'It Takes You Away' recap: 'Doctor Who' does Scandi horror (sort of)

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)

The ninth episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘It Takes You Away’:

What’s it about? In a cottage in a Norwegian wood, the Doctor and friends meet a young blind girl hiding from a big bad monster.

Verdict: Doctor Who does Scandi horror? With its magpie eye for a passing genre, it was surely only a matter of time until the show looked across the North Atlantic at the boom in chilly Nordic terror.

From the Let the Right One In-riffing title to the dark fairytale setting – literally a cabin in the woods – everything about ‘It Takes You Away’ feels designed to telegraph the idea this is one of those stories best viewed from the other side of the sofa.

That it doesn’t entirely pan out this way is mostly down to the fact that, fairly early on, this wintry horror story bumps up against Doctor Who’s more familiar strain of high-concept science fantasy, with results that are frequently brilliant, rarely less than surprising, and occasionally ridiculous.

It’s rare, for example, you’ll find me arguing that Doctor Who would benefit from fewer jokes, but there are moments here when Team TARDIS’s normally agreeable banter feels misplaced: it undermines the atmosphere of Nordic gloom and… well, takes you away from the story.

The script also reveals its hand a little prematurely. The premise of a young, abandoned blind girl hiding in a house in the middle of a forest, trying to keep the monsters at bay, is as simple as it is irresistible. But once you start introducing aliens in Star Trek prosthetics (even ones delightfully played by The Actor Kevin Eldon) and throwing around concepts like inter-dimensional portals, the spell is broken; the fear of the unknown is gone.

As a result, there’s a strange tone to writer Ed Hime’s Who debut that’s either brilliantly unique, or just a bit lumpy and uneven. It’s not afraid to go to some very dark places: “There’s a child in this house,” says Yaz. “Or some maniac that collects children’s shoes,” replies Graham, chillingly. And it is, ultimately, a story about grief, and depression. But there are times when it stops being either of those things, and becomes a frenetic sci-fi runaround, with jokes.

Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)
Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)

None of which should take away from the fact there’s an awful lot to love in this episode. It’s filled with memorable moments and images, from the abandoned swing and Hanne hiding in the wardrobe to Ryan carrying the globe light like a sci-fi remake of The Red Balloon. And how utterly gorgeous is that opening/closing shot of the TARDIS in the woods by the fjord? It’s like a Hans Dahl painting – the sort of screengrab you want to frame and hang over your fireplace.

Director Jamie Childs and his director of photography Denis Crossan are masters at creating such pretty pictures – see also the chiaroscuro effect of the cold, northern light contrasting with the shadows in the house – and the episode sounds as beautiful as it looks, thanks to yet another stunning score from Segun Akinola, its mournful cello capturing the pall of sadness that hangs over young Hanne’s life.

The final reel, largely set in the mirror universe (literally – did you notice that every shot was reversed?) encapsulates everything that’s great, and everything that’s not so great, about the episode. The return of Grace (Sharon D Clarke) can’t help but feel like an emotional sucker-punch, and the awful choice that Graham has to make – his wife or the real world – is almost unbearable (as is his oh-so brave attempt at cold detachment with “You’re a fake”).

But Doctor Who needs to tread softly when it’s playing on such a heightened emotional field: a young girl being reunited with what appears to be her dead mother is a huge concept to be so casually employed as a throwaway plot device. And the Doctor telling a grieving husband “Time to move on, mate” – like he’s a teenager who’s just been dumped by text – is unforgivably glib.

As such, of all the stories in this current run, this is the one that feels most likely to polarise opinion. I suspect many will treasure its ideas, its inventiveness, its quirky, all-over-the-map tone and its moment of genuine tension, while others will be left simply scratching their heads. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the frog.

Doctor’s notes: She had seven grandmothers (number five was her favourite, while number 2 may or may not have been a Zygon agent). As a child, she was told bedtime stories about the Soletract.

Bradley Walsh and Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)
Bradley Walsh and Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)

Fellow travellers: Graham has taken to carrying a cheese and pickle sandwich with him (for emergencies – he gets a bit cranky with the old low blood sugar). Ryan has finally started calling Graham Granddad (sniff). Yaz’s cousin was at the Arctic Monkeys’ first gig.

Isn’t that…? Kevin Eldon (Ribbons) came to prominence in seminal 90s comedy shows like Fist of Fun, Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge and Brass Eye. He’s since appeared in everything from Game of Thrones to Inside No. 9, and is currently the voice of Penfold in Danger Mouse. Ellie Wallwork (Hanne) is an 18-year-old singer-songwriter and actress. Blind since birth, her previous work includes Call the Midwife.

Location, location, location: Norway (the “frilly bits on the top”) in 2018; a mirror universe created by the Soletract, and the “ante-zone” in between.

Scary monsters: The Soletract: “a consciousness, an energy” that’s in conflict with the very idea of the universe, and the Flesh Moths (see below) – vicious Lepidoptera that will strip the meat from your bones.

Quote unquote:“I’m okay, mostly. Bit of a head wonk.” The Doctor on the side-effects of poking your head through an inter-dimensional portal.

“Such tragedy makes me… hungry.” Discomfort eating from Ribbons.

“There’s a shedload of of them in the… shed.” Sheer poetry from Ryan.

“I’ve lived longer, seen more, loved more and lost more.” The Doctor on the swings and roundabouts of a long, long life.

Best bit: The Doctor assuring Hanne she’ll do what she can to find her dad, while chalking “Assume her dad is dead” on the wall is sad, and more than a little chilling.

Worst bit: “Friends help each other face up to their problems, not avoid them.” The Thirteenth Doctor gets another slightly cringey “He-Man’s Moral Message” moment. Enough already!

Scariest bit: The Flesh Moths are properly creepy – and brilliantly realised on screen.

Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill in Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (BBC)

Funniest bit: Yaz: “You want us to follow that nutter into the dark?” The Doctor: “No, I want you to follow this nutter into the dark.”

Huh? Why exactly were Team TARDIS were so keen to investigate the house in the woods in the first place? The only explanation we were given was that there was no smoke coming from the chimney. Maybe it was just a hunch.

We need to talk about The Frog: Sorry, but this deserves its own category, as the Doctor’s parley with “a conscious universe masquerading as a frog” is surely destined to be the show’s most divisive scene since that time they revealed the Moon was an egg. Is it a daringly inventive flight of surrealist fantasy worthy of Lewis Carroll? Or just utterly ridiculous? I think they might just have got away with the former if the way it moved its mouth – and especially the way it casually nodded its agreement – hadn’t looked so unintentionally hilarious. As it was, I couldn’t decide if it was about to join in a song with Paul McCartney or ask for a strawberry milkshake.

Back in time: Yaz’s suggestion to “reverse the polarity” is, of course, a tip of the hat to one of the Doctor’s favourite catchphrases (“reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”), most often heard during Jon Pertwee’s watch.

Next time – ‘The Battle of Ransskoor Av Kolos’: It’s the series finale, and on the planet of Ranskoor Av Kolos, a battlefield, a conflict-scarred survivor and a deadly reckoning await the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham.

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