WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I am not a horror person. I don’t like horror movies and I force my way through various horror games I want to play. I probably enjoy the scary episodes of Doctor Who for this reason. As a coward by nature, Doctor Who’s darker episodes are the right level of fear factor for me, more psychological in nature. Whilst some episodes can be terrifying (Gas-mask children and Weeping Angels mainly), it’s all injected with the usual level of Doctor Who whimsy to turn what could have been the setup for a gory horror into a suspenseful adventure with foul monsters.
Keeping this in mind, you could understand why I was excited when I saw the preview for It Takes You Away, the ninth episode of the eleventh series. It Takes You Away just sounds like the title of an indie horror movie, something deep and thrilling happening in the middle of some abandoned setting, preferably somewhere naturally isolated and frightening like Norway. The actual episode, however, is not what I was expecting, nor was it the heartfelt dramatic episode someone clearly wanted it to be.
Nor, I’m sad to say, was it particularly good.
It Takes You Away starts with a solid premise: the Doctor and Team Tardis land in a hut in Norway, 2018 and soon discover the hut’s sole occupant, a young blind girl by the name of Hanna, who is hiding from a monster in the woods that has taken her father, Eric. However, Team Tardis soon discover there’s more to this secret cabin than meets the eye as a mirror without reflection calls to a universe beyond, hungry for eternal companionship.
I’m finding it really hard to sugar coat my thoughts on this, so here goes: I didn’t like It Takes You Away. The main flaw of the entire story is that the writer mashed together two great pitches for episodes together and the strange Frankenstein hybrid of a story just doesn’t have enough strength, logic or heart to carry either of its intended plots.
On one level, It Takes You Away tries to start out as a suspenseful monster movie, but this falls flat almost immediately. Despite the incredible cinematography trying to instil a sense of dread to the proceedings, the script is too calm and lacks the immediate tension to really pull off what they’re going for. It doesn’t help that the blind girl Hanna is really unlikable. Actress Eleanor Wallwork isn’t terrible and the fact that she is blind should make Hanna immediately sympathetic to the audience. It lasts until she starts whining, snapping back and ultimately, knocking Ryan out with a door. On the one hand, yes, scared little girl, but it’s really hard to like someone who snaps at the slightest thing, actively talks back to the people trying to help and, most importantly, seriously injures the guy who is just trying to help. Child characters just don’t work in situations like this.
On another level, It Takes You Away is aiming to be a whimsical adventure into a distant world, a buffer dimension between planes featuring flesh-eating moths and strange inter-dimensional travellers. The issue is that none of these things have adequate explanation or focus put on them. Ribbons (this is now the second show I’ve watched this year to use that name and the other one was much better than this) is a delightful little villain and in any other episode, Kevin Eldon might have played a fan-favourite character in the craft little merchant with a penchant for choking Graham at knife-point.
Only this isn’t any other episode, it’s It Takes you Away and the middle act of the whole episode is really underwhelming as a result. Ribbons, the moths and the light are all introduced, only to be immediately disregarded when the plot realises it has nothing to keep them around for. They’re hollow examples of ideas thrown in to fill up time and it’s really annoying because alone, they might have made for a decent little romp through an ‘in-between’ dimension.
The final level and the supposed ‘heart’ of It Takes You Away is a dramatic look at loss, grief and manipulation by a sentient universe known as the Solitract. It’s clear this was the main focus of the episode and I have no doubt that an episode solely focused on this pitch would have been great. This is the part of the story where the actors really show their skill, especially Bradley Walsh’s Graham. Deceived by a vision of his late-wife Grace, played wonderfully by Sharon D’Clarke, Graham wrestles with his own loss and grief in a way that builds beautifully to the end of his character arc: choosing Ryan over the memory of his wife and having Ryan finally call him ‘Granddad’, a beautiful moment that I suspected since episode one but was still glad to have seen develop. It’s the best moment in the entire episode.
But it is also completely undeserved.
There’s never any real ambiguity that Grace and Eric’s ex-wife are trustworthy people. Despite selling them as manipulated souls or even misunderstood spectres, all credibility is destroyed when the two start flipping people through the mirror wall. The tension and drama of the whole scene is undercut and ruined. Stories like The Girl Who Waited and the Ganger two parter from season six both present much better stories of moral dilemmas regarding alternate versions of loved ones. It’s also hard to like the Solitract because we don’t get enough time with it. We get no sense of personal attachment or knowledge about them, how they think or feel. For being a sentient universe, the Solitract isn’t give any chance to gain any character and the whole detour into the parallel world ends up being a massive waste of potential.
Also, whilst we’re talking character, Eric is an absolute horrible person. Sure, on one hand, he misses his wife and loves her. On the other, however, he’s left his daughter for four days in the house alone and forced her into believing there are monsters outside to keep her from going outside. He deserves a lot worse than he gets and is ultimately left unlikable, much like his daughter.
Simply put, for every good part of this episode, there’s something terrible waiting around the corner. For every good camera direction, there’s a terrible lack of tension in the writing. For every good effect and set-piece, there’s a lack of focus. For great acting and brilliant character development, there’s the frog.
Because, of course, I wasn’t going to say this review and not mention the frog.
After saving the others, the Doctor has a conversation with the Solitract who becomes a frog to talk to her. They have a really deep meaningful heart to heart talk…only the Doctor is saying it to a frog.
This single scene is one giant metaphor for the entire episode as a whole.
It’s fun, has a lot of solid ideas and wants to better and smarter than it is, but is pulled down by a lack of focus, inconsistent tone and characters resulting in elements of bad script-writing and a lack of grounding in reality.
It feels to strange to address an issue like ‘reality’ in Doctor Who, considering it’s a silly sci-fi series made for children and families to enjoy. However, there’s silly and then there’s non-nonsensical. There’s ‘I’m eccentric so I have sonic sunglasses’ and then there’s ‘I taste dirt to tell me about trip adviser scores’. Don’t get me wrong, the line is funny, but it leans too far into the cartoonish nature of the show. A lot of this episode felt more fantasy than sci-fi and it trundled along madly crashing through barriers of logic in a way that jarred with everything good the episode was trying to say.
The actual concepts featured within It Takes You Away are great. I’d love to see a Doctor Who monster movie, a trip between dimensions and an episode that focused on loneliness and loss through a sentient universe trying to force people to keep it company. The character writing in the third act for Graham is wonderful and the Doctor dips into a darker side by using Hanna’s blindness and Eric’s love for his wife against them in a way that I really enjoyed.
However, all of these good features are pulled down for me by the negatives: trying to make us sympathetic to awful characters, a lack of tension, the terrible whiplash in tone, the overly cartoony reactions and fantastical jokes and, last but not least, just how much potential was wasted in this episode. If any one of the stories trapped in It Takes You Away had been told as a single episode this season, it would have been one of my favourites. However, what we got was a waste of each idea, a strange amalgamation that meant nothing, answered no questions and was just a disappointment in general.
It Takes You Away should be bang on a 3/5 for me. It’s a very mar-mite episode and I can see a lot of fans loving or hating it in equal measure. For me, however, the sheer waste of ideas and a bitter look in hindsight fuelled by my own annoyance means I have to rank this lower. If any of this sounds interesting to you, give it a watch. I’d actually recommend it. Even if you do find the episode terrible, you’ll find it terrible in a ‘spectacular’ way, not like regular failures like one might consider Sony’s Venom.
As for me, this episode did try and take me away but when it dropped me off, I was left confused, disappointed and desperately hoping for something better from next week’s finale.
It Takes You Away: 2/5