❉ Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood? Robert Fairclough reviews the latest episode.
“Follow Ribbons to missing Daddy.”
I like the idea of a whole universe inside a mirror, perhaps because Doctor Who has ploughed that particular creative furrow before, with the 1981 story Warriors’ Gate. Like Ed Hime’s It Takes You Away, Steve Gallagher’s innovative script featured mirrors as portals to a different version of the same place. So far, so Jean Cocteau (in both cases).
For the third time this year, what started out looking like a well known type of Doctor Who story – mutant wildlife attack (Arachnids in the UK), robot revolution (Kerblam!) – morphed into something else. As the title suggests, It Takes You Away began as a creepy, atmospheric horror story, with something nasty in a Norwegian wood threatening a child, Hanne (the superb blind actress Elle Wallwork), seemingly abandoned by her widowed father, Slayer fan Erik (Christian Rubeck).
Leaving aside all the stuff about anti-zones and sentient, Solitract universes – which kept twisting the narrative in rewarding, unexpected directions – the Big Bads this week were loss and emotional isolation, neatly hinted at by Hanne’s solitary home. It shows you how much the dramatic focus of the series has shifted this year that a surprise returning character isn’t an old monster or a villain, but the senior male lead Graham’s dead wife, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke, not listed in this week’s Radio Times).
Here’s the rub. Before we got to the key scene between the two, we’d met the grotesque “Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs”, a delightfully seedy alien obsessed with commerce, hiding in the nocturnal anti-zone. One one hand, Ribbons – brought to life in a masterclass of sleazy sibilance by an unrecognisable Kevin Eldon – was a clever red herring as he wasn’t the real baddie; on the other hand, the character was crying out for more screen time and killed off far too soon. It’s significant that in the Big Emotional Scene between Graham and ‘Grace’ I found my attention wandering, but in the sequences with Ribbons I was totally engaged, keen to see what this delightfully disgusting creation would get up to next.
Bradley Walsh has been so good all year, so it was a shame that in the big moment for Graham – meeting an apparently resurrected Grace – he came across as rather muted. This may have been pitched to him by the director Jamie Childs as ‘emotionally repressed middle aged man’ but, if so, it was misjudged because Walsh’s performance didn’t come across like that. If this was a set up for events in the last episode it was disappointing, because if Graham appears not to be overly bothered about being reunited with the love of his life, why should we be?
Visually there was lots to enjoy. Childs drew effectively on the grammar of horror films, with close ups of door handles turning, film noir lighting and disturbing sound effects. Ribbons’ realm, complete with carnivorous moths, looked like it was referencing the rocky, primary coloured planets of the original Star Trek, while the ‘white room’ of the Solitract looked like it was sending up the surreal sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In the mirror world, there was pleasing attention to detail, with the logo on Erik’s Slayer T shirt and the Doctor and Graham’s hair partings reversed. If you want to be pedantic – and some people will be – they should have been talking backwards too, but that would have been silly.
It was refreshing to see the Doctor show some ruthlessness, even if she was putting it on to save Graham. Once again, though, she had to info dump what was going on and explain why it was A Bad Thing, which diluted the sense of threat (even if her spiel was enlivened this time by references to her “seven grandmothers”). Having said that, It Takes You Away was still one of this year’s best stories. With one more to go, Hime’s script was the opposite of the early episodes, as there were arguably too many ideas fighting for prominence. Then again, I’d rather have too many than too few; the idea of a conscious universe demands to be revisited.
To sum up, It Takes You Away started with an appealingly demonic villain and ended with a talking frog on a chair. You can’t deny that’s Doctor Who, but a day later as I write this, I’m still not really sure if I liked all of it.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.