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Doctor Who: “It Takes You Away”


“It Takes You Away,” like many of the episodes this season, can best be described as okay, with a few standout moments, but not great. It’s more middling than anything else. The problem is that the episode is actually two different stories, and both are somewhat disappointing because the other is attached to it and by necessity truncating it.

The first story is about a blind girl named Hanne who is alone in a cabin with a missing and presumed dead father, as well as something terrible in the woods outside that comes every day at the same time. It’s a great setup, and in fact it reminded me a lot of the equally great setup to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Unfortunately, it makes exactly the same wrong turn that The Village does with the twist that there is no monster in the forest, it’s just a recording her father left to keep her in the house. (Not to mention keeping her terrified and helpless. This guy’s not winning any Father of the Year Awards. I really wish either the Doctor or Ryan, who was abandoned by his own father, had truly taken him to task for his actions, but like in the episode “Kerblam!”, where the Doctor didn’t seem all that upset that the system had murdered an innocent person just to make a point to the villain, the writers keep forgetting to have the characters react to anything outside the main conflict.)

The second story also has a great setup: a mirror universe created by an ancient entity who was exiled from our universe and wants to come back. Most of the good things in the episode happen in this story, in particular the scenes with Graham and his seemingly resurrected wife Grace. Those scenes add a much needed emotional depth to the story — an emotional depth that, frankly, has been missing for most of the season. But there’s barely time to explore this fascinating concept of a mirror universe created by what is essentially a godlike being, because there’s all the stuff from the first story to deal with too, and also an absolutely dreadful interlude in the Anti-zone between universes with an alien named Ribbons and some dead rats and creatures called flesh moths, and really the less said about that the better. Also, the Solitract takes the form of a frog for some reason when it tries to keep the Doctor in the mirror universe, instead of taking the form of someone the Doctor loves, as it did for Hanne’s father and Graham. Probably, they couldn’t bring Alex Kingston or a previous companion back for the scene, but still, as cute as the frog was, the choice didn’t make much sense or have any emotional weight.

Everything having to do with Graham and Grace, and that scene at the end when Ryan finally calls Graham “granddad,” is wonderful. (Also, the fact that Graham carries sandwiches with him after realizing they don’t often stop for meals on their adventures. Basically, everything Graham is making me happy!) The rest of “It Takes You Away” is such a muddled mishmash that even when it’s dealing with what should be intriguing concepts, it just doesn’t have the power to grab you. Also, Ryan’s dyspraxia is gone again, as he runs through the Anti-zone and away from the flesh moths without any coordination issues at all.

As a side note, I think I’ve figured out what Chris Chibnall is trying to do with this season, and why it’s not necessarily working for me. I think Chibnall is trying to bring Doctor Who back to being a child-friendly family show with a classic-era structure of each episode being its own adventure without a season-long arc, making it easier for new and young viewers to jump in at any time. However, because I’m still used to the preceding years’ more adult tone and almost airlessly self-referential, continuity-heavy arcs, it feels lightweight to me, rightly or wrongly. I will admit that aside from a great cast, some nice character work, an almost cinematic look, and what I thought was a strong start, I’ve found this season mostly underwhelming. With only one episode to go (as well as an eventual New Year’s Day special), I don’t see things having much time to turn around.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! When Ryan and Graham discover they can’t see their reflections in the mirror, Ryan makes a joke about how they would presumably know if they were vampires. The Doctor has actually met vampires before on several occasions. In the 1980 serial “State of Decay,” the Fourth Doctor encounters three astronauts from Earth who were turned into vampires by the Great Vampire centuries ago. In the 1989 serial “The Curse of Fenric,” the Seventh Doctor encounters the Haemovores, mutated humans from the far future who drink blood and are repelled by symbols of strong belief. There were also the Plasmavores in the 2007 Tenth Doctor episode “Smith and Jones,” and of course in the 2010 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Vampires of Venice,” the victims of the Saturnyne take on vampiric attributes. At one point in “It Takes You Away,” Yaz recommends the Doctor reverse the polarity of her sonic screwdriver to try to open the portal back to their world, and the Doctor replies, “You speak my language!” This is a reference to a long-running joke on Doctor Who about “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow,” a phrase that goes all the way back to the Third Doctor.

Next episode is the season finale. Here’s hoping things pick up a bit!

Doctor Who: “The Witchfinders”


“The Witchfinders” is a fun episode, but for a story dealing with such heavy themes — paranoia, scapegoating, the senseless murder of villagers accused of being witches, the way women were generally belittled, disregarded, and mistreated in 17th century England — it felt curiously lightweight. If this were a season with more of an arc, “The Witchfinders” would be a filler episode, a placeholder between episodes more important to the overall story. But that sounds harsher than I intended. It’s not a bad episode by any stretch, it just doesn’t go deep, and as a result it’s kind of forgettable.

One thing that is not forgettable about the episode is Alan Cumming as King James I. He’s hilarious through most of it, but also brings his acting chops to the quieter moments when he needs to. There have been a lot of well known actors doing character work on Doctor Who, in the classic series as well as the revival, but Cumming stands out as one of the best. He looks like he’s having a great time, and that feeling is contagious.

It was nice to see Siobhan Finneran again, too. She was great as Miss O’Brien on Downton Abbey, and when she left that show her absence was definitely felt. The episode’s zombie women were appropriately scary, but unfortunately, this being Doctor Who, they turned out to be possessed by disembodied aliens instead of being actual undead revenants out for revenge, which would have been so much cooler. But there’s always a scientific explanation in this show, so aliens it is. Interestingly, this is the third “aliens in history” episode of the season, which is an unusual number for Doctor Who. Normally, we only get one historical per season, maybe two. If this is going to be a theme of Chris Chibnall’s era, I hope he will find a way not to make it too repetitious.

I thought there was a missed comedic opportunity to have the Doctor forget she’s female now and wonder why King James refuses to believe she’s the Witchfinder General, before she remembers. We do get a funny line later about how people used to listen to her more when she was male, though.

So, all in all, “The Witchfinders” is a good if not entirely memorable episode. There isn’t any further character development for the companions or the Doctor in this one, and once again Ryan’s dyspraxia seems to have disappeared. Graham gets to wear a funny hat, though, so at least there’s that!

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor has met actual witches before. In the 1971 Third Doctor serial “The Daemons,” the Master leads a coven of witches in Devil’s End in his effort to summon Azal, an alien who looks like the Devil. In the same serial, Olive Hawthorne, a resident of Devil’s End trying to stop the Master, claims to be a “white witch” (as did the actress who played her, Damaris Hayman). Although the Doctor himself wasn’t involved, the one-and-done 1981 spinoff K9 and Company saw Sarah Jane Smith and K9 Mark III face a coven of witches determined to perform a human sacrifice in the name of the goddess Hecate. And of course in the 2007 Tenth Doctor episode “The Shakespeare Code,” the Carrionites, led by Lilith, took the form of very Macbeth-like witches.

For all the talk about Satan in “The Witchfinders,” the Doctor has met several aliens who are supposed to either have created the myth of the Devil or who were mistaken for the Devil. Among them are the aforementioned Azal from “The Daemons”; Sutekh in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Pyramids of Mars,” whose name the Doctor says is “abominated in every civilized world, whether that name be Set, Satan, Sodos…”; the Malus in the 1984 Fifth Doctor serial “The Awakening,” an alien war machine lying dormant beneath a church whose walls feature its image as a representation of the Devil; and the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode “The Satan Pit,” in which the giant horned entity known as the Beast claims he is Satan, as well as other, less terrestrial religious figures. (I’m tempted to include Abaddon from the 2007 Torchwood episode “End of Days” too, but although he looks very Devil-like, he is never referenced that way.)

Lastly, the Doctor met another disembodied alien lifeform that possesses the bodies of the dead in the 2005 Ninth Doctor episode “The Unquiet Dead.” In that story, the Geith take control of corpses for their new bodies, which inspires Charles Dickens to finish writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, although sadly he doesn’t live to complete the novel.

Next episode, the Doctor finds a cabin in the woods, and that’s never a good thing!

Doctor Who: “Kerblam!”


“Kerblam!” turned out to be a much better episode than its trailer (or its exclamation-marked title) led me to think. With its use of social satire, it felt almost like a throwback to the best of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, and I could easily see Christopher Eccleston’s or David Tennant’s Doctor in this same story. A science-fictional examination of an Amazon-like mega retailer with a monopoly on order fulfillment and deliver was well past due. The episode also confronts the issue of automation versus the needs of human workers, that age-old quandary of how to continue to make the money that a capitalist system demands when there are fewer and fewer ways to do so. The episode doesn’t dig into it too deeply, it’s a lightweight exploration of a much weightier issue, but touching on the point gives it an effective edge.

Interestingly, “Kerblam!” turns the usual science fiction trope on its head by making the enormous computer system not the enemy, but rather a force that’s trying unsuccessfully to stop the enemy. How the system knew enough about the Doctor to send her a message asking for help is never explained. (Perhaps it analyzed her order history and determined she was someone who comes to the aid of others? Sorry, that’s the best I’ve got.)

“Kerblam!” also makes good use of the large TARDIS crew by splitting them up and giving everyone something important to do, which I have to say is something that not every episode this season has excelled at. No one felt superfluous. Graham continues to crack me up, especially when he’s given the mop and bucket. Yaz actually gets to make use of her police skills this time around, which I was happy to see, and Ryan finally mentions his dyspraxia again, even if it doesn’t really come into play. It doesn’t seem to stop him from hopping from one conveyor belt to another when the plot needs him to, for example, but at least his condition hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Twirly, the original version of the delivery bots, is hilarious, recommending the Doctor order high blood pressure medication during a particularly tense moment when thousands of bombs are about to explode.

Charlie makes for a somewhat sympathetic villain. His reasoning that Kerblam!’s mandated 10% human workers rule will only be revised down in the future, rather than up, is spot on, although his plan to murder countless Kerblam! customers with exploding bubble wrap is obviously the wrong way to effect change. To be honest, it’s kind of a dumb plan when you think about it. Not everyone pops bubble wrap. Plenty of people can resist the urge, and lots hold onto it for future packaging purposes, which would likely result in the deaths of people weeks or months later who didn’t even order from Kerblam!. As usual, it’s probably best not to think too much about the villain’s plan in a Doctor Who episode. I will point out, however, that Peter McTighe’s otherwise quite good script has a glaring Women in Refrigerators  problem, with the computer system deciding to murder Kira, who had nothing to do with Charlie’s plan, to try to stop Charlie by showing him how terrible it is to lose someone you love — which is so demented and cruel I’m surprised the Doctor didn’t immediately shut down the system upon learning this.

One last nitpick: When the crew returns to the TARDIS at the end of the episode, Graham is tempted to pop the bubble wrap that came with the Doctor’s original package at the start of the episode, but they warn him against it, asking him if he really wants to take that risk. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we already see Ryan popping that same bubble wrap back at the beginning, which proves it’s safe and not the bubble wrap Charlie tampered with? It made the bit at the end feel really forced and inauthentic to me.

Still, nitpicks aside, I enjoyed “Kerblam!” a lot. It’s a fun episode with lots of great character bits in it, as well as an element of timely social satire.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! There’s more to point out in this episode than in any other of the series so far. We get a callback to the Eleventh Doctor’s fondness for fezzes, and a direct mention of the time when the Tenth Doctor met Agatha Christie in the 2008 episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” The Doctor tells Graham, Ryan, and Yaz that some of her best friends are robots. This could definitely be a reference to K9, the robotic dog who accompanied the Fourth Doctor for several seasons, and who reappeared with Sarah Jane Smith in the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode “School Reunion.” He could also mean Handles, the repaired and reprogrammed Cyberman head from the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor,” and even Kamelion, the shape-shifting robot who was a short-lived (in every sense of the word) companion of the Fifth Doctor, appearing in only two serials, 1983’s “The King’s Demons” and 1984’s “Planet of Fire.” Lastly, the Venusian aikido that the Third Doctor used so often makes a return in “Kerblam!” when the Doctor briefly paralyzes Slade with a single finger to the neck.

Next episode…witches!

Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab”


I found the sixth episode of the new season of Doctor Who, “Demons of the Punjab,” to be a return in quality to the stronger episodes that began the season. If I have any real criticism, it’s only that “Demons of the Punjab” is nearly identical in structure to “Rosa” just three episodes ago — an adventure that takes place in relatively recent history that hinges on the Doctor and her companions being forced to allow something bad to happen in order for history to be preserved, in this case Yaz’s very existence. But both episodes work well, so it’s less of a complaint, I suppose, than an observation. This one has a great script and a good (and timely) message about the dangers of nationalism. As a historical, it’s more than just a good adventure, it also taught me a lot about the 1947 partition of India, which I knew very little about. The use of Yaz’s grandfather’s watch as a kind of touchstone for the events is very effective, and the vocal version of the theme song that plays over the end credits is haunting and beautiful.

Speaking of Yaz, we get to know her a little better here by delving into her heritage and her relationship with her grandmother. So far, I have found her to be the least developed of the three companions, and putting her center stage went a long way toward helping fix that. I still don’t have as clear a picture of her as I do of Graham and Ryan, but she doesn’t feel superfluous either. I continue to wish the writers would make more use of Yaz’s police skills, though, and let her play the detective more.

Graham remains my favorite character of the season. I love his line about how he’s willing to sing at Umbreen and Prem’s wedding and knows all the old classics, although to the bride and groom the songs would simply be contemporary hits. I’m also enjoying those moments when the Doctor mentions she used to be male, often to the confusion of those around her. On the other hand, I keep wondering what happened to Ryan’s dyspraxia, which no longer seems to be affecting his physical coordination. The frequent dropping of plot points and character details is one of the things that really bugged me about the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who, and I really hope we’re not going to get more of the same under Chris Chibnall.

We’re six episodes in, and I find I still need more from the Doctor. I need her to interact more with the other characters on a personal level, rather than just on a plot level. Jodie Whittaker is very charismatic and an excellent actress, but the scripts aren’t letting her be the Doctor so much as “play” the Doctor, having her go through the motions without revealing anything of herself. Aside from some good dialogue in the season’s first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” she barely talks about herself or her background. With only four episodes left in the season, I’m hoping this will change soon.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! When the Doctor tells Yaz it’s dangerous to go back in time and meet your family members, she might have been remembering the events of the season one episode “Father’s Day,” in which the Ninth Doctor brings Rose back in time to see her deceased father. There, Rose is unable to resist saving his life, inadvertently releasing the Reapers in the process. The TARDIS’s telepathic circuits make an appearance again, first introduced in the season 8 episode “Listen.” Then, the 12th Doctor plugs Clara into the circuit to investigate a nightmare she once had, while here the Doctor plugs Yaz’s grandfather’s watch into the circuit to take them to the proper time and place in history to meet him. Lastly, there’s a bit of a thematic throwback to the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.” The Doctor assumes the Thijarians have malicious intent when in fact they are simply observers, not unlike the Testimony and their glass avatars.

I don’t want to judge it by the trailer alone, but I have to admit that the next episode, in which the Doctor and her companions visit the equivalent of Space, does not look very promising.