What's your biggest fear? What's your greatest nightmare? These are questions Doctor Who has examined again and again, but they are still relevant. Because our fears, our nightmares, remain subjective and specific and a kind of terrifying that TV shows touch on but only in pieces, never fully hitting our entire terrors.
That's the space "Can You Hear Me?" exists within, like "The God Complex," our heroes' greatest fears. Our greatest fears, whether we recognize these individual elements of terror as our own or not. By invoking the concept of the personal nightmare, we fear. It's just a thing we do upon being told we should. That's how fear works; it is contagious in concept, devastating in the minutiae.
This is where "Can You Hear Me?", as written by playwright Charlene James, along with showrunner Chris Chibnall, exists — the space of universal fear and individual horror.
Spoilers for Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 7.
The being bringing those fears to the fronts of our minds and screens is Zellin (Ian Gelder), who delivers the world's worst wet willy, dispatching his finger into the earholes of his victims (it's as gross as it seems) to serve to his precious Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey), whose desperation leads Graham to believe she needs his help rather than his dream juice.
For Graham, it's that his cancer might return, this time without hope. For Yaz, it's her history of being bullied, a history that led her to consider suicide. For Ryan, it's that his friends might be lost without him, that he might be unable to help, that by being absent he is causing his friend's plunge into depression. For the Doctor, it's the Timeless Child, the being foretold in last season's "The Ghost Monument" and referenced by the Master.
In this episode, our fam is not a fam. They are on their own, for better or worse. In the case of Ryan, it's for worse but also an indication this is not what he wants. “How long is this gonna last Yaz? Hanging out with the Doctor?” For some, that is the nightmare — be it leaving the Doctor, being left by the Doctor, or being stuck with the Doctor. But for the fam, their choices may already be made.
But until then, every human member of our fam is experiencing the sensation of abandoning their loved ones in ways we haven't seen before. Ryan has left Tibo (Buom Tihngang) in a deep depression, Yaz has forsaken her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parma), and Graham's friends are just left worrying that he hasn't moved on since the devastating loss of Grace. And maybe he hasn't — she appears in his nightmare asking why he didn't save her.
We'll get the the reassuring bit, promise.
Beyond a sci-fi dip into our greatest fears, this episode of Doctor Who depicts the descent into depression and anxiety, disorders that, like Rakaya, feed off our pain and the chaos in our minds. "They feel so much," she says, "it must burn them." In Ryan, we experience co-dependence, the sense that without him, Tibo has no hope, while in Tibo we have the wholly recognizable and relatable symptoms of the deep depression that plagues so many of us and renders us unable to see a way out. In Yaz, we feel anxiety, that horrific and unyielding remembrance of every bad feeling we've ever felt, and that clinging question of "What if I can't get through this?" In Graham, there's both — a hopelessness and a terror of the loss of hope. And in the Doctor, the inability to help. Her loved ones are in pain. Her loved ones are always in pain. What can she do? What can she ever do?
As Yaz's fellow police officer (Nasreen Hussain) posits, "What if this moment, where you want to run away from everyone — including yourself — is just a moment?" She's of course referring to the suicidal ideation that has occurred in Yaz's life — and may still — but she's also talking about what every companion of the Doctor must eventually face: At some point, you must stop running.
Ultimately, every fix the Doctor provides is temporary. They move on and so must she. But, until then, we awaken from the nightmares and live another day. We exist within our pain, our illnesses, our bad dreams, and we go forward in whatever tiny ways we can. "They live with their fears, doubts, guilts — they face them down every day," the Doctor says. "And they prevail. That's not weakness; that's strength."