If you’ve seen the discourse around Doctor Who recently, you’ve likely run into quite a few comments — some more civil than others — about the show becoming too “political.” Tonight’s episode is different, however, focusing on mental health through the lens of the show’s characters. Although it doesn’t execute on its ideas perfectly, new guest writer Charlene James and lead writer Chris Chibnall nevertheless take the opportunity to delve further inside these characters’ heads — sometimes literally.
Each member of team TARDIS is struggling with something. Yaz (Mandip Gill) has been facing her past choice to run away from home. Graham (Bradley Walsh) continues to mourn his wife’s death while facing the possibility of cancer. Ryan (Tosin Cole), who faced the death of a family member and had been abandoned by his biological father, oddly enough doesn’t portray many struggles of his own, instead focusing on his friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang), who struggles with depression and loneliness.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) herself first appears in ancient Syria, running into an alien beast of unknown origin before receiving calls from her companions, all describing odd dreams and visions that end up not being mere tricks of the mind. They eventually meet two “Eternal Beings,” Zellin (Ian Gelder) and Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who use their immortality to act as gods on different planets, preying on vulnerable minds and creating nightmares. It’s a silly premise, even for Doctor Who, but Gelder’s performance as the cartoonishly sinister villain helps sell it.
The idea to spend an episode focused on mental health is one with good intentions, and Yaz’s backstory in particular can be moving. However, Doctor Who misses the mark in places other media have succeeded in that many of the issues that seemingly plague its characters either haven’t come up before or are hardly mentioned.
It’s all good and well that James and Chibnall wanted to spend an episode delving into these characters’ psychology, but it would have been more effective if these were issues that the Doctor’s companions alluded to regularly, even in passing. That’s not just more true to how pervasive mental health issues can be — it’s simply better storytelling.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.