The ‘inside your nightmares’ episode is a classic go-to science fiction conceit that many a show has used at one point or another. It’s understandable why, as the concept allows a writer to delve deep into their main character’s psyches and reveal new facets of them through a visual representation of their own inner fears (Doctor Who‘s pulled this trick once or twice over the years to excellent effect). The latest episode of Series 12 takes a crack of it with Can You Hear Me?, which sees the Doctor and her companions facing their fears whist investigating strange occurrences in Sheffield, ancient Syria and on a strange alien platform orbiting two crashing planets.
Charlene James‘ debut Who script (co-written with showrunner Chris Chibnall), Can You Hear Me? makes good use of its 50-minute runtime, flitting between past, present and future and weaving it all together in a cohesive manner, whilst ensuring that the pace never slows once. Likewise, it also manages to do something with Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin (Mandip Gill) for the first time this series, as the three companions face their fears within their own nightmares. None of what transpires reveals anything new or important about the characters, but the three actors handle these more intense and emotional moments extremely well (Walsh is particularly good in his scene with returning guest star Sharon D. Clarke, as is Gill in her respective scenes).
Behind all of these nightmares is Zellin (Ian Gelder), a malicious intergalactic immortal who enjoys inflicting nightmares on people throughout the cosmos for the sheer fun of it. Gelder cuts an imposing presence here as Zellin from the off, his scenes sparring with Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor crackling with superiority and unfettered cruelty, whilst his silent moments evoke genuine menace with just the slightest of wicked smiles. The result is a top-notch Who villain that we’d definitely like to see back for a rematch at some point.
Unfortunately, in terms of Zellin’s nightmares themselves, there is much to be desired here. The nightmare sequences feel rather dull and lifeless throughout, with no visual flair or psychedelic imagery used to convey the nightmare aspect of these scenes at all. All of them could so easily be mistaken for just a random flashback, they are that pedestrian. The animated sequence that accompanies Zellin’s backstory is a nice touch, so it’s a shame that the same visual inventiveness and imagination couldn’t have been applied to the key points of the story.
The focus on mental health also feels a tad forced, and never really plays into the plot much, aside for Ryan’s friend having a hard time of things and feeling upset at Ryan’s absence. It’s nice to see a mainstream show tackling such an important issue like mental health, but it kind of just feels like window-dressing in an otherwise unrelated adventure. The nightmare aspect could tie into this in much more clever ways, but the script keeps the elements mostly separate (which is a shame).
It’s through these issues that Can You Hear Me? ends up feeling like an episode halfway to the point of brilliance. The script throws in some great villains, plenty of interesting locations and a few nice character beats, whilst the production design and effects work is fantastic throughout. Unfortunately, the concept of the episode is never allowed to be as fantastical or as nightmarish as it should be, and the direction is rather average in terms of the visual moments. There’s some character interactions that don’t quite ring true either too – the Doctor failing to be assuring towards a troubled Graham in the last scene is utter tosh and not in keeping with the Doctor’s character at all – which does bring this excellent concept down considerably.
Hardly the stuff of nightmares, but not exactly a dream come true either.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Sunday. Be sure to check out our Series Blog and join us for our verdict of Episode 8.