Friday 7 December 2018

WHO REVIEW: 11-9 - "It Takes You Away"

This, it seems, is series eleven's Marmite episode, with friends and critics alike either praising it as the greatest episode all year or an irredeemable pile of rubbish. As for me... well, I'm not quite sure whether I liked it or not. There was an awful lot to like about this episode, but the overall effect didn't quite gel for me.

Ed Hime's first script for the series is not short on ambition, charging from one idea to another. The episode is really four entirely different, barely connected settings: first it's a Nordic thriller threatening to become a horror story; then it's suddenly a creepy adventure in a goblin's maze; after that, it becomes an emotional and philosophical piece about love and loss; and finally, it's a woman standing in an empty room talking to a frog. Whether any of these elements actually manage to work together is a matter of opinion. While it's great to see the series really displaying some imagination and throwing ideas at the screen with abandon, the result is pretty incoherent.

The first segment of the episode takes inspiration from the many Scandinavian dramas that have become popular across Europe, a genre that Doctor Who hasn't previously explored but that seems absolutely ideal for the series. After a bit of fun silliness from the Doctor, getting her bearings by taste like her Tennant incarnation and winding up her companions with tales of the Woolly Rebellion, events rapidly move into unsettling, tense territory. There's something out there, it seems, the thing that "takes you away," and Hanne is alone in a boarded-up house fearing for her life. One thing that can't be argued with is how brilliant young Ellie Wallwork is as Hanne, portraying a bolshy, frightened, likeable girl who grounds the episode and shoulders a lot of the emotional work. She's really quite excellent, and it's good to see the series' commitment to diversity still going strong (two years ago we had a deaf actor playing a deaf character, now we have a blind actor playing a blind character, although this time her sensory disability is more significant to the plot).

Ellie's relationship with the regular cast is illuminating, bringing out distinct elements of their characters. The Doctor, for all her oddness (and she's at her most deliberately strange this episode), is primarily a reassuring presence, and acts as such here, putting Hanne at ease even while she's coming to concerning conclusions about her situation. Graham even more so, providing a grandad figure (and I absolutely love that he's carrying his own sandwiches around. He'd have got on well with Tennant's Doctor, at least they could have gone for chips). Yaz reassures Hanne in a more calculated way, utilising her police training to fix on something she finds comforting to distract her. But Ryan does nothing but antagonise her, immediately assuming her dad has just abandoned her. Of course, this is a perfectly natural assumption from Ryan given his family history, but he also happens to be absolutely right. He and Hanne remain at loggerheads until he proves he has her back, making him the only character (including her dad) who actually has any kind of relationship with her.

There's plenty of scope for a solid fifty-minute episode just here, but barely twenty minutes in, the cast jump through a magic mirror into a subterranean troll dimension. This section is the most visually and atmospherically effective part, mainly because of Kevin Eldon's turn as the sinister creature Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs. Eldon is one of those actors, like Alan Cumming, who you'd swear blind had been in Doctor Who before, he's such a perfect fit for it. In fact, he has once, as a companion of all things - he voiced Antimony in the webcast Death Comes to Time - but this is his first time onscreen, and quite rightly, he gets to be a monster. The question of just how Ribbons, the flesh moths, and the various other critters managed to be in the Anti-Zone between universes remains frustratingly unanswered. It's perfectly fine to have unanswered questions, of course, but this seems more like something has been overlooked. There's more to this peculiar new cosmology than we get to know, and without it, the episode struggles to make sense. There are effective set pieces but they don't fit together.

Meanwhile, the spooky Norwegian setting carries one for a bit in the background with just Hanne and Ryan, who actually work better on their own than as part of the whole Team TARDIS (especially the bit where Hanne clonks Ryan with a door), but the main purpose of these scenes is to finally shut that storyline down by revealing that there are no monsters in the woods at all. It's all effectively done, though. On the other hand, Ryan and Hanne are used poorly once they enter the Anti-Zone. Really now, they're trying to find their way through an environment that exists in darkness and light is both a rare commodity and a dangerous lure to local monsters. Could no one think of a way that a girl who has spent her entire life almost totally blind might have an advantage in finding her way through? This was an obvious time to have Hanne prove herself to Ryan that, actually, she's more than capable of keeping him safe instead. That seemed to me to be the whole point of the Zone, but it wasn't utilised at all.

Eventually, everyone crashes through the other side of the mirror into a mirror world, beginning the next phase of the story. Hanne's absent father is living in a reflection of his own home with an apparition of his dead wife, which provides an intriguing, slightly creepy problem even if neither actor is particularly convincing. It only really begins to work when Grace appears, providing a heartwrenching dilemma for Graham. Bradley Walsh and Sharon Clarke absolutely sell this part of the episode, particular Walsh, who portrays Graham's conflict beautifully. He's fully aware that this can't be Grace, but is understandably unable to let the manifestation go. It centres the second half of the episode in a profoundly moving emotional dilemma that almost makes it work overall.

Unfortunately, the explanation for the sudden appearance of dead wives is so obtuse and delivered so abruptly that it threatens to override the good parts of story. The Doctor suddenly remembers a fairy story from her youth, and on the flimsiest of evidence, concludes that this strange environment must be a sentient universe exiled at the dawn of time. It's a fantastic idea, but the infodump is so brazen that it spoils it. There's no satisfaction in the Doctor solving a mystery by dropping some gamechanging knowledge we as viewers couldn't possibly have considered. The sentient universe, the Soletract, is projecting the ghosts as a way of keeping people around to alleviate its loneliness, and while there is briefly the chance for a thematic link to Graham's emotional journey, it's too shoehorned in to work.

Then there's the frog. Now, I love the weird visual, the sheer strangeness of the Doctor stood there, talking to a frog on a chair who speaks back to her in Grace's voice. It's the sort of genuine weirdness that we don't actually get to see in the series all that often, and on its own merits, it works. But it's too far removed from the various elements that preceded it, in particular the emotional moments beforehand. It also reeks of a huge missed opportunity - why doesn't the Doctor see someone she's lost? The frog is a random visual justified by the flimsiest of reasons, when we could have had the Doctor face someone significant and provide the scene with some emotional resonance. Like many fans, I was really hoping for an appearance by Carole Ann Ford as Susan, while realising this was going to be highly unlikely, but there are any number of characters who could have been used. Indeed, this would have been a perfect opportunity for a return appearance by River Song, allowing her to interact with the thirteenth Doctor without invalidating her farewell story. On the other hand, if the showmakers didn't want a returning actor, then why not the grandmother whose praises the Doctor just spent five minutes singing?

Unfortunately, the episode ends with an unearned resolution that sees the Doctor convince an entire universe, desperately alone after millions of years, to go back to isolation after a five minute chat. It's a real pity, because the episode has some remarkable elements and some real emotional resonance. Altogether, it has the feel of a Japanese anime film - maybe the sort of thing Studio Ghibli might do with the Doctor Who licence - but it's ultimately frustrating. Perhaps, if we were doing two-parters this year, the episode could have ended with the Doctor trapped within the Soletract, leading to the finale and adding some further interest. In the end, though, this is an episode about emotional journeys that ultimately doesn't earn its payoff. Graham finally bonds with Ryan over dealing with Grace's death, and Ryan doesn't even see her, while Hanne's happy ending is getting her neglectful, borderline abusive father back. It's indicative of a script that has so much going for it but fails to cohere.

Family matters: One of the more contentious talking points from the episode is the Doctor's casual revelation that she had seven grandmothers. If we take this literally it raises interesting questions about Gallifreyan biology. Of course, it might be much simpler than that: the Doctor might refer to all her great and great-great-grandmothers as her grannies, or Gallifreyans might engage in broad, complex multiple marriages, or she may have grown up in a communal environment. On the other hand, perhaps Himes is a New Adventures fan and is hinting that the Doctor really was woven in a loom with dozens of cousins. Of course, the Doctor might be talking about just one grandmother, who had seven different incarnations during the Doctor's life (probably not from the context though).

Old adventures: On that track, the Doctor sitting and chatting to a sentient universe reeks of the New Adventures, and the Solitract isn't too far removed from the Carnival Queen, who was banished from the universe when the Time Lords laid down the laws of science and rationality according to Laurence Miles's excellent Christmas on a Rational Planet.

Death and what comes after: It's necessary sometimes to view an episode of Doctor Who as a standalone story, but they are all part of one long series. So it's hard to forget that in the last few years we've seen characters comes back from the dead through multiple means, all witnessed and ultimately accepted by the Doctor. For her to refuse to even consider that this might be the real Grace and Trina rings hollow because of this. The rules for this episode aren't the same as those of the series as a whole.

Continuity questions: There's not been a lot of this so far this year, but this episode dropped a line about Zygons that's hard to square. Zygons were known about well enough on Gallifrey while the Doctor was a kid that one granny could accuse another of being a Zygon duplicate? The Time Lords probably didn't even know about the Daleks back then, let alone the sucker-heads. The upshot is that I'm wondering about this one joke line too much and it's giving me ideas for fanfic about the Doctor's grannies.

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