This review contains no spoilers for Episode 9, but mentions plot details from the rest of Season 11 so far. Read on for our additional spoilery observations, after you’ve seen the episode.
“There are things out there worse than people.”
It Takes You Away, Season 11’s penultimate episode of Doctor Who, is a doozy – a truly singular story, told in a really unique way.
It’s just about safe to tell you that it begins with a cabin in the woods. In frost-bitten Norway, the Doctor and her gang are admiring fjords and chatting about wildlife when they spot a fortified house in the middle of nowhere. Its sole inhabitant, Hanne (Ellie Wallwork), is terrified of the monsters that stalk the woods, especially since her dad, Erik (Christian Rubeck), disappeared. Then, things start getting weird.
The episode escalates in increments. To some degree, it’s very reminiscent of Netflix’s Stranger Things, owing as much to the cinematography and Jamie Childs’ direction as it does to the story. Keeping it in the Who wheelhouse is the arrival of a character played by guest star Kevin Eldon, who Kevin Eldons the heck out of his scene-stealing role. And then Even Stranger Things start happening.
Although it’s fresher than anything else we’ve yet seen in showrunner Chris Chibnall’s fresh approach, it still has some of the pitfalls that have let down other episodes in this season. Chibnall’s Who still doesn’t seem comfortable with exposition. It’s no longer the motormouthed show it was under either of the previous showrunners and that always shows the most in the exposition dumps that keep accruing around the 30-minute mark.
But all the way through, writer Ed Hime keeps his finger on the emotional pulse that has characterised Season 11, in an episode that’s especially taxing for one member of the TARDIS team, but uses this tether to go further out there than anything else we’ve seen in the previous eight episodes. Your mileage may vary on how successful it is, but it’s poetic, uncynical stuff and, like so many of the guest writers’ episodes this year, it’s a heck of a statement for a first-time Doctor Who writer to make.
Fantastical and emotional, It Takes You Away lives up to its name, transfixing you with a dark fable that becomes only more surreal as it goes on. As well as turning the expected genre on its head, it takes certain concepts we’ve seen Who cover before, both in the classic series and in newer episodes, and creates something strikingly original. It’s not a hugely experimental form, but as one character says in a climactic moment, “it is a form that delights me”.
Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 9 is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th June 2019.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Shall we start with Ribbons of the seven stomachs? Gamely wearing prosthetics as the scrimping gremlin, Eldon would be the maddest thing about virtually any other episode of the season. There haven’t been too many performances like it this season, but Eldon plays up this Gollum-like creep to perfect effect.
– The very Upside-Down realm which Ribbons inhabits is very effectively done as well. We haven’t really seen Doctor Who in the “alien cave that’s actually a studio set with spooky lighting and dry ice” mode since before 2005, but the anti-zone is rendered convincingly by the tone as well as the admittedly retro execution. The idea of a negative zone like this was previously covered by classic series adversary Omega, an ancient Time Lord who went a bit funny after experimenting with anti-matter.
– Doctor Who has previously done mirror universes in stories such as Inferno, Turn Left, and Rise Of The Cybermen, the latter of which also has companions fooled by aliens disguised as their late loved ones. A nice touch here is that the characters are all mirrored in the Solitract as well, from the Doctor’s earring to the Slayer logo on Erik’s shirt.
– In other impressive guest work this week, Wallwork is great as the blind Hanne, and her feckless dad Erik (Christian Rubeck) is suitably grief-addled by the problem of the week. In an episode that’s really all about grief and letting go, Bradley Walsh is on marvellous form as always as poor, poor Graham, while Sharon D. Clarke puts in a welcome return appearance as “Grace” and in another role…
– The frog is going to be a whole thing, isn’t it? You could easily have hooked in a former regular for a cameo at that moment, from Carole Anne Ford to Pearl Mackie, as the Solitract bids to keep the Doctor in its universe, but the conscious universe shedding its pretensions and getting comfortable for an honest chat is more sound than it first appears in that reveal. “It is a form that delights me”, indeed!
– “I wish I could stay.” Comparisons to Douglas Adams abound, but it’s the sign of an utterly uncynical take that the reveal itself is played mostly straight. It’s funny, but the object of that scene is elsewhere, and it’s really nicely played by Jodie Whittaker. It could have been played more arch, but as others have remarked, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if you couldn’t have the odd episode where the Doctor has to save the day by gently breaking up with a Northern-accented amphibian.
– Let’s end with a call to have Ed Hime back to write another episode next season, please. The Woolly Revolution awaits…