Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

doctor who it takes you away review ed hime jamie childs chris chibnall jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

There’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left.

It Takes You Away is very good. I liked it a lot. I am, however, somewhat of the mind that a big part of this is because of where it is in the series, and indeed the series it’s in – after a run of episodes that don’t quite live up to the standards I’d have liked them to, this one feels better than it actually is by contrast. I’m not entirely sure if the Series 10 version of such would’ve had quite the same level of impact (though actually, and I recognise it sounds counter-intuitive, I think this episode might well have been improved had the rest of the series been better – more on that shortly, though).

On paper, there’s a lot to like. Conceptually, It Takes You Away is throwing around a lot of genuinely great ideas – not just the frog, but actually particularly the spin on the haunted house offered at the beginning. I really liked that, personally – that sort of character driven, quieter approach felt like some of the more emotionally sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen all year. Erik faking the monster to keep Hanne inside while he’s in the other world with his dead wife? That’s a brilliant idea, it really is, and there’s a neat resonance too with Ryan’s own dad and his experience of abandonment. Quite possibly it could’ve sustained the episode on its own terms, or at least gone a long way towards it with a little bit of work.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case, and there were plenty more interesting ideas and concepts being thrown out across the course of It Takes You Away – I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, this one had the greatest density of new ideas and… not plot twists, per se, but plot stages, certainly. There’s a willingness to engage with and indulge in the strange in a relatively straightforward way that I quite appreciated – the frog is absolutely bizarre, but it’s also the best part of the episode, and one of those things that probably only Doctor Who could do. (And, a little more cuttingly, one of those things that has been absent from Doctor Who for a little too long.)

So, yes, It Takes You Away had lots of interesting ideas and concepts, and it was all very good and entertaining, and I mostly enjoyed it. All well and good.

On paper.

doctor who it takes you away review jodie whittaker solitract soletract frog grace thirteenth doctor mirror ed hime

In practice, I think, the episode struggled somewhat. A few reasons, none of which are especially interesting ones – I think largely my problem is the antizone section, which struggled to impress me.

It’s not that it was filler, exactly – argument could be made that it was, I suppose, but I’m not wholly convinced that was the problem with it. No, I think the problem was largely down to the direction. I’ve been less than impressed with Jamie Childs’ efforts on the series so far generally, but I think the antizone section from this episode is probably the weakest stretch he’s directed so far. (Not that the rest of the episode was brilliant, exactly, but here’s where it was most damaging to the overall story, I think.) Those caves should’ve felt strange and unfamiliar to the point of being dangerously disorientating – in actual fact they were just a bit generic. Granted it’s been a while since we’ve seen Doctor Who do caves (or, at least, I’m struggling to think of a recent example – arguably sections of The Eaters of Light, maybe?) but this wasn’t exactly a compelling argument to suggest they’re worth doing. Putting a bit of a red light on something isn’t enough to make it look interesting, particularly when the stuff that would’ve heightened the distinctness of the setting (flesh balloons!) were entirely undersold.

So, what we’ve got, then, is a mostly flat section of the episode that isn’t quite realised very well, and in turn feels like it’s being focused on at the expense of other, more interesting aspects of the episode. It’s difficult not to argue, to my mind, that It Takes You Away would’ve been better with greater focus on the world on the other side of the mirror (and greater focus on the frog!) – there’s not quite enough time spent there to convey the sense that this might genuinely be anything other than a trick, or indeed enough time there to suggest a genuine friendship between the Doctor and the frog.

That this section was a little weak didn’t, actually, bother me that much. On the first viewing it still worked, more or less, and on repeat viewings… well, while it feels clear to me that that section with Ribbons is basically superfluous, there’s just enough going on there that it didn’t especially overstay its welcome. So, much as I would’ve liked to see a little more attention devoted to the more interesting aspects of the story, this somewhat-less-engaging aspect wasn’t a particular obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.

doctor who it takes you away review bradley walsh tosin cole graham grandad ryan sinclair

What has, admittedly, rankled somewhat is a realisation I had a few days later: it should’ve been Ryan who went with the Doctor and Yaz to the other universe and saw Grace, while Graham stayed behind with Hanne.

It struck me while I was thinking about that final “granddad” moment towards the end. It was more than a little unearned, of course, but that’s not really the fault of It Takes You Away – there’s simply a need for more character work to have been done outside this episode. (That’s what I meant about the episode functioning better had the series been better – a rising tide lifts all ships and all that.) While it functions nicely on its own terms, a moment about Ryan trying to extend Graham some kindness, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been more effective coming after Ryan had been forced to say goodbye to Grace again?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the shape of the episode had it been structured that way. The scene where Grace tells Graham to forget Ryan doesn’t, to my mind, entirely work – the ending more or less presents itself fait accompli at that point. But if Grace is telling Ryan to forget Graham – something he would actually, on some levels, once have quite liked to hear – it takes on a different tone, I think, a stronger emotional beat.

It’s not that the scene didn’t work as presented in It Takes You Away – it just feels like the specifics of Bradley Walsh’s contract are, once again, taking oxygen away from the other characters, in this instance taking what surely should’ve been one of Ryan’s key emotional beats for the series. (I would also posit that it’s more interesting for Graham not to see Grace again than it is for Ryan not to, but still.) So that was a little frustrating. But you know. Not the end of the world.

Ultimately, then… it was good. I liked this episode. I don’t think it was quite as creative or strange as people have suggested – between the generic antizone caves and the “tempted by a fake dead relative” thing that’s been done in science fiction hundreds of times before, from Star Trek to Class, of all things, It Takes You Away perhaps doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have initially seemed.

But then, you know, there was the frog. And it really was a pretty great frog.

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully.

There is, I think, something a little strange about this episode.

Or rather, not strange, not exactly – unfamiliar. Consciously and deliberately so. That, admittedly, isn’t entirely surprising, given that this is the first episode of Doctor Who after a huge change both in front of and behind the camera. If it wasn’t different, it’d be something of a missed opportunity.

But then it’s not just that it’s different. Consider, after all, The Eleventh Hour, which is the most obvious point of comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth. For all the changes made in that episode, from the obvious ones down, it still felt like a version of Doctor Who we were all basically familiar with. With The Woman Who Fell to Earth, there’s something that is, like I said, a little strange and unfamiliar.

Take the way this episode strips back all the usual hallmarks of the programme. No sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no theme tune or opening credits. There’s an obvious logic to it, foregrounding the characters and giving them some space to develop, essentially building the show around them – we start with Ryan’s direct address to camera, then crash the Doctor into their world. It’s neatly done, a clever way to introduce us to the new cast of characters, and immediately foregrounds this era’s priorities.

Even then, though, it’s not just as simple as a shake up in the iconography: the style is different, not just the substance. The pacing, the music, the sense of humour – it’s undeniably the same show, yes, but the subtleties to the shift in approach are vast in their impact. (The change in the sense of humour is an interesting one actually, because, if nothing else, it probably should’ve been expected; Karl’s self-validating refrain of “someone wants me” in the face of an alien hunter who wants him as a prize isn’t a million miles away from how Broadchurch used to follow cliffhangers with a long, sweeping shot of actual cliffs.) So, for all that The Woman Who Fell to Earth is easily recognisable, there’s also something just a little discomforting about it, a little strange, something that’s difficult to entirely work out.

Certainly, I found that to be the case. I enjoyed it, definitely, even outside the basic “it’s Doctor Who and I always love it” of it all – but there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something I didn’t quite get. The second time around, though, I understood it better, and I enjoyed it more – and I’m looking forward to next week, to becoming more familiar with the grammar of this version of Doctor Who, to learning to love it.

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Worth discussing, then, is the characters – like I said above, there’s an obvious attempt to foreground them here, and they’re certainly the most interesting part of the episode.

(And, as a quick aside, I don’t think this is a particular departure from previous iterations of Doctor Who – you’re not going to catch me proselytising about bus drivers vs Impossible Girls, or whatever – but I would argue it’s a bit more overt here. If nothing else, The Woman Who Fell to Earth holds back the Doctor’s first appearance much longer than Rose or The Eleventh Hour did.)

As an introductory piece, it works. There’s obviously limitations, because in an hour you’re not going to be able to flesh everyone out – Yaz is suffering from this the most at the moment – but as a starting point, there’s clear potential. They all take to their roles well (I love Bradley Walsh and will not hear a word against him, thank you), forgiving the occasional rough patch, and they’re each endearing in their own ways; there’s also, of course, a lot to appreciate in the way the ensemble has been built, from their existing connections to one another and the diversity between them. Indeed, in terms of the latter there’s a lot to admire; this is the sort of thing Doctor Who should always be doing, and I’m glad that it’s doing it now.

What’s interesting, though, is the way they all feel built around the Doctor, not just each other. There’s plenty of subtle parallels between them together – everyone’s already commented on how the episode positions Grace as a Doctor analogue, from the YouTube video to her job to the title of the episode, but it’s similarly true of the others. We learn that Ryan wants to be a mechanic; this is one of the first episodes in a long time that emphasises the Doctor building things, with that extended sequence of her creating the new sonic screwdriver. Graham is a bus driver, so it’s not difficult to construct a parallel between that and the TARDIS. And that line about “sorting out fair play across the universe” isn’t a million miles away from Yaz sorting out the parking dispute at the beginning, is it? (Absolutely dreading the inevitable police discourse that’s going to erupt when Yaz comments on the TARDIS being a “police box” tonight, though, damn.) In any case, though, it’s easy to see how they’re all going to gel together as a group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this ensemble forms around the Doctor.

Speaking of – as if I’d forget – there’s the Doctor. Who is, of course, wonderful. That’s not a surprise, particularly; Jodie Whittaker has pretty consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in, and as expected that still holds true. She’s charming and idiosyncratic and fun, and just generally a joy to watch. There’s a couple of rough moments, true, but even then “rough moments” feels like overstating it a bit – it’s the same ‘roughness’ you see at the start of every Doctor’s tenure, during that time before the part is being written to their performance entirely. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to iron out soon enough, and when so much of it is absolutely pitch perfect, why worry?

doctor who the woman who fell to earth review jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor outfit charity shop sheffield chris chibnall

There are bits that don’t work in the episode as a whole, admittedly. Fewer than I thought since rewatching it – like I said, some of the differences did trip me up a bit – but a couple all the same.

I wasn’t, admittedly, entirely keen on Tim Shaw (I’m certain I’ve heard that joke before?) – I know, of course, that these episodes aren’t the ones that tend to have, or even really should have, particularly deep or interesting monsters, but even so, a character straight out of 90s Star Trek is a little lame. The teeth was an interesting quirk, certainly, but even so – I’d have liked something a little bit more visually or conceptually engaging. Not even necessarily more complex – the Autons worked because of how simple they were – but perhaps just a little bit more interesting. Speaking of Tim Shaw, actually, the final resoluation felt a little messy – from that clunky line about “sorting out fair play” to “you had no right”, it doesn’t quite work. Particularly in the case of the latter; it’s an obvious call back to Tennant’s first episode, but doesn’t quite work conceptually here. If nothing else, poor Karl lashing out at Tim Shaw after the Doctor already tricked Tim into detonating the DNA bombs (which is hardly fair play!) doesn’t really make that much of a difference – it’s not really obvious what character point “you had no right” is meant to be making, not in the same way “no second chances, I’m that sort of a man” did all those years ago.

One that I am actually less inclined to criticise the episode for is the fridging of Grace – contrary to my usual stance, since that’s typically one of my biggest bugbears when it comes to television drama. No, in this case, while it did manage to be both deeply lazy and eminently predictable, I’m thinking it’s best to hold off on criticism, at least for the time being. At the moment, I’m convinced we’ve not quite seen the last of Grace – but perhaps that’s wishful thinking, motivated only by how engaging Sharon D. Clarke’s performance was, and my own hope that Doctor Who wouldn’t make such a dull move in this episode, of all episodes. (It’s particularly disappointing, I think, coming after the Moffat era, where deconstructing fridging and providing ‘better’ narratives for the Doctor-analogue characters was something of a recurring theme; if this does turn out to be as simple as looked, then yeah, it’s very much deserving of critique.)

Ultimately, then? Sure, there’s flaws – the direction is a little choppy and underwhelming at times, some of the character beats don’t quite land, Tim Shaw is a bit naff – but in the end, they don’t matter too much. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is, if nothing else, an entertaining and engaging piece of television, and a fine start to an era that’s obviously bursting with potential.

And Jodie Whittaker really is pretty brilliant.

7/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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