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Recap / Doctor Who S38E7 "Can You Hear Me?"

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The one with the detachable fingers.

Written by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall. This episode first aired February 9, 2020.


In medieval Aleppo, kleptomaniac Tahira lives at a hospital, but carer Maryam won't listen to her warnings about creatures that come at night. And when the things do come, Maryam is the first one taken as Tahira tries to hide from the attackers. In 21st century Sheffield, the Doctor drops her companions off for a day at home, promising to meet tomorrow at lunchtime. But after Yaz, Graham and Ryan head out, the Doctor is pondering jumping straight ahead to the next day when the TARDIS briefly goes wonky and she hears a scream, as a sinister man in black appears behind her and smiles before disappearing without ever being noticed. Noting the scream came from medieval Aleppo, the Doctor decides she has time to investigate.

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Yaz is late for lunch with her sister, and Sonya can apparently now cook. Ryan goes to visit his friend Tibo, but Tibo is acting a bit odd and has an unusual amount of locks on his door. Graham, playing poker with some of his friends, gets an abrupt telepathic communication from a woman who claims to be imprisoned and calls him by name. When the Doctor arrives at the hospital in the aftermath of the attack, she finds Tahira, who begs her to leave as one of the creatures remains. But the creature runs past the Doctor instead of taking her, and she can't get any readings off of the sonic. Ryan beats a downcast Tibo at a FIFA video game, but notices the kitchen is unusually dirty when he offers to make tea. Tibo doesn't want to talk about his problems, but eventually admits he's been having nightmares — nightmares with the recurring figure of a man who he feels is watching him. And not only that: he's seen the man in person, around town and even in his bedroom. Ryan reassures him that he believes the story, and Tibo asks him to stay for the night.

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Yaz and Sonya eat, talking about how Sonya isn't cut out for customer service and the anniversary dinners they keep having. When they watch a movie, Yaz falls asleep as Sonya expected, but a phone rings and a voice is heard saying she didn't know who else to contact. In Tibo's flat, the man in black appears, detaching his fingers and sticking one up Tibo's ear. Ryan is awakened by a feeling and enters the room to see the man just as he regrows his fingers, demanding he stop whatever it is he's doing. Instead, the man disappears with Tibo. Yaz has a dream of standing on a road. She sees a policewoman standing behind her before being approached by a young girl, only to wake up in shock. Hearing sinister laughter, she turns to see the man in black standing there, disappearing in response to a demand for his identity.

In Aleppo, the Doctor asks Tahira about herself and determines that the creatures that attacked the hospital have made everyone else who was there disappear. Tahira explains that she's been on her own since her family died when she was seven, and she came to Aleppo and the hospital a few weeks ago, being let in because she wasn't doing too well. The Doctor receives phone calls from all of her companions asking for help, and promises to come. She triumphantly finds a hair left behind by one of the creatures before escorting Tahira into the TARDIS, saying she's about to have her mind blown. After picking up the fam, the Doctor analyzes the hair but is aggravated to be informed that the creatures don't exist anywhere in the TARDIS database, meaning they apparently never existed. When the companions explain what happened to them, Yaz and Ryan realize they saw the same man. The Doctor hooks Graham up to the telepathic circuits to determine what it is he saw in the message, and the TARDIS takes everyone to an extremely remote space observation platform in the far future. The platform is set up to observe two planets that are in the process of colliding, but being halted by an exceptional piece of engineering placed between them. An orb, inside of which is the woman who called for help.

Yaz and Ryan notice a rack of fingers in a corner of the room, and the Doctor deduces the existence of a quantum-coded lock that is holding the orb there. Tahira goes wandering and discovers a room where Maryam and Tibo have been imprisoned, unconscious. She's frightened when one of the creatures appears behind a glass wall, but the man in black appears, explaining that the creatures, called Chagaskas, are his own creation. Yaz, Ryan and Graham, having noticed Tahira was missing, burst in and demand the man leave her alone, but he just detaches more fingers and sends them at the group, trapping them in nightmares: Yaz is confronted by the policewoman and the girl, figures from her past and future. Ryan finds himself amidst flames, confronted by an angry Tibo who's been waiting his whole life for his return, and the shadows of the Dregs. Graham finds himself in a hospital room with Grace, told that he has hours to live before she asks him why he couldn't save her.

The Doctor sonics the technology to connect the TARDIS to the lock to open it, only then realizing that her companions are gone once again. Before she can do anything else, she's confronted by the man, who introduces himself as Zellin. The Doctor is skeptical, pointing out that that's the name of an ancient mythological god. Zellin doesn't disagree, revealing that he's an immortal on the same level as the Eternals and the Guardians, one who enjoys playing dark games with this dimension (games he suggests the Toymaker would approve of). He's seen the Doctor blundering about the universe, and he's discovered that humans have the most delightful nightmares. The Doctor triumphantly points out that she's unlocked the prison and will beat him by releasing his prisoner. But that's exactly what Zellin wanted: he used the Chagaskas and his attacks on humans to lure her in, needing someone from this dimension to open a prison from this dimension. The prisoner, the same kind of being as Zellin, is actually the more powerful of the two, he just rides in her slipstream. The Doctor is horrified to realize she may have unleashed something even worse upon the universe.

Through an animated sequence, the Doctor is shown the history of Zellin and the goddess, Rakaya: two immortals who entered this universe and, desiring entertainment, came upon two planets and set the worlds against each other to see which one could be destroyed first. But eventually, the people of the two worlds grew wise, realized the nature of their "gods" and united, setting their planets on a collision course before imprisoning Rakaya in the orb. The Doctor comes to and finds herself trussed up like her companions, and Zellin and Rakaya decide to go to Earth because of the human race's penchant for nightmares, as well as their tendency to beat up on themselves, which Zellin particularly enjoys.

The Doctor retorts with her trademark Patrick Stewart Speech that she finds humans special and indomitable, able to refuse to be cowed by their own fears. The villains ignore her, and begin to set their plan to harvest all of humanity’s nightmares into motion. They teleport down to 21st century England as Zellin’s fingers detach and replicate themselves over and over, and tendrils of tentacle-shaped black clouds swirl from the bedrooms around them.

The Doctor elatedly remembers her sonic screwdriver, and manages to jump and swing back and forth to throw it out of her pocket. She clutches the screwdriver and unlocks her handcuffs, before going to free the others. The Doctor steals a blue orb powering the apparatus that controls Zellin's fingers. She observes that the Chagaskas are not attacking Tahira, and realizes they are created from figments of Tahira's nightmares.

The two gods sense something is happening, and materialize in 14th century Aleppo to find the Doctor, her fam, Tibo, Maryam and Tahira, and the tech powering Zellin's fingers. The two gods scoff, but the Doctor reveals she advised Tahira to conquer her fears, thereby gaining control of the Chagaska. The Doctor and Tahira set the Chagaska loose on Zellin and Rakaya, then the Doctor (after making the standard Incredibly Lame Pun) sends Zellin's fingers after them, poofing them into Rakaya's prison, with the Chagaska screaming in their faces for all eternity. The Doctor and friends bid Maryam and Tahira farewell offscreen before traveling back to the present day.

Three years before they arrive, the girl from Yaz's nightmares is sitting on the roadside far out from Sheffield, when the policewoman approaches. A closeup reveals the girl to be Yaz herself. The policewoman asks her what she is doing by herself, telling her that her sister Sonya called in to ask for her whereabouts. Yaz admits she is bored with life in Sheffield, and hopeless that her parents don't understand. Yaz is considering running away or committing suicide. The policewoman admits she feels the same too, but she loves her job and her life too much to do so. The policewoman tells Yaz that the added years of experience helped her make the better choices in life she needed; Yaz has too many years ahead of her to throw away. The policewoman offers to take Yaz home, but first she bets Yaz that if both their lives improve before Yaz looks her up and visits her, Yaz has to pay her 50p; if both their lives get worse, the policewoman has to pay her £50. Yaz agrees to the bet and gets into the police car.

In the present day, Yaz seeks out the policewoman in her home and gives her the 50p; they reminisce for a while before Yaz goes to the TARDIS. Ryan gets the still-disbelieving Tibo to try opening up; Tibo eventually starts a blog and joins an active friend group of lonely men, where he is last heard joking about his frustrations with the self-checkout machine. Inside the TARDIS, Graham is confiding his survivor's guilt and his fear that the cancer will relapse to the Doctor, who is maintaining and repairing the TARDIS console. The Doctor can only admit she is socially awkward and troubled enough to state she cannot respond or help him. Ryan and Yaz reflect on the events of the episode; Ryan wonders how long he can lead a different life from his friends at home, and laments that even if he always returns, he will have aged differently from them; he expresses doubt that he can continue on the TARDIS for longer. Soon enough, the Doctor distracts the three by offering to take them to see Frankenstein, and the four set off on yet another adventure...


Tropes:

  • Adult Fear: Graham's cancer is in remission, meaning that it isn't gone, just simply treated, and his biggest fear is that it'll resurface and kill him.
  • All There in the Manual: The name of Zellin's mate (Rakaya) is never spoken in dialogue and only given in the credits.
  • And I Must Scream: Zellin and his partner end up in a prison designed for immortals with the creature they created from Tahira's nightmares.
  • Bald of Evil: Zellin, and him being bald gets pointed out In-Universe as well.
  • Batman Gambit: Zellin lures the Doctor to the space station by attacking humans, a race she is known to take a liking to. In tandem with the dreams Rakaya is sending Graham, he knows she can break the lock holding Rakaya prisoner.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: When asked what she's going to be doing while her companions are checking up on stuff at home for a day, the Doctor says that she might be doing "Maintenance. Correspondence. Correspondence about maintenance."
  • Call-Back:
    • When Sonya asks Yaz where she's been going, Yaz mentions Hong Kong, Madagascar and Gloucester. Incidentally, Yaz's dad heard about what happened in Gloucester and, once again, chalked it up to a conspiracy of some kind.
    • This is not the first time the Doctor's encountered an alien being worshipped as a god who was eventually sealed inside a space prison after the natives got wise.
    • Ryan's nightmare involves a vision of a burning Earth and the Dregs from "Orphan 55".
    • Graham's nightmare deals with his fear of his cancer returning, and how he met Grace when she was his nurse, both details mentioned in his first episode.
    • The Doctor's brief nightmare shows the same "Timeless Child" vision from "Spyfall".
    • Graham confides his worries to the Doctor and she isn't sure how to comfort him, mentioning that she's still socially awkward as she did in "Arachnids in the UK". Yaz also brings up to Ryan what the Doctor warned them in that episode about how they wouldn't come back the same people after travelling with her.
    • Tibo takes up vlogging at Ryan's request, recalling the way Ryan dealt with Grace's death in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth".
  • Cassandra Truth: Tahira tries to tell the other people at the hospital in Aleppo there are monsters coming and they should warn everyone and lock themselves in their rooms for safety. Sadly, they seem to think she's delusional and just needs to rest.
  • Ceiling Cling: The last Chagaska to stick around at the hospital is doing this when Tahira points it out to the Doctor.
  • Cold Ham: Zellin does not raise his voice, but he delivers his lines with such enthusiasm. He really is a hammy god enjoying his games.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Seeing Tibo again makes Ryan realise he is not the same person he was before the Doctor, and he actively questions when his time in the TARDIS will end.
  • Detachment Combat: Zellin can detach his fingers and send them after his victims, using the finger as a medium to drain their nightmares.
  • The Dog Bites Back:
    • Zellin and Rakaya drove the populations of two planets to destroy themselves and then each other. The two planets caught on, combined forces, and sealed Rakaya in a prison neither could break without the aid of the beings they were tormenting.
    • Zellin creates a monster which he calls the Chagaska from the fear he extracts from Tahira's mind, only for Tahira to take control of her fear, and by extension the creature, and use it against him.
  • Emotion Eater: Zellin and Rakaya feast on people's fears.
  • Everybody Lives: Zellin and Rakaya don't kill anyone because they want to harvest their fears instead, so the Doctor is able to save all of the abducted people.
  • Evil All Along: At first, it appears that the blonde woman is sending a cry for help from the torture Zellin is inflicting. Then it turns out he’s actually giving her the fear of humans which keeps her sane while imprisoned.
  • Fingore: Played with. Zellin's ability to remove his own fingers isn't suggested to cause him any pain, but is nonetheless extremely unsettling to witness.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Rakaya looks like a beautiful and innocent Damsel in Distress with sleek platinum hair, but is an evil extradimensional goddess who feeds on nightmares. Her partner looks far more sinister.
  • Flashback Nightmare: Yaz’s nightmare is about when she tried to run away from home.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Tahira is aware of the monsters that gather to attack the hospital when no one else is, and they don't attack and vanish her like they do the others. It turns out the Chagaskas were created from her nightmares, and after the Doctor helps her realize this she's able to control it.
    • Zellin makes his first appearance materializing inside the TARDIS and smiling to himself while the Doctor is unaware of his presence, as the TARDIS registers a scream from Aleppo that she decides to follow. All this hints at the Batman Gambit he's set into motion.
    • When the Doctor meets Tahira, the last Chagaska in the hospital doesn't attack her and instead departs, further hinting at the trap she's being lured into.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Zellin continues the tradition of reading the Doctor for filth, coming off like the Dream Lord when he calls her out for "bumbling around the universe" like the Sad Clown she is.
  • Hates Being Alone: More from the Doctor, whose smile instantly vanishes as soon as the fam leaves, and she is so desperate to not have time to think that she decides to time travel to the next day. She spends a good chunk of the episode on her own and keeps forgetting that the others aren't with her and talking to herself, which implies that the only time she has spent any large chunk of time alone from them since regenerating has been to go to Gallifrey, she's so used to them being there.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Zellin creates the Chagaska from Tahira's nightmares to use as goons. With the Doctor's encouragement, Tahira is able to take control of the creature, eventually imprisoning Zellin and Rakaya with the creature for all eternity. The Doctor also uses Zellin's own fingers, which she is able to take control of, to assist in their capture.
  • Humans Are Special: Zellin considers humans weak for their crippling self-doubt, but the Doctor counters that their ability to deal with these doubts and continue living makes them magnificent.
  • Hypocrite: Sympathetically this time, but a Humans Are Special for dealing with the pain speech from the woman who is so avoidant she wants to time travel to the next day to not be alone with her thoughts. On the other hand, one could argue that the fact that she can't deal with it actually strengthens her speech, since it shows sincere admiration for how humans can do something beyond her.
  • I Have Many Names: Zellin claims to have had several names throughout his immortal existence, with "Zellin" being his oldest and preferred name.
  • Info Dump: After being released from the prison, the goddess explains to the Doctor who she is by psychically sending a legend about herself and Zellin into the Doctor's mind.
  • It Amused Me: Zellin and Rakaya hold wagers over the destruction of planets, foster wars between species and civilisations, and take pleasure in feeding on the fears of humans. Why? Because, as immortals, they have to find some way to pass the time.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Ryan's response to a pun about "helping hands" from the Doctor:
    Ryan: ...Really?
    The Doctor: Sorry, couldn't resist.
  • Leaking Can of Evil: Although she's unable to free herself, Rakaya is able to send Graham a psychic message asking for help from across space and time as part of the plan to release her.
  • Like an Old Married Couple: The Doctor argues with the TARDIS after her readings show the Chagaska hair is not physically there.
  • Living Dream: The Chagaska, a monster created by Zellin from Tahira's nightmares specifically for the purpose of tormenting her.
  • Medium Blending: The sequence explaining the history of Zellin and Rakaya is the series' first-ever animated segment.
  • Mythology Gag: The Doctor forgetting her companions are gone and giving exposition to thin air is reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor awkwardly doing his shtick directly to the camera during his brief period without any companions.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The Doctor springs an alien goddess from a prison held in place between two planets, allowing her loose to feed on humanity's fears alongside Zellin.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Everyone in the main cast gets one of these, thanks to Zellin.
  • Nightmare Weaver: Zellin uses nightmares to feed his partner while she’s trapped.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Doctor, when she realizes that Zellin is in fact a powerful immortal, and then when she realizes that he's tricked her into releasing an entity just as evil as he.
    • Zellin and Rakaya then get this when the Doctor is able to turn the tables and imprison them both inside the orb.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Ryan observes that Tibo is usually a Neat Freak and has allowed his flat to become unusually untidy, prompting Tibo to confess his mental health issues.
  • Orifice Invasion: Zellin establishes himself in the minds of his victims by detaching his fingers (which he instantly regrows) and sending them off to the victim's ears.
  • Questioning Title?
  • The Runaway: A flashback reveals that Yaz attempted to run away from home three years before she met the Doctor. A friendly police officer intervened and prompted Yaz to choose to become a police officer herself.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Rakaya's true nature. At the end, she's re-sealed inside the can along with Zellin.
  • Sequel Hook: The Doctor throws her companions into "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" at the end when she informs them that she's just had an idea to see Frankenstein and that they're going to need a change of clothes.
  • Tailor-Made Prison: An immortal alien goddess, sealed in a spherical prison that lies in a gravity well between two colliding planets.
  • The Teaser: An introduction to Tahira and the attack on the hospital.
  • Title Drop: The episode begins with Rakaya's voice, asking the titular question.
  • Very Special Episode: An episode with strong themes of mental health, that first aired in the same week as Time to Talk day. The credits sequence even includes the phone number for a mental health hotline in case anyone watching feels the need to reach out.
  • "What Do They Fear?" Episode: The companions are forced to have nightmares of their greatest fears thanks to Zellin.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: Rakaya has pure white hair and turns out to actually be evil and even more dangerous than Zellin.
  • Your Worst Nightmare: Zellin torments people for their nightmares in order to harvest them. Tahira and Tibo have been particularly affected.


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