Doctor Who: 11.09 It Takes You Away
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It Takes You Away had all the elements to make it the best episode of series 11 yet. A creepy boarded up cabin in the middle of a Norwegian forest, a blind girl abandoned while a monster stalks her from outside and a portal to another world with flesh eating moths and a creepy villain. My initial reaction was that this was rather great, and certainly on reflection, there were moments in last night's episode that stick with me. But there's also that nagging feeling that, like the rest of this latest run, something is a little missing.
Let's start with the good - and there was some really good stuff this episode. The opening act was beautiful and atmospheric, from the crystal waters of the nearby Fjord to the boarded up cabin nestled amid the trees, this was a terrific piece of scene setting that teased real moments of Nordic horror. The discovery of abandoned blind girl Hanne (Ellie Wallwork delivering a strong performance), bear traps in the barn and monstrous roars from the trees were packed with atmosphere.
You could feel the tension, balanced with moment of lovely humour, from Jodie Whittaker at perhaps her best yet, full of zingy one liners as the Doctor and Bradley Walsh's Graham pulling out a cheese and pickle sandwich from his coat in case of emergencies. Whether that's been there since he made that statement about always being hungry in Rosa is a matter of debate, but Hanne seemed to eat it anyway. It was lovely to see every companion get a little something to do, from Yaz using her police training to help the Doctor find clues and soothe Hanne to Ryan's misplaced frustration at his own dad, loudly proclaiming that Hanne's father Erik had left her (he wasn't completely wrong though).
The atmospheric horror continued in the trip through the tunnels between worlds. The Anti-zone was a scary place, surely giving younger audience members nightmares, with the murky tunnels, eerie red light, flesh eating moths and a suitably chilling performance from Kevin Eldon as creepy monster Ribbons, who bargained with the Doctor in exchange for news of Erik, while hinting at indulging in eating the Doctor, Yaz and Graham at the first opportunity. I loved every minute of this scene, down to the moths devouring Ribbons after her take the fallen sonic while everyone else held their breaths didn't move to avoid detection. Perhaps for the first time since the Moffat era, Doctor Who felt a little bit scary again.
But this wasn't a horror story, more moments of horror mixed within a sci-fi tale of journey between two world and a sentient universe known as the Solitract. I commend writers Ed Hime and Joy Wilkinson for misleading the audience with one story and then changing track with a different plot altogether. But after such an atmospheric build up, directed with gusto by Jamie Childs, It Takes You Away starts to unravel at the seams.
Ryan discovering that Hanne's father Erik had rigged up speakers to make it sound like there was a monster outside - just to keep her indoors - feel ridiculous and almost cruel. I can understand the mental trauma of looing his wife, I can then understand perhaps why he would be drawn to mirror universe with his dead wife. But why leave Hanne in perpetual terror in a boarded up house, listening to a monster that she believed had killed him and would come for her next? It was a whole load of misdirection for the Doctor and the audience, that makes little sense and feels more like child abuse the more you think about it.
At the same time, I loved the idea of a sentient universe and there was plenty of strong drama once the Doctor, Yaz and Graham emerged on the other side. Sharon D. Clarke made a very welcome return as Grace, the embodiment of the Solitract trying to connect to the main universe via Graham. Once again, Bradly Walsh stole the show as Graham struggled with his grief and joy at seeing Grace again; you could absolutely see him wanting to stay even with the dangers it posed. It brought credence to why Erik (Christian Rubeck) might abandon Hanne temporarily for his dead wife Trine (Lisa Stokke) - though surely brining his daughter across would have been the more obvious answer rather than abandoning her to perpetual terror?
The sentient frog with Grace's voice will likely be the biggest talking point of the episode. Yes it was a little silly, but it was kind of fun too and made sense as a manifestation of something Grace loved. Jodie Whittaker absolutely sold the scene; you believed she was talking to a sentient universe and didn't want to abandon it and it was a nice final act, even if it was slightly undone by the elephant in the room. Ryan was trapped in the tunnels of the Anti-zone for ages and Graham, Erik, Hanne and Yaz were also stuck there for some time before the Doctor left the Solitract. What happened to the flesh eating moths? Now, while I didn't want Ryan to meet the same grizzly fate as Ribbons, it undid a lot of the threat this place built up. Again, a lot of tense horror set up but little pay off.
Still, some frustrations aside, I rather enjoyed It Takes You Away, if you don't think too hard about the logistics. With no real villain of the piece (though Ribbons and the moths were an effective threat), and the monster in the woods coming to naught, the truly scary episode we were promised never really emerged. But we did get a terrific sci-fi concept and some meaty stuff for Walsh and Clarke to get their teeth into. On the emotional stakes, it definitely achieved what it set out to do.