This week’s Doctor Who manages to change the status quo of the series thus far by finally introducing some hard science fiction ideas worthy of the show’s heyday… yet an uneven tone and bland character work just makes me pine further for the days when everything seemed to work hand in hand.
As they arrive in current-day Norway, the TARDIS team are met with a cabin-in-the-woods scenario worthy of a classic episode. They find young Hanne (Eleanor Wallwork), blind and scared thanks to mysterious calls from the surrounding wood and her missing father Erik (Christian Rubeck) – Hanne’s been alone for days now, living in constant fear of whatever took her father away finding her too. Whilst the rest of the series has been criticised for offering very simplistic plots, this set-up would have been enough to carry on a horror-themed version of a base-under-siege archetype the show is known for. The location, atmosphere and performances are all similarly creepy (aside from an out-of-place sheep joke courtesy of The Doctor) for all of a handful of minutes. Previous horror-themed episodes such as ‘Listen’ and ‘Blink’ have proven the show’s capability to thrive on atmosphere alone, so it’s disappointment such a tone was so short-lived.
As the team explores the house to try and find some clues, Graham (Bradley Walsh) stumbles upon a mirror in the attic that doesn’t show shadows and we quickly find out it’s a portal into another world (yes, really). As The Doctor, Yaz and Graham explore through it, Ryan stays back with a nervous and afraid Hanne. The adventurous trio discover the portal leads to an ‘anti-zone’ between worlds, a bleak and dark hostile series of passageways festering with ferocious giant moths and come across a creature that calls himself ‘Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs’ (comedian Kevin Eldon) – a smuggler who tries to obtain The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. In exchange for his home-made lamps (the only source of light in the anti-zone and a distraction for the moths), The Doctor agrees to a trade as long as he guides them through the zone to find some answers.
Eldon provides Ribbons with some standard alien fare, his humanoid design and raspy voice dictates his double-crossing from the offset, but it’s familiarity is welcome within this series in particular. Elsewhere Tosin Cole’s Ryan finds that the mysterious noises from the woods are actually just a speaker set out by Erik, another interesting plot point that is dropped almost immediately. He struggles with Hanne, and despite her disadvantage she manages to knock him out temporarily to run through the portal herself (which, you know, is of course a great idea). The Doctor and others come under attack from hundreds of the anti-zone’s killer moths, and find another portal just in time whilst the insectoids feast on Ribbons’ flesh. Through the portal is an alternate version of Hanne and Erik’s home, one without wooden barricades, one that’s clean and home to not only Erik but Hanne’s lost mother Trine too. And she’s not the only deceased love in this different world.
Whilst The Doctor and Yaz try to figure out what’s going on, Graham is reunited with his wife/Ryan’s grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) waiting for him. The two embrace, and whilst Graham is hesitant at first thanks to the suspicious nature of the situation, he is won over by Grace’s knowledge of their lives and her true compassion for both him and Ryan. Walsh continues to portray Graham as the most emotionally-resonant of the whole group, and whilst his reunion with Grace is touching it doesn’t quite allow him to reach the heights of his heartbreak as seen in ‘Arachnids in the UK’. Meanwhile Ryan joins Hanne in the anti-zone, and the two are chased through the new portal by the moths. It closes between the two of them, leaving Ryan isolated in the anti-zone on his own and as Hanne tells the others about what’s happened, The Doctor manages to put everything together in one huge exposition dump speech and discovers they’re in a conscious universe that’s trying to merge with theirs over the divide of the anti-zone. The deceased loved ones are just projections from the universe itself, a way to convince people to remain with them so that they’re no longer lonely.
Even after finding out this knowledge and witnessing both the projections of Trine and Grace force-push Yaz and Hanne back into the anti-zone, Graham is still cautious about leaving his wife once again. Whilst on one hand this is a stupid decision for the character, his emotionality paints him as more of a human figure capable of weakness. Ryan joins the others, saying goodbye to his love once again and the conscious universe transforms itself into a simpler state – a white void filled with nothing but…a frog in which to talk to The Doctor (because…you know Grace likes frogs). Whilst I enjoyed this piece of Douglas Adams-esque surrealism and the practicality of the frog puppet with Grace’s voice, I just found the whole experience inexplicably inconsequential. The Doctor and the second universe talk about being friends, and bid each other farewell as she returns back to the team in Norway. Hanne and Erik are reunited, and their relationship seems to pick up where it left off despite her dad willingly leaving her on her own for a copy of his wife…
I’m not going to lie to you here. I’m struggling with this series of Doctor Who. I feel like week-by-week I’m just repeating the same things. Production design and direction by Jamie Childs is still strong, with the anti-zone and alternate universe being particular well presented on screen. The script by Ed Hime features the notion of cool concepts which could be episodes all by themselves, yet never follows through with any of them enough to make any sort of impact. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor continues to faintly embody an excitable child, whilst the rest of the script is filled with characters stating and re-stating plot points that have already been established. I will reaffirm that The Doctor continues to be the least-developed of the whole TARDIS team, and that Walsh, Cole and Mandip Gill are doing top work within the show. It’s not that Whittaker’s performance is bad at all, it’s that she’s yet to have her true defining moment as The Doctor, and is yet to get further than the initial period of silliness that every incarnation of the character goes through.
Next week we’re already at the series finale, and Chibnall’s back on writing duties. It’s still going to take a while for me to give up but at this point I feel like I’m continuing with the show in the hope that I can find some sort of improvement. I don’t know if that’s more of a comment on me or the show. But it’s a worrying thought nonetheless.