This review contains spoilers.
It Takes You Away didn’t inspire the same monumental “meh” feeling in me as its predecessor The Witchfinders did, but a few days later I’m finding I care about it even less. To me, it feels like an unwelcome callback to the Moffat Era: a series of progressively more unlikely and-thens instead of a unified, consistent narrative.
Some background may be useful at this point.
The Doctor and her companions rock up in, apparently, northern Norway in the middle of winter.
They find an isolated house in the woods, with planks nailed over the doors and windows – except it’s not empty: a teenager, Hanne, is hiding from the terrifying noises she hears in the woods every day, and whose owner she suspects is behind the disappearance of her father.
So: are we in for a standard Doctor Who procedural, with scary alien monsters roaming the woods like creatures out of a fairytale? Or even a moody Scandi drama, with ‘orrible murders and Secrets and people drinking whiskey in the dark?
Of course not. The team behind Thirteen knows better than that. It Takes You Away is once again a reframing of what we expect of Doctor Who. There’s no monster, just bad parenting. There’s no villain, just a lonely sentient universe.
I’m all for twists and turns that reveal the world we inhabit as a place bigger and more beautiful than we thought it was, but that kind of thing only works if it grows logically out of what came before it – and It Takes You Away doesn’t progress logically. Instead, it moves us hastily through a number of different settings and ideas that could all have sustained an episode on their own: a mirror that becomes a portal to another world; a wound in the fabric of the universe that manifests as a warren of slimy caves inhabited by flesh-eating moths and a weird humanoid bargaining alien named Ribbons the Seventh; an alternative universe where the dead come to life; a sentient frog who becomes Best Friends with the Doctor.
I think the reason I found this all so unsatisfying is that there’s no thematic or symbolic reason for it all to be here at once. In other words, there’s no overriding organising theme that would allow us to read the fantastic imagery productively. It Takes You Away kind of wants to be an episode about grief and the value of life, a culmination of the series’ quiet focus on loss and death that puts Graham face-to-face with Grace in the mirror universe, gives him closure. But it’s all handled so tritely. Graham has to “let her go” and return to the living (his grandson Ryan) as Hanne’s father has to let his dead/resurrected wife go and return to his daughter. Because we’ve never heard that take on grief before. Oh, wait.
Anyway, what does that have to do with the mirror and the caverns and the moths? That critical mass of Stuff just obscures the episode’s emotional throughline, making that climactic scene with Grace, and the Doctor’s abandonment of her frog friend, feel unearned and irrelevant.
I want to say that the episode did at least get Hanne right: she is blind (and played by a blind actor, Ellie Wallwork), but that doesn’t stop her being moderately energetic in the story, or from annoying Ryan in a peevish-teenager way. I don’t know, though, how to feel about the fact that she immediately recognises her mirror-mother as fake when her father hasn’t realised this in several days: is this the Blind Seer trope raising its dubious head?
Oh, conclusions. I hate conclusions. It Takes You Away is an irritatingly disjointed episode, and one that’s out of keeping with the rest of the season, stylistically speaking. I’m a little disappointed with where this season’s been going, actually: it started off pretty strongly, but the last few episodes have been lacking in focus and direction. Let’s see what the last episode’s like, though, before we pass judgement on the Whittaker Administration.