With spoilers for Doctor Who up to the episode Can You Hear Me?, a few thoughts on how the most recent adventure ended.
Spoilers lie ahead for Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me?
The latest episode of Doctor Who series 12 was an intriguing one. In a series run that’s already felt far more confident than the one before, Can You Hear Me?, penned by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall (and directed by Emma Sullivan) crammed a lot of ingredients in. And that’s over and above the enormity of ingredients the show juggles on a weekly basis.
The adventure took Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, Bradley Walsh’s Graham, Mandip Gill’s Yasmin and Rosin Cole’s Ryan initially in different directions, but over the course of the episode to Aleppo in Syria in 1380. Then to a space platform. Then to the TARDIS. Oh, and some of them went to Sheffield too.
I enjoyed the episode, but also, was quite taken with the fact that it effectively finished ten minutes early for a chat. Doctor Who doesn’t do this very often. I remember going back to Boom Town in the first series of the revived show, that it felt like a nice, long chunter, and that in itself was unusual.
Here, though, the chat was – admittedly hardly subtlety – about mental health. A deliberate, overt conversation, complete with the BBC offering resources as the end credits rolled.
The lack of subtlety, though, doesn’t particularly bother me. Sure, it would have been better, narratively, if Yasmin’s particular moment of back story had been seeded in an earlier episode, rather than being presented and addressed in the space of five minutes. It didn’t make the sentiment any less valid.
Likewise, Ryan reconnecting with friends, presenting the constant companion dilemma of losing time and changing whilst their network of friends and family all but stay still in time.
But the one that’s not left my head was the Doctor’s conversation with Graham. I’m a huge fan of the character, not least because of the portrayal of him by Bradley Walsh. But there’s a heavy emotional grounding to him, courtesy of the loss of his wife, Grace. And also, the fear that his own cancer will return.
Thus, we got a quiet, could have heard a pin drop conversation, where he opened up to the Doctor about his fears. About living with the knowledge that his cancer could come back, even though it hasn’t. That it’s always with him. He bravely had an incredibly difficult conversation.
And the Doctor walked away.
A fairly stark walking away too. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor openly expressing that she was struggling with the conversation, and was edging over to the TARDIS console to press some buttons.
It was a bold choice. But was it the right one?
Doctor Who, after all, has a platform and has an audience. The reveal that Ryan has dyspraxia at the start of series 11 remains of huge importance to me. That characters in shows particularly such as this are looked up to, and/or people relate to them. That Doctor Who addressed dyspraxia and normalised it in a non-showy way? I though that was something.
What Can Your Hear Me? did was, in a roundabout way, normalise the difficult conversation. That whilst Yasmin’s mini-arc there had a start, middle and end, Graham effectively talking about his own mortality didn’t. It just had the start and middle.
I do think, being a boring middle-aged old fart, that Doctor Who has a responsibility to follow through on the conversations it’s trying to have, and it’s traditionally very good at that. Here it wasn’t. But was that the point? Was the message here that we don’t have to have a perfect answer for everything? That it’s okay to struggle to engage with a difficult conversation? That life isn’t all neatly tied off passages of dialogue before moving onto the next scene?
I certainly think there’s an argument for that, but I’ve also been very taken by the response from people who needed the Doctor to say something. To offer some brighter humanity (appreciating she’s an alien, has multiple hearts etc). I don’t want to name the person directly, but I do want to make their point. I had a Twitter exchange where someone argued that they, as a person who suffers with anxiety, health issues and depression, relates to Graham, And when he started the difficult process of opening up and pouring out his heart to the Doctor? Her response “broke my heart”. They explained that “my childhood hero couldn’t offer him anything”.
And I found it hard to argue with that too. That the episode left this person really upset as a consequence. That the show was on the cusp of offering some reassurance. Something positive, an olive branch of light. Something. And it didn’t.
I do think it’s important to show that some conversations it’s okay to not be comfortable having. There’s not one of us who hasn’t gone through chats like that.
But also, there was an opportunity to offer something, some support from the middle of space for what Graham – and those who look up to or relate to Graham – are going through. It’s not for me to dictate how others respond. For me, I did just want to feel that the Doctor was a bit more on Graham’s side there, especially given the gravity of what’s being discussed.
I do still think that, however it went about it, Doctor Who did something really important this past weekend. That I know it comes in for criticism when it offers the hand of friendship and support, but I think the pros comfortably the vast majority of times outweigh the cons. And the truth is that the Doctor – effectively suffering for a change (and there did seem some variance of her character there) from some kind of social anxiety of her own – was giving an utterly relatable response. A Doctor too who, when it comes to human medical matters, is nowhere near the heroic levels of an actual doctor.
I do understand too that this is one episode in a series run, and it may be an issue the show returns to. That I may be taking it a little out of context. But then, this was the context is was given to us in to digest and take in now. And as such, I just wish the Doctor had offered Graham something a little more.
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