Contains spoilers for the episode
It was the best of episodes, it was the worse of episodes…
Regular readers might recall that I was a bit grumpy last week in my review of “The Witchfinders”. It simply didn’t work for me, although I know the vast majority of viewers appeared to genuinely love it beyond measure. However for me, it was comprised of individually strong elements that lacked an overall coherent vision. The different parts rubbed against each other awkwardly and kept throwing me out of the story so that I wasn’t able to enjoy it at all, and instead ended up frustrated and less than happy. Or to put it another way, you could say that the individual parts were much greater than the whole, at least as far as I was concerned.
This week’s episode “It Takes You Away” is almost the mirror image (pun intended) of its precursor. Like last week, it is also comprised of several distinct parts; and on this occasion the quality of each component was less consistent than the previous instalment, ranging from the brilliant to the near-risible. But what writer Ed Hime and director Jamie Childs are able to manage this week is to wrangle these different elements into one unified end result that was superior to the sum of its parts. The key was a consistent stylistic vision and tone to the overall endeavour, provided by an adherence to overarching universal themes of love, loss and mythic folklore.
The different elements of “It Takes You Away” are helpfully made clear by different physical locations. The story starts with the Tardis having landed in a Norwegian forest overlooking a fjord, with only one notable habitat to be seen for miles around. In many ways this feels just like the 17th Century Lancashire setting we just left, and it’s perhaps a little odd for the show to schedule two stories with such similar arboreal locations on consecutive weekends, but on the whole it doesn’t do too much harm.
That’s because a sense of Nordic Noir foreboding soon starts to settle over the events as the team finds the nearby house boarded up in a frenzy of panicked preparations against some deadly threat. Inside they find a young girl called Hanne whose father is missing, presumed eaten by the monster that can be heard moving and bellowing through the woods surrounding the house. It’s all quite deliciously creepy, touching on recent successful high-concept horror movies such as It Follows and A Quiet Place. At the same time there’s some lovely banter between the regulars to keep things entertaining, such as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) being able to tell the time and place by tasting the mud, and the look on her, Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) and Yas’ (Mandip Gill) faces as Graham (Bradley Walsh) reveals the existence of his emergency sandwich stash to help see him through lengthy adventures. Truly, this is a man after my own heart.
At the heart of this first act is young Hanne, played by Ellie Wallwork, who has to shoulder much of the early plot development. The story requires the character to be blind, and it’s commendable (and about time, too) that the Doctor Who production team has cast a visually impaired actress in the role. But the most important thing is that Wallwork is very talented and completely believable in the role, putting us entirely on her side even when she deliberately knocks out Ryan. Given that he’s usually the most sympathetic of the regular characters, it’s interesting to see Ryan immediately take against Hanne; somewhere along the way there is a reconciliation and by the end a hug to say farewell, but it’s a development that unfortunately isn’t really shared on screen with the viewing audience making it an oddly incomplete sub-plot.
That doesn’t stop this part of the episode being a quiet, compelling chiller. But then the monster is effectively dispatched (it was a myth all along) in time for the Doctor to make a discovery in an upstairs room in the form of a mirror that is a portal to another universe – which strongly evokes the set-up of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or perhaps the magical mirror in which Harry Potter can see his heart’s desires.
Passing through the portal, the Doctor and her friends find a labyrinthine underground world straight out of Greek myth – she even uses some twine to record the path they’ve taken so that they don’t get lost. Eventually they come across a greedy troll creature called Ribbons, with Kevin Eldon having a whale of a time under heaps of prosthetics as he tries to swindle the Doctor out of her sonic in return for showing them the way across the ‘anti zone’ between universes. Eventually the group comes under attack from giant moths which devour flesh but leave clothes untouched, until they stumble across a second portal that allows them to exit the demonic underworld.
This section is all very well shot – although the caves rather resemble the similar soundstage that the 1980s and 90s Star Trek shows used to visit on a regular basis. But the problem is that it’s almost all entirely filler: you could drop all of the time spent in this dark purgatory and not disrupt the overall plot at all. Just as the ‘anti zone’ is described as a buffer zone between two fundamentally different universes that cannot ever come into contact, so this portion of the script is itself just existing to take up buffer space.
It’s also the closest that season 11 has felt to the Steven Moffat era, in that it throws up a lot of interesting concepts – the labyrinth itself, Ribbons, the flesh moths – only to dispense with them and forget them altogether a few minutes later. After the moths have been set up as a huge threat, Ryan and Hanne are able to dodge them by hiding behind a rock despite holding a moth-attracting glowing lantern right over their heads at the time. After all their bargaining over terms, the Doctor doesn’t need Ribbons to find her way around at all; later on, the interminable maze contracts to the point where the group takes just a few seconds to run full tilt directly from one portal to another without so much as a piece of thread to help them navigate their way unerringly to where they need to go. So, it turns out that this whole section was all rather pointless; but at least it was well executed and diverting while it was happening.
The next part sees the Doctor and her friends arrive on the other side of the mirror, and well done to everyone who spotted how much was reversed – hair partings, writing, the Doctor holding her sonic in the other hand. It’s played down and is not the primary point the episode is making, but never has the third Doctor’s iconic phrase ‘reverse the polarity’ been so aptly employed. Well done to Yas for the suggestion!
Instead, the important focus of this part of the narrative is who they find in this mirror reality: for one thing there’s Hanne’s father Erik (Christian Rubeck) and mother Trine (Lisa Stokke), except that Trine actually died some time ago. Unfortunately they’re both rather sidelined (in much the way that Moffat used to accidentally forget about his guest characters once they’ve served their usefulness in the plot) and it’s the third person whose presence is like a punch in the gut. The achingly, painfully slow reveal of Grace (Sharon D Clarke) hurts in a way that I wouldn’t have expected it to, and is perfectly summed up by Graham’s gasped: “Don’t do this to me.”
In a way, the set-up of season 11 had made this moment – or one like it – inevitable. But now that it was here and upon us, rather by surprise, it was beautifully done. Mainly that was thanks to powerhouse performances from Walsh and Clarke, the latter subtly attenuating her performance to suggest that something is not quite right here. It’s a small touch of genius that Graham doesn’t catch Grace’s dismissiveness over Ryan’s safety at first, but when he does spot it the second time around it’s the moment when the spell is broken and he knows that whoever or whatever this is, it’s not the Grace he knew and loved after all. Walsh’s depiction of this emotional journey is one of the best things of the entire series to date, and hugely moving and heart-breaking.
By this point, the Doctor has made an instantaneous leap from being completely bewildered about what’s going on, to suddenly knowing literally everything and being able to rattle off several pages of exposition to brief her friends and the audience. It’s one of the weaker points of the episode since television should always be about ‘show don’t tell’, and this is glaringly all tell. It also makes no sense that even the all-powerful Time Lords could possibly have known about the incompatible sentient Solitract universe which only existed before our own was even able to come into being. However, it does link back into one of the major themes of the episode of folklore and mythic storytelling which means that for all its failings the Doctor’s lengthy explanation does fit more or less naturally into the overall storytelling mise en scène.
(There’s also some additional dialogue relating to the Doctor’s upbringing on Gallifrey which is the sort of fan-baiting that Moffat liked to do by tweaking the series’ own mythology. In this case there’s suggestions that the Doctor had seven grandmothers, and that another of the stories her cohort shared as Time Kids involved Zygons, who the Doctor actually only met in 1970s Scotland. But the less said of these throwaway aspects the better; no doubt future spin-off novels and audio adventures will have a field day expanding upon them.)
At this point the episode moves onto its final location: if the stormy caves of the ‘anti zone’ were a version of Hell, then we now arrive at what is indisputably a type of Heaven. Here the Doctor gets to have a long chat with the supreme consciousness of the universe, which for reasons never entirely clear appears in the form of … a talking frog. While the CGI is admittedly superior to the widely-maligned Pting of “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, it’s still a bizarre scene. Presumably it’s an allusion to another fairy tale (the princess and the frog) but it’s still hard for even long-time science fiction fans to swallow. Given that Chris Chibnall’s guiding raison d’etre behind the season 11 reboot is to make it more accessible and palatable to a mainstream audience who have been alienated by the recent direction of the show, this is pretty much a textbook example of what not to do. Why the Solitract couldn’t simply appear as Grace – which would have allowed two terrific actresses to share a powerful scene without needless distraction – is beyond me, to be honest.
In fact it reminded me of a scene in an episode in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which noted leading Shakespearian thespian Patrick Stewart was required to carry out a serious conversation with a sentient oil slick. You could almost see the thought bubble appearing over his head, articulating: “How did my agent get me into this ridiculous situation?” Of course, Stewart is such a good actor that he pulled it off with aplomb and got saddled with decades of playing the role of Captain Picard (with doubtless lucrative rewards), and in similar fashion Whittaker also pulls off her chat with a computer-rendered amphibian without turning a hair, and all power to her for doing so. But also several demerits on the production team for putting her into that situation, which you just know is going to be replayed and ridiculed on clip shows for years to come.
That second mention of Star Trek in this review isn’t entirely coincidental, as it turns out. There was something about the content and presentation of “It Takes You Away” that niggled at me until I realised what it was: the story belongs far more in the universe of TNG, DS9 and Voyager than it does Doctor Who. The high concept of a thinking and intelligent universe just wanting some company; the underground cave setting with Ribbons looking and acting like a Ferengi if you squint hard enough; not to mention the parallel/alternate mirror universe that became a signature Trek premise. I’m not entirely sure that I want Doctor Who to fall into step and become a belated clone of an American programme, even one as esteemed as Gene Roddenberry’s creation. I’d quite like ‘my’ Doctor Who back at some point, please.
But that whiny complaint aside, and for all the criticisms that I’ve detailed in this review, “It Takes You Away” was for me at least broadly speaking a success in exactly the way that “The Witchfinders” wasn’t. It kept me absorbed and interested throughout, and the scenes with Grace had just the sort of emotional impact that that show had been inconsistent in delivering this year. When it pulls it off – in “Rosa” for example, or “Demons of the Punjab” – it really is quite outstanding; but there are also episodes that don’t have such high aspirations and as a result can end up looking and feeling a bit flat by comparison.
The final coda this week is something we’ve been fully expecting almost from the start of the series: Ryan’s acceptance of Graham as his grandfather. For all its inevitability, the moment – when it came – was quite wonderful thanks to Walsh and Cole’s understated playing. I confess there was a tear in my eye. And any episode that can provoke such a natural, genuine emotional response from the audience – despite the talking frog just moments earlier – has clearly managed to get something very right.
Doctor Who S11 concludes on BBC One on Sunday evening at 6.25pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.