Delightful, but it’s impossible to look at this fact without noting that this is because it largely eschews the tropes of the Chibnall era in favor of being a Doctor Who story. Indeed, to stir the obvious and very tempting pot a little more, this is delightful because it has a relationship to the Moffat era other than studiously avoiding everything about it. It is not that this feels like a Moffat-era story, although it certainly wouldn’t have been out of place within Series 10. (Imagine it instead of Lie of the Land for the narrative job of dealing with Bill’s mother.) But it feels like Doctor Who that has actually seen the Moffat era, taken on board the sorts of things it discovered the show could do, and moved on. In feels like a story that belongs to that moment where we had Mathieson, Harness, and Dollard all turning up every season to do something interesting.
At the heart of this is an investment in making sure the nature of the story actually shifts in meaningful way. Haunted house horror (done, it must be said, with a pleasantly new coat of paint) gives way to a bewildering but evocative fantasy sequence in some magic caves, at the end of which we find a sentient anti-universe that I’m pretty sure is Urizen, but that’s another essay. At each turn there’s a new set of rules to figure out, a new set of genre conventions, and new stakes. But in a season that has been fixated on the procedural, here we have an episode that is eager to embrace Doctor Who’s capacity to go “no, this.” The Doctor’s leap to identifying the Soletract is delightfully unelaborated on. The basic ideas are huge “revise your basic Doctor Who cosmology” juggernauts that nevertheless feel reasonably-sized and accessible when they land. And there’s a frog on a chair at the end of it.’
But for all that this is rooted in the Moffat era’s unapologetic embrace of the logic and iconography of fantasy over science fiction this equally clearly isn’t a post-Moffat story. For one thing, the idea that the universe would be structured like this—that a passage through a mirror would lead to a deadly cave where you have to make bargains for your life, and on the other side of the cave is a sentient anti-universe that’s secretly a frog—is just taken for granted, as opposed to being treated as something that the viewer should appreciate the cleverness of. As a result, the show finds itself willing to revel in the strangeness of things instead of preening about them. It becomes “oh, of course the world is this weird and unsettling,” which is an interesting point to hit.
On top of all of this, it knows how to use its characters. Graham and Ryan are both used effectively, put in positions and roles that are tailored to who they are. Yaz is still a plot function, left to perform the emotional intelligence role of the standard new series companion in a show where the Doctor is perfectly capable of that now, but on the whole the supporting cast is better utilized than we’ve ever seen. More than that, the story is about them in a way not even Demons of the Punjab managed. There’s theme and payoff and an actual investigation into grief and abandonment that has things to say about these concepts.
But perhaps most delightfully, It Takes You Away finally has a truly stellar use of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. Correctly recognizing (as Demons of the Punjab did) that this radically non-confrontational Doctor only works if put into a story in which there’s nothing to confront, It Takes You Away creates a situation where there’s no villain and then lets Whittaker lose to appeal to the non-villain in a no way, offering friendship and empathy, promising to remember the Soletract and care. It’s brilliant, and for the first time in her tenure Whittaker is unquestionably the Doctor, but in a way that no previous actor in the part ever could have been. It’s the era’s first actually iconic Doctor moment.
It serves, in other words, as an uneasy proof of how close to working the Chibnall era is; how much of a maddening near miss this joylessly conservative procedural version of Doctor Who actually is. The raw elements are there. The big picture decisions are all spot-on. And if we widen the lens slightly, it’s notable that all four of the guest writer episodes do well in the rankings and are interesting, compelling pieces. This show works; it just needs to not be by the writer of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Cyberwoman. But for this week at least we have a sorely needed win.
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