I have repeatedly criticized the Chibnall era for its dubious notion of “aboutness.” With Can You Hear Me? we have a partial success on that front, but its partiality ends up revealing the depths of the problem. The question “what is Can You Hear Me? about” is straightforward—an idiot could answer it. It’s about mental illness. And yet I find myself imagining the pitch meeting here.
“So what’s your story about?”
“Oh, it’s about mental illness.”
“Cool! What do you say about mental illness?”
“Ummmm… it’s about mental illness.”
Herein lies the difficulty. To ask a question I’ve asked plenty of times before, what, exactly, is all of this for? What perspective on the world is Doctor Who offering? What does it have to say? And when it comes to mental illness and this episode, the answer really appears to be “nothing.” Some vague platitudes about facing your fears being the essence of humanity (which come perilously close to “you have an obligation to willpower your way out of depression,” even if they do later endorse getting help) and that’s it. There’s no insights here—no substance.
The common right-wing asshole complaint about the Whittaker era is that it’s full of “virtue signalling.” This is of course what they say about any media that isn’t entirely about the concerns of white men, and so it’s tremendously infuriating to admit that in this instance they’re actually right. All of the wokeness in Chibnall Doctor Who is entirely performative. We don’t have a diverse cast because we want to tell stories about different perspectives and different sorts of people. We aren’t telling stories about the environment or racism or mental illness because we have something to say. We aren’t doing any of this because it’s interesting or worthwhile on its own merits. We’re doing it because Chibnall has concluded that what the hip kids want is “woke” television. Diversity and a sort of after-school special mentality towards issues are ends in themselves. Which, sure, yes, diversity is an end in itself, but here it appears to be the *only* end in play. That’s doesn’t make the diversity a bad thing, obviously, but it lessens the degree to which it’s a good thing. And it certainly renders the big themes fairly innefectual and disposable. Mental illness is a great topic for Doctor Who to tackle, but this isn’t tackling it—it’s using it to get approving headlines from culture journalists on a tight deadline looking for an easy review they can write in their sleep. I refuse to accept that having something to say about the world is not a minimum standard for television. An it’s one Doctor Who hasn’t met with any regularity for years.
Past the ineffectual engagement with theme, we have a lot of vague competence. I’m put in mind of a tweet by Jamie Mathieson I saw this week, where he said that the challenge when writing a familiar trope for television is coming up with a new perspective on it, as merely doing it competently is boring. I don’t imagine he was consciously dragging the Chibnall era, but he may as well have been. Here we have “Doctor Who confronts a god” done entirely competently, but without any flare or innovation. The references to The Ribos Operation and Enlightenment only serve to highlight the difference between this and television that has something to say.
So yes, this is competent. And yes, that makes four stories in a row that managed that, although to be fair that’s how the non-Chibnall portion of last season went too. But even when things are going well, we’re coming in at the level of what Jack has witheringly described as “visual Big Finish”—a parade of intermittent competence that never seems to have any reason for existing other than producing more Doctor Who. I’m desperately, painfully tired of it. And nothing about this week has changed that.
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