It’s time to play the music
It’s time to light the lights
It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Doctor’s Show tonight.
My oh my, that frog is going to divide opinions. An act of surrealist genius, or a poorly realised Kermit? You decide! It’s probably a bit of both, but either way you’ve got to hand it to writer Ed Hime: he’s done something different, and where Doctor Who is concerned that’s not easy.
The pacing of this episode is incredible. Somehow Hime manages to get a coherent story by throwing in all sorts of seemingly disparate elements. We start off with a Cabin in the Woods style horror, travel through Alice’s creepy looking-glass, journey through a labyrinthine underworld with Stephen King’s red balloon to light the way, and find ourselves in a false afterlife mirror world, all in the space of one episode. An American genre series would make a 26 episode run out of this, and even then wouldn’t have resolved anything. Let’s take those elements in order.
Before we get to the cabin in the woods there’s a bit of silliness with the Doctor eating dirt and talking about a rebellion of sheep. It’s an element of Doctor Who that has consistently misfired this year in even the best of episodes: the attempts at humour. But we’re done with criticism now. That’s the only bad thing I have to say about this remarkable episode.
The cabin itself is initially a straight lift from the horror genre, with the unseen more frightening than the reality. Scary sounds turning out to be a recording is ok. It doesn’t matter. It’s the jumps and scares along the way to discovering that which matter. There aren’t time for many of those, but the moment where Graham discovers the mirror is creepily done. The sole resident of the cabin is a great character. What works so well about Hanne is that Ed Hime doesn’t just write her blindness as a weakness. Note how astute she is at working out that the Doctor has not drawn a map on the wall and more importantly her dismissal of the fake mother. She might be lacking one sense, but she certainly uses the others to compensate. And Eleanor Wallwork plays all that stuff brilliantly, with the instinct of somebody who truly understands the material she has been given to work with. She’s a great actress (and see the end of this article for one of her original songs).
Then we’re into a labyrinth that seems to be pretty linear, despite Ribbons making a big thing about cutting the string. Ribbons is a great Gollum character, treacherous to the very end, and director Jamie Childs pushes the horror aspects of the episode as far as he can and possibly a little bit beyond with the flesh-eating moths consuming Ribbons’s body, one even flying out of his eye socket.
Talking of the director, I don’t know if it was his decision or not, but the mirrored footage when we get into the sentient universe is a clever choice, giving those moments a subtle sense of wrongness without going over the top with any colour or lighting effects etc. I have mentioned before when writing about this series that the Hartnell era seems to have been a huge inspiration, with the approach to educational historicals in particular. Originally Doctor Who was supposed to be a mix of past, future and “sideways” stories. The last of those is obviously the most difficult one to come up with ideas for, so they never made many of them, but the ones we did get were brilliant, almost without exception. A sentient universe is very “sideways” and is just the sort of thing I’ve been hoping for this year to really make the series hit the heights that it always seemed to be capable of but never quite reaching. Importantly, despite the mirrored footage, Hime doesn’t go with a simple Trek approach to a mirror universe. Instead, it’s a beautified copy where the dead come back. The focus on Graham and his grieving for Grace pays off his storyline from earlier in the series, and we finally get the emotional kick of the moment that was set up in the first episode, Ryan calling Graham his granddad. I can’t stress enough what an asset to Doctor Who Bradley Walsh has been this year.
This is my kind of Doctor Who. Last week we had the supernatural with a veil of technobabble. This week we had fantasy, horror, myth and fairy tale all rolled into one, in a glorious sidestep. Doctor Who can’t always be this weird, but give me one surrealist masterpiece like this a year and I’ll be one happy Doctor Who fan. Throw in as many muppets as you like, for all I care. RP
The view from across the pond:
In many ways, It Takes You Away should fall into the same category as In the Forest of the Night. It’s about an event that is going on without any real enemy. In a season that has given us pretty forgettable villains and stories that hold our interest but have little re-watch value, It Takes You Away might be the breakthrough the season needed.
That said, like most of this season, there are a number of throw-away lines that have become epidemic. Like Russell T. Davies’s Target novelization of Rose, adding things can take away from the whole and knowing when to use those add-ins is clearly not something current Doctor Who writers understand. The biggest example of this is the Doctor saying that one of her grandmothers might have been a secret agent for the Zygons. Yet back in 1975, when Terror of the Zygons premiered, it seems the Doctor had never heard of them before. Yeah, you can say he forgot over 750 years, but that would even be more valid now, with the Doctor being over 2000 years old, right? Not to mention, now we’ve got some idea of the Doctor’s childhood and that takes away a portion of the mystery while adding something that people are going to want to know more about. It’s a dangerous game the writer plays.
This says nothing of the “Woolly Rebellion” coming in 193 years. (Another idiotic throw-away that in all Who history has never been mentioned before … because it’s idiotic!) Like the name of a place being “antizone” or the creature being “solitract – which is clearly some iteration of “solitary” and “track”! And speaking of the Solitract “bedtime story”, the Doctor is very comfortable with “pre-time” now, but couldn’t come to terms with it in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Let’s also talk Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning: the Doctor sonics open the locks on the house and says it’s a “deserted home”. Does she think the locks locked themselves? I know, I’m just a stickler for these little things! Or take Ribbons, who was a great looking creature akin to any of the best Nosferatu out there, and completely alien. He even lives in a Warriors’ Gate style void-universe. Cool as hell! But he knows about tea? And knows what “wee” is? C’mon!!!!
Alright, let’s go beyond all of the niggling little things because if I’m honest, they really didn’t hurt the episode that much. It’s just that they could have been removed which would have strengthened the episode.
The episode is full of examples of strong writing and great cinematography. Visually, I had noticed immediately that Erik’s shirt was reversed, but only on my second viewing did I notice hair was parted in the opposite direction while in the mirror universe and the Doctor holds her “tool of omnipotence” in her left hand instead of her right. Each member of the team gets at least one truly wonderful line. The Tripadvisor rating is comical, but Grahams “someone’s got a bit overexcited with the DIY” was outstanding, considering the state of the house. His defense of not being lured with “it’s not like I gave it credit card details” was another of his most memorable quotes! So was Ryan’s “We’d know if we were vampires, right?” as well as Yaz’s “how Nordic does this look to you?” This kind of dialogue is both funny and believable. And speaking of believable, we get a more vivid picture of the crew. Graham suffers low blood sugar and Yaz knows how to handle Hanne because she’s had police training. Less believable is Ryan following the cable outside the house – why not follow it inside to see where it goes, before heading out to where one thinks Godzilla is lurking? Still, that suited his character whose youth prompted him to suggest Hanne’s dad did “a runner”. Which, by the way, ends up being exactly what he did do!
Yet, Ryan’s accurate assessment ends up leading us to the best insight into the episode. Every episode of the season has had a theme that addresses a big issue: racism, greed, selfishness, etc. What makes this one stand out is that it’s not about something we do wrong. This story is about companionship, loneliness, loss and letting go. This is perhaps the biggest story so far this season! The Solitract entity wants companionship and creates an entire pocket universe to achieve it. Yet when it recognizes it could destroy both itself and others, it has to give it up for the promise of a friendship that will never be able to develop. Giving up that friendship is painful yet it has to give it up to continue to survive. This is exactly what Graham has to do with Grace; he has to give her up to keep living. Sadly, it takes accepting that loss to be able to move on and live again. The reason it hurts is because that bond that we have with one another is incredible, and when it’s gone, it hurts; it’s supposed to! But we make a choice to live beyond the pain. We make a choice because we know it’s the right choice, and that the person we are letting go would want us to continue to be who we always were when they were with us, not stagnate. Graham lets Grace go and in doing so, becomes closer to Ryan. That final scene made me gasp. I saw it coming this season, but did not see it coming in this episode: “At least we have each other, right…. Granddad!” (Yeah, I had all to do to keep it together. So what?)
Easily the best episode of the season. It mixed science fiction, horror, and drama and gave us a story about how far we go for those we love and how hard it is to let go. A truly wonderful and important episode! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos