What you have to love about Doctor Who is it has never been afraid of tackling difficult subjects and the other week during Children’s Mental Health Week a timely episode dropped into our televisual post-boxes as the “ Fam” returned to Sheffield to visit friends and family. It is following a pattern set in the last series where after a number of adventures our companions touched in with the home. “Can You Hear Me” was a far more introverted tale with a complete change of pace from the previous week’s episode rather than a global adventure.
Episode 7 Gods, monsters and nightmares.
Drawing on a tradition of myths and mythical creatures
Since I was a little girl I’ve always loved the Greek stories written by classical authors such as Homer about gods located on Mount Olympus who oversaw and guided the lives of mortal humans. Drawing on beliefs of the time in worshipping multiple gods, to ensure a blessed life mortals would be given quests to complete. Stories would show these mortals being tested where human frailties would displease the gods in some way who would punish them. In this episode we no longer have humans worshipping gods but immortals still exist of a similar stature Zellin and Rakaya dispensing their own brand of “injustice” creating nightmares for immoral amusement. As the Doctor points out at one point these beings have a sense of entitlement and have entirely lost any connection with the mortals they tower over.
I do love the idea of having immortals in Doctor Who, especially discovering a pecking order where Immortals need “our games” as “Eternity is long” It adds a structure to the Who universe and there was a nice call back to classic Who in this episode as the Eternals, the Guardians and the Toymaker got a mention.
If there is a downside the run time didn’t give much opportunity to see either of them at work menacing the Earth populace in any major way. Gods and Immortals need to show their power. Zellin was second fiddle to Rakaya played by Clare Hope Ashitey which was a mistake. She is a local girl from my part of London and I’m loath to say but found her quite wooden as Rakaya compared to Ian Keller. The script didn’t give her a lot of development to be fair as she only played a part as the bait to draw the Doctor to her prison. Zellin was however played in a very creepy way by Ian Gelder who I thought completely inhabited his role, menacing Yaz and Ryan’s friend Tibo during sleep. I loved how he would appear suddenly, dressed in robes, like a Roman statesman in various bedrooms. Imagine being a little girl reassured by her mum there isn’t a bogeyman and Ian Keller appears with tattoos.
It is the stuff of nightmares especially at night wherein the dark fears are heightened. I would have been terrified especially if he had appeared and not said anything. That would have been even more creepy but we have to remember the time the programme goes out. I liked that Zellin mentioned that the humanoid structure wasn’t his form creating black smoke when he disappeared. I haven’t mentioned yet the dissected fingers which were such as a disturbing idea. I liked the imagery of fingers in the ear as in religious terms fingers, connected to hands have represented power. I think as fingers flew through the air a few times over the episode the image did lose some of its power and probably became slightly comical.
The mental health angle
As someone who had depression as a teenager then intermittently in their twenties and worked their way through I didn’t pick up the mental health message strongly enough on first viewing. Maybe it was because I watched with another Who fan where new episodes go through a kind of shared expectation filter. Your personal experience becomes diluted so I did have a slight surprise when the BBC action line came up at the end. I usually only see it after episodes of Casualty and EastEnders so I had to rewatch the episode again as I felt I had missed bits of the episode. On second viewing, I think I appreciated the themes of the episodes far more although it isn’t typical Doctor Who material as a rule.
Tibo was the male character affected by depression. Meeting Ryan’s best pal Tibo allowed for a nice contrast between the two young men and I liked their close relationship. Ryan is normally the shyest of the group within the confines of the Tardis so a positive development was seeing him in relaxed surroundings in his home town with people he knew. Ryan’s kind caring side came out as he tried to support his depressed friend, who seemed to be struggling through normal life. It was such a good step later and a message of hope to see Tibo talking to a group of men at the end of the episode where they were all showing solidarity with each other’s feelings. Mental illness is something that people don’t talk enough about and sharing experiences is so important.
Of course, this is Doctor Who so sci-fi villains are to blame for the nightmares shown but in reality, people’s anxieties or stress won’t be caused by an Immortal but by different contributing factors.
Development of the “Fam”
There were criticisms of series 11 that the companions didn’t get enough decent characterisation and thankfully this episode through the nightmares Zellin creates addresses that showing the inner life of our companions. Personally I would have liked to have seen this episode probably sooner in the run this series or even last year, especially for Yaz and Ryan. What it gave was a snapshot via their return to Sheffield of how much they were all changing since they started the journey with the Doctor. For Graham, you could sense when he was playing cards with his pals how much he is enjoying Tardis life as a replacement for the loneliness he would otherwise have felt like a widower. His health has been good so far too but his anxiety in the nightmare that his cancer had returned highlighted how much it is felt like a very real concern for people who have had the disease even with an all-clear.
I love how his anxiety was punctuated by a deliciously cold Sharon D Clarke, back as Grace, venomously hissing “Why didn’t you save me? “. Graham’s guilt was shown all over his face through the anguished “Let me try again”.As he is usually such a funny character I’d like to see a lot more of Graham’s inner turmoil shown. There was a lot of reaction to the scene where Graham talked to the Doctor about his fears about cancer and her awkward response. As a character where the Doctor has lived through regeneration and seen so many different things she could have said something more positive but I do understand the intention of the scene, which the BBC defended, of showing how difficult some people can find those types of conversation. I just never expected the Doctor to be that person given what we know over almost 60 years.
Mandip Gill really needed this episode to show her character’s motivation to be who she is. In series 11 although we met her family she felt the one without a decent reason to be there so it was good to see why Yaz become a policewoman and reveal the dynamic between her and her sister. Sonia is her little annoying sister usually but it was lovely to see Yaz and Sonia really do care about each other. If Sonia hadn’t called the police who knows where or what situation Yaz would be in today. The moment where Yaz gave the policewoman the 50 pence piece was such a fuzzy warm moment. Yaz can see change as a positive thing and she is growing in confidence throughout this series tackling things on her own.
Ryan, in contrast, seems to be in some kind of conflict over his travels in the Tardis, missing home, his friends, more than the others. A great point he made was how the travels in the Tardis are changing them all as people whereas his friends at home aren’t changing at the same rate. Ryan wanted to be connected to his old life more than the others and have those roots. It’s interesting that he was shown as scared of changing the visions of an old Tibo set in motion an idea that Ryan had his doubts. Is Ryan outgrowing the hustle-bustle of adventure the Tardis and set to leave?
Structure and Direction.
Years ago I read a fantasy book by one of my favourite authors Clive Barker called Weaveworld. It is about a magical world called the Fugue that is hidden inside a tapestry from both inquisitive humans and hostile supernatural foes. Two normal people become embroiled to protect the Fugue and it is beautifully written. I didn’t dislike this script as mixing fantastical elements and every day can work but I can understand why this episode has created a marmite reaction for people with a mixed reaction online.
There were some unnecessary elements within the story which distracted from a strong script. What does including Tahira, the visit to the medieval hospital the Birmaristan or the setting of Aleppo contribute really to the story? Seeing the fears and anxieties of the companions within this episode was such a positive I would have liked to have seen more of that and less of any supporting characters. The Chagaska could have belonged to one of the Tardis crew who then conquered their fear. I did also find some of the narrative choices such as the speed at which Yaz’s story unfolded made her story more difficult to follow than it should have been. I did like most of the direction of the story.
There were some interesting flourishes such as the animated story of the planets of how the inhabitants trapped Rakaya. Certain scenes such as how Zellin appeared in the bedrooms, the Tardis and the washed-out greyed out scenes for Graham’s nightmare, the appearance of the Dregs was really effective. Zellin’s dismembered fingers pouring sedative into the ear were also quite spooky to be fair. Oh, I also liked the split-screen used for the conference call.
There were definitely good ideas in the episode but too many elements thrown in which didn’t allow the script to flow as well as it could. The story and battle of the Immortals probably deserved a separate episode dedicated to them, without the issue of mental health included. However, I’m really pleased that Doctor Who has acknowledged there needs to be a conversation regarding the impact mental health issues have on an individual. Did its themes make an impression on you? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk.
Episode 7 Immortals pass through the story but the companions shine 7.35/ 10
P.S Has anyone commented yet that all the episodes have been set in some way on Earth?