Tuesday 4 December 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x09 - It Takes You Away

Doctor Who 11x09 - It Takes You Away

The shorter episode count certainly hasn't helped matters, but it barely feels like any time has passed at all and we've already reached the penultimate episode of Doctor Who series 11. This is a series that's already been particularly big on locations, so it's no surprise to see it jet off to another area that (for the most part anyway) isn't Cardiff before the finale. This time the Doctor is going Nordic in It Takes You Away, the ninth episode in the series written by Ed Hime and directed by Jamie Childs. This is Hime's first foray in the world of Doctor Who, continuing this series' trend of primarily new writers and directors.

Arriving in present day Norway, the Doctor and friends come across a lone cabin and meet its sole occupant – a blind girl named Hanne. They learn from Hanne that both she and her father Erik moved into the cabin following the death of her mother, however her father went missing four days ago. Meanwhile the sounds of a mysterious creature surround the house, preventing Hanne from leaving to search for him.

As the group begin their search for Erik, they soon discover all that all is not as it seems. Behind a mirror upstairs is the gateway to another universe, not only leading to a story from the Doctor's childhood but also a face her companions' didn't expect to see again.

It Takes You Away is an episode that never really knows what it wants to be. The previews in the lead up to the episode airing suggested all the hallmarks of a proper horror episode (isolated cabins, monster noises, Scandinavian countries…) but this all turned out to be an elaborate ruse, something that is even quite cleverly weaved into the story. I suppose at its core It Takes You Away is contemplative science fiction foremost – putting its own spin on the tried and tested concept of "mirror universe", but it's dabbling into other genres certainly shouldn't be forgotten about. The opening act creates a fairly effective horror atmosphere through mystery and tension, playing up on sound instead of sight to convey how Hanne (played by blind actress Eleanor Wallwork) would experience it. The Doctor provides some of her usual comedy babbling throughout but also provides some of the better serious moments in the episode, such as the idea to write on the wall so that Hanne is unaware of her father's possible demise.

This atmosphere however begins to somewhat unravel as the Doctor, Yaz and Graham enter the Anti-Zone – a place that acts as a buffer of sorts between our universe and the "mirror" universe – the sentient Solitract. It's at this in-between point that the episode almost completely changes tone, replacing psychological horror with visual horror. Nothing especially drastic even by Doctor Who standards, but the dark, claustrophobic caves and flesh-eating moths feel like they belong to an entirely different episode. Kevin Eldon gives a decent performance as Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs, but again the character feels so out of place it almost feels as if the episode was simply required to feature some sort of alien character. Far too much time is spent on something that is basically a glorified pathway between two halves of the story, as well as a character that ultimately doesn't amount to anything other than an unnecessarily grisly demise.

The story begins to pick up again as they reach the Solitract universe (little touches like t-shirt images being mirrored go unreferenced but certainly not unnoticed), but it still isn't without its problems. The most glaring of these being how the episode simply glosses over how Erik flat out abandons Hanne to stay with his parallel-universe not-wife. Granted it does make reference to his fragile mental state earlier in the episode, but never is there any sign of repercussion to his actions nor is there any regret. It isn’t the first time an episode in this series has had a character pointed out another's mistakes and then dropped it without consequence, almost as if the show is suddenly afraid of judging people.

The concept of a sentient universe unable to interact with our own makes for a good science-fiction story, but at this point emotions play a much bigger part in the story. With Erik's characterisation iffy from the start and Hanne largely absent for this part it's up to Graham to really sell these scenes, and that's exactly what he does as he's met face to face with a fake version of Grace. As soon as he was cast fans seemed split on whether Bradley Walsh would be good or bad for the show, and as these episodes have repeatedly proved it's definitely the former. Graham has been such a great companion that it's almost enough to forgive the fact that Yaz's involvement has been almost non-existent (It Takes You Away being no exception there either), as his emotional turmoil over Grace's death continues to be both empathetic and thoroughly relatable. Seeing Grace back in even this capacity is wonderful, and a reminder of just how good she'd have been had she had the chance to travel in the TARDIS as well.

Finally comes the ending, which for better or for worse is certainly the biggest talking point of the episode. Doctor Who is a show that’s always been capable of the most ridiculous things, but the Doctor conversing with a sentient universe that's taken the form of a talking frog with Grace's voice definitely raises the bar somewhat. It's a sequence that was going to look stupid however you slice it, but that mixed quality BBC CGI really doesn't improve things. The whole thing is rather absurd and does take away from the more serious themes the episode projects, but at the same time it feels like something perfectly suited to the Thirteenth Doctor. This series has been remarkably low on stakes and confrontation, presenting Whittaker's Doctor as less of the galactic superhero more recent incarnations began to feel like and more like the cosmic hobo they were meant to be.

It Takes You Away is an episode filled with several interesting concepts, however either these ideas are poorly strung together into an ill-fitting clash of tones or alternatively not given the breathing space they need to properly work. However these flaws are quite literally held together by a saving Grace, leading to an exception strong performance from Bradley Walsh as he continues to make Graham the standout character of the series. Not the best Doctor Who has had to offer this year, but certainly not the worst either. Next week comes the big finale though, as the Doctor and friends take to space once last time for The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

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