This week’s episode had an amazing setup. Norway, fjords, creatures stalking you in the woods while you barricade yourself in a remote shack… it had all the makings of a good folk horror.
Now, it’s not unusual for Doctor Who to take that initial set up and subvert it. Equally, Doctor Who specialises in merging genres together (with a universe of Time and Space at your fingertips, why wouldn’t you?) It is precisely this ability to subvert which makes Doctor Who such a successful long running series. However, it is also the writers’ eagerness to experiment that can, on occasion, leave us with a less than satisfactory story, and I’m inclined to class It Takes You Away as one of those.
And that is disappointing, because it felt like it could have done so well. At the outset, it seemed very much that it was going to offer something amazing: there was so much potential!
I do wonder if I’ve missed something, or perhaps watched it in the wrong frame of mind, because I know there has been a lot of love for this episode. But, as much as I found myself caught up in the storyline and laughing at the many jokes, there were one too many frustrations for me to put it alongside my favourite episodes from this run.
The father’s story could have been really well done: enticed by dreams and the powerful allure that alternative universe, he abandons his blind daughter, imprisoning her with fear – as villainous actions go, that was powerful and horrific and was such a stab in the heart for Hanne. Hanne was beautifully played: afraid but strong, suspicious of platitudes and deception and loyal to an undeserving father. It was all there, but the narrative shied away from following this through and far too easily forgives him and reconciles father and daughter. Erik did not deserve to win her back.
The Anti-Zone between the mirrors was beautifully atmospheric and introduces the delightfully grotesque alien trader, Ribbons, but then the caves, the alien and the flesh eating moths all quickly get reduced to a simple plot device to create tension between the mirrors. Ribbons gets wasted far too easily, considering he lives in the place with the moths, the fact that the Doctor’s string is cut is forgotten and all parties are suddenly only too able to find themselves through a very linear set of caves, and the moths themselves are thereafter a buzzing pest that are easy to avoid: Ryan and Hanne survive without any harm whilst in the Anti-Zone without knowing anything about the moths and without a guide. In fact, the only genuine reason for the moths and the anti-zone seemed to be to create a situation to put Ryan in to give Graham a reason to question Grace.
When we emerge from the Anti-Zone and discover the alternate world where the dead live, we find ourselves in familiar territory; a honey trap world filled with what we most desire. It came as no surprise that Grace was brought back here. Almost as quickly as the audience recognised the trope, the Doctor is suspicious: the dead can’t just come back (except for all those other times it’s happened in the show). It must be… dun, dun, dun, the Solitract!!!
… which had to be the least convincing part of the story. Here, we suddenly get the Doctor recalling her favourite fairy story; the rogue universe that can’t exist alongside ours. Set up wise, I couldn’t believe that anything about the situation had somehow managed to convince the Doctor that this ancient myth, this universe as old as our universe, was somehow involved. The story she told us dates back to before people or things existed, so why assume that this perfect reality was in anyway related to the sentient universe of old?
And then we have the Solitract itself. Alternate universes where the different rules apply, with all powerful consciousnesses, amoral, benevolent and malevolent are an ancient tradition from the show. Had this been a longer story, perhaps a multi-part story of the classic tradition, we might have had a bit more chance to explore the concept. As it was, however, we are given an incredibly simplistic ‘it isn’t bad, just lonely’. We could have had something huge – morality so alien to our own that it can’t understand ours – that was what it was supposed to have on paper. Instead, we get a showdown between the frog and the Doctor that reflected the Doctor’s various confrontations with Omega, but without any real sense of the stakes involved. It was a quirky end of episode chat. And hey, quirky is good: I have no objection to an all-powerful universe appearing in the guise of a frog. But it was too quick and the resolution too obvious.
Ultimately, I came away from the story with the distinct impression that all the various, highly interesting, parts of the story, all of which could have been developed into something incredible, were simply there to set up a situation where Graham is forced to confront his grief and Ryan finally accepts Graham as his grandfather. This was a ‘character moment’ episode pretending to be a full on adventure. And that character moment was fairly well done, if a little mawkish. Going back to my comments a few episodes ago, I am very pleased to see that Ryan does indeed get to accept Graham under his own terms (rather than simply accepting a fist bump). And those scenes were very moving and I can see why they needed to happen. That said, the scenes with Grace felt too much. There was no genuine sense that the viewer was ever supposed to believe the Grace could be returned to Graham. Was there a possibility that Graham would have remained with Grace and abandoned Ryan? Maybe….. But defrosting Grace for a brief cameo in order to draw out the extent of Graham’s feelings before throwing her back in the refrigerator so that Ryan could provide a substitute felt cheap.
This was a story that felt really close to a Troughton episode, with a little Adams-era Baker there for good measure. If this had been set up as a series of 30 minute Troughton-style episodes, each with its own setting as our heroes go rushing between a series of disparate but connected worlds, I would have loved it. But the snapshots we get just teased us at the story’s potential and that saddened me.
There we have it though. A flawed story with some great moments but a story that felt very much like one that was setting us up for the finale: the quiet character moment before the storm.