Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (S11E09) Review
Shirt watch: Blue
This week, it’s Doctor wHomage as we get spooky and surreal and writer Ed Hime brings us a Whovian spin on some familiar horror tropes.
Having arrived back in the present, the Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan find themselves in Norway. Intrigued by a nearby cottage, the gang investigate only to find the house boarded up and fortified and a young girl named Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) alone and scared inside. With a monster apparently roaming the woods and Hanne’s father Erik (Christian Rubeck) having seemingly vanished, Ryan and Graham make a discovery which may mean that what’s inside the house is more dangerous than what’s outside.
Atmospherically, “It Takes You Away” takes elements from “Hush”, “A Quiet Place” and even “Don’t Breathe” in setting up its tense and creepy scenario, although it very quickly becomes apparent that the movie Hime is actually riffing on is “The Village”, as the truth about Hanne’s isolation and the menace prowling the forests is revealed. The Shyamalananigans don’t end there, either, because we it turns out Hanne’s father has been lying to her so he can continue to ‘see dead people’, specifically his late wife Trine, Hanne’s mother. It doesn’t take a sixth sense to realise something isn’t right with the situation but it will take the story a while to get to the point.
First of all, we have to deal with a narrative – and literal – middle section which joins the two halves of the story together with a dash of peril, a nod to Stephen King’s “It” and yet another of Season 11’s ‘forces of nature’ threats, in the form of the Flesh Moths – remarkably inconsistent swarm predators who find their prey through light, sound and movement except for the many occasions when they don’t. We also get de-boned Sycorax/ proto-Skrull from “Captain Marvel” Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs (an almost unrecognisable Kevin Eldon), a sort of exposition goblin who exists to dump information onto the characters (and us the audience) before promptly dying by explicitly and immediately not following his own advice. Perhaps there’s a warning to good old ‘warns-people-not-to-interfere-in-history-right-before-interfering-in-history’ Doctor 13 there, hmm?
There’s a genuinely fresh and interesting idea at the heart of the episode as it’s revealed the other side of the slightly broken portal (joined by the moth-infested anti-zone) isn’t simply a parallel universe or the land of the dead but is, in fact, a sentient universe which is fundamentally incompatible with our own universe. The Solitract is an anomaly from before the creation of the universe, whose ejection from reality allowed the universe to come into being but eternity can be lonely and so it has created a bridge into our universe and lured Erik in with a recreation of his dead wife to keep it company. It’s somewhat convenient that the Solitract can accommodate one or two individuals from our universe but any more than that and it becomes unstable and dangerous, like a particularly shoddy elevator. There’s also a lingering question of why it didn’t create any new avatars to beguile Yaz or the Doctor.
Of course, this setting is used to pick up one of the season’s dangling threads, specifically the one connecting Graham and Ryan. That this was going to happen was heavily telegraphed by the brief chat between Graham and Ryan at the top of the episode about how he and Ryan’s Nan had always wanted to go to Norway. Appropriately enough, though, the episode handles the emotional resolution of their mutual loss in an inverted way, a back-to-front reflection of how it should have gone.
It shouldn’t have been Graham who had a reunion with his dead wife, it should have been Ryan, for the maximum impact. Graham’s reunion with Grace (an oddly stiff Sharon D Clarke) is poignant but plays the same notes as his previous imaginary encounter in “Arachnids In The UK” but for Ryan, it would have been hugely significant. Not only would it have given him a moment of closure with the most important and constant family presence in his life but for him to figure out it wasn’t really his Nan because she wasn’t concerned about leaving Graham in danger would have been a wonderful moment for the thus far poorly developed character to shine and also completed an arc of him coming to understand that Graham loved his Nan and loves him and deserves to be called Grandad. As it’s done in the episode, with the roles reversed, the ‘grandad’ moment ends up falling flat whereas it should have been the capstone to a wonderful emotional character arc.
Elsewhere, the episode, like many this season, struggles to find something for all of the characters to do so activities are arbitrarily assigned to keep people busy. The Doctor again demonstrates her penchant for delegation, even – or especially – when there’s danger. Where her other incarnations led, she prefers to follow, often after sending one or more companions on ahead of her to see what’s going on.
This is another season 11 story where there’s no villain per se (I say there’s no villain, but Hanne’s dad is a selfish, negligent asshole and never really gets called out on it) but a situational dilemma for the Doctor to resolve. It’s resolved by the Doctor making sure her friends are safe and then offering kindness to the Solitract even though she knows the kindness could kill her if she doesn’t escape. The Doctor escaping from an artificial universe which is collapsing in on itself isn’t in itself a new concept, meaning what started out as “The Village” ends up being a modernist reimagining of “Castrovalva”, only with a frog instead of the Master. That frog, though: a form that ‘delights the Solitract’ as much as it dismayed viewers. I can just imagine those who thought last week’s mud zombies were too ‘silly’ dealing with the Doctor Who version of the disappointing appearance of Jodie Foster’s dad as the ‘aliens’ at the end of “Contact”.
Deliciously hard sci-fi, if a little too soft in the science part, “It Takes You Away” is a metaphysical, trippy, but frustratingly woolly, slice of contemplative Who which needed a few more answers and fewer rubber amphibians to fully blossom. Hopefully, the Doctor’s shattering of the mirror portal at the end doesn’t presage seven years of bad luck for our itinerant Time Lord, although next week’s season finale brings back the season’s biggest bad of all to write the final episode.