5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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IT TAKES YOU AWAY
Open the champagne! We loved it!
That's not to say it's faultless. Obviously. And we'll definitely be getting to those parts. But we're so relieved we're weeping tears of joy: Doctor Who that intrigued us, entertained us and made us feel real things. Whoopee!
The opening, let's face it, is a tad bizarre. The Doctor, scientist extraordinaire, or at least tireless wielder of the sonic, gives us her best Google Maps impression via…munching some soil. The F? Not for the last time in this episode, the Doctor leaps to a conclusion, brushing away Graham's perfectly sensible suggestion that a cottage without smoke in its chimney might be a holiday let to decide that something evil is going on. Again we say, the F? Spurred on, no doubt, by the doomy music and general horror tropes, our gallant heroes clearly have no option but to break into some poor Norwegian's house and ransack the place. Right? "Or some maniac that collects kids' shoes"? Really, Graham? Aren't we stretching it a bit there?
But it's all a misdirection, as the house contains only Hanne, a teenager hiding in the cupboard from not only the monster outside but also, probably, the marauding gang of strangers who've broken into her house. "We want to help," says the Doctor. Funny way of showing it. Graham offers her a cheese and pickle sandwich, and random though it is, we adore it. It's very Graham, not to mention extremely practical, no matter how much the others roll their eyes. Mmm, cheese and pickle. This episode is definitely looking up.
Then Hanne comes out of the cupboard, and we discover she's blind. We were both excited and deeply apprehensive. Given the fairly dreadful way they've handled Ryan's supposed dyspraxia this season, we were worried about where this was going. Also, one of the Androzani team is partially sighted (and fully kickass), and she's pretty tired of the pathetic depictions of the blind you too often see on TV.
But we didn't need to worry. Massive kudos to Chris Chibnall for casting a blind actor and for not showing her as feeble and helpless. We would have loved the episode just for this alone.
But the episode doesn't need to rest on this particular laurel, because here's where it starts really getting good. Hanne's father has disappeared, and Yaz, useful for once, puts Hanna at enough ease to elucidate that a) there's no obvious explanation for it and b) everybody had better make like an egg and scramble inside because a monster is about to start hunting. Okay then! You might think that at this point the TARDIS crew would do as she says, because, you know, monster, but no, time for a lackadaisical wander around the shed and the shrieking horror of some birds being hung. These crazy Norwegians.
So we're all invested in the monster, albeit in a kind of dutiful way, because being trapped somewhere with something nasty outside is such standard Who fodder that it's a trope with its own name. Despite this, when Graham is by himself peering out the window, we were sort of hoping that the monster would manifest and spirit him away, just because life has been so bloody cruisy for the companions in this season. Graham even asks the Doctor if the portal is safe, for God's sake. In this new childproof Doctor Who, the companions are in so little danger that it's as if they're wandering around in a hologram.
But then, we're delighted to announce: unexpected twist! Fantastic! Something we couldn't see thundering towards us like a khalasar of Dothraki on a desert plain! Graham notices that the mirror isn't quite doing its job. Either he's accidentally become undead or, as the Doctor is far too fond of announcing, something is very wrong.
We'll take B please, Bradley. (See what we did there? If you're not from the UK, the answer to that is probably "no". Sorry about that.) Ignoring the Doctor's instruction to guard the back door, Ryan wanders upstairs to facilitate a discussion of this phenomenon. The Doctor hears them, charges in and orders them away from the mirror. After her performance in the forest, we were half-expecting her to lick it, but no, it's just the sonic for the thousandth time. She confides how much she loves said sonic (she's on her own with that one), then concludes that it's not a mirror at all. It's a portal.
The Doctor, bending down and talking right into Hanne's face (there's nothing wrong with her ears, Doctor!) dumps Ryan on Hanne (we all laughed out loud at her delivery of "Oh, not him") lies to Hanne about the "map" she's drawing (we're happy to say Hanne is much too smart to have believed this) and off the rest of them feck to the other side.
Now, if this episode is anything, it's a story in three pretty disjointed parts. This part is by far the weirdest, not just because of what's in it, but because it's here at all. It has very little connection with the parts bracketing it, either in a plotty or an emotional development way. We can't help wondering if the episode originally wasn't intended to contain it but they found it was running seriously under and needed to add another chunk.
Whatever happened, we're glad it did, because this is the part that contains Ribbons, who is now one of our favourite Who characters ever. One of us said "Whoever this is knows what's they're doing", and she couldn't have been more right: it's an unrecognisable (other than the talent) Kevin Eldon. "Relax! Enjoy Ribbons." Don't mind if we do. Ribbons may not be the last word in originality, but he's bloody hilarious, and that's enough for us. What he's even doing there is far from clear, but we quite like the idea that they leave a little mystery in there, even if that wasn't intended. We like to think that when the antizone was created Ribbons sneaked in there, lured by a tasty nom. Or maybe, given that it's a Nordic thing, he's meant to be a troll guarding the bridge between the two worlds? Choose your own adventure. And it's not just Ribbons, either: his dialogue with Graham is killingly funny. Bravo.
So they're in a cave, which we can tell isn't in Norway, because Yaz and Graham think it doesn't look Nordic. Norway doesn't have caves? Lucky nobody told the trolls. The Doctor ties a string around a rock and away they go, dodging hungry moths but failing to notice that the string the Doctor's paying out has, having been sliced by Ribbons, suddenly lost all its tension. How do you even do that? Ryan, meanwhile, in another twist we happily didn't see coming (the joy!), figures out that the monsters are fake, but isn't smart enough not to be knocked for six by Hanne, who half-inches the key. We love her. The Doctor and crew get away through the portal and end up back in the bedroom. Or do they?
Well, no, obviously, but it's very nicely done, as it takes you a second to work out that things are different. And now we're in Part the Third. This is probably the least interesting, just because we've seen the idea so often before, but it's mostly well done just the same. It's nice to see the Doctor using her brain to work out that Erik is hiding someone. We like the way Erik is clearly both a monstrously selfish shit and also deeply pitiable in the way grief has warped him. And Bradley Walsh's speech to Grace, and his defence of Grace's realness to the Doctor, could have been mawkish, but he nails it, delivering absolutely genuine emotion.
Sadly, it's not all good. Things do, as usual, get a bit yappy, and despite her deduction with the plates, the Doctor is, as usual, far from being as smart as she should be. She laboriously works out what's been obvious ever since they arrived in the mirror world: that the antizone must be there to keep the two from touching. Why the hell is this presented as a revelation? And from there, the Doctor remembers a story about the Solitract and does another giant leap to a conclusion that it's the Solitract that's controlling the mirror universe. But why? Why would it build a mirror universe with a nice tempting door and stock it with people's dead loves ones?
Why? She's asking why? Isn't it blatantly, blinking neon sign obvious? Apparently not to our fearless Time Lord, because it takes Yaz to suggest it's a trap. Then, after that, the rest of the explanation, which again has been obvious ever since they arrived, finally dawns on the Doctor, that it wants them to stay. Well, duh, Doctor! When you say "I'm dumb" we only wish we could disagree with you.
Grrrrngh. Not content with that, it takes Yaz's suggestion of reversing the polarity to allow the Doctor to stumble her way out of trouble. Then whoah! Another giant leap, this time to the conclusion that the system could sustain one person but not five.
So when the Doctor's not missing the utterly obvious, she's making wild leaps of logic and believing in them completely. We've said it before and we're forced to say it again: please give us back our clever Doctor.
It's not just the Doctor that's not particularly clueful: the script doesn't seem entirely sure what's going on, either. At first, Trine and Grace seem puzzled by what's happening. They know they died, they freely admit they can't be real, but they feel real. Later on, it seems clear they're being deceptive when Trine, having just blasted Yaz through the portal, asks "Did I do that?" and the Doctor says, all dark menace-like, "Oh, I think you know". But if they were trying to fool the humans all along, why would they have freely admitted to them that they weren't real? if we were a conscious universe trying to lure in some playmates, we'd at least come up with a story about them having been transported there at the moment of death or something, not fessed up straight away that it's a con job.
The script's not entirely sure about Erik, either. First of all he just looks like a selfish bastard. Then Hanne says he's not well and hasn't been since Trine died, suggesting he's actually suffering from a mental illness. Then when trying to persuade the Solitract to keep her and not Erik, the Doctor describes him as "an idiot with a daughter who needs him", which isn't exactly the most sensitive appellation if he's mentally ill. We prefer to think that he does have a mental illness. Otherwise the sight of him and Hanne hugging at the end, after he's not only left her alone for days with no explanation but also terrified her into a cupboard with a fake monster, is about the most appalling "happy ending" imaginable. This aspect of the script is one we really don't think they paid enough attention to. It's the true horror of the story.
And then everything goes white and the Doctor meets a frog. We know this is an unpopular scene, but hey, other than the horrible effects on the frog, we're totally fine with it. There's a reason for it being a frog, after all, and it beats some sort of generic wafty being in a white dress hands down. And the Doctor's fascination with the Solitract and the emotion of her leaving is absolutely genuine. It just works. We've always said there's room in Doctor Who for an enormous range of storytelling, and a talking frog definitely fits into the wilder areas of that, so yay. Thumbs up from us.
Then to finish it off, we get the scene that's been coming all season where Ryan finally calls Graham Granddad. It's not entirely clear why he's decided to stop being a twonk at this precise point in time - it's not as if Ryan was there during the touching stuff with Graham and Grace or anything - but they both sell it beautifully, and that's good enough for us.
Sure, there are a lot of weak spots and faults. But dear God, what a relief it is to see an episode this season that manages to surprise, entertain and hit some genuine emotional points. We're practically delirious with joy.
Doctor: "What is this place, Ribbons?"
Graham tackles Ribbons when Ribbons steals the sonic, then they both get up without either of them picking up the sonic. Huh?
THAT'S A STRETCH
When Hanne enters the portal, she finds the Doctor's string and uses it as a guide. String? Hang on. Wasn't that cut? So why is it taut now?
It's nice the way Erik's t-shirt is in mirror writing when he's in the mirror world and is corrected when he gets back.
Erik puts out traps for bears? There are hardly any bears in Norway, and the ones that are there not only avoid humans but eat mostly berries and stuff. Looks like the only monster in the woods is Erik.
Hanne is the only one who instantly realise her mother isn't real when she touches her, which has rather too much of the far-too-common "disabled person with mystical powers" ring about it. The door was open to it just being because Hanne's too smart to fall for the idea that her dead mother is alive again, but no, the Doctor has to spell out that she can sense it. Blech.
If it's safer to stay still when the flesh moths appear, why does Ribbons break into a run with the sonic? Also, when Ryan and Hanne are in the antizone dodging the moths, how are the moths tracking them, exactly? Despite the previous instructions to stand still, it can't be vision, because apparently they're even more deadly in the dark. And it can't be smell, as they don't find Ryan and Hanne when they hide round a corner. And it can't be hearing, because the moths don’t come after Ryan and Hanne when they speak. And it can't be ultrasound, because that way they'd find them when they were standing still as easily as when they were moving. We're running out of ideas here.
LET'S GO THROUGH THAT AGAIN
After the genuine emotion of the Doctor and the Solitract parting, there's a horrible clunking sound as the Doctor spells out in so many words that she made a friend and had to say goodbye. Argh!