Do you know why I love Doctor Who? The ideas. Over 55 years this show has always striven to be the most imaginative, daring and bold television show on the planet. Stories that focus entirely on ideas are among my favourites- Tom Baker’s Warrior’s Gate is a wonderful piece of science fiction, Kinda and Enlightenment are my two favourite Peter Davison stories, The God Complex dissects the Doctor’s character by forcing him to battle the very idea of narrative and Ghost Light, the infamously complex and divisive story from the original run’s final season, is one of my all time favourite stories in anything ever. Whilst Series 11 has so far been strong on character and stories, in terms of pure ideas it’s been a bit behind. Until tonight. It Takes You Away (I assume the title refers to how the episode blows your mind) is not only the best episode of the series by a long shot (and remember, I consider both Rosa and Demons of the Punjab to be masterpieces and like everything else barring Tsuranga Conundrum) but one of the most original, bonkers, crazy, delightful, imaginative, complex and heartfelt stories the show has done in a looooong time, perhaps ever. Ed Hime, take a bow.
It’s hard to explain exactly why this one works. The premise is wonderful, with the TARDIS team coming across a remote cottage in Norway and hearing a creature stalking the woods. So far so good, but a bit pedestrian. For the first half I was reminded of Stranger Things, with a bizarre portal, mysterious monsters, a child with a lot of questions surrounding her and a missing family member. Normally this would work just fine as a plot in its own right but “just fine” is not Ed Hime’s work ethic. His work ethic is “I’m going nuts!” So rather than stick with the great but standard plot of “monsters invading from a portal”, he decides to introduce idea upon idea upon idea and just keep building this bizarre yet sublime plot that makes complete sense yet makes no sense at the same time. How about instead of a malicious force trying to take over the world we have a whole sentient energy being from before the creation of the universe which proved to be so vast and complex that it prevented the development of the universe, thereby forcing the new universe to eject it and leaving it to develop conscience and thought in the billions of years it has alone and whose favourite form is a FROG? That’s just brilliant. A sentient universe, one of the most out there and large scale beings the show has ever had, chooses a talking frog as its means of communication. Oh, and let’s have some flesh eating moths and a hilarious sight gag of a roaring monster being just a tape recording. It’s simply wonderful sci-fi driven storytelling and hilarious in both concept and execution. This is the stuff Big Finish is made of and it’s good to see the TV show take on the bonkers concepts too.
But this isn’t just a wonderful idea. Oh no. This is outstanding storytelling and character work. It’s no secret that Bradley Walsh as Graham has been the highlight of the series and this episode is his absolute best one yet, and that’s saying a lot when Rosa and The Witchfinders exist. When who he thinks is Grace returns and is so convincing, Graham is torn between wanting what’s best for him and between what’s right. His arc has been wonderfully handled and subtly conveyed throughout the series and this episode is the climax of his arc. When Ryan is in danger he wants to help but “Grace” tries to make him stay in the mirror dimension- thereby convincing him of his choice to return to the real world. His grieving process is complete and he will longer let the past define who he is now, an arc wonderfully complemented by Ryan finally calling him Grandad. If Graham dies next week it will be sad and well earnt. Ryan is also great in this episode, as his conflict with Hanna compels him to be better and helps him stop relying on Graham. This character development does mean once again Yaz is left like she’s the third wheel of the finely woven Thirteen/Ryan/Graham train, but she’s a good character and very endearing and fun so it’s alright. Her classic series equivalent Nyssa had to suffer two annoying TARDIS teammates but Yaz is in good company with well drawn out characters in Graham and Ryan.
So, the Doctor. THE DOCTOR. Jodie Whittaker is, and forever will be the Doctor. I maintain she was the fastest an actor had ever got to nailing the character but with the exception of Rosa the writing took a while to catch up but since Demons it has been hit after hit for this incarnation in terms of a unique persona. Her performance and character in It Takes You Away is defining in the way Androzani is to Davison, Dalek is to Eccleston and Heaven Sent is to Capaldi. The scene where she confronts the Solitract and gives a long monologue about the beauty of the universe? Chills. Her childlike wonder and eagerness at exploring the mystery? Perfect. The kiss to the frog? The moment the entire 55 year history of the show has built up to (OK, a bit exaggerating but you get the jist). There isn’t a foot wrong here in regards to the Doctor and what I love is how she seems to delight in learning about this new universe and the Solifract rather than condemn it for its actions. As we’re nearing the end of the series I feel confident in saying that whilst I don’t think Thirteen is in my personal top tier of Doctors (Eleven, Three, Seven, Ten and Two in that order) she is in a very respectable position alongside One, Four and Eight as the higher tier Doctors, although I don’t dislike any incarnation.
What else is there? So much. The science fiction in this episode is used to analyse the very human themes of isolation, loneliness, regret, grief and the power of stories. Erik tries to hide from his grief by refusing to see through the Solitract and the Solitract wants company by using the images of the dead to lure people into itself, not for any evil purpose but simply to see the universe that rejected it. This motive is what causes the Doctor to sympathise with it as she travels to explore the universe but upon discovering there’s a whole new one she is willing to give up her travels in a heartbeat purely to give the Solitract company. Her presence in the Solitract’s plane of existence threatens to destroy it however and the Doctor must leave it, although it’s clear she doesn’t want to. I can’t think of a single story in the revival that taps into the cosmic wonder and epic nature of the Doctor’s character and tests the limits of the show as much as this one. Chibnall is a showrunner who likes taking risks and the historical episodes under his wing have been risky but with this he should hopefully have the confidence to oversea sci-fi stories as risky and bold as the historicals and It Takes You Away have been. He also should try to let other writers write most episodes, especially Ed Hime. This guy gets it.
If there is one aspect of the episode I can see as a flaw it’s the whole section in the realm between universes with Ribbons. He’s a fun character and the world is very imaginative but it doesn’t connect much to the wider themes of the story. The highlight of this section is when the killer moths (killer moths! I love this story!) brutally eat Ribbons. I bet that’s going to cause nightmares. Don’t get me wrong, the scenes are still really engaging and well done but they just don’t mesh with everything else. Although considering nothing about this episode meshes together yet it’s still a cohesive masterpiece of storytelling the scenes aren’t bad and are still entertaining, providing the episode with a nice traditional aspect. I think I like this episode a bit too much. Still, let’s move onto some references-
- The white void the Solitract resides in is a lot like the background of the similarly bizarre and brilliant Warrior’s Gate.
- The Doctor mentions Zygons, which is an obvious reference.
- Yaz tells the Doctor to reverse the polarity, a favourite habit of Jon Pertwee.
- The creation of the universe is something that Terminus states was the result of the titular ship, whilst Castrovalva sees the TARDIS gets hurtled towards Event One.
In conclusion, how can I sum up this episode? It’s like Ed Hime was given free reign to do whatever he wanted to for 50 minutes, and rather than go for strictly formula he decided to ruminate on the nature of existence with a talking frog as the physical manifestation of a sentient universe which communicates through the recently dead. It’s just such a bonkers and loaded with heavy questions and staggeringly original ideas complimented with Segun Akinola’s best score yet and outstanding production value, right down to the deliberately terrible frog. I am in love with this episode and whilst Rosa and Demons of the Punjab are both classics It Takes You Away is even better and right up there amongst the finest the show has ever done. Is it this generation’s Ghost Light? Yes it is. And I for one look forward to acting all pretentious and demanding people understand “the frog scene” in the same way Season 26 obsessives yell “microbes” to any dissenters (don’t worry, I’m one of them too). Next week is the finale, but personally I can’t see how it can top this. Chris Chibnall is a good writer but after four outstanding weeks of guest writers, will a return to basics do? I hope so. We’ll see.