Doctor Who: 11-09 “It Takes You Away” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who, more than most shows, is unafraid to consistently change. Every once in a while however, we get a change that is more special than a simple fresh location, villain or monster- a true refrain from the formula, breaking away from standard expectation and being unafraid to be experimental. These experiments, while not always working, often produce some of the very best stories in the history of the show- so much so that 2007 Weeping Angel debut Blink has consistently peaked high on ‘best of’ lists, despite barely featuring The Doctor. Stories like Listen and Heaven Sent often join it. While I’ve enjoyed this series thus far, it has felt like it needed one of these break-away stories. Enter Series 11’s penultimate story, It Takes You Away.
The title alone is haunting enough, and the initial goings-on match it. Arriving in another varied location, The Doctor discerns from tasting the soil (those kind of Doctor-y moments are…*chef’s kiss*) that Team TARDIS has landed in Norway by a fjord. They soon spot a cottage, with a chimney yet no smoke. A fridge full of moldy food and a floor littered with sweet wrappers soon leads them to a terrified teenager called Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) and the sense of something very, very wrong. Hanne is convinced that a monster comes from the woods at the same time every day- and it took her dad Erik (Christian Rubeck).
The cottage is a marvel, an instantly spooky locale filled with arch, angled shadows. The way it’s lit and shot- with streaks of light coming through the windows, pouring across “A” shaped arches- provides a balanced contrast of a homely while unnerving feel, with an intense, rapid fire tapping beat colouring the tension. This is Segun Akinola’s most accomplished score in general, with haunting vibes all the way through to a grand, ethereal version of The Doctor’s theme, all adding immeasurably to the overall piece.
While any normal story might have stayed at the cottage, the story of It Takes You Away soon shifts from abandoned house mystery to something much more abstract- a tale of three distinct locations, with an appropriate scale for the story and right atmosphere for each location crafted set by returning director Jamie Childs and his production team. It’s not a haunted house story; it’s a story of a “juddering dimensional portal in a mirror in a Norwegian bedroom”. Said mirror leads to a mirror world of temptation- and a dangerous “anti-zone” buffer, populated by the brilliantly weird Ribbons, who is just ever so slightly reminiscent of a certain Gollum, with his dry goblin theatrics and excellent prosthetics feeling fresh out of Labyrinth.
The anti-zone is a grim, unnatural creation, a retro throwback of set design we’ve not seen in the show’s revival. Seeing the cast skulking (then running) through jagged rocks with low smoke drifting through, lit by luminescent red lanterns, feels equally fresh but traditional. While the concept of a “negative” zone has been touched on in Classic Who (with classic villain Omega, who seems like Schrödinger’s Omega in Modern Who such is his constant state of returning/not returning), the melding of the anti-zone with the creepy cottage and fake feeling utopia mirror world helps bring it to life. The flesh-moths that populate the gloomy cave, stripping Ribbons of his flesh, are a startlingly scary visual, as is their frantic swarming. There’s terror everywhere for the cast.
The Doctor’s friends feel a lot more rounded with their attributes this time, and each get interesting material to deal with. The ongoing thread of Ryan being rubbish with kids rears its head again, contrasted with The Doctor’s attitude with them. Ryan has a lack of tact dealing with Hanne early on, and is quite frankly a bit of an arse in bluntly assuming Erik ran off. But when his own dad did the very same, it’s hard to be too judgemental. His failure to relate to Hanne with his “must be hard” platitude makes it ever sweeter to see their relationship bloom throughout. Yaz, while still rather under served, is allowed greater agency and more relevant police moments, like the “reinforcement makes them safe” moment dealing with Hanne. Her anger at Erik is grin-inducing also. Undoubtedly, It Takes You Away is Graham’s story though.
Poor Graham. As soon as he mentions that he and Grace “never got around” to coming to Norway, I got the feeling of whom we might be seeing. That didn’t make her reveal any less genuinely jaw dropping or breathtaking. The heartache caused by the trick of the mirror world is so good that it’s a little disappointing that we didn’t spend more time there, with mirror Grace’s protestation that she feels like her making the anguish so much tougher. Which of us, presented with the chance to spend more time with a lost loved one, who seems indistinguishable from the real deal, wouldn’t take it? Graham enthuses of all the things he’s seen in the TARDIS, just to be told that it “sounds like you’re doing fine without me”. It’s not fair, as Graham says under duress. The temptation is cruel. His heartbroken pleading that Grace is the real deal and remembers everything is stunningly effective.
This feels like the most rounded portrayal we’ve had of the Thirteenth Doctor. She’s more compassionate, tuned-in and sympathetic than ever- the small changes in her expressions being immaculate, much like her subtle displays of anguish in prior stories. She shows great care in choosing to tell Hanne that she and the gang were just “out walking” when they found her, and in noticing her blindness and drawing the heart-breaking but necessary chalk message. There’s still a tendency to exposit heavily, but as the mystery of the Solitract develops, Jodie shows the blend of genuine fear and wild fascination with the impossibility of the myths of reality coming true with aplomb.
Jodie’s almost matched performance wise by Ellie Wallwork as Hanne. Currently attending The Royal National College for the Blind, Ellie is fantastic. Representation on-screen is always important, and Doctor Who has led the way with roles for blind and transgender actors in recent series among many other areas of representation. To see genuine blind rep this time around, and with such a heartfelt, intelligent and brave performance by Ellie it really shows that there’s no excuse when it comes to not casting actors who fit the role and refuse to let a condition like blindness stop them from succeeding. Christian Rubeck too is powerful as Erik, who although clearly a bit of a deadbeat dad had been completely fooled by the Solitract, and Lisa Stokke as Trine helps sell the unknowing illusion with a lively performance.
Illusions never last though, and the climax of It Takes You Away gives us the most emotional moments of this series. The Doctor’s stern heart and determination to save her friends from the illusion and her desperate attempt to save Eric’s life is the first time we’ve truly seen the full weight of the Time Lord with Jodie, trading her life in our universe to be partnered with the Solitract forever. This brings us to what is, for my money, one of the weirdest, most beautiful scenes in recent Who history.
As the Solitract’s universe melts away and The Doctor cautiously steps through white arches and mist that seems to stretch forever, she finds herself faced with the Solitract in a form it finds pleasing- a frog, on an IKEA garden chair. Stripped back of all pretense of trying to lure people into being its friend and now simply appearing honest and friendly, the only motivation of choosing the frog being innocently that it was what Grace loved- and it now liked them too. Despite all those theories, it wasn’t a returning face that Thirteen was blowing a kiss to, but simply a conscious universe masquerading as a frog who desperately wants companionship that can never be, instead. Simple, isn’t it!
It makes so much more sense that the Solitract presented as a frog, a more abstract bit of imagery, because let’s be real- if it was any one friend in particular, there would be arguments aplenty. The frog is a very Douglas Adams or 2001: A Space Odyssey idea. Plus, it’s so ridiculously silly, even down to the puppetry, that it’s perfect for Doctor Who. Doctor and Solitract can’t be together though, and as she joyously tries to do our universe justice explaining it, before returning home now friends forever with the eternal frog universe and dodging back between the rocks of the anti-zone with her theme blaring, it’s the clearest idea of Thirteen we’ve had. Saying goodbye to friends is always hard, yet Jodie sells that even when acting opposite a puppet frog. And even after all that she’s just seen, Thirteen still is able to give a silent, compassionate look to Erik and the message on the wall upon returning back, so he is aware of what he did and his responsibility. Jodie’s performance is nothing less than sensational.
The third act of It Takes You Away is cathartic moment after moment, from Graham’s final rejection of the temptation to The Doctor “breaking up” with the Solitract, and if that sequence of events wasn’t enough to already cement it as one of my favourite Who stories in a while, then the final denouement finishes the job. Despite being very high concept, with mystery, terror and sadness throughout, we still end on a quiet, familial and humanist moment. We all knew Ryan calling Graham “grandad” was coming, but it feels immensely great to have it finally happen. The look on Bradley Walsh’s face afterward is pure televisual joy, paired with the contemplative, swelling score, and I was quite sure my heart was about to burst.
It Takes You Away joins the pantheon of those very special Who stories that remind me that when the show hits top form, it is rarely matched, especially in terms of sheer bonkers enthusiasm. A chilling Scandinavian fable that develops into something altogether more transcendental, this is Doctor Who ruminating on love, loss, friendship and the sheer joy of the discovery in life. It Takes You Away is filled to the brim with ideas, imaginative storytelling and things to say that feel both original and comfortingly classic at the same time. For writer Ed Hime this is another script from a new Who writer this series that is a grand success. I’ve run out of superlatives for Bradley Walsh’s wonderful Graham, while the rest of the main and guest cast shine brightly throughout, particularly Ellie Wallwork’s spirited Hanne. And as for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, this is her finest hour- yet. Next week it’s the end, and the Battle of Long, Hard to Spell Title!