This week’s DOCTOR WHO episode crystalized one of the failings of the season for me. And it is this: the stories don’t seem to be of consequence to the main characters. There’s danger and adventure and stuff, yeah. But somehow, the principles seem to remain at a distance from it all. None of it changes them, none of it really seems to affect them. And that’s a problem, because seeing how these experiences affect the characters and change them is what we want to experience–and especially since that’s clearly meant to be one of the themes of this week’s story.
There wasn’t anything especially wrong with Can You Hear Me? But there wasn’t anything especially right about it either. And the best material in the episode felt very tertiary to the main plot. Because, yes, we got to get a bit of insight into where Ryan, Yaz and Graham’s heads are at, but all of that felt very divorced from the central story. In particular, this was the best insight we got into Yaz, and it was a long time coming. I find that I’d like to see more of her, that I’d like her to take a more central role. But that never quite happens, does it? The events of one episode seem to be scrubbed away as we move into the next–it’s like watching The Simpsons in that regard. and I find that frustrating.
Graham’s fears that his cancer might reoccur were a good moment as well, a human moment, one that anybody who’s ever been in the orbit of this terrible disease can relate to. And it’s a conversation that’s taking place in the most technologically advanced ship in the universe–so I found myself wanting the Doctor to be reassuring. And I know why that’s a bad idea, but I wanted it anyway–so the fun bit of the Doctor being socially awkward and not quite knowing how to respond to Graham’s revelation fell flat to me.
Maybe if the story had connected it a bit more concretely to what Zellin and Akara are doing, whiling away eternity by messing with lesser mortals. Because in a very real way, that’s exactly what the Doctor is doing with these people she met in Sheffield. Left on her own for a day, she seems entirely at loose ends, and even continues to have half-conversations with them, forgetting that they aren’t present. The Doctor is a rock dropped into the pond of their lives, and once she’s done wit them, she’ll move on as she’s done so many times before in the past, leaving whatever mess she’s made of their lives in her wake.
But the episode doesn’t ever draw that connection.
The characters in this one all feel underbaked, and no amount of off-hand fan service name-dropping the Celestial Toymaker or the Black and White Guardian can make up for that deficit. Nor can the short dream glimpse of the Timeless Child, a tease to keep viewers interested in the ongoing season-long mystery, but one that doesn’t move anything even an iota forward. And while Tahira did her best with what she was given–the pre-titles sequence was quite good, it’s a shame that the character never had the same amount of life or presence thereafter. And her pet creature, the Chagaska felt as though it was only there to be in the trailers. And once again, the CGI lets the production down, as in most shots it’s clear that the creature and the cast aren’t occupying the same space. The villains were all right, though the reveal that Akara was a baddie was fairly transparently telegraphed, which didn’t make the Doctor look especially clever. There were a few moments in this one where I thought she could do with displaying just a bit more courage or resolve.
I tell you what else I’ve realized–and I keep forgetting to mention this. While I like the soundtrack just fine for the most part, I really miss the Doctor having a signature piece of action music. Every one of the prior Doctors had one (at least on the revived show) and its deployment was always an easy way to ramp up the energy and spirit of a Doctor moment. The lack of a theme tune isn’t a problem native to Doctor Who; it seems like media in general has decided that such a strong musical showing is somehow gauche, or a cheat. But there’s a reason that everybody knows the STAR WARS theme, or the BACK TO THE FUTURE overture, or the SUPERMAN sting–it’s a thing tat works. (Honestly, I wish Marvel Studios would use this philosophy more often as well–because when they do, the results speak for themselves. It’s no coincidence that most of the rousing moments in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and ENDGAME are set against the Avengers theme.) Anyway, it’s time to get Jodie a kickass character score and then to use it with regularity. That by itself could buoy a good episode into a great one.