Doctor Who series 11 review: It Takes You Away

There’s a Fjord Focus in this week’s close-knit, topsy-turvy Doctor Who. Spoilers linger in the shadow of the squirrel…

This section of the review is free of spoilers. If you venture below Daphne the spoiler-squirrel, beware…

11.9 It Takes You Away

If there’s been one drum to bang in this eleventh series of Doctor Who, it’s that the complexity of the pure science-fiction at the heart of every episode has been pared back to basics compared to the last couple of years, in favour of a renewed focus on character interaction and wonder. Whether you consider that a good or a bad thing is entirely down to your personal preferences, of course, but – here in the spoiler-free zone – we can still say that It Takes You Away, the penultimate instalment of 2018, is pretty much jam-packed with a grab-bag of concepts and conceits, pinging from one to the other in a way that really sets it apart from the rest of the run. 

That’s not to say that a busy story automatically makes for a great story, but it does mean you’re likely to be kept guessing and intrigued for a while – at least until the Doctor pieces everything together in one long expositional brain-dump. Sadly, this bubbling stew of ideas doesn’t coalesce into a particularly hearty meal, though it certainly smelled good while it was cooking.

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To this episode’s credit, though, not only do each of the companions get their moment in the Norwegian sun (yes, even Yaz) but the Doctor seems to re-establish an empathetic connection with Team TARDIS that has been a bit lacking while she’s been racing around the place and showing off. There are times when the emotional arc of the story can come across as forced, and other times when it can be downright manipulative, but it’s often effective nonetheless. Time, then, to dive into specifics…

From now on, here be spoilers.

The rise of ‘Scandinavian Horror’ and the tropes it represents as a genre might seem like fertile ground for Doctor Who, a series that has mixed and matched eldritch creatures with alien invasions for the last half-century or so. (For that matter, when are we getting our J-Horror homage?) It would hardly be the first time the show’s dabbled in particular styles of cinematography and tone, after all. We’ve had everything from found footage to game shows. We’ve even had Time And The Rani. As such, the prospect of an episode that really embraced that style of filmmaking and gave it a uniquely Time Lord spin was really rather tantalising, and one the promotional materials took pains to promote. 

Ultimately, the Cabin in the Woods motif loses its veneer pretty quickly, around about the time we hit the third of the many ideas this episode was keen to add to our already-heaped plate. Though we begin by pondering the mystery of a large growly creature that the cottage’s terrified occupant Hanne insists ‘takes you away’, the slow-burning tension of barricades and brooding beasts is soon abandoned along with the pace and (sadly) the gorgeous location shooting.

From here, the story shifts into something approaching Pan’s Labyrinth, as we learn Hanne’s home is connected to an oppressive, gloomy cave containing an own-brand Orc named Ribbons – and here Kevin Eldon deserves a shout-out, because even though I knew he was in this episode I still failed to make the connection that it was him under the prosthetics. While Ribbons’ presence within the caves is never fully explained, he’s clearly a mercurial and intelligent alien being who’s very good at surviving under difficult circumstances, and for a few minutes it feels like he might turn out to be a significant part of whatever skulduggery has claimed Hanne’s Dad. 

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When the Doctor lays down her lifeline of string like a Gallifreyan Theseus – and for once we’re spared a glib anecdote about the time she met the original and taught him to play Ker-Plunk – it feels like the descent into this nightmarish underworld and its swarming flesh-moths might be the real mystery this script is offering up for our Sunday tea. Not so! The third act has yet another twist for the pile; these nightmarish caverns, filled with unexplained plot elements – Ribbons, his lanterns, the flesh-moths, the portals – are but another kink in the trail that leads us to the real villain… Except, as is par for the course on Chris Chibnall’s watch, there’s no truly evil intent lurking in the shadows.

If the motive force behind tonight’s episode had been a sentient universe that was resentful of ours, or vengeful, or just flat-out hungry, it’d be the kind of high-concept, impossible-to-portray confrontation that the Doctor WhoBig Finish audios delight in – a problem with an immeasurably macroscopic scale that boils down to Sylvester McCoy having a chat with somebody hooked up to a vocoder. As it stands, the idea of a piece of reality that is unwillingly, unwittingly harmful, incompatible with everything that allows our universe to exist and so has been forced to sit on the side-lines by itself as a lonely on-looker… well, it works surprisingly well when it comes to tugging at your heartstrings. I had PE lessons like that.

Even after we learn that Hanne’s mum Trine is alive and well in the strange, inverted cottage that lies beyond the Anti-Zone, there’s still plenty of room for intrigue. Conversely when Grace appears, things start to wobble a bit as mysteries begin to resolve themselves. Within the story, the Doctor is extraordinarily quick to declare that the place they’re in is impossible, but Danny Pink – his mind once trapped in a Matrix by Missy at the moment of his death – might have disagreed. There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of thing within the show, and the fact that the Doctor is able to flip from “I don’t know what’s going on” to “but it is definitely the exact fairy-tale my Gran used to tell me” without so much as waving the sonic around is a real leap of faith for the audience to make. That’s not just being clever, that’s being flat-out omniscient. 

It doesn’t help that, because we are the audience, we’ve seen loved ones coming back as physical, tangible temptation on TV many, many times before – particularly in the kind of creeping horror tonight’s episode spent its first third promising to deliver. We know it’s not really Grace. By extension, we also know it’s not Trine. As such, the stakes are pretty low. The episode seems to visually and spatially deflate at this point; first the gorgeous sets are stripped away, then characters are expelled back into the Anti-Zone with a swift visual cheat and a lot of camera shake. 

By the time you’re left with a few wooden beams and Jodie Whittaker challenging a talking frog – a badly ADR’d frog, at that – we’ve certainly come a long way from the gorgeous Nordic countryside that opened this episode, but it hardly feels like a triumphant ascent. If this had been a Big Finish adventure, the back-and-forth with the amphibious mastermind could probably have been pulled off successfully. As it is, ‘Jodie Whittaker talked to a frog’ is likely to become ammunition for anyone who wants to chronicle 2018 as the year Doctor Who seriously messed up. It’s not necessarily fair, but like Arthur Fonzarelli leaping over a shark on his motorcycle, it’s going to be very easy to meme.

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There were plenty of things to enjoy along the way, mind you. Hanne in particular is a delight; a vulnerable, angry, strong-willed, well-realised teenager who rips up all of the old clichés about blind characters and tosses them back, mostly into Ryan’s face. Tosin Cole and Ellie Wallwork display a remarkable anti-chemistry, if such a thing exists – it’s easy to believe their characters can neither stand nor understand one another. Elsewhere, Christian Rubeck portrays Erik with the right balance of selfishness and sorrow to be a deadbeat Dad in denial – like Graham and Yaz, you really want to smack him and roar at him to up his game, but that doesn’t mean you want to watch him die. 

Yaz is Action Girl once again this week, playing the muscle without much character development along the way. This time, it’s Graham who winds up being tripped up by his own emotions. The last few episodes have seen him becoming a surrogate Doctor of sorts, albeit an understated portrayal – the one who’s listening, noticing, challenging. The one who’s still and quiet while another character fills the awkward silence with clues. We might expect Matt Smith to pull an emergency sandwich out of his jacket, but we’re not anticipating that from Bradley Walsh. Has he found the kitchen on that cramped TARDIS set?

And yet, for all his experience and common sense it’s Graham who has the greatest difficulty walking away from ‘Grace’ even after she openly displays her “LET RYAN DIE” hat and pin-badge. It could have come across as inconsistent, but instead it helps show Graham as a real, flawed human being – for everything he’s learning, his pain is still real and affecting him. The fact that he finally got his ‘Grandad’ moment with Ryan in a low-key and reflective scene, rather than when they were both staring down the barrel of an alien death-ray, was a proper treat. 

All of which adds up to an episode that has no shortage of ideas, but struggles to conjure the self-restraint necessary to save a few of them for another day. There’s no one through-line to this story; no single core premise that gets fleshed out, explored and twisted to a satisfying conclusion, but there are plenty of interesting ideas that keep you guessing for much of the run-time. Ribbons and the Anti-Zone, as an example, could have been an adventure unto themselves – a race of hedonistic traders feeding on the flotsam of multiple universes and trading between them.

For all that, there’s a definite heart to be found here. The individual moments are earnest and sometimes moving, even when you know you’re watching the regulars being manipulated. It’s a pity that the premise on which the episode finally settles is perhaps the weakest all those it includes, because there’s so little peril there. We know no-one’s going to get trapped in a collapsing conscious universe, not least because the BBC have been so eager to ram full-cast photos of New Year’s Day down our collective throats. Still, the first two thirds of It Takes You Away does exactly what it advertises, bundling you onto a roller-coaster of strange places and stranger things. Even if the destination turns out to be something of a disappointment, the journey itself is at least inventive enough to be decently entertaining.