From guttural horror to a moving consideration of grief, via high-concept sci-fi, all wrapped up by one of the most bizarre climaxes Doctor Who has done in years, It Takes You Away continues to add colour to this series as we approach the finale. Over its fifty minutes, it feels unpredictable in structure, even uncertain what genre it wanted to be – yet somehow it holds together. It’s a roller coaster in the way Doctor Who occasionally is – and luckily this is one of those occasions when it works.
Unrelenting dread is the order of the day as we arrive at a cold, isolated setting, and feel an overwhelming sense of the unknown. The threat doesn’t feel fully defined – which we realise was deliberate upon the reveal that our ‘monster’ was nothing more than a pair of speakers, à la Father Ted. But until this point, we’re made to feel as unsure in our grasp of the menace as possible, and Hanne’s (Eleanor Wallwork) blindness is used to increase this. She wouldn’t be able to see it were she fully sighted, but she is the only one who can tell us about it, convincing us that there will be something to see.
On this point, there is something unsavoury about how blindness is treated here – simply as a way of generating mystery. And there are no consequences for Erik (Christian Rubeck) having abandoned his terrified, bereaved, blind daughter alone in the woods, with a monster of his own fabrication and with no form of communication. It’s simply skipped over. Meanwhile, the Doctor uses Hanne’s blindness to her own advantage too when writing a message to Ryan, keeping yet more secrets from her. It’s a callous move that we might have grudgingly accepted from Peter Capaldi circa 2014, but it leaves a sour taste here.
Regardless, the mystery itself is intriguing, and reels us in at a perfect pace. When a sudden shift takes our journey into the anti-zone, we feel ready for a new stage of the adventure. And more unknowns come to unsettle us. Ribbons feels like a stock sci-fi character, but Kevin Eldon brings him deliciously to life, and it isn’t hard to start painting pictures of his life in our minds, with all his creeping nastiness. Again, he doesn’t feel fully explained, and nor do the flesh-eating moths, and nor does this entire space – but enough is given to us not to feel short-changed as we’re left to fill the blanks with our own imaginations. It’s all the scarier for it.
When we arrive into the Solitract universe, we’re struck by a sense of the uncanny – it’s subtle at first, and it takes a moment to hit home that, in this mirror world, the picture has been reversed (Erik’s Slayer t-shirt is the real clue). But what summons up real dread is Sharon D Clarke’s performance as Grace. We’ve seen her so little, but we know this version of her is wrong. So little seems changed, and yet she is colder; deader. It feeds our suspicions and our fears brilliantly, but that same strategy also makes Hanne’s family more distant to us. Trine (Lisa Stokke) is a copy, just like Grace, while Erik has done nothing to invoke our sympathy, and we are shown precious little of Hanne’s relationship with either of them. Only experiencing them at this crisis point, we don’t gain an understanding of who they normally are.
But the approach serves its purpose, and all through Grace and Graham’s conversations we’re desperate for him to admit what we can already see clearly. Yet we also feel his own desperation to believe he has found his wife, and we feel his pain when he must choose between this seductive fiction and a bleaker reality. But he gains strength from his love for Ryan, and this is at last reciprocated when Ryan calls him Grandad for the first time, having had to address his own mistrust of the men in his life during his experiences with Hanne. It’s a very satisfying development for both those characters as the series nears its end.
Finding new hope in a place of isolation is the theme of the episode then, and it’s quintessentially Doctor Who that this is examined not just by meeting ghosts of lost loved ones, but in a climactic conversation with a talking frog. Opinion on this scene is inevitably split, but personally I loved it. After so many twists and turns in the episode, this felt like another welcome one, and on just the right side of lunacy.
Celebrating Grace’s spirit further through a symbol she loved, the frog also lends a sense of the child-like that suits Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor well, with all the wonderment she has brought to the role (as well as tying in with the bedtime story from her grandmother where she first heard of the Solitract). This final conversation could be seen as a romantic relationship ending, like Grace and Graham, but with its roots in the Doctor’s childhood, it feels just as much like saying goodbye to an imaginary friend. There was something strangely touching about that little frog.
How fantastic that, after the fresh ground that’s already been struck this year (especially with trips into history), we can enjoy such original sci-fi ideas so late on too. It Takes You Away adds yet more much-needed variety to a very strong second half of the series, and serves our central characters well too. The arcs of their development feel clear, and we have gradually come to feel, without many ‘big moments’ for them, that we know the TARDIS team perfectly. One or two misgivings on the tone aside, this was another fantastic instalment to their first season.