For one reason and another, I just couldn’t gather the family to watch this one. After the attempts had dragged out long past the end of the series’ broadcast run, I eventually gave up on them and watched it with just my middle son (Matthew). As it happened, this was the first Series-11 episode he’d seen. It was interesting to see his reaction, coming to it cold.
Initial impressions: favourable. I liked the set-up, with the blind girl, Hanne, alone in the house. I like that Ryan — in one of the series’ very very few callbacks to the companions’ back-stories — assumed that Hanne’s father had deserted her. I liked that we were left to infer that this is because it’s what had happened to him, rather than having that spelled out. (Though it did remind me that Ryan’s plot strand has been completely dropped on the floor since the brief mention in Arachnids in the UK.)
Still, we were given a nice set of mysteries: the house, the lone girl, the vanished father, the mysterious beast that comes at the same time every evening.
But then … they find a mirror that’s a gateway to another world (OK), and that other world is, for some reason, basically a laser-tag arena only with an inexplicably covetous goblin (played by the actor Kevin Eldon) and a flock of carnivorous piranha-moths. For no reason. Nothing that happens in this red world makes much sense (e.g. sometimes staying still is the way to avoid the moths, and sometimes running away from them is the right thing); and, worse, none of it has the slightest relevance to anything that happens elsewhere.
And the reason this is a tragedy, rather than just a waste of time, is because there’s plenty else happening, and it all gets rather rushed through. It turns out that the laser-tag arena is just a Wood between the Worlds, and the real destination is a mirror world that you reach through it. But we don’t discover this until we’ve burned 20 minutes running around inside the red-lit maze, avoiding moths. It really is the most pointless digression.
And this matters because the mirror-world is interesting. It’s where Hanne’s father has disappeared to (I don’t think we ever find out how he got there). And the reason he’s been staying, rather than returning to his daughter, is because his dead wife is alive there. Now that is a situation with possibilities. Even more poignantly, Graham’s wife Grace is there, too, and we liked her back before she died at the end of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. (Ha! It only now occurs to me that that title could just as well apply to Grace as to the Doctor.)
What does this mean? Why is it happening? How will Graham handle it? How will her grandson Ryan handle it? How will the slowly growing Graham/Ryan relationship change as they each get to grips with the return of the person that relationship was founded on? Will Yaz feel left out as Graham and Ryan latch onto Grace as the restored centre of their lives? How will the Doctor react as she thinks of all the people she has loved and lost, and wonders if any of them might also be alive in the mirror world?
Well, we don’t know the answers to most of these questions, because all that time-wasting in the laser arena has left us without the chance to explore in more than the most perfunctory way. We learn almost immediately that the mirror world was created by a mythical being, the Solitract; that Hanne’s mother and Grace are simulations; and that all the real people need to leave immediately or the mirror world will collapse. Which they do, leaving the Doctor alone with the Solitract.
And as Matthew pointed out, it would have been so easy to fix this, just by dumping the red zone completely and making the mirror-portal go straight between our world and the mirror world. No goblin, no moths, no running around for no reason. Time to breathe, and to consider the possible interpretations and ramifications of the mirror-world. You know, like the way The Girl Who Waited took its time, and was brilliant.
What would a good writer have done with this premise? A Paul Cornell, say, who has been criminally underused in New Who. Well, he would have used the science-fictional conceit to make us think about how we all deal with loss — about whether we construct alternative worlds in our minds where our loved ones survived — and about what ways that is healthy and unhealthy. In other words, surface-level story would be saying something below the surface as well. Instead, we got: flocks of carnivorous moths in a laser-tag arena.
Aaanyway, with all the companions and supporting cast out of the way, we then see the Solitract for the first time. It manfests as: a frog.
I’ve got no real problem with this: a super-powerful mythical being can manifest however the heck it wants, in my book. After all, Zeus was constantly turning up in the guise of a bull or a swan or what have you. But I do insist on the frog’s lip-sync matching its speech. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.
Anyway, the Doctor and the frog talk for maybe twenty-five seconds, the Doctor persuades the frog to let her leave, and it agrees to spend all eternity alone. The Doctor (rather smugly) congratulates herself on having made a friend, lightly skipping over the part where her very next act was to condemn that friend to a lonely eternity, and it’s as you were. Wham, bam, no thank you, ma’am.
I vaguely remember that Yaz was in the episode, too.
Look, please believe me when I tell you that writing all this gives me no pleasure. I really want to be able to come straight out and say “What a great episode of Doctor Who“; or even “That was, despite its very real flaws, a fine episode”. But nothing that’s happened this season has given me the material to say that. With only one opportunity left to redeem itself, Series 11 is on target to be not just the worst since the 2005 revival, but by far the least interesting. And whatever else it is, Doctor Who has to be interesting. You have all of time and space to play with: alien cultures, millions of years of evolution, scientific marvels beyond our imagining, scope for wonder upon wonder. Yet we are rarely touching on any of that. In the end, I give It Takes You Away a lukewarm positive assessment, on the basis that its set-up drew me in and its premise, though horrifically fumbled, was promising. But, really, if that’s going to be as good as it gets, then — I never thought I’d say this — I might give Series 12 a miss.
Tune in next time for thoughts not only on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos but on the series as a whole. I really really hope I can end on a positive note.
- DOCTOR WHO: ‘IT TAKES YOU AWAY’ by Gavin Burrows, is more positive than I am: “the Solitract is simply lonely. It … genuinely just does want everyone to be together. Much like ’Demons of the Punjab’, ‘It Takes You Away’ is a title that gets reapplied as the story progresses.”
- It Takes You Away Review by Elizabeth Sandifer. Wildly over-enthusiastic for me: I can’t even begin to get on board with the claim that “for the first time in her tenure Whittaker is unquestionably the Doctor, but in a way that no previous actor in the part ever could have been.”