Doctor Who review: A strange, messy mix of dreams and nightmares

Doctor Who season 12 continues with a wildly uneven but strangely compelling story about dreams, fear and the things that hide in dark corners.

“Can You Hear Me?” is going to be one of those episodes that divides Doctor Who viewers. And with good reason, to be honest.

It’s a weird, overstuffed hour that tries to do too much and therefore kind of succeeds at nothing. Yet, it’s still impossible to look away from, as the story ricochets from 14th century Syria to the far future, cramming in space werewolves, immortal god-like figures whose story is told via animated interlude, literal nightmare fuel and a modern day meditation on mental health all into the same hour.

Maybe this would have worked better as a two-parter? At the very least it probably should have picked a singular narrative lane.

Yet, “Can You Hear Me?” is also strangely intriguing even as it drops a ton of story threads in your lap that it never quite manages to fully resolve. It give us our most detailed look at the lives of Thirteen’s companions we’ve had since this particular group started running around together, which is both fascinating and a disturbing reminder that season 12 has done next to nothing with any of them.

The insertion of immortal nightmare gods Zellin and Rakaya feels campy and weird next to the more realistic dreams and depression of the human members of the story. But they both tie back into Doctor Who history in an intriguing way – see the Radio Times for a primer on Eternals, Guardians and the Toymaker – that the series hasn’t attempted in a long time, and the backstory of the god-like beings is told through a gorgeous animated sequence that’s like little we’ve seen on the show before.

Yet, as Big Bads go, they’re not terribly interesting. Their plans to steal all of humanity’s nightmares is a bit undercooked, and their presence meshes poorly with the storyline from 1380s Aleppo and a young girl who’s literally manifested her own nightmares. As much as I would fight someone for an actual episode set in 14th century Syria, there’s little reason for Tahir or her Chagaskas to even exist beyond to serve as a convenient plot device at the story’s end.

How much better would this episode have been had it just been about Tahir’s hospital and the ways that ancient Islamic doctors treated mental illness? Just thinking out loud….

Thanks to the constant nightmares, dream werewolves and disembodied fingers floating about, it’s hard to really decipher what we’re supposed to take away from the interludes with our three companions this week. Zellin’s dreams supposedly dig into his victim’s worst fears, which offers us some new and fairly intriguing perspectives on Ryan, Yaz and Graham.

Ryan is starting to miss home. Or, more accurately, he’s starting to wonder how long he and his friends can keep traveling with the Doctor while their real lives pass by without them on Earth. (His regret over missing out on his BFFs growing depression is both palpable and moving.) Graham, it turns out, is deeply afraid his cancer will return. (Which, honestly, isn’t that something the Doctor could sort of test or prevent with some TARDIS tech? Though I suppose Thirteen would at least have to be kind about his concerns first. ) And Yaz…well, I’m not entirely sure how we’re supposed to read this story with Yaz.

Though the episode’s convoluted format initially leads us all to believe there’s some dark history going on with the Khan family, Yaz’s nightmare actually seems to involve a time in her youth when she tried to run away and was comforted by a kind police officer who set her back on the right path. Why this is so traumatic for her is unclear. Perhaps it’s meant to make us question whether she’s reverting to old coping mechanisms for her dissatisfaction with her life by running away with the Doctor? It would make sense.

Maybe the real question of season 12 isn’t so much about the Doctor’s past but about her companions’ future. Is it time, perhaps, for some of Team TARDIS to head home for good?

Next: Doctor Who review: “Praxeus” offers a satisfying, if poorly placed, group adventure

Doctor Who continues next Sunday on BBC America.

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