★ Doctor Who episode It Takes You Away begins well and ends well. The opening treats us to a gorgeous vista of Norwegian forest and fjord, the police box nestling iconically among the undergrowth. The travellers’ investigation of a barricaded wooden lodge offers a few mini-chills, until its lone occupant, a blind child Hanne, is discovered, abandoned by her father. So far, so Nordic noir.
The conclusion back at the Tardis is also reasonably satisfying, delivering a long-anticipated, tender punch as Ryan finally connects with Graham, opens his heart and calls him Granddad. Surely, the main purpose of this episode was to concoct a “Grace ghost” that would bring Ryan and Graham together.
But what happens between these points? Well, it’s almost as if a noir-ish thriller shimmers into 1960s Lost in Space, tumbling through a mirror into a dark dimension and coshing us with its Shifty Alien Of The Week. (I adored Lost in Space as a nipper but Doctor Who was always by far the better programme.)
Kevin Eldon (the likeable comedy actor and writer) has the challenge of portraying “Ribbons of the seven stomachs”, a scavenger who smells of someone else’s wee, an annoying, duplicitous weirdo who is the time travellers’ only guide through this murky netherworld. Unfathomably, Ribbons carries a lantern in a domain plagued by flesh-eating moths and he isn’t mourned when he carks it.
It Takes You Away is for the most part staggeringly dull. Odd, because the writer Ed Hime generates potentially intriguing ideas: the mirror/portal; the anti-zone, described as “a protective buffer to keep threats at bay”; the aforementioned moths; and the Solitract. “A whole conscious universe” going back to the dawn of time, it’s actually just a bit lonely, poor thing, and is eventually – don’t snigger! – embodied as a solemn frog squatting on a chair.
It’s soon apparent that the anti-zone is not just a buffer between universes but tedious filler in the narrative. The subsequent Solitract tract isn’t exactly riveting, either. It’s deadened by screeds of chitchat as any viewer still awake waits for the “dead wives” to show their hand – literally, as an outstretched palm conveniently flings each character back into the anti-zzzzone.
I don’t buy the idea of Erik having left his blind daughter for days on end with just scraps of food and rigging loudspeakers to freak her into not venturing out. No matter how lost in grief he was or how happy he is to see his dead wife, he’s a character in search of conviction. How did he flit with ease between universes to set up the lodge for Hanne? Why not take her with him from the start?
The script doesn’t pause to flesh Erik out or give him redemption, or waste time with Solitract temptations for the Doctor and Yaz. It’s in haste to secure that series tent-pole of reuniting Graham with Grace. We probably all guessed we’d get at least one more sighting of Sharon D Clarke, who still makes me wish she’d been part of Team Tardis all along.
On a positive note – and I do look for them, reader! – young blind actress Ellie Wallwork convinces as the traumatised but on-the-ball Hanne, while the casting of Norwegian actors Christian Rubeck and Lisa Stokke as her parents adds a veneer of authenticity.
Against the odds, Jodie Whittaker excels in her final exchange with the frog – alone in a white space, acting in reality with nothing. It’s like an audition piece. She radiates a beautiful spirit, some of that ethereal luminance promised in her debut as the Hooded Woman in BBC1’s big reveal. A quality that hasn’t really materialised in series 11 as she’s galumphed around.
On balance, It Takes You Away is a disappointing excursion and mostly plays like some generic dreck you’d stumble upon while channel-hopping through the higher numbers on your TV Guide, tolerate for 30 seconds before moving hastily on. Extraordinarily, it’s going out under the banner of Doctor Who on primetime BBC1.