Last Sunday, a controversy broke out amongst Doctor Who fans over a conversation the Doctor had with Graham about cancer. The scene comes at the end of the episode “Can You Hear Me?” where Bradley Walsh’s character speaks to Jodie Whittaker’s about a particular fear. He’s worried that a bout with cancer he survived might come back, but he felt like he couldn’t tell any of his fellow companions or friends at home about it. In fact, it was arguably one of the more intimate moments between Graham and the Doctor, who until just recently spent much of her 2000 years of life as an old man herself. Yet the response the avuncular companion received didn’t site right with fans.
Yet, is this Doctor Who controversy legitimate, and did Graham get mistreated when he talked about his cancer fight? We’ll look at what made people angry, how the BBC responded, and our take on the Doctor’s actions.
Be warned, spoilers for “Can You Hear Me?” ahead, so hide your eyes like the Doctor here if you’ve not seen the episode and want to maintain the surprise.
Image via screengrab
What is The Doctor Who Controversy Over Graham and Cancer About?
During the episode, one half of an evil immortal duo who predates this universe exposed the Doctor and her companions to their greatest fears. For Graham, his was seeing his departed wife Grace telling him the cancer he beat returned. She then went on to blame Graham for her death (in Jodie Whittaker’s first episode as the Doctor). Of the nightmares explored in this episode, his was the most devastating. Also, he implies he feels strange worrying his younger companions with his fears. Hell, Ryan only just called him “Granddad” for the first time. He wouldn’t want to worry him, especially so soon after losing Grace.
Yet, the Doctor replies that she’s “socially awkward” and doesn’t have a “reassuring” thing to say. Graham laughs, telling her he’s “glad” they had “this chat.” While it’s meant to play as a bit of a laugh, some BBC viewers took to social media to complain. The rest of the episode was about mental health. It argued that humans are remarkable because they are able to recover from mental illness or injury. The show also encouraged people to ask for help. Sort of like Graham did, only the Doctor apparently missed the point.
Both mental health advocates, cancer survivors, and families who’ve lost people to the dreaded disease all spoke up. They felt that it was out-of-character for this version of the Doctor. They also thought capped a thoughtful episode with a bad message. Graham was brave enough to ask for help, and the Doctor failed him. Though, to be fair, others remarked this was in character. A continuation of a long-running thread throughout the history of the series where the Doctor is most uncomfortable with intimate human emotion with companions.
Image by James Pardon via BBC Studios
How the BBC Responded to Fan Complaints
It may not seem like a real problem. But, the Doctor Who controversy over Graham and his fears about cancer prompted a response from the BBC. The way Graham describes living as a survivor of cancer was particularly beautiful. He talks about how it’s never really gone. Also, in an episode about mental health, this scene was important. Men of Graham’s age typically find it difficult to ask for help, especially with outmoded ideas of whether or not a “real man” talks about his feelings at play. There were so many responses the Doctor could have offered that didn’t feel like a rejection. This version of the Doctor especially comes across as more sensitive to feelings than others.
Essentially the network says that the interaction was not meant to play as the Doctor dismissing Graham’s concerns. It has as much to do, I think, with the characterization of Graham as it does with the Doctor. Still, they said that the would raise the issue with Chris Chibnall, the executive producer and co-writer of the episode. The also explained themselves.
Image by James Pardon via BBC Studios
As BBC wrote to The Radio Times:
“When Graham opened up to the Doctor about his fear of his cancer returning her response was never meant to be dismissive. The Doctor’s friend was scared, and we see her struggling to deal with the severity of the situation. The intention of the scene was to acknowledge how hard it can be to deal with conversations on this subject matter. When faced with these situations, people don’t always have the right words to say at the right time, and this can often lead to feelings of guilt. By showing the Doctor struggling to find the right words, the intention was to sympathise with all those who may have found themselves in a similar position.”
Graham is a unique companion, especially in the modern series. He’s by far the oldest regular companion since the show came back in 2005. While the other companions have crises of faith in themselves or their abilities, Graham is the constant cheerleader. He’s a support system for them and always game for a dangerous adventure. He also has incredible faith in the Doctor. So, though Walsh plays it subtly, Graham seems fine with the Doctor’s response.
In fact, Graham talks through his fear in a very rational way. He knows he’s fine, but he still worries about the cancer coming back. He didn’t say he needed support, just that he needed to tell someone. The Doctor provided that, and her discomfort actually seemed to comfort him. So, while the Doctor didn’t have some brilliant advice for Graham, she did show the audience that sometimes just listening is all a person can need.
What do you think of the Doctor Who controversy about Graham, cancer, and mental health? Share your thoughts, reactions, and stories in the comments below.
Featured image via screengrab
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.