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12 February 2020: Can You Hear Me review added.
5 February 2020: Praxeus review added.
29 January 2020: Fugitive Of The Judoon review added.
22 January 2020: Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror review added.
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CAN YOU HEAR ME
We’re not angry, just disappointed. So very disappointed.
Because this actually starts quite well. Aleppo in the fourteenth century? Intriguing! Back to Earth to catch up with the companions’ real lives? OK, then! Creepy detachable-finger guy? Why not? A jump into the far future? Excellent!
And it’s far from all bad, either. There’s some really lovely character work, especially on characters like Yaz who have thus far been woefully underdeveloped. But overall, the episode falls far short of its promising beginning.
What happened here? Charlene James is an award-winning playwright and we think it’s a safe bet that she can string a story together. But she’s not the only writer with a credit, and we think the most likely scenario is that Chris Chibnall hacked it into pieces. Because it has all the bad, bad, very bad hallmarks of his work.
Like we said, the beginning is fun and for once succeeds in being intriguing. What’s going on in Aleppo with all the screaming and the delightfully crap monsters and that? What’s the mysterious Thing Yaz and her sister are talking about? Who’s the blonde having a chat with Graham? Why is Yaz standing in the middle of a deserted road next to a cop? AND WHO THE HELL IS MR FLYING FINGERS????
All good stuff: we were actually invested for once. But ungghhh. That’s it. It’s all downhill from there. From the moment we jump into the again agreeably crap far future set (so nostalgic!), it’s all got that horrific Chibnall touch. It’s really hard to pin down exactly exactly how they do it, and believe us we’ve tried, but instead of a proper plot with light, shade and pacing, everything’s delivered at exactly the same pace with exactly the same value given to everything that’s happening. Which results in a story that’s merely some events.
And as well as that, everything has a curious flatness. Rakaya comes from the fourteenth century and barely blinks at the sight of the TARDIS. What’s more, this is the end of the universe, for God’s sake. It’s not the first time we’ve been here in Doctor Who, but it’s by far the least impressive: not because of the dreadful set, but because nobody reacts, at all, to being in a time where everything they’ve known is gone for good. It’s another day at the office for the Doctor, but it certainly isn’t for the companions, and yet they’re utterly unmoved. That’s what happens when you have one short episode and far too many companions: if you saw them all reacting, it’d take up half the episode. But without it, nothing lands.
On top of that, we have a plot which relies on people being stupid. Even more unforgivably, it’s the Doctor being stupid. It was obvious from the start that the woman pathetically beseeching Graham for help was in fact a baddie, and it’s fine that Graham falls for it, because it echoes Grace asking him why he didn’t save her. If there’s another woman who needs saving, by God Graham’s going to step up.
The Doctor, however, doesn’t have this going on, and moreover, she’s supposed to be brilliant. Yet she doesn’t even question the situation without going ahead and letting Blondie out. Clearly someone had gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to get her in there in the first place, so just springing her without even considering why she might be in there makes the Doctor look like a moron. She even knows it's a prison! What’s more, she practically swan dives into the trap the immortals have set, assuming Digit Boy is Blondie’s jailer. When Digit Boy says “You are so much lesser”, we can’t disagree with him. And that’s not how you want to be thinking of the Doctor.
So who are these immortals, anyway? Are we going to discover their story through telling actions woven into the plot? Nope, just through telling. The animation is both a WTF moment and an insufficient screen for the fact that it’s a massive infodump. Lovely. It’s like being at the movies and suddenly the screen rolls up and you find yourself in the middle of a TED talk. There’s just no room in this short episode to do the immortals justice, but this is no answer.
And since we barely know them, we don’t really care about them either. They’re going to Earth to steal all the nightmares? Knock yourself out. Meanwhile the Doctor engineers the most irritating escape ever, which we’re not going to dignify with further comment, and bam, three seconds later and with ten minutes to go the villains are back in the snowglobe. Well, that was underwhelming. It’s almost as if they’re just a blindingly transparent vehicle for a discussion about mental health concerns…wait! We’re back with the mental health concerns! Who could have seen that coming?
Call us stone cold bitches, but when everyone starting rolling out their various problems, one of us said “If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme…” and we all fell about. Then they put up a support line at the end and we all fell about again. Is this because we find the mental health issues they portray hilarious? Nah. Clearly, mental health is an important issue that richly deserves attention (not to mention resources) and hopefully someone somewhere was helped by watching this. Even if we’d prefer it if they it didn’t script it so thuddingly obviously. But do they have to cram in quite so many Issues at once? It’s forty-nine minutes! Yet they seem to feel they have to throw in the deepest fears of all of the (substantial) TARDIS team plus a random guest. In fact, we felt If You Have Been Affected would have been a much more accurate title than the somewhat feeble Can You Hear Me. When they put up the action line number at the end, we were like, for which one? Depression? Bullying? Fear? It’s a mental health pick and mix. And flinging in so many devalues all of them. How much more effective would this episode have been if they’d picked one, stuck with it and treated it with a bit more subtlety? It's not like they can't do it: just look at Amy's Choice, one of our favourite episodes ever. On second thoughts, don't. It's too depressing.
Anyway. With an almost palpable sense of relief, the episode shrugs off all that SFery and metaphor and yaps about everyone’s problems head-on. Some of it’s intriguing (Yaz! With some characterisation at last!), some of it’s way earnest (the depression people), and some of it is just…horrible. That’s Graham and the Doctor we’re talking about. Graham decides to confess his fear about his cancer returning to the Doctor: we know he’s not sure who else to turn to, but his choice of the Doctor is a bit eyebrow-raising. At the best of times the Doctor is hardly the person you’re going to turn to with your personal problems: they’re normally too busy thinking about a riot going on on Jupiter or when they can next sneak in a trip to the Eye of Orion. But in this case, it’s even worse. Clearly, Chibnall has decided that as well as being massively dependent on her companions (hardly a Time Lord trait normally, but we reluctantly concede it’s in his purview to decide this even if we hate it), she is socially awkward. So much wrong with this. First of all, and let’s get this out of the way, the Doctor has the tech or can take Graham to the tech to remove this problem permanently. More importantly: none of the Doctors behave socially like humans do, that teensy little fact of them not being human getting in the way there. Classing this as “socially awkward” is teeth-grittingly reductive, human-centric and just plain wrong. What’s more, in order to show us that the Doctor is socially awkward, does Chibnall show her behaving in this way in various situations so we realise that’s the sitch? In a pig’s eye. Instead, he has the Doctor say, and we can barely believe we’re writing this, “I’m socially awkward”. We want to scream and throw things.
Too many companions (what, in the end, does Tahira add other than another educational lecture, this time about the state of mental health treatment in old Aleppo?). Villains with way too little space for development. Smack you in the face handling of issues which would have come across much more effectively with a lighter hand. And a stupid Doctor. We suspect this script started in a much better place, but after the Chibnall treatment, it’s a decided fail.
Don’t they love the detached finger effect? It’s fun once or twice, but please, let’s not overdo. What’s more, Finger Dude only seems to use one at once. Where do the others disappear to?
NOW YOU SEE IT
Ryan is expertly videogaming with his friend. Um, isn’t he supposed to have dyspraxia? This is a truly awful representation of disability: mention it a couple of times at the beginning, ignore it when it’s convenient, then quietly forget about it. And they say Doctor Who is the most woke programme on TV.
Like we said, once we get past the setup there’s just one pace in this: relentless. As a result, the scenes with Yaz standing on the deserted road really have an impact, as almost by accident they’re the only time the pace eases off. Man, what a relief. And the other moment that’s a true success? Grace asking, with some venom, why Graham didn’t save her. It’s so much more effective than if she’d whimpered it pathetically, and it blew our socks off.