Saturday, 8 December 2018

I’ll put my cards on the table right away and say I love it when Doctor Who goes full-on ‘frog universe’ level weird. This was especially enjoyable in Ed Hime’s It Takes You Away as it came as a surprise, at the tail end of a series where episodes have tended to, for better or worse, do what it says on the tin.

This episode’s trailer, as unfortunately vague as all the Series 11 marketing, pitched it as standard ‘cabin in the woods’ horror fare, a trope which is worn out in horror films that are for an adult audience and therefore allowed to be actually scary and which I wasn’t particularly enthused to see a toned-down Doctor Who take on. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more going on inside this tin.

It’s an episode built around turns that take the story in completely different directions – from that cabin the woods we’re taken to a hellish cavern more delightfully alien and grotesque than anywhere we’ve been this series, and from there to a whole different universe, before culminating in a void with a frog on a chair. At any point in this plot, there’s no way you could predict where it’ll be in ten minutes’ time.

And yet, it all flows so well, due to the very sharp focus in its character stories. It’s a style reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s Who at its best – plots which similarly ran off on unexpected tangents with big sci-fi concepts but which were unified by their solid character focus. I say ‘at its best’ because it’s an approach that went wrong for Moffat as often as it worked. Here it works; with the missing father, the dead mother, the return of Grace, and the unspoken issue of Ryan’s father, this is an episode about absent family members, and that’s a thread that carries us through the surreality, like the string the Doctor uses as a guide through the caverns. Graham’s scenes with ‘Grace’ are heartfelt, and pairing Ryan up with another abandoned child works well to reflect his own issues.

There is a hint of Chibnall’s style too, in that stories this season have tended towards the procedural solving of mysteries, and the red herring with the ‘monster’ is a perfect example of that. It’s nicely worked into the plot – set up but you don’t see it coming – while also tying into that deeper theme. But it also leads into what’s missing from the conclusion: Erik is forgiven for his poor treatment of Hanne very quickly, and it’s a shame he never gets any dialogue with Ryan, who presumably has some harsh words to say to a runaway father; a confrontation between the two seems like a necessary beat towards the end but it’s skipped over.

While it’s Ryan and Graham’s story, this is also a great episode to show off Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, perhaps largely because the climax is a show of compassion from her towards the Solitract rather than a confrontation, which plays to her strengths. That said, this is, I think, the first episode in which this Doctor has been put at odds with a companion, and both Whittaker and Bradley Walsh really shine in their argument outside the portal. If the next episode actually wants to feel like a series finale, though, this Doctor might actually have to confront some villains for once, so we’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, Yaz is sidelined as usual, but at least her approach to Hanne feels like a solid and not superficial use of her police trainee backstory, with the additional purpose of highlighting Ryan’s awkwardness.

And then we have a universe in the body of a frog. A frog universe! That’s wonderfully ‘only Doctor Who would do this’ in its combination of the everyday and the enormous. And no, I don’t care that the animatronic is a bit shit.

It Takes You Away is the biggest surprise of Series 11, as well as the boldest episode with the possible exception of Rosa, and all the better for it. While Rosa felt like Chris Chibnall’s approach to Who but done really well, It Takes You Away brings to mind qualities some of the show’s best writers of past – the emotional resonance of a Russell T Davies script, the thrillingly pivoting plots of Moffat, and a bonkers ending that Douglas Adams would be proud of. It’s also quite Neil Gaiman-esque in its big sci-fantasy idea with an emotional punch – a god looking for a friend. What I’m saying is, Ed Hime can come back next series, please.

  1. Rosa
  2. It Takes You Away
  3. Kerblam!
  4. Demons of the Punjab
  5. The Witchfinders
  6. Arachnids in the UK
  7. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  8. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  9. The Ghost Monument


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