“Can You Hear Me?” is apparently the first Doctor Who episode in history to have a question mark in the title. Fitting, given that I had a very hard time deciding how I actually felt about it.
In the end, I must admit that I found this episode to be a narrative mess. However, I want to acknowledge the fact that it tries to do something worthwhile, even if it doesn't fully succeed in the end. Mental health is a subject ripe for examination in a sci-fi concept…so long as it's done right. From checking the responses on social media, I get the feeling that as a mental-health-based sci-fi story, “Can You Hear Me?” worked for a lot of people. I'm glad. That said, it didn't really work for me in the end. The following are my personal opinions on the episode, but please know that I'm aware your experience of it may have been very different based on your own unique perspective.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
I consider “Can You Hear Me?” to be the second-worst episode of Series 12 so far, after “Orphan 55”. However, it is far better than “Orphan 55” in many respects, with some excellent character-building moments sprinkled through it. The problem lies not so much in the individual parts of the story, but in how they're put together to create the whole. “Can You Hear Me?” is a hodge-podge of elements that should perhaps have been spread out across this season instead of mashed together into a single episode. In the end, its pacing and plot stagger and collapse under the weight of its noble intentions. Also, while her performance through most of this season has been fantastic, Jodie Whittaker struggles with the material she's been given this week, and her version of the Doctor falls far short of what's needed to make this very ambitious story work. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend skipping this episode, but you should be aware going in that you may not find it a rewarding experience to watch. It's definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea.
What I Liked
One of the biggest issues I had with Series 11 was the lack of truly threatening villains or monsters. This week's bad guys are definitely intimidating…in theory, at least, though perhaps not in practice by the time the episode wraps up. I loved the nods to classic Doctor Who continuity in Zellin's introduction. It could be argued that using the Celestial Toymaker himself as the villain of this piece instead of a new character would have been a better plan, but all the same, Ian Gelder does a great job with his role and is clearly having fun being evil (which always makes villains more entertaining). I'm almost willing to forgive Gelder for ruining a big chunk of my Timeless Child theory by not being Omega. In addition, the dialogue from the Big Bads related to human emotional struggles was well-written and appropriately chilling.
It was refreshing to see the Doctor get out-maneuvered by the villains, even though this problem was resolved far too easily in the story's final act. Zellin's trap was clever and made sense. Up until his scheme was revealed, I'd been afraid that this story was going to go down a very familiar road, with Zellin revealed as some kind of artificial intelligence reaching out across space and time and messing up innocent people's lives in an attempt to help its pilot and ship (as was the case in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Deep Breath”). In hindsight, I believe that's what viewers were meant to assume. The subversion of expectations there was well-done.
I liked the development that Ryan, Yaz, and Graham got in this story. True, I wish all this development had been evenly spread out over the rest of the season, but that's a discussion for the next section of this post. Judged on their own individual merits, these scenes were very strong, and in particular added a wealth of information about Yaz that we didn't have before. It gives the viewer a totally different perspective on her. In general, it was good to see the companions separated from each other and the Doctor for a bit, taking stock of their earthly lives and dealing with the loose ends they'd left behind. There were also quite a few funny lines from all of the main cast this week, though sadly, some of those lines felt ill-timed and undermined the tension and pathos of a few scenes.
What I Didn't Like
First, let's talk about the basic premise of a Doctor Who episode addressing mental health issues. It's a great idea, especially given the current cast of characters. Not only do all of the companions have past traumas that they're dealing with, but the Doctor herself has a massive amount of both emotional pain, both in her recent past and in her much younger days.
Unfortunately, “Can You Hear Me?” failed to take full advantage of the opportunity to use the main characters in a story like this, and with regard to the Doctor, it completely went off the rails.
Looking back, I get the impression that quite a bit of character development was saved for “the mental health episode” this year. There were many occasions in previous stories when some of the revelations in this episode could have been touched on or at least hinted at, especially Yaz's backstory. Why is it only relevant now, after all this time, that Yaz once contemplated suicide? I can understand her not wanting to discuss it with anyone aside from her sister, but we should at least have gotten some inkling of it before. Instead, the audience is blindsided with this information now. (I suppose Yaz's near-PTSD after having been transported to the Kasaavin dimension in “Spyfall” could be taken as a reference to her past trauma, but the connection is oblique at best, and it's been too long since the premiere for the casual viewer to pick up on it.) The main reason why I'm criticizing this decision is that though Mandip Gill's flashback scene was beautifully acted, the timing was very poor. It was saved until the end of the episode, after the main conflict had ended and viewer investment had understandably dropped. As such, I don't feel that this excellent scene was used to its best advantage, which is unfair to both Yazmin Khan the character and Mandip Gill the actress. Furthermore, nearly all the episode's scenes were stitched together in a bizarre and off-putting order that destroyed the pacing.
But the worst element of “Can You Hear Me?”, by far, was the way in which the Doctor was handled. Everyone else has lengthy flashbacks to their darkest moment, but what does the Doctor get? A brief and predictable vision of the Timeless Child that not only failed to justify itself as a true “nightmare,” but didn't give us any new information whatsoever about this plot thread. It's been established on more than one occasion that the Doctor has a staggering amount of grief and trauma locked up in her mind, so much that psychic creatures who tried to manipulate her past selves have been destroyed or driven mad in the end. Surely something else–the Time War, the deaths of previous companions, even her recent discovery of the devastated Gallifrey–should have appeared in this moment. To make matters worse, this scene is followed up by the Doctor somehow magically tossing her sonic screwdriver into her hand and using it to save the day in three seconds. This is one of the laziest, most predictable twists that any Doctor Who writer can lean on. There ought to be a rule in the writers' room that nobody gets to do that anymore. Plus, are we meant to believe that Zellin was stupid enough, especially after watching the Doctor's tactics for an extended period of time, to leave the sonic in her pocket? This stretches credibility much too far.
Even Jodie Whittaker's acting was significantly flawed this week. I hesitate to say that, since I usually enjoy her take on the Doctor very much, but she seemed to be struggling here. All the darker tones we've seen her add to the Thirteenth Doctor over the past six episodes were thrown out the window. She was in total comedy mode nearly all of the time, and it just didn't work for a story like this. Thirteen was like a cheerleader at a funeral in this episode, instructing the audience how to feel at every turn and trying to get them excited about something that demanded more gravitas. What we needed were moments of true anger and ferocity at what the so-called “gods” were trying to do to innocent people, as would have been the case if the Tenth Doctor had faced a conflict like this. Even the Eleventh Doctor, who shares Thirteen's “social awkwardness” to a degree, knew how to put on his serious face when things got extremely dark instead of continuing to crack jokes and play the fool. Jodie Whittaker is capable of striking a similar balance to Matt Smith's–she's even done it in past episodes this season–but for some reason, we don't see that here. Which doesn't make sense at all, since we know from Broadchurch that Whittaker can handle trauma. Perhaps she was trying too hard not to be Beth Latimer, and ended up not being the Doctor either. It all culminated in a very awkward moment when the Doctor fails to offer Graham any reassurance about his relapse fears, something which most of the Doctor's previous selves could have at least tried to handle. The scene is played for laughs, but it just doesn't work at all.
For me, this ended up becoming yet another weak “message” episode, when it had every reason to not turn out that way. My impression is that something went very wrong in the actual production of “Can You Hear Me?”–in the scripting phase, in the direction, or both. The final product is a discordant jumble of conflicting tones and plot threads with pacing that goes from sluggish to hasty and back again in the blink of an eye. Perhaps if we'd gotten a darker vibe from the Thirteenth Doctor to tie it all together, it could have worked somehow in the end, but that never happened. Jodie Whittaker normally makes even a weak script better, but in this case, she made it worse.
Again, let me be clear that my intention is not to take away from any positive experience this story might have brought to those who suffer from mental health problems. But in my own opinion, the show could have done better by this demographic. For a long time now, Doctor Who has been a show about people surviving their darkest hours and rising above the despair that those times bring. It's a pity that this quality of the show wasn't really on display in “Can You Hear Me?” As important and relevant as this message is, perhaps shining a spotlight on it instead of handling it subtly only serves to cheapen its impact in the end.