‘Doctor Who’ Turns Nordic Noir Into Supernatural Fantasy in Season 11’s Best Episode (RECAP)

Doctor Who S11 Ep9 Woods2
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Doctor Who is a show that can be anything it wants to be and that is what makes it so delightfully unpredictable. You can tune in each week and be transported to a completely different world. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that feeling with this season. Despite some strong moral messages, the plotting and world-creating have been rather pedestrian. You can usually work out where the story is going within a matter of minutes. Nothing has truly surprised me… until now.

Let’s just get this out of the way up top, “It Takes You Away,” penned by Skins writer Ed Hime, is undoubtedly the best episode of the season. It is weird and inventive and packed with interesting ideas. An episode with the kind of big sci-fi concept that this season has been desperately missing. For the first time, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen next, and it had me gripped from beginning to end.

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Showrunner Chris Chibnall penned the hourlong episode.

That’s not to say this is a perfect episode. There were some hokey moments towards the end with Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). And one particularly jarring speech from The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), which I’ll get to later. Also, once again, a lot of the dialogue lacks the spark and wit that it had during the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat eras. But in terms of concepts and wonderful sci-fi madness, Himes brings a much-needed energy to the show that it makes it easier to overlook the flaws.

The episode starts off as Doctor Who‘s spin on Nordic noir, as Team TARDIS come upon a boarded up cottage in the picturesque Norwegian woods. Inside they find a terrified blind girl, Hanne (Eleanor Wallwork), who believes that a monster in the woods took her father; Wallwork, who is genuinely blind in real life, does a fantastic job of selling Hanne’s fear throughout the episode. When the gang hears the bloodcurdling roars coming from deep in the forest, it seems like we’re set for a classic ‘cabin in the woods’ horror story.

Photo: Doctor Who/Twitter

Things take a turn for the fantastical however when the group finds a non-reflective mirror (Ryan gets a genuine laugh when he asks: “We’d know if we were vampires, right?”) which acts a portal to another dimension. It flips our expectations from ‘kid-friendly monster movie’ to ‘supernatural dark fantasy’. There are elements of Pan’s Labyrinth (at least aesthetically) and Silent Hill. And when The Doctor sticks her head through the mirror, and her face becomes all distorted, it reminded me of Agent Dale Cooper being sucked through dimensions in last year’s Twin Peaks revival.

Through the portal is a darkened cave-like dwelling, known as the “anti-zone,” a place created when the fabric of spacetime is threatened, and home to Ribbons (Kevin Eldon), a knife-wielding creature who, according to Graham at least, stinks of urine (and not his own). Ribbons promises to lead the gang to Hanne’s father in exchange for The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver (or as he calls it, “shiny tubular”), but when he tries to pull a double-cross, he is tackled by Graham and devoured by the genuinely creepy Flesh Moths (big thumbs up for the moth crawling through the skeleton’s eye socket).

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The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz (Mandip Gill), who is again mostly sidelined in this episode, make it out of the anti-zone and into a mirrored universe. It’s the same cottage, but the furniture is slightly rearranged…. oh, and Hanne’s dead mother is alive. Erik (Christian Rubeck), Hanne’s father, has been living in the mirror-verse with Trine (Lisa Stokke), his previously deceased wife. He’s afraid to go back home in case he never sees Trine again, and so he chose to abandon his daughter and live out his days in this false reality.

It’s certainly an unexpected twist that the main villain turns out to be, I guess, child abuse? Back in the real cottage, Ryan, who is tasked with looking after Hanne, discovers that Erik set up a speaker system around the house, blasting out the sound of animal roars. All a trick to keep Hanne from leaving the house. I mean, that is sort of, horrific, right? It was another interesting concept, but I felt this one was brushed under the rug and strangely Erik didn’t face any repercussions.

The emotional crux of the episode involves Graham, who is forced to face his grief head-on when he finds Grace (Sharon D Clarke) in the mirror-verse. Grace convinces Graham that she is real and that they can be together again. He tells her all about his adventures in the TARDIS and confesses that he’s lost without her. Walsh, as always, nails the scene with an understated performance. It would be so easy to go big and turn on the waterworks in a moment like this, but Walsh knows how to get the sentiment across with a subtle expression or crack in his voice.

Photo: Doctor Who/Twitter

It’s a short-lived reunion though because The Doctor eventually figures out that the mirror-verse is a trick. She remembers an old Gallifreyan bedtime story her grandmother used to tell her about the Solitract — a conscious universe that was exiled into an “unreachable existence” because it was unable to coexist with our reality. “Think of it like a kid with chicken pox, nuclear chicken pox, who wants to join in but ends up infecting everyone else,” the Doctor explains to Yaz. It’s a nutty idea but the kind that Doctor Who is allowed to get away with.

Grace is merely part of the Solitract’s illusion, and while Graham doesn’t want to believe it at first, he knows it’s true when she shows a lack of concern for Ryan who is trapped in the anti-zone. “The real Grace would never let me leave Ryan in danger,” he says. Doctor Who has pulled the “cheat-death” card a few times throughout its run (remember how Moffat could never truly let Clara go?), but one thing that should be held in Season 11’s favor is that dead means dead. Having Grace return home and join Team TARDIS would have been a serious copout.

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In the end, it turns out the Solitract just wanted a friend, and The Doctor agrees to stay behind if it means her friends can go free. The talking frog with the voice of Grace is so bizarre that I can’t help but love it. Even though I feel like Whittaker has been shortchanged this season with lackluster stories and weak dialogue, she has grown into the role in spite of that, and here she gets to deliver her most Doctor-y speeches yet. The one misstep, however, is when she tells Erik, who is clearly psychologically damaged from his wife’s death, that it’s “time to move on, mate.” That just felt out of place and very un-Doctor-like.

Speaking of tonally jarring, Ryan’s treatment of Hanne early in the episode felt very heavy-handed and out of character. Yes, we get the point that Ryan has his own daddy issues and was projecting onto Hanne, but his bluntness, not to mention the way he violently grabbed her arm (even if it was to protect her), didn’t feel true to the good-natured Ryan we’ve seen in previous episodes. The “Granddad” scene with Graham, which I think we all knew was coming, also veered a little too closely into corny territory.

As I said earlier, I’m willing to overlook a few misplaced character moments and bland exposition when an episode is as imaginative as this. “It Takes You Away” does precisely what the title promises, it transports you to another world for 50-minutes on a cold wintery Sunday evening.

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Additional Notes:

-Yaz gets a neat little reference to Jon Pertwee’s “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” catchphrase, but other than that she is as neglected as a blind Norwegian child. In an example of how little the episode cares about Yaz, when the gang enters the mirror-verse, she is the only one who the Solitract doesn’t try to tempt into staying. Poor Yaz.

-It was great to see Kevin Eldon in Doctor Who finally. The veteran actor/comedian has been in pretty much every other British show and Who is such a perfect fit for his peculiar style of performance. Also, the fact he was wearing face make-up in this episode gives me hope that he could turn back up as another character in the future.

-I appreciated the Arctic Monkeys reference, and it ties back into this season’s love of Sheffield, but no way Hanne’s mom bought that t-shirt at their first gig in Oslo, which happened in 2011 (it was an “AM” t-shirt, and that album wasn’t released until 2013… unless she bought it in the mirror-verse).

-Just one episode left. Chris Chibnall is back for the big finale next week. I’m excited but trepidatious to see what he has in store for us.

Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America