Doctor Who Tackles Depression in “Can You Hear Me?”

With only four episodes left this season, this week’s Doctor Who tried to give more depth to each of the companions. The Doctor and her companions face off against evil celestial beings, but the real horror comes from their own nightmares and mental health struggles. Charlene James and Chris Chibnall deliver a story that’s equally scary and fun and messy and frustrating in “Can You Hear Me?”.

Doctor Who (Series 12)

“Can You Hear Me?”
Emma Sullivan (director), Charlene James and Chris Chibnall (writers)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
February 9, 2020

Ian Gelder and Clare-Hope Ashitey star as guest villains Zellin and Rakaya respectively. Both are really fun to watch and steal the show whenever they’re on screen. Gelder in particular does a great job being horrifying, especially in his villainous monologues that reference classic Who beings. The CGI and effects surrounding their powers were a bit rough, but they felt typical of BBC/Doctor Who visuals. There’s even an animated sequence giving their origin story, and while it could’ve looked better, it was still visually interesting and a first in the history of televised Doctor Who.

In particular, Gelder does a uniquely gross and horrifying move throughout where his fingers detach and sink into his victims’ ears. It’s strange and unsettling, and provides a good visual metaphor for how people may ignore the mental health issues they have, or that those around them may have, by quite literally shoving fingers in their ears to distract them. Still, this trick is used easily over a dozen times in a 45 minute episode and gets old quickly. But the villains have definitely been one of the highlights this season, especially when compared to Series 11, and this story continues that.

The story of the Doctor facing off against godlike beings provides a frame for a window into the companions’ person lives. Each of the three companions confronts the villains on their own in vignettes about their lives, nightmares, and mental health. Ryan (Tosin Cole) comforts and helps his friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) in a story with depth and a simple but good model of struggling with depression and mental illness. Ryan notices his friend is having problems, expresses support, and helps him get treatment and open up to others. In return, Ryan also opens up himself and gives Tibo’s other friends and family opportunities to support and express their own struggles. It’s not easy or simple, but we get the sense that Tibo is on a good path and Ryan is a good friend. This is probably the best material Ryan’s had in his almost two seasons, even acting as a secondary character to Tibo.

In contrast, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) both get short shrift. Yaz gets before and after scenes, showing her years ago struggling with suicidal ideation and/or depression. Gill provides a good performance but the script doesn’t provide much for her character. This would’ve been really interesting early on in Yaz’s tenure, but here it feels like a too little, too late attempt at providing depth. If this happened early on, it could’ve been revisited here, but at this point it’s likely an afterthought that will be ignored in other stories, and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile, Graham’s story is the culmination of what we’ve seen him go through. He remembers and sees his dead wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and worries about his cancer coming back. From her first appearance, Grace felt like a narrative  crutch and motivating factor for Graham instead of a character in her own right, and unfortunately she feels the same way here. “Can You Here Me?” is an odd reminder of her when the series overall seems to have forgotten she existed.

Then the episode hits a major bump during the story’s conclusion. Graham opens up to the Doctor about his fears and health problems, but the Doctor’s response feels out of character and borderline sociopathic, as if she’s channeling BBC’s Sherlock. Graham discusses very tangible, realistic fears, and she just brushes him off and says something to the effect of, “Oh that’s awkward, I’m an alien, haha, let’s keep going.” Yes, the Doctor is awkward and an alien, but this felt so rude and uncomfortable in an episode meant to explore mental health. Whittaker plays the scene for laughs and it falls completely flat, and left me feeling gross and sad. For a more charitable reading, this could be the Doctor struggling to find her own coping mechanisms and open up about her own depression and anxiety surrounding Gallifrey and her past and future.

Whatever the intention, Whittaker’s Doctor feels particularly unlikeable here, and this stands out in a story co-written by her creator and showrunner, Chris Chibnall. “Can You Hear Me?” did new and interesting things, but ultimately left me feeling worried and unsure about both The Doctor and Doctor Who. I hope Chibnall spends more time focusing on the characters in the finale, instead of spending all his attention on the numerous arcs and Abrams-style mystery boxes he’s thrown out this season.

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze

Sasha Fraze is a professional comic book gremlin. You can find her on Twitter at @schlocking where she's probably sharing random thoughts about comics new and old or retweeting trans news and memes.

One thought on “Doctor Who Tackles Depression in “Can You Hear Me?”

  1. Hardly any Doctor has been very good at giving emotional comfort, and I found Thirteen’s response a lot more honest and likable than, say, Ten’s meaninglessly rote "I’m so, so sorry" (especially when it was for things that were mostly his fault). I’m surprised at the amount of controversy that scene has created, and the only reason I can think of for it is that it’s supposed to be women’s job to be emotionally nurturing.

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