By Mark Laherty
This season has seen Doctor Who jump between two worlds: the shaky vision of showrunner Chris Chibnall and the much stronger realm of guest writers (with one notable exception). Fittingly, this episode sees the TARDIS Team find a portal from the humdrum to the fantastical.
The gang lands in a forest in Norway and quickly discover something the Doc finds suspicious: a small house in a notoriously freezing region in the Winter, but it has a chimney with no smoke. Investigation reveals a blind child, Hanne (Ellie Wallwork), whose mother has recently died and is now being raised by her dad, who has gone missing. What’s more, she says that there’s a monster in the woods. As the clues start to pile up, the Doctor discovers what is essentially a magic mirror in the attic. This portal leads to a dark and dangerous cave in another world.
Writer and Who newcomer (like all this season’s guest writers) Ed Hime certainly knows how to set up and execute a perspective shift, which proves a breath of fresh air in this relatively twist-light season. I know that a lot of people, especially those who view previous showrunner Steven Moffat unfavourably, are tired of twisty plotlines. But it’s such a delight to be totally blindsided by this show again.
Lead director Jamie Childs returns, having also directed ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab.’ It’s a bit unclear why the new production era has decided to go all-in on Childs. He certainly isn’t on-par with previous Who directors like Rachel Talalay (‘Blink,’ ‘Heaven Sent,’ and many others). But he’s far from bad. The adventure world of the caves is shot well and makes great use of colour to convey mood, an area in which this season has otherwise been lacking. Strong blues feel spooky and strong reds contrast to convey danger. It’s not complicated but it’s effective and pretty. There’s also an excellent moment of symbolism and visual storytelling with a washing line, of all things.
Again, this season prioritises representation. As stated above, the child Hanne is blind, as is the actor Wallwork. I’ve seen some deem the turn toward diversity tokenistic; Grace, a black woman, was killed off in the first episode to motivate Graham, for example. It’s important to say that casting blind actors as blind characters makes for a more authentic performance (who’d have thought), but this episode feels tone-deaf in its latter half for reasons that aren’t completely Hime’s fault.
Another bum note is the non-presence of Yaz and Ryan. Another recurring criticism of the season is that the three companions are never given enough to do, with at least one playing the role of the tin dog. This is the case again. Graham continues to be the companion who the show is most interested in, another reason the shine is coming off the show’s diversity. Yaz’s training as a cop is acknowledged, which is so rare that it’s pleasing to see, but she doesn’t have any development. Ryan is almost given an interesting dynamic as they both have dead mums and absent fathers. But, it just doesn’t happen.
A portal into another world, of course, is a classic trope. A good portal will stick in people’s heads and this one’s a doozy. But even before the gang step through to the caves, there’s a lot on offer in the creepy setting of the house. A house is as common a setting in horror as it is in theatre and for good reason. It’s a story’s best battleground to tease out a family’s anxieties. So, the Doctor and Co enter the house as outsiders to investigate. This is a common trope in Who, but it feels especially pointed here. It’s like the classic Irish theatre setup of the stranger coming into the home and unravelling all its dark secrets except this time, the viewpoint character is the invading stranger. But then, the Brits are always happy to invade.
Surrounding that house is a dense forest. The sense is that it’s far beyond society. Hanne and her dad moved to the forest to get away from the city after her mum died. They’re isolating themselves in their grief and the forest is that grief made manifest. Though there is no urban space seen here, this suggests a more optimistic idea of cities as communities rather than Chibnall’s grim, post-industrial Sheffield. The effect, rather than a contradiction, is nuance, even though it seems accidental. This season’s better episodes have a great knack for setting and this shack in a Norwegian forest is one of its best. The strong allegory in the setting carries over to the sci-fi concepts and mechanics in play. By the end, the theme comes into focus beautifully in the mind of the viewer and we see that this isn’t just a story about portals and caves but also about grief and unhealthy relationships and how they isolate you or… take you away. *airhorns* *does the Fortnite dance*
While I’m talking about the ending, let’s make some non-spoiler remarks: it’s weird. As I said, it’s quite good, but it’s twice as weird. This is the sort of thing that I usually love from Who but the climactic scene in which a character makes their key final decision, while dramatically sound and purposeful in its abstraction, will really throw you for a loop. But then, that’s probably the best of what Doctor Who can be: bonkers. The way things are dramatized muddies the theme slightly, but its shortcomings are nowhere near fatal. While I’ve enthused about the allegory here, it oughtn’t be taken as one-to-one literality.
That’s probably the best recommendation that can be given to this episode. As Sadly Walsh continues to flail about in his role as Angstman McDeadwife, the absence of Grace only stings more bitterly. But, the bulk of what’s on offer here is an artfully unfolding story reveals some of the season’s best allegorical work. And, yes, it’s bonkers. Hopefully, that’ll be enough to get the bad taste out of your mouth.