Tuesday 11 February 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-7 - Can You Hear Me?

The last time Doctor Who did an episode about mental health was "Vincent and the Doctor," which was, it astounds me to realise, ten years ago. That was a wonderful episode which illustrated the horrors of depression well, but by focusing on the mental problems of one of history's greatest artists, it fell into the common trap of conflating mental illness and brilliance. It's certainly not uncommon that those with great minds can have equally great mental anguish, but it glosses over the fact that anyone can suffer from such illness. It forgets that mental illness is, in fact, very normal.

"Can You Hear Me?" explores it mental illness in a similar way to "Vincent and the Doctor," however, with both episodes physicalising the illness as a monster. Van Gogh's depression was represented by the Krefayis, a creature that was as invisible to most people as mental illness can be to everyone but the person experiencing it. In this episode, Tahira's nightmares manifest as the werewolf-like Chagaskas. That's merely a small part of this chilling episode, though, a source of literal nightmare fuel which seems built on throwing as many unsettling images at the screen, with little heed for whether they go together.

Not that this is a weakness. Sometimes, Doctor Who's greatest strength can be in putting together wildly incompatible elements and seeing what happens. Here, the clash of visuals is absolutely the point. Everything about this episode is uncomfortable, from the Team TARDIS' difficult reunions with friends and family to the imagery of Zellin's lair. The only part that escapes this oppressive atmosphere is the remarkable animated sequence that illustrates the aliens' history, a sequence unlike anything we've seen on Doctor Who before.

Ian Gelder is basically perfect as Zellin, the ideal actor to play a smug, creepy, million-year-old wizard. He's unsettling enough just standing in the corner of a darkened room, watching, but then he starts to detach his fingers, a bizarre and arresting image which only gets stranger when he starts to stick his detached bits into his victims' ears. I mean, it's utterly ludicrous, and could easily have come across as a silly, comedic effect, but its shot and rendered with such utter seriousness that its genuinely creepy as hell. Worse still is that his various discarded fingers have gone black and necrotic over time. Fortunately for the Doctor and her team, they're still sending signals out to Zellin and his technology (presumably they're digital).

His counterpart, Rakaya, isn't as effective. Clearly spending millennia inside a sun keeps your skin in good condition, because she's young and beautiful rather than aged like Zellin, although the contrast between their appearances is arresting. Clare-Hope Ashitey is a fine actor (she was excellent in Children of Men, which was released fourteen years ago and I really do feel old today). However, she doesn't have the same villainous charisma as Gelder and so comes off as a lesser monster, even though she is ostensibly the worse of the two.

It's the human characters who are given the best material though. Indeed, the companions get some of their best material yet. I've remarked before that Tosin Cole is clearly more comfortable in mundane settings, dealing with realistic scenes, than he is in fantastical moments. He's at his best here opposite Buom Tihngang as Tibo, a man with very believably portrayed depression and anxiety. Yaz, too, finally gets some real depth; the flashback to her near suicide three years earlier is beautifully underplayed by Mandip Gill, as is the awkward homecoming with her sister.

Graham, in contrast, is perhaps a little less convincing than usual in his dream sequences, with the prospect of his cancer returning not evoking the depth of response we'd expect. He does, though, get a brilliant scene in the TARDIS after the adventure's conclusion, one which has been savaged by some fans for spurious reasons. I'm not going to link to clickbait because it annoys the hell out of me, but a small few commentators have suggested that the Doctor's awkwardness when Graham opens up to her is both out of character and inappropriate. Which is nonsense, because this sort of social awkwardness is absolutely in character for the Doctor, particularly the Thirteenth Doctor, who perhaps surprisingly shares a lot of the bluntness and emotional distance of the Twelfth. There's a straight line between Thirteen's declaration that she'll go play with the console until she thinks of something to say and Twelve's desperate "Can I talk about my planets now?" to Clara.

Once again, the plot fails to hold together terribly well when it's looked at too closely. While I appreciate the trip to 14th century Aleppo and the chance to learn more about the medicine of the time - I realised the Arab nations were well ahead of the West medically in that period but had no idea that extended to mental healthcare - there's not really any reason to include the diversion. While the conceit to get the Doctor involved is more believable than in many stories, Zellin could easily have set the bait in Sheffield, where he was already apparently operating, rather than set an entirely separate trap in Aleppo.  Equally, the Chagaskas, although reasonably effective as monsters, don't really serve a purpose.

Indeed, there doesn't particularly seem to be a need for Tahira at all, as good as Aruhan Galieva is in the role. Still, her defeat of the immortals is climactic, even if it is over a little too easily. Nonetheless, "Can You Hear Me?" is something of a triumph, with some of the most effective imagery and a consistency of tone that's often missing. It's an episode with a very important message at its heart: that we all have our demons, but they can be defeated. There will be many young people watching the series who needed to hear that.

Continuity Corner: I had a little moment of fan-delight as Zellin named-dropped the Eternals, the Guardians and the Toymaker within seconds of each other. Do you think all these capricious, immortal aliens hang out together? Is there a social club?

You Can't be Syria's: Galieva isn't Syrian at all; she's of mixed English and Kazakh descent.

Where in the World? This is the first TV Who story set in the Middle East since The Crusaders, way back in 1965.

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