Doctor Who - Season 12, Episode 7: Can You Hear Me? - Reviewed

As Doctor Who season 12 continues with a string of one very strong episode after another, it feels safe to say that Chris Chibnall has really hit his stride as a showrunner – and a distinct trend is emerging that might reveal where his strength lies. I've said in past reviews that Chibnall is an uneven writer, but it would appear that he is an excellent collaborator, and at his best as a showrunner when he has strong writing partners. Can You Hear Me? is the third episode in a row that he co-wrote with someone else, and all three have been very good ones. Until the season's special features emerge on blu-ray and DVD we may not know exactly how these collaborations worked: was Chibnall there to guide the season arc and write the material providing the through-lines, while the other writers handled the standalone plot elements, or is each episode developed as a whole between both writers? Whatever the method, though, the results have been great: Can You Hear Me? is another excellent, ambitious tale with many layers, all of which work very well.

Across time and space, a mysterious robed figure is probing into people's brains and amplifying their nightmares. From 14th century Syria to present-day Sheffield to an ominous space station in the far future, this strange man is leaving a trail of carnage and damaged psyches without a clear motive – except that he is clearly targeting The Doctor and her friends. As they set out to unravel the mysteries, each member of the TARDIS “fam” also finds themselves plunged into their own worst fears and anxieties, and the result is both a very strong mix of sci-fi and psychological horror, and a very human story about mental health struggles. Without being overly heavy-handed the episode works very well as a story about how psychological struggles and mental health issues are an integral part of the human condition, whether people are willing to face those realities or not, and the character arcs in the episode are very grounded in reality. The sci-fi/horror aspects of the episode, on the other hand, are fantastically surreal and out-there, with some very well-shot dream sequences, and eerie imagery. The nightmare-manipulating villain (Ian Gelder, from Torchwood: Children of Earth) with his very creepy visual motif of detachable fingers with minds of their own is particularly good.

This villain also gives a new spin on some fan-favorite elements of Doctor Who lore. While not explicitly a returning character himself, he is very clearly based on a small but memorable string of villains from throughout the original and new series. These villains are mysterious reality-bending figures who appear to be explicitly supernatural (or at least not of our reality) in nature, whose powers are immense and whose motives appear to be simply to sew chaos for their own amusement. The first of such villains on Doctor Who was the 1st-Doctor-era cult favorite the Celestial Toymaker, played by Alfred himself, Michael Gough. Then there was the Black Guardian, who was the big bad in both the 4th Doctor's season 16 and the 5th Doctor's season 20. The Dream Lord, played by Toby Jones in new-series season 5's Amy's Choice, appears to fit the bill as well, although his origins went unexplained in that episode's cryptic final moments. Gelder's villain in this episode makes a perfect, very ominous addition to their ranks, even if he is more of a spiritual successor than an explicit, direct sequel.

While Can You Hear Me? may be a standalone episode, the way in which it taps into the psychology of all four main characters allows it to propel their personal arcs forward, and makes this feel like an important episode in their stories. It also gives all four leads good moments to shine, and again underscores just what a solid TARDIS team they have grown into. Between the multiple layers on which this story works, and how well it showcases what this era does best, this episode is definitely a winner, and continues season 12's streak of high-quality episodes. This will likely end up being a fan favorite from this season, and deservedly so.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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