya is the imprisoned girl who has been reaching out to Graham. Oh no, the Doctor’s rescued her, thinking she’s one of the goodies! What a mistake-a to make-a! Now they’re both free to stick their fingers wherever they please. It’s never made 100% clear who and what Sellin and Rakaya are, but they imply that they’re from one of the ancient immortal species of the galaxy, making reference to the Guardians, the Eternals from Enlightenment and the Toymaker from The Celestial Toymaker. It’s nice that they’re referencing the old series in this way, but it’s a pity that it’s done in such vague terms. JN-T had his ‘kisses to the past’; this is more like a peck on the cheek.
The nightmares had by Ryan, Yaz and Graham give us a little much-needed insight into the three characters; Ryan fears letting down his friends and family, Yaz remembers running away from home and Graham fears the return of the cancer for which he’s been given the all-clear. The Doctor’s nightmares go mostly unseen, except for a brief flash of the ‘Timeless Child’, but I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more of what makes the Doctor scared in the climactic 2-parter. The perpetual critics of the Whittaker/Chibnall era have seen fit to criticise the Doctor for not really knowing how to react when Graham confides in her over his cancer fears, but they’re conveniently missing the fact that Capaldi behaved in such a way in each and every one of his episodes, and wilfully ignoring the fact that it is even referred to in the dialogue.
Can You Hear Me? is a bit of a schizoid episode. In one sense, it promotes mental health awareness, which is never a bad thing, but I maintain that the series needs to be more responsible in what it presents to a family audience. The production team promoted Orphan 55 as ‘the scariest episode of the series’, but I think they’re missing a vital point about what kids find scary. Psychological horror leaves a much more permanent mark than a rubber monster, and I can guarantee that there’ll be more small children having nightmares about the man with the detaching fingers appearing in their room than there will about a slow-moving Dreg lurching towards them. I grew up in the Philip Hinchcliffe era, arguably the scariest years of the classic series; but it never gave me nightmares, because the content itself, though scary, was never consciously intended to be nightmarish. This is and I can’t get past thinking that it’s a wee bit irresponsible.
As an episode, I’d put this on an equal footing with Nikola Tesler’s Night of Terror; a definite improvement on last year, but not up to the standard of Spyfall or Fugitive of the Judoon. In a way, it reminded me of Matt Smith’s The Power of Three, where a number of interesting ideas and character pieces are spread too thinly over a flimsy story and a very good actor is underused as a villain who mainly stands around on a spaceship. I’m hoping that Zellin and Rakaya might return in a future story, because I’d like to see them explored in more detail. So far, the hits and the okays in this season far outweigh the misses and with three episodes to go, it’d have to do something seriously awful to come a-cropper at this stage.