Doctor Who: The Doctor and Graham – “Socially awkward” or just cowardly?

Can You Hear Me? was a rare and sensitive exploration of mental illness in Doctor Who, but did the episode feature a major misstep with the Doctor and Graham?

My overall thoughts for latest Doctor Who episode Can You Hear Me? are that while the story could have been improved, it did feature strong emotional content. Particularly in how it explored mental health, which overall was handled extremely well and with sensitivity.

However, there was one moment that didn’t quite work. Specifically, one shared between the Doctor and Graham. Towards the end of the episode, Graham talks to the Doctor about his fears of his cancer coming back, and how he’s struggling to deal with that. The Doctor’s response to this?

I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn’t I? I’m quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might have been helpful.

Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is often show to care about her companions. But was that the case here?
Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

A misjudged reaction?

Unsurprisingly, a number of fans felt that the Doctor’s reaction to Graham wasn’t well handled. And honestly, it’s hard not to agree with that.

I must admit, I do enjoy it when the Doctor’s more alien side is explored. When they have difficulty understanding humans, and struggle to see things from a human perspective. One of my favorite moments from the fantastic Tenth Doctor story Human Nature/The Family of Blood is towards the end of the story.

To recap, the Doctor spent most of the two-parter disguised as an ordinary human, John Smith, in the year 1913. More than that – “John Smith” had memories and a personality all of his own. He even fell in love with an ordinary human – Joan Redfern.

When John Smith sacrificed himself and became the Doctor again, the Doctor asked Joan to come with him. The fact that he didn’t understand why someone looking exactly like a man that she fell in love with – a man who, to all intents and purposes “died” – reminded us how alien the Doctor could be sometimes. Even the more seemingly human Tenth Doctor.

“Socially awkward” or just cowardly?

So what made Thirteen’s response to Graham so different? Well, the big problem with this moment is that it seemed like she didn’t even try to help ease her companion’s worries. Despite her saying that she’d “think of something” in a minute, we didn’t actually see that. So it comes across as the Doctor not putting any effort in at all.

If you want to sell the Doctor as someone more “alien”, then there’s a better way to do it. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, as abrasive as he was, always cared about Clara (although his constant comments on her appearance in Series 8 was admittedly going too far).

If you want to sell the Doctor as “socially awkward”, you can do it without literally stating it. Matt Smith’s Doctor was clearly socially awkward and alien, and even he gave rather brilliant and nuanced speeches that still showed his alien nature. While The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe isn’t exactly my favorite Christmas special, his speech to a grieving widow of why it’s important for her children to be happy – while they still can be – is a perfect example of his alien perspective, yet still allows him to show his compassion, too.

Personally, I think a better approach would have been a speech from the Doctor and her own perspective on things. It could have been helpful, it could have made no difference at all. Or it could have even made things worse. But it would have counted as the Doctor trying to see things from her friend’s perspective, at least. Offering nothing at all not only felt too easy, but even too cowardly for something like the Doctor to do. So while Can You Hear Me? was a strong episode overall, this key moment felt like a major misstep in terms of the Doctor’s characterization.

What do you think? Do you think the Doctor’s reaction to Graham could have been handled better? Or do you think it was appropriate for the Thirteenth Doctor to do, in terms of her character? Let us know in the comments below.