Timestamp #299: Can You Hear Me?

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Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me?
(1 episode, s12e07, 2020)

Timestamp 299 Can You Hear Me

A voice in the darkness is not always a good sign.

In Aleppo, Syria, circa 1380, a young woman runs through the city. An older woman named Maryam lets Tahira seek refuge, chiding her for stealing as a misguided attempt to improve her mental health. Tahira fears things that will attack as she sleeps, and (sure enough) a creature grabs Maryam after nightfall. The large, hairy, and claw-handed creature doesn’t surprise Tahira.

In Sheffield, 2020, the Thirteenth Doctor delivers her team home. They agree to reconvene the next day, and as the companions leave, the TARDIS shorts out as a bald man briefly appears and then disappears. As Yaz, Ryan, and Graham catch up with their lives, the Doctor chases the phantom man to Aleppo.

She touches down in Bimaristan, one of the oldest hospitals in the world that focused on mental health. Disappointed that she won’t be sharing this adventure with her companions, the Doctor finds Tahira and the creature. The creature doesn’t register on the sonic screwdriver and runs away.

Back in 2020, the companions have strange encounters: Graham sees a white-haired woman in chains; Ryan’s friend Tibo describes recurring nightmares with a bald man, the same phantom who then kidnaps Tibo; and Yaz encounters the phantom after a dream.

The Doctor calms Tahira as she investigates the hospital. Tahira has been in the hospital for a few weeks, seeking safety as an orphan. The companions each call the Doctor and she takes Tahira to retrieve them. Along the way, she analyzes a hair she found in Aleppo and the TARDIS tells her that the hairs do not exist. She uses the telepathic circuits to take them to the woman Graham saw.

The TARDIS lands on a space station in the distant future, but the location is not what Graham saw. The station is in a geostationary orbit in an area that is no longer populated, and as the Doctor explores, the image Graham saw appears on a monitor. Two planets are colliding, stopped by a small geo orb with the woman inside.

Yaz finds an area covered in fingers sending signals to the woman in the geo orb. A quantum fluctuation lock keeps the woman trapped by changing combinations trillions of times a second. As the Doctor analyzes the technology, Tahira wanders off. She finds the bald man, several trapped people (including Tibo), and the creatures (which the man calls Chagaskas, conceived from the prisoner’s worst fears). When the companions arrive, the bald man uses his fingers to trap them inside dreams. Yaz dreams of Sonya on a deserted stretch of road, Ryan sees an elderly Tibo and the Dregs from Orphan 55, and Graham finds himself going through chemotherapy with his doctor, Grace, who asks why he didn’t save her.

The Doctor continues to work as the bald man approaches her. He calls himself Zellin, which the Doctor recognizes as a mythical name from another universe. As an eternal, Zellin has been playing games to amuse himself, even name-checking fellow Eternal The Toymaker in the process. An alarm sounds, indicating that the woman in the prison has been freed, but this is all part of the game. The woman is another eternal named Rakaya and has been playing the same game as Zellin. The game involves the two planets, their populations, and a gamble of which will be destroyed first in the ensuing carnage. The populations trapped Rakaya as they each faced their own demise.

The Doctor is trapped as the Eternals begin a siege against Earth. The Doctor dreams of the Master’s Timeless Child story, waking when she somehow summons her sonic screwdriver and frees herself, her companions, and the prisoners. The Doctor realizes that the Chagaskas are elements of Tahiri’s dreams and works on a plan to defeat the Eternals.

The Doctor’s team returns to Aleppo and summons the Eternals to join them. Using Zellin’s floating fingers and Rakaya’s quantum lock, she traps the Eternals in prison to live with nightmares for eternity. She then returns everyone to their proper places and times.

Tibo finally sleeps well and attends a group therapy session after learning about Ryan’s travels. Yaz reflects on a bet she made with a police officer named Anita – Yaz had planned to run away three years earlier, but Sonya called the police out of concern. Anita made a deal that if Yaz’s life improved in three years, Yaz would pay her 50p. Otherwise, if Anita was wrong, she’d pay Yaz £50 – and then meets with Anita to pay her end of the bargain.

Finally, Graham confides in the Doctor about his fear of cancer returning. The Doctor has no idea how to respond, but Graham is happy to have talked to someone about it. Meanwhile, Yaz and Ryan discuss their mutual concerns about their lives with the Doctor. They’re interrupted as the Doctor gets excited about Frankenstein and sets course for a new adventure.

The family grows closer by confronting their fears, and even though the Doctor couldn’t display her concern to the satisfaction of some fans, the team is stronger for it. I found her response genuine: The Doctor is a beacon of compassion and empathy, but remember that her immediate predecessor needed cue cards to navigate human emotions. Many of the Doctor’s previous incarnations were more in touch with their companions, but even the First Doctor faced his granddaughter’s future by locking her out and saying goodbye through the TARDIS.

The Doctor may be an alien, but this echoes how humans handle major diagnoses and death. Reactions aren’t uniform, but they include shock, disbelief, anxiety, sadness, and loss of control, all of which (and more) the Doctor is processing in the wake of the Master’s revelation about Gallifrey.

Another tick in the plus column for this episode is the story twist. The woman’s voice in the darkness is a common trope involving heroes riding to the rescue of a damsel in distress. It’s a form of the Chronic Hero Syndrome trope, where every wrong in the line of sight must be righted, and it’s used to great effect against the heroes in this story. The eternal villains give credit to the Celestial Toymaker and the Guardians (setting up their power for fans of the classic era), and are defeated by their own means like so many of the villains in Doctor Who.

That resolution felt a bit rushed (as most Chibnall era resolutions have) but the coda showcasing the fears and growth of each companion was a good reason to shortchange the heroic huzzah.

Finally, in a meta nod to the story’s title, I loved the Doctor talking to herself at length with no one around. Can you hear me?, indeed.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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