Doctor Who: “It Takes You Away” Is a Microcosm of the Season’s Strengths and Weaknesses
(Episode 11.09)Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America TV Reviews Doctor Who
Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
I must say, I watched “It Takes You Away” with trepidation. After “The Witchfinders,” which I declared the best episode of the season and the one that holds the key to the Whittaker/Chibnall era, this week’s cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, flesh-eating moths, anti-zones and Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs (WTF?) had me braced for a major letdown, or perhaps an outright disaster.
But here’s the thing: Doctor Who has found its stride. (Even “Kerblam!,” my least favorite of the season’s back half, had a cunning premise. It just didn’t have the courage to follow through.) And on television, that often means spinning dross into gold: From all its strange pieces, “It Takes You Away” finds the elements of an effective—if not necessarily spectacular—hour, especially in the long, patient groundwork of Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) relationship with Ryan (Tosin Cole), his grief over Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), and the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) self-sacrificing instinct.
There’s a moment of high tension late in the episode, when the “conscious universe” known as the Solitract has nearly lured in both Graham and Erik (Christian Rubeck), the bereaved Norwegian widower, in which I found myself rapt—and then I thought, “Just 15 minutes ago, I was impatient for this to end.” That, as much as making truly great episodes like “The Witchfinders,” is the mark of a TV series with legs—that one performance, that one scene, that one moment that keeps you coming back for more, even when everything else feels a little half-cocked. I’m delighted to report that the Whittaker/Chibnall Who finally has that.
What say you?
If you can find something to enjoy in an episode that partially takes place on a sound-stage with fog machine, blue lights and killer moths, you might actually be a Doctor Who fan now. The cheesy special effects, gags like the Doctor’s fear that they might have landed in the middle of a sheep rebellion, a villainous humanoid alien with a ridiculous name—these are all traits I love only because they’re unique traits of something I’ve grown to love, not for their own merit.
But I agree that even if this was one of the weaker episodes of the season, there was enough meat on these low-budget sci-fi bones in “It Takes You Away” to make me care all the way through. Ryan had a more significant part to play than he has in most of the seasons and even grew a little this episode. Erik, though, is utter trash. Convincing his blind daughter there were monsters in the woods so she wouldn’t leave the house? I didn’t feel great about her ending up back in his care.
My biggest disappointment was that the penultimate episode was a standalone one. That means there won’t be any two-parters this season, and those account for some of the very best stories since it was rebooted in 2005. And the finale is unlikely to be a cliffhanger, since it’ll be followed by a holiday special.
So we’ve now had giant spiders and flesh-eating moths. The Who-verse is basically Australia. Are you ready for a good, ol’ fashioned alien war? Because the finale is called “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.”
I am… as ready as I’ll ever be? As I’ve come back to again and again this season, Doctor Who has impressed me most when it’s delved into the past, rather than imagining the future, so I’m preparing myself for the season finale to be a disappointment. I’ll admit that sci-fi is not my go-to genre, so this isn’t entirely Who’s fault, but the season’s three historical episodes have been so much better than the rest that the imbalance officially qualifies as a problem Chibnall and company need to solve going forward.
To me, the merit of “Kerblam!” and “It Takes You Away”—compared to “The Ghost Monument” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum”—is that they indicate progress being made on this front, whether it’s the former’s cunning send-up of an Amazon-style retailer or the latter’s poignant understanding of just how much we might be tempted to sacrifice to be with our loved ones who’ve passed on. (I agree with you that Erik is a shady character, but I am going to chalk that up to being manipulated by a conscious universe in the form of his dead wife.) Over the course of nine episodes, I’ve learned to treat Whittaker and Chibnall as the star and showrunner of a brand new series, one that is still finding its voice, and in that spirit, I’d say these improvements are promising, even if there’s still a long way to go. (I also suspect that Doctor Who has never been a hugely consistent series, given the one-off adventure format.) I’ll be interested to see the finale and the holiday special, of course, but I’m already looking toward next season, when the creative team will have had some time to go back to the drawing board and tweak what’s not working. That will be the real test.
You’re my resident Who historian: Which iteration of the reboot improved the most over time? What did they figure out wasn’t working and fix? And do you agree that this iteration is on an upward trajectory?
When David Tennant took over for Christopher Eccleston, it was the first time for new fans to adjust to their beloved character completely changing. Plus, he inherited an existing companion, and it was as strange for her as it was for us. But the Tenth Doctor became the best, with a number of emotional arcs that had mostly to do with his role as protector and how he failed in that role on micro and macro levels.
I think this season is headed into the end of the year on an upswing, but I’m starting to question the decision to give Jodie Whittaker a trio of companions. It’s made for much slower character development, with only Graham feeling fully fleshed out this late in the season. Every scene without Whittaker has been less interesting than just about any scene with her. And she still hasn’t met a challenge that’s pushed her very far.
The good news is, we still get to look forward her first encounters with her various nemeses. This season was a hard restart in a lot of ways, and it’s been a solid transition so far. Here’s hoping for a futuristic finale to blow us away.