Doctor Who #1013: Can You Hear Me?

"They live with their fears, doubts, guilts. Face them down every day and they prevail. That's not weakness, that's strength." 
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.9 2020.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and her companions face their fears.

REVIEW: The 13th Doctor's version of a mental health episode isn't the tearjerker "Vincent and the Doctor" was, but it's also a bit more stealthy approaching the topic. And a bit more universal, seeing as it's not about mental illness, but mental health, which concerns absolutely everyone. The title is initially misdirection (the first words spoken in the episode, and the cry for help from the woman trapped between two crashing planets), but you will eventually realize it's the theme. The importance of listening and of feeling heard. And so every companion and goodie guest star will admit to a mental health issue, something they need to talk about and do, something they struggle with and must overcome, beyond the threat to mental health represented by the story's villains. It makes for good character building, sorely needed in this particular season.

The big one is Yaz and her sister celebrating the day Yaz ran away from home as a troubled teen, and came back thanks to her sister's intervention, and a cop's who was presumably responsible for her going into the service. (I'm also going to assume Officer Patel worked outside Sheffield, or really did quit the force, or else it's odd that Yaz never reached out before this moment.) This subplot is useful, not only building on Yaz's comments about being bullied in school in The Witch Finders, but hopefully for young people watching this, and the adults that frame their lives. I especially like how Patel says there's as much or as little help as you want out there. Not everyone has the same needs or capacity to discuss their problems, and appropriately, the help line message at the end of the show includes "levels", including recorded messages if you don't actively want to talk to anyone. The subplot is also important for the Yaz of today, perhaps exposing the fact that she's still running, the TARDIS no safer than hitchhiking. The Doctor is her new Officer Patel, a woman she models herself after, which is a kind of running away in and of itself - running from herself.

With Ryan, the focus is on his agoraphobic friend, his struggles, and his eventually seeking help (his sharing in therapy yields a nice story, the dark side of it a question about whether our world is an enabling one). Ryan himself has become quite comfortable with himself since his clumsy beginnings in the previous season, but he's struggling too, with the idea of growing apart from friends and family because of his travels, feeling guilty that he wasn't there for his mate, and in his nightmares, he sees the ugly future of Orphan 55 (finally a use for that episode) as something that could happen while he's away. In other words, things get bad for others because you're not listening. That theme is more subtly addressed with Yaz showing surprise that her sister can cook now. They're missing out. Graham has the most complicated situation, of course. He's a still recent widower, and he's a cancer survivor still in remission. Grief, fear, paranoia, and also guilt at "having let Grace die". His induced nightmares combine all of that. He decides to tell the Doctor about his fear that his cancer will return, and her avowed awkwardness has become a little controversial. One part of fandom wanted her to be reassuring, to have the right words to say. But that's not the Doctor. She IS socially awkward, and she hasn't always been known to sugarcoat things when explaining whatever apocalypse her friends are facing. She may even know what Graham's fate is, or be spinning all those plans that crash through her brain all the time, or just as she says, she'll think of the right thing to say, in time, and we just don't see it. Thing is, Graham smiles at that, and he's still relieved of his burden a little bit. The lesson here is that you can lend an ear to the people who need it, and you won't know what to say, sometimes there's nothing TO say, and this is especially tough on "fixers" (you know who you are). You want to find solutions to problems, but some problems don't have solutions, and the person doesn't need you to come up with one (it's often more irritating than anything), just to listen. Talking about it and being heard IS what's needed. So the Doctor's reaction is both in character AND part of the message of the piece.

The Doctor herself dreams of the Timeless Child, and obviously that's the stress she has to deal with, but more subtly is the joke about her talking to her companions even when they're not there. It's a play on the title, but signals her loneliness when her friends are off doing their thing, and perhaps foreshadowing that they'll leave by the end of the season. We also have a mental hospital in 14th Century Syria and a one-off companion whose nightmares were brought to life by evil gods, and ultimately, the point that while humans are bundles of insecurities and self-loathing, these things can be overcome (the companions are all good examples). Humans are made strong by the struggle, though it may make them feel week. The immortal villains who toy with people's nightmares, making them real, feeding off them, etc. are basically defeated by their arrogance, thinking we are less than we are because we have quote-unquote problems, but ultimately falling prey to their instincts just as the Doctor had. Neat name-checks of other immortal races and their predilections - what older Whovian didn't get a thrill out of the mentions of Eternals, Guardians and the Toymaker? For the most part, the villains serve their function, which is being creepy, tap into the horror side of Doctor Who, and perhaps something more primal with the whole finger thing. The boogeyman in your room indeed. If it's making you ill at ease, it's because you're reading more than there is, but that feels pretty deliberate.

A few words about Emma Sullivan's direction and what she was allowed to do in this episode, because there are a lot of nice flourishes in the episode, in particular the smokey transitions into dreams, and the animated portions of the story, painting the immortals as some ancient myth. There have been animated Doctor Who episodes, but I never an animated sequence in a live action episode like this. Pretty cool. Visually, the episode is a treat, give or take what looks like a naff Jedi trick to get the sonic to jump into the Doctor's hand. If that's what it is. Personally, it looks like Jodie gives it some knee action to throw it into the air.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A valuable character-building episode that explores its theme from various different sides.


daft said...

What older Whovian didn't get a thrill out of the mentions of Eternals, Guardians and the Toymaker? This viewer, it felt like nostalgic pandering without any real story basis.

As for The Doctor's reaction to Graham's personal admission, it felt like an odd character moment, despite her social awkwardness, she could hardly be described as emotionally distant, so I can see the point of others who recoiled from it. I get the feeling the intention was to say 'even the Doctor gets it wrong sometimes' in regards to mental health, a deliberate lowering of the high bar some feel they need to meet when supporting others facing difficulties, as you say, the individual often just wants to be heard, not anything so glib as being *fixed*. Making a gag out of it to help lighten the general mood of the ending probably wasn't the wisest of choices, however.

Although I didn't think much of the actual story, as a public relations exercise for mental health awareness it was O.K., although, I thought one story well told would have been far more impactful than covering three, and it would have allowed space to the a proper resolution to the admittedly underwhelming sci-fi.

Michael May said...

Thanks for bringing some context to the Doctor's reaction to Graham. It didn't strike me as out of character for her, but illustrates a part of her character that I've been having a hard time with. She's completely charming, but hard to connect to.

So I was frustrated by her response at the same time that I think it's consistent with who she is. Your read on it has helped me process that conflict a bit.

LiamKav said...

I was confused by that section. I can understand Siskoid's read, but I think if you're being unclear in an episode that's definitely about mental health then maybe another draft of the script is in order?

(Part of the problem is that the last two seasons have really removed my ability to give the show the benefit of the doubt. Between "suffocating spiders is better than a quick death" and "we've ruined Earth's environment, so let's exploit more natural resources to escape" it means that what the show wants to say and what it actually says has become horrendously muddled.)

LiamKav said...

One other small thing that bugged me was in that aforementioned speech. "The Eternals have their games... As for me, I play games." You can't clarify that you're different by doing the exact same thing!

Overall I did like the episode, but I still feel I'm grading on a curve. It was above average for the last two seasons, but still well below the season 1-10 mean.


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