Can You Hear Me? Review

(69 comments)

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.

  • We seem to be hinting at companion departures at the end of the season. Gods willing, we’ll go down to a single companion next season. It’s naive to imagine anything is going to fix all or even most of the Chibnall era’s problems, but a cast small enough that anyone actually gets focus or development would be a nice start.
  • Can’t say I’m impressed by hastily filling in some backstory for Yaz like this. The tone of “oh shit, she’s leaving in three episodes and we’ve still literally never found anything for her to do” is dispiriting, as is the tedium of filling in a secret origin for her being a cop. Imagine how much braver this would have been if they’d done something with the bullying besides gesturing aimlessly at it.
  • A Grace cameo is always nice, I suppose. There’s still a temptation to call her one of the most wasted opportunities of the Chibnall era, but, well, there’s so much competition at this point that it’s hard to really talk about that at all.
  • Not particularly germane to this episode, but I’m bemused by Chibnall’s declaration that we’re not going to see Captain Jack again this season. Bringing him back to offer cryptic finale teases to the companions without actually meeting the Doctor seems a very perverse bit of fanservice, even if it is clear we’ve got one more season of Whittaker after this.
  • I see a lot of reviews praising the detachable fingers, which I will admit did not go over well with the family. Monsters who give you wet willies are certainly long on originality, but the consensus appears to be that they are more bathetic than scary.
  • Looking ahead, I admit to a certain amount of dread over Ascension of the Cybermen, the most El-baiting title since In the Forest of the Night, and one that seems as though it promises even more thoroughly to disappoint.

Ranking

  1. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
  2. Fugitive of the Judoon
  3. Can You Hear Me?
  4. Praxeus
  5. Orphan 55
  6. Spyfall

 

Comments

Matthew Marcus 1 week ago

I was very disappointed to finish a Doctor Who story in which I'd interjected "this is completely batsh*t" approximately every five minutes without it actually having been any good. Such a sense of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks - sadly it didn't really appear they'd had much of a plan at the beginning. 14th century
Aleppo! Eternals! Nightmare thieves! Mental illness! Just because only Doctor Who can do this kind of thing, doesn't mean it's enough.

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Roderick T. Long 1 week ago

What is Aleppo?

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Kit 6 days, 23 hours ago

Not much, what's Aleppo you?

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Homunculette 1 week ago

I actually liked this one quite a bit. I personally loved the detachable fingers - they weren’t scary exactly but they were deeply weird and unsettling. It was one of a lot of small interesting choices for me this episode - the animated history of the gods, the slow melancholy tone, the use of 1300s Aleppo. I agree about the hastiness of the Yaz backstory, but I think that’s a failure of the era rather than of this specific episode - if this had aired partway through last season and the show had built on it, this all could have been part of a really interesting arc.
I also think it’s about more than just “mental illness” in air quotes. I thought using the immortal beings as a metaphor for depression was quite effective - they can’t be eliminated, but they can be mastered. Under a competent script editor, this episode would have been amazing. As it stands, it did enough that I really enjoyed it.

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Alan 6 days, 14 hours ago

The detachable fingers were indeed unsettling... right up until they ended up stuck in someone's ear, at which point they became silly.

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Przemek 5 days, 22 hours ago

For me they get extra creepy when inserted into ears.

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taiey 1 week ago

“So what’s your story about?”
“Oh, it’s about mental illness.”
“Cool! What do you say about mental illness?”
"It's isolating and scary but connecting to other people helps so reach out to your friends if you/they need help."

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Brian B. 5 days, 12 hours ago

Thank you. I have mixed feelings about the overall story, in which the Doctor endangers the entire universe by being an idiot who doesn't ask the most obvious question about a prisoner, and then her endangering the universe turns out to not even matter. But the literal ten minutes (1/5 of the running time!) that the story spent hammering that message in -- and it's a very good message that I think it handled gracefully -- deserve their share of credit.

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Kim 3 days, 22 hours ago

I will say though that I think this message is somewhat undermined by the whole prisoner storyline - Graham gets a call for help from someone literally trapped alone surrounded by nightmares, and when he goes to help her it turns out she’s ... an evil monster who wants to destroy the world.

Not a great place to take that metaphor imo.

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Kate 1 week ago

"If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues in tonight's episode..."

Another New Adventures-y one. It fell flat on its face. The Doctor making a huge mistake and being defeated by a couple of gods should have been a huge, stomach-dropping moment, requiring major risks and/or sacrifice to reverse. Instead it's over in three seconds thanks to the sonic, leaving room for an interminable lecture in the denouement.

"visual Big Finish". Oh dear gods.

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Przemek 6 days, 19 hours ago

This could've been an amazing two-parter. Part one ending with the reveal of the Doctor's mistake: the evil goddess is free, she takes over the Earth! Then part two would have been the Doctor and companions trapped in the nightmare world with the rest of humanity, struggling to free themselves and save everyone.

Of course, that would require well-rounded characters with actual interiority and an amazing writer, but oh well.

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Alan 6 days, 14 hours ago

And again we see 13's general lack of competence compared to her predecessors. Someone has gone to absurd lengths to imprison the female (did we EVER even get her name?) in between two collapsing planets. And 13 never even /considers/ the possibility that she's been imprisoned for a good reason. It's like a remake of the Satan Pit except this time, Satan looks like a lovely black lady instead of a giant demon, so the Doctor doesn't think twice about freeing her.

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Voord 99 5 days, 21 hours ago

The throwaway resolution is definitely a significant problem, and I think it relates to Chibnall’s overall relationship with the RTD era.

It’s perhaps worth thinking back to The Power of Three, which also suffered from a too-neat, too-rushed resolution. TPO3 has always struck me as an interesting moment in the history of Doctor Who, marking the point at which a previous era of the new show became something that a story could overtly reference in the same way that it could call back to eras of the old show.

And that sort of rushed, it-doesn’t-really-matter-does-it resolution is certainly a Davies thing. But it’s one thing to evoke the RTD era in the context of the Moffat era, quite another to do so in the context of an era which so generally and pervasively trying to replicate features of S1-4. And, let’s be honest, Davies was *better* at using a perfunctory resolution to his advantage.

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Jesse 1 week ago

The disembodied fingers weren't scary, but they had surreal and grotesque quality that I liked. A lot of the imagery in the episode was like that. The script may not have been much of anything special, but there was good stuff to look at.

Or, riffing on Matthew's comment: If I can say "this is completely batsh*t" approximately every five minutes, that goes a long way. Even though I think Kate is completely right about the story's deficiencies and the interminable lecture. By Chibnall-era standards, this is, sadly, above average.

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TheWrittenTevs 1 week ago

I can at least see what the episode thinks it’s doing when I squint. Given that mental health issues can seem all-encompassing and impossible to tackle, the episode starts with several characters going through mentally hard times, introduces two aliens who work as metaphors for depression/anxiety, and has its characters defeat them (showing that mental illnesses can be made tactile, confronted and minimized) before having everyone talk to each other and start the road to recovery. So it seems to be an episode for people with mental health issues who haven’t sought help, showing them that their problems aren’t insurmountable and that treatment can’t help.

Of course, even if we ignore the possibility of this coming off as more condensending than anything (Oh, you have mental issues. Have you thought about getting better and fixing them?), the problem you have is that the plot has almost no relevance to the episode's theme other than the aliens (most notably, for an episode whose explicit moral is “We should talk the things more”, no-one resolves the plot through communication) and whose dialogue is overwritten to hell, explaining every minute detail of an aesthetic that’s trying for a mythic register despite that being the literal opposite of how mythic registers work.

So it’s a mess that doesn’t work. But I could at least see what a working version of it would be like, which is more than I can say for "The Ghost Monument" or "The Bottle of Rancid Naff Cola".

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TheWrittenTevs 6 days, 22 hours ago

* that treatment can help.

(I don't usually correct typos but that seemed a pretty egregious one in context.)

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Mike 6 days, 20 hours ago

Well, a good place to start is by defining what is actually meant by ‘mental health,’ which is a pretty nebulous, catch all term.

What are we talking about schizophrenia? Dementia? Or just in the context of show dyspraxia, such as what we were told Ryan had, only for it to be never mentioned again? Shades of autism such as what The Doctor displayed in her interaction with Graham at the end of the episode? Or are we talking about clinical depression with somatic factors, or just what’s commonly referred to as depression but is more akin to a deep sadness which is largely driven by external factors such as work, family and relationships and as such can often be resolved without any need for medication?

It only really becomes all encompassing and impossible to tackle if you have a tendency to conflate a wide range of widely different disorders and afflictions under one catch all term, rather than taking a more objective perspective.

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Przemek 6 days, 19 hours ago

I think it's clear that the episode is supposed to be about mental issues that can be resolved by talking to the right people, seeing as that's the message we get at the end. There's no mention of dementia, schizophrenia or dyspraxia or anything that symbolically connects to either of those, and I think reading the Doctor's social anxiety as "shades of autism" is going a bit too far.

So I think the answer to your question is "just what’s commonly referred to as depression but is more akin to a deep sadness which is largely driven by external factors", which, by the way, is a description I really don't like because it sounds very condescending. It's not "just deep sadness" and the fact that it can often be resolved without medication doesn't make it any less terrible to experience.

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Derek Hargreaves 4 days, 21 hours ago

I just needed to come here to appreciate this: " "The Bottle of Rancid Naff Cola". "

Thank you for that.

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Mike 6 days, 23 hours ago

This was the episode which made me finally give up on Doctor Who after 22 years.

The sequence at the end where Graham poured his heart out about cancer and his fears only for The Doctor to stare blankly and walk off because she’s “socially awkward” was the point where I experienced what a lot of people must have in the eighties when Baker’s Doctor strangled Peri. I had to ask myself, if The Doctor is so “socially awkward” why does she constantly hang around with 3 people? Why was the plot of the episode driven by the fact that she can’t go more than a few hours without the company of these 3 people?

Beyond this, why does she constantly throw herself into situations which involve people and situations which preclude being able to avoid intense (social) interaction? Because on one hand, this Doctor is very much characterised in the mould of a heroic extravert (in the fashion of Tennant). Or at least that’s how she tends to play the part. And on the other we’re supposed to buy into her being so awkward in social situations that she can’t even comfortably express herself around her best and closest friends? Yeah, there’s something not quite right there. And this was in an episode ostensibly about mental health, no less.

Even if we’re to believe that beneath the surface there’s good reason for this, that it was done to show the ‘complexity’ of The Doctor, the sad reality is that Whittaker isn’t a good enough actor to pull that kind of nuance off. We’re now over half way through what I presume what will be her run and I can’t point to a single moment her version of The Doctor has actually stood out, where she’s delivered a scene with anything approaching complexity, depth, conviction. Sure, the writing has been largely dreadful, but that was largely the case for Colin Baker too, who was practically the Harrison Bergeron of Doctors. Yet he still managed to lift poor writing and it’s still possible to watch pretty much any Sixth Doctor story in the knowledge that what you’re watching is absolutely terrible, yet still be able to make it through to the end largely because Baker still managed to deliver a character which was still for the most part compelling.

A couple of weeks back when the Ruth Doctor delivered a far better take on the character in twenty minutes than the incumbent Whittaker has yet mustered should have been the point the powers that be realised they had to pull the plug on this version of the character. Truly awful.

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Alan 6 days, 14 hours ago

True story. While watching that Graham/Doc scene, I honestly could not help but imagine how it would have gone with the Ruth!Doctor there instead.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

Well, considering that Ruth didn't care that her companion actually *died*, I don't think she would have cared if one of her companions complained about being sick...

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Alan 3 days, 2 hours ago

Well, to be fair, it wasn't clear to me that she was even aware he /had/ died since she wasn't present and there was no dialogue in which she was informed. And she /did/ basically kill the person responsible for the companion's death. BTW, was it ever clear if the companion was even human? Or was he a Time Lord too? Such a vague, shoddily edited series we have now.

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Sleepyscholar 2 days, 23 hours ago

Didn't he have some kind of Time Lord medal? Which would point in the latter direction.

There are many complaints that can be directed at this series, but I don't think a failure to spoonfeed is high on the list.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

Did you see that the BBC had to actually issue a statement explaining the scene because people complained about it?

I actually left Gallifrey Base because it was becoming maddening to discuss that scene. It sounded absurd to me that people thought the scene was INTENDED to be either funny or sweet.

I've actually watched Graham's reaction on a loop. Over and over. He's upset. He's frustrated. The scene is not condoning the Doctor at all.

The scene is then followed by Ryan complaining and the Doctor obliviously interrupting that complaining (which was about her, by the way).

When she is getting everyone ready for the next big adventure, Yaz is excited, but the camera lingers on Ryan and Graham's faces to show that they are not excited at all and are feeling quite uncomfortable.

So I have to say that I think the scene was written as a seed for coming companion frustration with the Doctor.

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Bedlinog 6 days, 23 hours ago

The decision to feature Syria at all in this story is SUCH an odd choice in 2020.

Given what's happening there right at this very moment, and then deciding to focus on people having nightmares in suburban Sheffield in 2020 is baffling to me. The story literally ends up saying 'let's focus on ourselves, and not look elsewhere.' It's just using 'Aleppo' as a pretty, exotic backdrop. As El mentions, a 'entirely performative' notion of showing another culture. But the effect is that this episode, which seems to want to focus on mental health, actually erases what's currently happening there.

Not that I'd want a Doctor Who episode set in modern-day Aleppo, which would be a deep pit of nightmares if that's what you wanted, but why raise that particular spectre in the first place?

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Emily 6 days, 22 hours ago

I think there's a fair argument to be made that it's important for media to show a counter-point to the fetishised tragedy that the news usually shows us, which leads to the perception that Syria has never been anything but a warzone, that Africa is nothing but hungry children in huts waiting for BandAid to save them, etc. It's nice to show that these are real places with real and wonderful histories beyond recent tragedies.

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Bedlinog 6 days, 21 hours ago

Fine, in principle. But in a story about the mental health of British people? And from a showrunner who equates refugees with Daleks?

And how is showing Syria as a place with vicious werewolves running around a counterpoint to anything?

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Emily 6 days, 21 hours ago

I think the bit where the Doctor talks about the great advances in medicine in the Islamic world and compliments their approach to mental health is the counterpoint, and how it ties into mental health of modern-day Brits - you can read it as the show saying "see, 13th century Syria was better at dealing with this stuff that 21st centry Britain is!". It's not much, and I'd like more, but it's something.

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Bedlinog 6 days, 21 hours ago

Other Islamic cities are available.

Showing 'see, Syria was fine!' to a (mainly) British and Western audience in an episode about mental health seems like it was consciously designed in order to tell people not to worry about all that horrible stuff they see on the news, and get depressed about it.

Which is ... concerning.

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Emily 6 days, 20 hours ago

You say potato. I say that showing Aleppo as a cultured centre of progress is useful in counteracting audiences who might otherwise only associate the place with "warzone", and therefore unconciously assume "warzone" to be its natural state.

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Bedlinog 6 days, 20 hours ago

It didn't show Aleppo as cultured centre of progress, though. It showed 'Aleppo' as a 2-second CGI shot (and one line from the Doctor about Islamic culture), and the majority of it was running around corridors from a werewolf.

(I'm not picking a fight, BTW, the episode just upset me! And like I do every week now, I try to process why ...)

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Emily 6 days, 19 hours ago

Yeah, I guess "gesturing vaguely towards Aleppo being a centre of progress" would be a better description.

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Sofia 6 days, 17 hours ago

But it's not just that Aleppo was/is a warzone & human tragedy prominent enough for people in the west to have one of their temporary fits of caring about syria & prompting Gary Johnson's viral display of dumbness, it's that one of the stories of aleppo was every hospital being deliberately & systematically bombed by the regime & the Russians during the siege to break people's spirits. The combination of *a hospital* and *aleppo* is what makes the choice particularly bad; if you aren't going to even obliquely comment in the story about the resonance of that juxtaposition then use one of the many other cities in the muslim world to make your point. What happened to hospitals in Aleppo isn't even close to being obscure, it was very well reported on at the time and there was just an oscar nominated documentary focusing on the subject (which actually won a bafta & was more prominent in the UK than the us cuz of the channel 4 news association), so the production team really should have known better.

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Mike 6 days, 20 hours ago

Except Syria at that time wasn’t better at dealing with mental health issues (and I’m loathe to use the term ‘mental health’ anyway, as on its own it’s just a nebulous phrase) than modern Britain. And it’s completely disingenuous to say otherwise and at best only serves to tie in with the notion of virtue signalling which is highlighted in the review.

I haven’t got an issue with point out that at the time Islamic medicine made some great advances - but ultimately, talking about and comparing Islamic medical treatment in the 12th century is largely the equivalent of saying it’s better to get bitten off a Rottweiler than a Pitbull. Comparing 12th century medicine with modern medicine doesn’t even warrant an analogy, it’s just dumb.

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Mike 6 days, 20 hours ago

For clarification, that should have read: but ultimately, talking about and comparing Islamic medical treatment in the 12th century with Western medicine of the time is largely the equivalent of saying it’s better to get bitten off a Rottweiler than a Pitbull. Comparing 12th century medicine with modern medicine doesn’t even warrant an analogy, it’s just dumb.

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Emily 6 days, 23 hours ago

I actually really liked this episode - in fact I felt that it was the best episode of the Chibnall era, alongside Demons. This might be partially because this episode seemed cater-made to my personal tastes - strange god-like entities creeping into the story, paralleled with mundane human emotions - that stuff's just like catnip for me.

It was one of the few times where the Chibnall era's, ahem, "unique approach to pacing", kind of worked. The oddness with the structure - the initial inciting incident being followed up by the cast splitting up, having totally unrelated personal vignettes, dream sequences, then coming back together, then splitting back off into their vignettes at the end - really worked for me. It was as if these strange gods were warping the structure of the episode, and eventually collapsing the medium itself - the moment that they (temporarily) defeat the Doctor being the moment that the camera ceases to work, and we descend into primitive cartoons. That was a brilliant and new way to deliver exposition, the kind of experimentation that I hope they do more of.

To hark back to your "Arc of Infinity" entry in the Eruditroum, which I happened to re-read the other day - this is firmly an episode that is no more than one more good draft away from being a classic.

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mano 6 days, 22 hours ago

(Delurking....) When I read "It's about mental illness" for a moment I actually wondered, where the episode was about mental illness?

I did remember, of course, but that shows how little impact the way the topic was handled had on me, and I've been battling depressions for all my life.

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Sean Case 6 days, 22 hours ago

I was surprised that they namedropped the Toymaker. I'd have thought they'd want to forget that.

Alsø, remember that story nobody liked about how Amy and Rory felt isolated from their normal friends, and then at the end there was a mythical being that the Doctor refused to believe was real? Whatever happened to the guy that wrote that?

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Alan 6 days, 10 hours ago

At some point, Chibnall is going to give us a freakin' Toymaker episode. I just know it.

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Emily 6 days, 22 hours ago

(Posting this as a separate comment because it's a total change of track from my other one)

Though I enjoyed this episode, I think it does highlight perhaps more than any other episode the inherent limitation of the "Doctor Who tackles Real Issues" approach. This is not in the main plot, which I felt actually quite deftly found a balance between "the Doctor defeats the metaphorical self-hate by trapping it between two planets" and "there are no easy fixes in the real world, but reaching out might help". But it was in the closing scene, where Graham confesses his fears that his cancer will return.

This is an understandable real-world fear, which has no easy fix. But in the Doctor's world, there is an easy fix. She lives in a world where you can cure any disease by making a jungle juice cocktail of cures and spraying it over ill people. There is no reason why, in the logic of Doctor Who, she can't take her companion to the 51st century and give him the anti-cancer pill. But, of course, in the real-world television show, she can't do that, because frankly that would come across as very flippant and disrespectful to the victims of cancer ("Hey, don't worry, this fictional alien can fix your illness, no problem!"). So the show is stuck in this strange purgatory, raising these issues that it knows it cannot resolve, so everyone just shuffles around awkwardly, acknowledging the issue but going no further.

It's an issue that was clear back in 'Rosa'. The Doctor cannot waltz into the 1950s and end segregation, because that would be high-key white saviour bullshit. But equally, the Doctor can't NOT waltz in and end segregation, because that's exactly the kind of thing she does every week, and it's completely out of character for her to allow such evil to continue. And finally, the show cannot commit to any "fixed point" excuse that it can use for ancient tragedies like Pompeii, because that canonises the idea that slavery and institutionalised discrimination are *necessary for the integrity of time and space*, which is frankly horrifying in the extreme. In short, there's no way to square this circle. The show's only option is to not directly acknowledge these horrors, which has its own issues but is probably the best avenue of a bad bunch?

What Doctor Who can do, however, is deal with these issues via proxy. Especially deliciously unsubtle proxy. The Doctor can't stop racism, but he can stop Daleks. The Doctor can't stop the Iraq War, but he can blow up the Slitheen in Downing Street. He can't defeat Rupert Murdoch, but he can blow up the Might Jagrafess. He can't uncover every horror hidden by our own governments, but he can save the Star Whale. He can't kill Thatcherism, but he can kill the Kandyman and get Harriet Jones fired. The Doctor can't overthrow Hitler or Pol Pot or Donald Trump, but she can overthrow every dictator causing suffering on the Planet Zog. That's the power of Doctor Who. It doesn't exist to fix our own problems for us. It exists to provide a moral framework that we can apply to our own problems. It's an ideal to strive towards, that we can look at what the Doctor does to tyranny and exploitation and unjust power and think "yeah, that's what we should do to".

That's ultimately where these "issue" episodes all flounder. Instead of helping some nice scientists who are trying to warn everyone of the Blorb Monster that is already already eating people and being silenced by some ruthless businessmen who know about the Blorb Monster and want to profit off it, all the Doctor can do in the face of actual climate change is deliver a po-faced speech to the audience that stops firmly short of saying anything at all. Somewhat ironically, engaging with these real-world issues directly rather than through metaphor actually renders the show less able to say anything about them.

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Prole Hole 6 days, 18 hours ago

I get why a lot of people have a problem with the scene where Graham opens up to the Doctor, but here's my take on it, for what it's worth (if you want to go ahead and call this an overread - or indeed a redemptive read - then fair enough, I'm actively trying to find the good in the bad here).

Graham makes it clear, during this conversation, that the problem isn't that his cancer is coming back - his tests are clear, his health is fine, and he has no reason to think anything is going to change there. This is really important in the reading of the scene, because it's not that the Doctor needs to get some Cat Nuns to spray him with WD-40-Cure-All-Liquid-Fixit or whatever, nor has she any reason to assume he needs it - the scene explicitly states he's healthy (I make this point not because I think you misunderstand it, but because I've seen comments on Other Websites which have said, "but the Doctor can just cure him!" That's not the point. He doesn't need cured).

But... basically he's defeated the disease but not the FEAR of the disease. That thematically links into the episode, which alongside "mental health" is in part about confronting nightmares, and what could be more nightmarish that your cancer coming back? The Doctor doesn't know how to react to this. She too has fears, but is also unable to defeat them - Gallifrey's destruction, the Master, whatever happened with the Grace Doctor, the Timeless Child, Jack's gnomic warning about the Lone Cyberman - and we've seen her before actively deflect questions about what's going on with her. And so the Doctor does the same thing again here - covers her own inability or unwillingness to confront her fears or open up emotionally with an offhanded "socially awkward" line. It's not that she IS socially awkward, per se, it's that she's covering what she truly feels with a flippant line - a longstanding tradition of the Doctor, even within New Who. I think the writing could make that a little clearer, and maybe a bit more direction could draw that out of the performances but on reflection I think - hope? - this is an intentional feature of this Doctor. Two weeks ago she had the "you don't know me at all" speech, and this feels like it's another facet of the same declaration. We expect her to be empathetic, but actually no, we don't know her and our assumptions are misplaced.

In a way it stands in direct contrast to Tibo, Ryan's friend - by opening up, by seeking help in group therapy, Tibo is able to, perhaps, begin the healing process (and I really appreciate the fact that this is shown as the start of the process and everything isn't magically fixed by the time the theme tune arrives). By remaining closed, by refusing to open up, the Doctor remains trapped. I'm absolutely not saying this couldn't have been handled better, but there's a proper juxtaposition there to the way the two endings dovetail and I think - again, hope? - this resolves the tension of Doctor Who not being able to escape the purgatory you mention. I think it does so by directly contrasting the Doctor's approach with TIbo's.

Unrelated, I think it's also worth mentioning that this is a first-time writer for the show. There's a few comments here along the lines of "well, we can just about seen how this would work" - well, maybe it will in the future? That doesn't necessarily forgive the sins of this episode exactly but not everyone's first script is, I dunno, "Face Of Evil" or "Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances". I'd say at the very least there's potential here that offers some hope for the future.

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Przemek 6 days, 17 hours ago

I like that reading. If that was indeed the writer's intention, then the Doctor should've comforted Graham and then, when asked about her own fears, deflect the question with the "socially awkward" line. I think that would've made things clear. As it stands, the scene reads like the Doctor refusing/being unable to help her companion.

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Prole Hole 6 days, 14 hours ago

Agreed, it could definitely been articulated better.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

I think your reading is sound. It is supported by the acting and the direction. Watch how Graham reacts.

I've actually watched Graham's reaction on a loop. Over and over. He's upset. He's frustrated. The scene is not condoning the Doctor at all.

The scene is then followed by Ryan complaining and the Doctor obliviously interrupting that complaining (which was about her, by the way).

When she is getting everyone ready for the next big adventure, Yaz is excited, but the camera lingers on Ryan and Graham's faces to show that they are not excited at all and are feeling quite uncomfortable.

So I have to say that I think the scene was written as a seed for coming companion frustration with the Doctor.

I might go as far as to say that this will play into the opposition between the Doctor and Ruth. It was clear that the Doctor did not *like* Ruth, and we can speculate that one of the reasons is how blasé Ruth was about the death of her companion.

At the end of Fugitive, the Doctor is feeling defeated and the companions try to lift her spirits. There's the suggestion that Thirteen is the REAL Doctor, because she has companions and cares about them. But the scene rings hollow - and I think it's meant to - as she was telling them off in this very episode for asking questions and telling them they don't know her. So in some level she knows she needs companions to be the Doctor properly, but she is not acting on that. She is still stand-offish, aloof, and dismissive, hiding behind a happy-go-lucky facade. Probably because she is afraid of connecting with humans again and not go through the loss of Clara and Bill again.

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Prole Hole 5 days, 20 hours ago

I'm on board with all of that and don't really have anything to add - nice.

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Mike 6 days, 17 hours ago

“ This is an understandable real-world fear, which has no easy fix. But in the Doctor's world, there is an easy fix. She lives in a world where you can cure any disease by making a jungle juice cocktail of cures and spraying it over ill people. There is no reason why, in the logic of Doctor Who, she can't take her companion to the 51st century and give him the anti-cancer pill. But, of course, in the real-world television show, she can't do that, because frankly that would come across as very flippant and disrespectful to the victims of cancer ("Hey, don't worry, this fictional alien can fix your illness, no problem!"). So the show is stuck in this strange purgatory...”

It’s a strange purgatory which is entirely the own making of Chibnall and the writing staff. It’s a problem most decent writers would simply avoid. In order for a storyline to have meaning or emotional resonance, there has to be some stakes, and in order to achieve that there has to be rules or boundaries. In the context of Doctor Who or practically any sci-fi show for that matter, any illness could be worked around with pretty much a single line. Now, in a show such as Doctor Who - a show about a being who literally cheats illness/death by changing bodies and has a machine capable of going to any point in the history of the universe some of which could easily have the cure for cancer, it creates a vaguely absurd situation where the writers are deliberately writing themselves into a corner for the sake of trying to create stakes or a sense of emotional resonance. Except it doesn’t create stakes or emotional resonance. It creates a faint sense of irritation (along with making this Doctor look a bit pointless). Because this is a show which is nearly sixty years old, and we all know the rules. “Death is just Time Lord for man-flu.” It reminds me of a latter-day version of what El Sandifer described in her Earthshock essay as the “hollow shell of drama.” The reality is that there’s not really any reason why Graham even has to have cancer in the first place. Similar to Ryan’s dyspraxia, it’s not something which actually drives either of their characters, it’s just a convenient plot beat to bring up from time to time which hints at drama.

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Lambda 6 days, 16 hours ago

I think it's down to Chibnall not being a natural sci-fi writer. Giving someone cancer return fears would make good sense if you were creating a character for a kitchen sink drama or something. But the main purpose of Doctor Who regulars is to interact with things like aliens, historical behavioural expectations, confusing environments, situations of peril etc. which the TARDIS brings them to, so they need characterisation which is going to inform how they do this. And the current lot just don't have that. I suspect he's trying to make the characters relateable, but he's just created a little bit of story which can never have anything to do with the rest of the story.

Ultimately, I think it all comes down to not realising how much of society is a lie. We basically live in a society shaped by a load of "deceptions" generated by the ruling class (at various different levels of intentionality) to convince everyone else that the ruling class deserve to rule, and very roughly, the more things you spot are deceptions, the more left-wing you're going to be.

Chibnall is clearly a natural conservative, so he's going to be fooled by most of them. And that's going to lead to an embrace of "realism", because believing the BBC can accurately depict reality with drama is the same sort of thing as believing the structures of society are basically fair and we just need to acknowledge the problems but wait for progress to make them go away, just be good and smart about mental health and such, no need to blow up Amazon or anything.

So he creates characters with realistic traits, and doesn't even notice that the TARDIS is a magic door into a world of greatly lowered realism expectations. Chibnall thinks it's a virtue to put into his stories things which can happen in the real world. But it's false, because the viewer isn't looking at reality, they're being shown things imagined by a writer and filmed and broadcast by the BBC, for reasons. And there's nowhere to put the reasons. You have to be thinking in a compatible way to Chibnall for those reasons not to matter. Whereas something like Paradise Towers is in many ways actually more realistic, because it gives the viewer plenty of space for interpretation, to tailor what they're viewing to how they actually understand reality to work, which need not be the same way as the writer understands reality to work.

And that's far more likely to be needed and appreciated by the people whom the world is not designed for.

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Mike 6 days, 13 hours ago

I think you offer a pretty interesting analysis here. It made me think that we're probably at the point where it would be informative for most of us to go back and re-read El Sandifer’s Rose essay on here.
 
If we go back to Rose in 2005, we see a soap-opera version of everyday life, The Doctor drops in and this version of everyday life becomes folded into the framework of Doctor Who. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary. I don’t think we really have to get in to how soap operas differ from realist drama. It’s certainly not the case that soaps are trivial or don’t deal with non-trivial issues, it’s that their version realism is consciously unrealistic. The characters and story-lines derive their core essence from reality, but that core-essence is consciously exaggerated, which itself in turn becomes somewhat extraordinary.

What’s interesting then is that Chibnall is firstly clearly influenced by Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who, but secondly and crucially, he’s actually failed to understand it. What he thinks he’s doing and what he’s doing are two completely different things. He’s actually achieved an inversion of RTD’s Doctor Who. Instead of The Doctor dropping in to an exaggerated version of ordinary life and folding it in to the extraordinary, conversely, he’s folding the extraordinary into an exaggerated version of the ordinary through continually backing himself into a narrative corner by reducing the field of possibilities and limiting what The Doctor is capable of in pursuit of “realism.” To make story lines such as Graham’s cancer, Yaz being bullied, or a story about Rosa Parks work on a coherent level which resembles “real life” as closely as is possible, The Doctor must be stripped of the power to transform the fictional landscape and must be placed in to a landscape where a being with a magical box doesn’t belong. And thus we must accept that the magical box or The Doctor have no power in this landscape. We can’t contiguously have a story which is both about a cancer sufferer, a victim of bullying, or a real life history figure who achieves a small but remarkable feat only to find their own life afflicted by abject misery and/or a tragic end done as “real life” where some terrible things are simply fact of history and we must just accept and endure them with a stiff upper lip, and a story where we ask why someone from the world of the “imagination” who possesses the capacity to subvert and transform all of history through their magical box hasn’t simply transformed the circumstances of these people and made their lives better.

And it is no coincidence that as a result we have a Doctor who is the most pointless and ineffectual in memory.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

I was thinking about soaps, too. I think CYHM could be greatly improved from being more soapy and melodramatic.

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Przemek 5 days, 22 hours ago

"To make story lines such as Graham’s cancer, Yaz being bullied, or a story about Rosa Parks work on a coherent level which resembles “real life” as closely as is possible, The Doctor must be stripped of the power to transform the fictional landscape and must be placed in to a landscape where a being with a magical box doesn’t belong. And thus we must accept that the magical box or The Doctor have no power in this landscape."

I think that's on point. I love that reading.

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Voord 99 5 days, 21 hours ago

I agree with a great deal of what people are saying in this thread.

But I have a sense that this discordance could be productive and interesting if handled more effectively — which would probably have to start with stories that betrayed more awareness that it was there in the first place.

It’s part of this feeling that I have that there’s quite a lot about the Chibnall era that *could* be good, things that, if one described them on paper to someone who had never seen, you know, actual Chibnall Doctor Who, might sound very promising.

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Mike 5 days, 19 hours ago

The thing is, in the hands of someone who is doing a conscious inversion and/or critique of Doctor Who I’m fairly sure it could be fairly interesting.

I mean, the obvious point of reference would be Torchwood which is a “gritty adult drama” about a bunch of ordinary people, where as part of their lives extraordinary things happen as part of the job, but then they just get on with their ordinary lives. The other obvious point is that in order for this to work Russell T. Davies made a conscious choice to ground Jack Harkness by having The Doctor deactivate his ability to time travel - the magic box had to be removed from the game - obviously in any show with sci-fi elements the magic box can be written back into play with a line if the plot requires it (or there’s a special coming up), but the point is, in order for the characters to be grounded in the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, then they must to paraphrase the line in Time of the Doctor be subject to the ordinary human consequences of missing birthdays and restaurant bookings - people getting upset or angry at them. If they miss their favourite TV show, they have to go back and watch iPlayer.

The problem is, Chibnall doesn’t get this, he wants to have his cake and eat it. He’s writing a show where he’s practically insisting the characters must be subject to the reality of what he perceives as ordinary life. They have to deal with the consequences of missed birthdays and restaurant bookings. They have to watch iPlayer. Things are what they are and can’t be changed, but at the same time he wants to keep the magic box which can go anywhere and do anything, and he keeps telling us The Doctor is extraordinary. And this is central to the stupidity of his vision of the show, you just can’t do both.

With his vision as it stands, you can have, at best, a poor man’s version of Quantum Leap, where the “magic box” is just a conceit to drop a person into a different “real life” situation every week but there’s no real agency whatsoever as time-travel is subject to the whims of fate just like in ordinary life. (This is the point of irritation for long time viewers who recognise how absurd this proposition actually is in terms of the context of Doctor Who).

At worst - the path we’re on now - you have a show which is past being in conflict, and is now actively rejecting its own central premise, but wants to maintain the “hollow shell” (and it’s actually indicative on some level that in recent episodes, the interior of the TARDIS is no longer visible in external shots of the box whilst the doors are open) of Doctor Who. For all the show keeps telling us that The Doctor is extraordinary, it’s fairly difficult to see how. She’s at best a kind of embodiment of automated capitalism: all she’s really there to do is press a button and pull a lever and then the machine does the rest and drops them off in a new location every week to play out the kind of “real life” which The Doctor has no agency in.

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Przemek 5 days, 19 hours ago

"Things are what they are and can’t be changed, but at the same time he wants to keep the magic box which can go anywhere and do anything"

This is precisely why using the TARDIS to solve your plot is dangerous: because the more you do it, the more obvious it becomes that the TARDIS should logically be able to solve almost any plot. That's one of the reasons why the classic series made the magic box broken and unpredictable: so that the Doctor couldn't rely on it to save the day.

Last week I almost laughed out loud when Yaz and the Doctor were arguing about going back to the warehouse to get the alien device and the Doctor said "There is no time!"... while literally standing in front of a time machine. But then I realized the show always did this. It's why RTD gave us the "I have to stay relative to the Master" line in "The End of Time": to make the "the Doctor arrived too late to stop the Master" plot work by preventing our hero from using the TARDIS to correct his mistake. But somehow, because Chibnall insists on making DW more "realistic" while simultaneously messing with the established rules of time travel, I notice it more now.

"it’s actually indicative on some level that in recent episodes, the interior of the TARDIS is no longer visible in external shots of the box whilst the doors are open"

Oooh, I love that symbolism. It's also worth noticing that in the Chibnall era, it became very easy for the monsters/entities to enter the TARDIS. We've seen that in "Kerblam!", "Spyfall" and "Can You Hear Me?". We're a long way away from "The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn't get through that door, and believe me, they've tried".

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Mike 5 days, 18 hours ago

I don’t disagree with your point. I’m not actually suggesting that the TARDIS should be used to resolve certain plot points. I was really trying to make more of a broader point about what kind of show Doctor Who has been and the capabilities at its disposal. And that’s where I think it’s important we make a distinction with what you’re saying about “not noticing it a lot more.” And I think that boils down to the fact that we the viewers are more than happy to accept that The Doctor won’t use this particular cheat code to resolve a plot, and actually don’t really want The Doctor too. We as viewers however remain open to the possibility and understand that the capacity to do this is still implicit in the premise of what kind of show it is. The reason this has not been “noticeable” in any conscious sense is that there is an implicit understanding that The Doctor and/or friends will be able to resolve the plot in what amounts to an equally satisfactory manner. Because that’s the kind of show it is. We’re aware on whatever level that we’re watching a show about a being who is quite literally not captive to history. It’s a show about someone who by entering the story brings an indefinite number of possibilities into play, we know it’s only a matter of time before The Doctor does something clever and makes everything okay and if all else fails, there’s always the time machine as a last resort (which again we don’t really want The Doctor to use), but we’re happy to accept The Doctor isn’t going to need it anyway, because we have an understanding.

It’s not about someone who is becoming increasingly defined by pruning the tree of possibilities into an unassailable vision of “this is how things have always been, and this is how they have to stay.” And with this understanding in mind, I must say, this is the first version of the character I’ve seen where we’re actually dropping into the mode of wishing to succumb to the temptation of wanting the last resort. Certainly, in no other era and there’s plenty of moments where it might be plausible have I found myself basically saying, “USE THE F****** TIME MACHINE.” And with that, certainly for me, this particular vision of Doctor Who is beyond the pale.

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Przemek 5 days, 17 hours ago

Sorry, I should've made myself clearer - I agree wholeheartedly with your previous comment (and with this one as well), I was just offering some additional thoughts on the matter. I agree that Chibnall's "realistic drama" approach clashes violently with the "magic box" premise, and the show is worse for it.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

"But, of course, in the real-world television show, she can't do that, because frankly that would come across as very flippant and disrespectful to the victims of cancer"

People keep saying that, but is this really true? I don't think it's the same as Superman saving the Twin Towers.

I mean, the whole point of DW is that the companions get to have experiences that are impossible for us. Rose's father died when she was young, but DW magic was able to reunite her with him in a different dimension. Did that upset people who lost their fathers?

People have died of cancer in my family, but I really wouldn't be upset if Graham found a sci-fi cure for his.

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Przemek 5 days, 22 hours ago

But what would that mean for the viewers? We don't have a cure for cancer. To show a sci-fi one is just wish fulfillment. Which can be nice as a bit of escapist fantasy, sure. But escapist fantasies in general can do two things for us: help us forget about the real world for a time and teach us something that can be used in the real world. The best ones do both. That's what the RTD and Moffat eras did for me: they gave me a wonderful world to hide in when my life was shitty, but they also taught me, among other things, that things can get better, wounds can heal and we can always be reborn. When I started therapy, "Doctor Who" was one of the things that kept giving me hope that I can work through my problems. But crucially, it didn't teach me that I should wait for the TARDIS to land on my doorstep and give me a better life. There was a clear message: the Doctor is fictional, but you can still learn from him and use that knowledge in the real world.

Compare that to a sci-fi cure for cancer. It can make you feel better for a time: oh, so one day we will cure cancer, yay! But then what? What are you left with when the warm feeling subsides? Are you better equipped to deal with cancer in the real world? At best you get a vague hope that maybe if you wait, someone will come up with a cure. But it doesn't give you anything you can act upon.

It's like reading Yudkowsky's infamous "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality". Hooray, the brilliant main character has found a magical way to stop death! And the story claims that we can do that in the real world too, using rationality and science! Great! Except that's just not true. And even if it were, the chance that we will find a cure for death within your lifespan is basically zero. The escapist fantasy does nothing to help you deal with the fear of dying and in fact can even make it worse.

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Przemek 6 days, 20 hours ago

When one is trapped in this darkest timeline where the only new Doctor Who to watch is Chibnall's Doctor Who, it's only natural to find oneself alternating between Stockholm syndrome and pure despair. But it's interesting to see that fellow prisoners alternate between these extremes at different points than me. For me "Fugitive of the Judoon" was the breaking point this season - because the reveal of the Ruth(Less) Doctor made me realize the Chibnall era is not just going to limp along quietly for a few more years, giving us the chance to forget it once it's done. No, it's going to Make A Statement and Leave A Mark because Chibnall believes he can tackle things like a secret incarnation of the Doctor with the same amount of thought and skill as Steven Moffat. And that just fucking broke me.

On the other hand, I found "Can You Hear Me?" to be very engaging and surprisingly entertaining. Which is clearly Stockholm syndrome because I can't really disagree with your review and yet I still like this episode. It had nothing to say about mental ilness, but it had good visuals (I LOVED the creepy fingers), a nice pace, location-hopping that worked, some interesting ideas and an intriguing mystery that actually managed to pique my interest. It's been so, so long since that happened and that little bit of mouldy food was enough to sustain me after years of starvation.

I think this episode offers a glimpse of a version of the Chibnall era that might have worked. And it manages that with a single trick: giving characters interiority. Barely any interiority, of course (the Doctor still gets none), but it's enough to make the episode at least give the impression of being about the main characters and their inner lives. Thirteen's companions have always been cyphers, empty boxes with faces painted on them. Put something, anything in those boxes and the episode benefits immensely. Shame they didn't realize that before...

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

But we still don't know if Ruth!Doctor is going to be a Huge Thing and a full-blown secret Doctor, etc.

And I think many of the good aspects of Fugitive (IMO, the best parts, actually) had nothing to do with Ruth!Doctor and actually happened before the revelation. So I think Fugitive is a good episode regardless of what it does with the lore.

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Przemek 5 days, 18 hours ago

Well, I don't really care about the lore. I think messing with it is fine as long as it allows the writer to tell great stories that couldn't be told otherwise. And I just don't believe Chibnall is capable of telling great stories. For me Chibnall doing "secret/parallel incarnation of the Doctor" is akin to Chibnall deciding the TARDIS should be red instead of blue. Sure, you can do it if you want, but does the story benefit from it? Or are you just driving nails with a bar of gold?

I think the episode itself might've been good, but I was unable to appreciate it for several reasons, including the one I mentioned above.

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Derek Hargreaves 6 days, 18 hours ago

You said>" 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"

"All" suggests it's not just "in this instance". Has it taken everything up to an including this instance for you to acknowledge it?,A lot of people (and not just assholes, and not just right-wingers) have been complaining about it since pretty much the first airing. (Anyone complaining about it before the airing, they're assholes, obviously.)

It's even more infuriating because this coincides with casting a woman as the Doctor, so it's depressingly easy for the casual viewer (who knows little and cares less about writers) to conclude that all this crap is BECAUSE it's a woman.

You said>"We’re doing it because Chibnall has concluded that what the hip kids want is “woke” television."

Where "hip kids" is "BBC Management", and Chibnall doesn't really know what "woke" means or why it matters. He's got a tick list:
- woman
- brown people
- disability
- pacifism
etc.
He's ticked the boxes and he wants a cookie.

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Alan 6 days, 10 hours ago

IIRC, after El's review of "The Woman Who Fell," I made the comment that the casting seemed like a GamerGater's parody of what a "woke Doctor Who" cast would be like. In addition to the female Doctor, you had (1) the older retired man, recently widowed (from an interracial marriage!) who is also a cancer survivor (2) the young black man with a disability, and (3) the young WOC who was struggling with her job in a predominantly male field. /Of course/ Yaz is also a victim of bullying! Sure, why not?!? I'm still amazed none of the cast has come out as LGBT.

I stand by my belief that Chibnall is, in fact, quite conservative, and all this rot is him attempting to deliver what a conservative /thinks/ is a liberal viewpoint.

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Lambda 6 days ago

Describing someone who has destroyed countless galaxies in the past, wearing a "German" uniform (urgh) as a "new low" is just the sort of thing which “virtue signalling" accusing right-wingers libel us as doing.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 6 days, 9 hours ago

I think "in this instance" means "in the wide context of virtual signalling accusations, in the instance of Chibnall Who..."

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Derek Hargreaves 5 days, 18 hours ago

Ah yes, that makes sense.

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Andrew 6 days, 16 hours ago

I can't disagree with the criticisms here and yet I enjoyed this episode. Its one flaw was a certain lack of "epicness" - a captured God and her partner's eons long quest to keep her alive and eventually free her, and the the Doctor having to capture them again should have felt like a real struggle. Instead everything is resolved with a couple of flicks of the screwdriver in about 15 minutes.

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Christopher Brown 6 days, 2 hours ago

Yikes. I can really feel the struggle to drag interestingness out of the episodes with this one. Here’s hoping the next three give you plenty of conceptual substance to hate on, at least.

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Derek Hargreaves 5 days, 18 hours ago

You said>"I'm still amazed none of the cast has come out as LGBT"

I was going to say that there's a glimmer of positivity that Chibnall may consider LGBT identification as such a non-issue he hasn't bothered to tick /that/ box, considering probably that the show to date has normalised it so much it goes without saying.

But for me one of the most egregious moments of the Chibnall era (against a LOT of STIFF competition) has to be the security guard whose entire role was to pop up, mention his boyfriend, and get immediately killed. Attitude to gay characters has changed, and not for the more progressive.

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