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A season’s best Doctor Who is wonderfully weird and beautifully poignant

Photo: Susanna Diallo (BBC America)
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As I mentioned in my review of “Demons Of The Punjab,” Doctor Who has made me cry about a lot of things. Characters dying. Friends being separated. Lovers being reunited. Real-world figures grappling with the weight of their place in history. But it’s never made me cry about the Doctor empathetically appealing to the noblest instincts of a talking frog. Well, at least not until tonight. Though “It Takes You Away” calls to mind plenty of other Doctor Who episodes—from the self-sacrifice of “Father’s Day” to the dark fairy tale of “Night Terrors” to the general weirdness of “The Doctor’s Wife”—it combines those elements into something wholly original. There have been strong episodes this season, but this feels like the one in which this new era of Doctor Who really and truly finds its voice.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if “It Takes You Away” winds up being a bit of a divisive episode, especially given that frog twist. (We’ll get to that.) It definitely bites off more than it can chew in terms of plot, but it makes up for that with a refreshing cohesion of theme. “It Takes You Away” is a dark fairy, one full of missing parents, evil goblins, maze routes mapped out in string, and, yes, talking frogs. That fairy tale imagery is reflected in the episode’s setting—an isolated Norwegian cottage, which exists in 2018 but could just as easily exist in any era, give or take some band tees and a reference to wi-fi. Inside the boarded up cottage, the TARDIS team finds Hanne (Ellie Wallwork), a blind teenager with a missing dad and a monster in her backyard. The first act of the episode is an effective little horror story that seems to set up a cabin-in-the-woods style thriller. But with the help of a magic mirror (and a whole lot of clunky exposition) it becomes something else entirely—a moving mediation on grief and loneliness.

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The magic mirror is a portal to an Anti-Zone, a protective buffer that exists between two universes that aren’t able to safely co-exist. On the other side of the Anti-Zone is a “conscious universe” known as the Solitract—an all-powerful cosmic force that’s fundamentally incompatible with our universe. In fact, the Solitract existed before time began and it wasn’t until it was exiled to a separate plane of existence that the building blocks of our universe were able to come together. It’s the sort of abstract concept you have to lock into on an emotional level, rather than a logical one. But that’s where the fairy tale quality helps sell the episode’s tone. Appropriately, the Doctor’s understanding of the Solitract is based on bedtime stories her favorite grandmother (the fifth of seven) used to tell her when she couldn’t sleep.

The biggest misstep of this episode is that it spends way too much time on the Anti-Zone and the ultimately pointless (and pretty annoying) Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs (Kevin Eldon). Both elements perhaps could’ve been interesting in their own episode, but they feel at odds with this one. The existence of the Anti-Zone doubles the amount of exposition that needs to be delivered, and the number of scenes in which the Doctor poses a question to herself, yells “of course!”, and then immediately answers it. (That’s been way too much of a crutch this season.) “It Takes You Away” likely would’ve been stronger if it had cut down on the time spent in between the two worlds and instead just zeroed in on the emotional realities of both of them.

Even in its messier middle, however, “It Takes You Away” at least provides an excellent showcase for Jodie Whittaker, one that continues building on the more proactive version of the Doctor showcased in “The Witchfinders.” The moment she calmly tells Ribbons “Payment on delivery” is almost enough to justify the weak second act. Most importantly, there are moments in this episode that help clarify the unique aspects of the Thirteenth Doctor’s personality. The one that really stuck out to me is when she tells Hanne she’s drawing a map but instead writes a message for Ryan: “Assume her dad is dead. Keep her safe. Find out who else can take care of her.” It’s the sort of small-scale empathy I couldn’t imagine from any of the NuWho Doctors. The Twelfth Doctor would’ve almost certainly just callously blurted it out, while the Eleventh Doctor would’ve been too manic to think that far ahead to Hanne’s future wellness.

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Photo: Susanna Diallo (BBC America)

What I love about “It Takes You Away” is how much it leaves up to the audience to interpret in terms of morality. Writer Ed Hime’s strongest idea is to use the Solitract plane as a metaphor for grief, trauma, and the importance of acceptance. Those who can’t find a way to process and live with their grief are doomed to have their lives torn apart by it. There’s something despicable about the way Erik (Christian Rubeck) abandons and actively traumatizes his daughter in order to live in a fantasy world with his dead wife. And the episode doesn’t fully forgive that, even as it empathizes with the painful loneliness that drove him to such a selfish decision. Erik downplays his actions (“She’s a teenager, there’s food in the freezer, she’ll be fine without me”), but the TARDIS Team aren’t so forgiving (“That’s a shocking bit of parenting,” Yaz retorts). Most importantly, Hanne gets her own moment to call out her dad’s behavior. When he invites Hanne to the parallel universe and tells her he wouldn’t ask her to stay if it wasn’t safe, she’s quick to point out that that isn’t true. He hasn’t been prioritizing her emotional or physical safety at all. “You’re not well,” she tells him bluntly. If their Oslo-bound happy ending feels a little rushed (again, a problem of the episode spending too much time on the Anti-Zone), I can at least buy it as a happy ending that’s tinged with an awful lot of sadness and a permanently shifted status between father and daughter.

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Of course, the real emotional heart of the episode isn’t Hanne’s family troubles, it’s Graham relationship with Grace. And while it was an absolute gut punch to see her again, it also felt like a really satisfying payoff to a season’s worth of storytelling. Plenty of genre shows have utilized this kind of storytelling trope before (in fact, Doctor Who did something vaguely similar with Clara and Danny in “Last Christmas”), but what “It Takes You Away” lacks in originality, it makes up for in emotion. I never doubted that Graham would choose Ryan’s safety over a life with Fake Grace nor did I doubt that this episode would end with Ryan finally calling Graham “granddad.” But good god do both moments absolutely deliver, especially thanks to Bradley Walsh’s devastating performance.

Photo: Susanna Diallo (BBC America)
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Which brings us, finally, to the least predictable part of the episode: The talking frog. I imagine it’s a moment where the episode lost a lot of viewers, given how unapologetically weird it is. And I imagine others were disappointed that the episode didn’t take the chance to dive into the Doctor’s psyche and bring back someone important to her. (I’ll admit, I half expected a cameo from River Song or some other former companion.) Instead, “It Takes You Away” decides to dive into the Solitract’s psyche instead. “The frog is a form that delights me!” the Solitract explains, which offers a ton of insight into its unexpectedly whimsical personality. Befitting a season in which villains are seldom what they seem, the Solitract is less so a force for evil and more so a really old, mostly kind, really lonely cosmic being. It’s infinitely powerful but the only thing it wants is a friend, which sounds an awful lot like someone else we know.

The frog scene offers a reversal of a scenario we’ve seen many times on Doctor Who: The moment the Doctor invites a companion to travel with them. While the Doctor’s decision to offer herself up to the Solitract is clearly a strategic one—she wants to force the Solitract to reject Erik so he can return home to parent Hanne—it’s also clear that she finds the Solitract impossibly enticing too, just as so many companions have found themselves inexplicably drawn to the Doctor. “You are the maddest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced and I haven’t even scratched the surface,” she notes with awe. When she says she wishes she could stay, you believe she does, even if staying would also entail the sadness of leaving a universe of friends behind.

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But in the end the Doctor must make a big ask of the Solitract, one she herself has never been capable of in any of her regenerations. She asks the Solitract to remain alone forever and “keep on being brilliant by yourself.” As wonderful as she is as Grace, Sharon D. Clarke’s best line delivery comes as the Solitract. “I miss you. I miss it all, so much,” she cries even as she’s already made the decision to send the Doctor back to save both of them. It’s a scene that echoes any number of companion farewells only instead of the Tenth Doctor leaving Rose or Amy leaving the Eleventh Doctor, it’s a madwoman with a box blowing a farewell kiss to a talking frog. Again, it’s maybe the weirdest thing I’ve ever cried at.

Yet as “It Takes You Away” argues, physically separating from someone doesn’t have to mean giving up your love for them. “If you do this, I promise you and I will be friends forever,” the Doctor explains. “I will dream of you out there without me,” the Solitract responds. It’s both deeply silly and deeply sad, wonderfully optimistic and tragically beautiful. It’s Doctor Who in a nutshell, even as it feels entirely specific to the Thirteenth Doctor. It’s exhilarating to watch this new era of the show finally snap into place in such a confident, unabashedly weird way. I guess you could say I’m pretty hopping excited about it.

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Stray observations

  • Between its blind leading lady and the fake monster reveal, this episode gave me some serious The Village vibes.
  • As in his previous episodes, there’s some great direction here from Jamie Childs. I particularly loved the silent moment of reckoning between Erik and the Doctor as he sees the “Assume her dad is dead” message scrawled on the wall behind her.
  • The episode leaves it up to the viewer to decide why Erik didn’t try to bring Hanne to the parallel universe to begin with. You could charitably say he didn’t want to risk her life or uncharitably say he wanted to live like a carefree newlywed.
  • The opening gag with the Doctor tasting grass and soil could’ve been so hokey, but Whittaker plays it just right.
  • Unbelievably, we’re already onto the season finale next week! I don’t know where the time has gone, but I can’t imagine a better lead-in than this episode. Also, what are the odds that Chris Chibnall is going to go back on his “no returning monsters” word and sneak a Dalek into the finale?
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.