The ninth episode of Doctor Who Series 11 took us (literally) through the looking glass. Was it brilliant? Bonkers? Or both…?
We’re not sure whether it’s by accident or design, but penultimate episodes of Doctor Who always seem to be among the best of their respective season. Think back: we’ve had classics like The Pandorica Opens, Dark Water, Heaven Sent, and World Enough and Time. And that’s just in the last few years! Needless to say then, It Takes You Away had a strong reputation to live up to. Very little was revealed pre-broadcast, which may or may not have worked in the episode’s favour. Whether you loved it or loathed it may very well be dependent on your own expectations going in. But one thing’s for certain either way: this is one story we won’t be forgetting in a hurry…
Something we can surely all agree on is that nothing is as it seems in It Takes You Away. What begins as a picturesque pit-stop at a Norwegian fjord (amazing cinematography this week!) soon spirals into something rather different indeed. We’re initially teased with the idea of a cabin-in-the-woods horror story. Ellie Wallwork brilliantly plays the blind child Hanne, whose father mysteriously disappeared at the same time a monster came a-huntin’. It’s a captivating start and could have easily carried the episode all by itself. However, it’s not long until the veil begins to lift. The ‘monster’ is nothing more than a cruel prank, and Hanne’s father wasn’t eaten by a terrifying beastie. Instead, the Doctor discovers that their mirror is actually a portal to another world! What follows is pure, unadulterated madness that’ll leave you shouting “Nor-way, Jose!”… for better, or for worse.
Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall
The middle portion of this episode, rather unexpectedly, takes place in a cavernous, labyrinthine ‘anti-zone’. Or, as the Doctor describes it, a buffer between two different dimensions that are never supposed to touch. It’s a huge diversion from the (comparatively) quiet normality of Norway, and our first indicator that things are about to start getting weird. The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz venture through the mind-bending maze and come across the joyfully nutty Ribbons, played by Kevin Eldon. Admittedly, his role is a little confusing and strange – but then again, so is the character! The Doctor bargains her sonic screwdriver (or “tubular”, if you prefer) for information. Ribbons sheds some literal light on the situation… only to get torn to shreds by a swarm of flesh moths. Again, these carnivorous critters come seemingly out of nowhere. Nevertheless, they pose an actual threat – something sorely lacking from Series 11 up to now.
The gang escapes through another portal, only to find themselves… back in the cabin? But instead of finding Ryan (who stayed behind to look after Hanne), they come across Hanne’s father, Erik (Christian Rubeck) – alongside his deceased wife, Trine (Lisa Stokke). Even before this shock reveal though, there’s a subtle clue that things aren’t quite right here. Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that, as soon as the Doctor and co. exit the portal, every shot is horizontally flipped. Didn’t notice it the first time? Jodie Whittaker’s and Bradley Walsh’s hair partings are the wrong way round. Erik’s backwards Slayer t-shirt is a dead giveaway. Plain and simple, it’s a mirror image for a mirror world. Such a basic technical trick that works absolute wonders in the moment. It’s so obvious, it’s genius.
And then, just to make things even weirder, Graham’s dead wife shows up as well. Blimey.
An Un-frog-ettable Ending
So what on earth is going on? Well, nothing on Earth at all, actually. The Doctor deduces that they’re in a whole separate universe, masquerading as an idyllic version of their own in order to trap them. The ‘Solitract’ is a neat concept that fits nicely into Time Lord mythology without taking anything away from it. (The same goes for the Doctor’s seven grandmothers!). What it gives us, then, is a touching denouement about overcoming grief. Erik and Graham have to accept that Trine and Grace aren’t real – the only way to get back home is to let their loved ones go. Bradley Walsh, as expected, wrings every last emotion out of his performance. It’s utterly heart-breaking. What’s more, it makes things all the more impactful when Ryan finally calls him “Grandad” at the episode’s close.
But we can’t discuss It Takes You Away without discussing the talking frog. Once everyone else has been expelled from the mirror universe, only the Doctor and the Solitract remain. For some, this will be a brilliantly bonkers leap into absurdity, like something right out of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For others, this will be where the episode completely croaks (pun fully intended). Certainly, when we sat down to watch this story, we never would have predicted the antagonist being an amphibian voiced by Sharon D. Clarke. (Let alone Jodie Whittaker blowing it a kiss goodbye!). For our money though, it’s exactly the right amount of crazy. Make no mistake: this is Doctor Who with the madness cranked up to thirteen. It Takes You Away is a stunning departure from the safe, plodding stories seen previously in Series 11. If you wanted something different, it doesn’t come more different than this.
Warts and All
But even though we loved it, It Takes You Away wasn’t perfect. The ever-changing tone (from horror, to fantasy, to… surrealism?!) meant that it was a jack of all trades and master of none. We’d happily watch an episode devoted to any of its individual concepts, which all oozed potential but only had about 15 minutes each to develop. There were also some ongoing pitfalls – an over-reliance on the sonic screwdriver, and quite a lot of talky exposition. By no means dealbreakers, but distracting all the same. At least it was consistent with the rest of the Series 11…!
There was also a niggling sensation that It Takes You Away could have been something so much bigger. Had it been tied into a larger narrative (as Part One of a finale, or a lead-in like Turn Left or Face the Raven), the ramifications could have been immense. We were almost convinced that the mirror world would turn out to be a trap set by this series’ big bad. Imagine the Time Lords, or the Daleks, or even the Stenza showing up in the Solitract world. Hype levels for next week’s finale would have shot through the roof! Instead: talking frog. That’s some epic trolling. True to Chris Chibnall’s word, this remains a season of standalone stories, removed from almost everything that came before it. This episode still works fine as it is – but oh, for what more it could have been.
All in all, It Takes You Away safely added to Doctor Who’s legacy of memorable penultimate episodes. With twists and turns at every corner, it spins a ribbit-ing yarn (ahem) that will certainly surprise – even if it doesn’t always delight.