Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 9
“It Takes You Away”
Team TARDIS heads to Norway to investigate the disappearance of a blind girl’s father in an atmospheric and mysterious episode of Doctor Who.
I’ve mentioned before that pretty much every episode of Doctor Who is mystery that needs to be solved and I still think that’s true for the most part. There are variations on that theme but most episodes begin with the characters getting their bearings and assessing the situation before starting to figure out a way to deal with the problem.
The early part of this episode builds the mystery really well. First there’s a boarded up house then there’s a scared blind girl hiding from a moster who has lost her father followed by an ominous mirror acting as a gateway to another world. There’s a lot to unpack there and expectations are neatly set in what the narrative brings early on. How it subverts those expectations is fairly clever but it doesn’t entirely add up.
Answering mysteries always has the potential to be disappointing to viewers because those sorts of stories encourage the audience to put together the clues as they go in an attempt to solve it ahead of the characters. If the answer isn’t as good as what the viewer makes up in their head then it leaves a feeling of disappointment. I for one was impressed with subverting my expectation of some sort of monster having escaped the portal as it would have been less interesting than what the episode does instead.
The problems come when what replaces that idea is a little too busy for it to entirely land. First of all the Anti-Zone is introduced; a connecting path that the universe creates in order to protect itself. A concept like this is arguably enough for an episode on its own as it’s a fantastical place where pretty much anything can happen. Instead it’s a cramped dark cave populated by a shady alien resident who goes by Ribbons of the Seven Stomachs (Kevin Eldon) and vicious creatures called Flesh Moths. There’s very little attempt to develop Ribbons in any significant way beyond the fact that he can’t be trusted. It would surely be interesting to find out how he happened to find himself in the Anti-Zone and what motivates him to stick around. He says that he has always been there so does the universe create life forms when it creates the Anti-Zone as well? If so then why does it do this? Ribbons basically exists to act as an antagonist of sorts for a small part of the episode before the Flesh Moths make a meal of him and he isn’t such a problem any more.
After this point is where the episode gets to the real meat of the story it’s trying to tell. The missing Erik (Christian Rubeck) is found in a nearly identical house on the other side of a secondary portal. He has been missing because behind this other portal he has found his dead wife Trine (Lisa Stokke) and naturally feels compelled to stay with her because he struggles to deal with that loss. He’s so consumed by that desire to be with her that he has set up a scenario designed to keep his daughter Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) safe by using fear associated with the roars of a monster that come from speakers outside the house. If she stays in the house she has plenty of food and will be safe. As Yaz points out this isn’t good parenting but it’s meant to show how far Erik’s judgement is askew after finding the wife he thought was dead. The trouble with that is there’s no baseline for Erik’s behaviour being unusual because we haven’t seen him before though it’s easy enough to accept that he is thrown by this discovery and prone to acting outside of the norm.
In order for this reveal to mean something there has to be some level of impact on the main characters and this is accomplished through a manifestation of Grace also being found on the other side of the portal. Graham and Ryan have been dealing with this loss all season so it was inevitable that at least one of them would have to deal with some form of physical representation of her over the course of the season. Bradley Walsh’ performance when he first sees her is perfect; the simple utterance of “Don’t do this to me” sums up his anguish and disbelief in one brilliantly delivered line. Despite everything he has seen and experienced this is the one thing he isn’t prepared to accept and the remainder of the episode becomes about him realising that he has to let go.
Naturally this is difficult because everything about this version of Grace feels real. She says the right things, stirs up the right feelings and generally adds a lot of confusion to everything that Graham thinks he understands about how the universe works. The Doctor knows that Grace can’t be real but Graham has to realise that on his own as he won’t simply take her work for it. She’s unable to force him either because doing so would foster resentment that would never go away.
There is a complicated Doctor Who style explanation for what is going on here involving a Gallifreyan bedtime story about Solitract energy and about how it just wants to belong to the universe but can’t because of severe incompatibilities. The main points to take away is that it’s a sentient force that creates a universe so that it can deal with its own loneliness. It’s a relatable motivation if very underdeveloped and it connects what it wants to what the rest of the characters want. I liked that it’s desire wasn’t malevolent as a contrast to the assumptions made prior to that. Yaz concludes that it sounds like a trap but the Solitract is just looking for companionship even if it goes about it in an underhanded way. It could be seen as a misunderstanding on its part but there’s a disconnect between how people react to the intentions and the actions associated with them. For example Yaz is the first to reject this version of Grace after she doesn’t show the same sort of courage that Grace normally would. This causes the Solitract to expel Yaz from its world presumably because she has been identified as a threat to its continued survival. The framing of this action comes across as malevolent though it could be a fear driven reaction on the part of the Solitract out of self preservation. Still, it does come across as somewhat violent.
In order to escape, both Erik and Graham have to fully embrace the knowledge that they aren’t really seeing their lost loved ones. Without realising that they are unable to leave and gain any sort of closure on the loss that they have experienced. Graham realises that the version of Grace created by the Solitract isn’t real when she tries to convince him to stay with her rather than help Ryan. Grace would never let Graham stand by while Ryan is in danger. It’s a painful realisation but an important one and it’s interesting to see how the Solitract behaves out of character when at its most desperate. Erik’s realisation is far less effective though there’s no way it could be considering these characters aren’t known to the viewer. The emotional connection has to come from Graham because he’s the character that viewers know and his loss has been well developed up until this point.
From here the episode gets a little more surreal; The Doctor offers herself as the immortal companion of the Solitract because she’s exactly what it happens to be looking for. She has centuries of experience behind her, has seen and done so much and can offer that shared experience to the Solitract which it gleefully accepts. Unfortunately the manifestation of this is a CGI frog in a white room which is both baffling and hilarious. The Doctor does get to deliver two passionate speeches in this episode; the first about all she has experienced and the second about how important friendship is to her and how the Solitract has to let her go so that they can both survive to continue their friendship. It’s a somewhat tragic ending as the Solitract is left to be alone because its incompatible with the Doctor and her universe but it also ties into the idea of accepting loss and understanding that there is something beyond that. It’s really difficult to take stock of that message when the Doctor is interacting with a CGI Frog; perhaps it would have been more effective had the Solitract taken on the form of someone the Doctor once cared about and lost in her own past.
Despite this it’s a strong message that impacts Graham most of all. Ryan didn’t have to deal with the manifestation of Grace because Graham had to choose him over living the lie that would allow him to be with her. The scene they share together at the end of the episode was a quietly powerful moment that brought them closer together. I got the impression that Ryan called Graham “Grandad” because he thought that it would be what he wanted to hear at that point in time rather than actually meaning it though it’s left ambiguous and makes their relationship stronger whether it was meant genuinely or not.
There was some strong work done with Yaz this week such as her falling back on her training to appease Hanne and the aforementioned realisation that the Grace manifestation was less than genuine but the show still fails to really do anything with her. When someone needs to look after Hanne Ryan is chosen even though he points out that he isn’t good with kids. In theory his arc is around getting better at that -even if that gets lost in among the rest of the story- but it makes more strategic sense for Yaz to be in a position she’s better able to handle. If that substitution had been made then Ryan would have had to deal with Grace and possibly be the one to realise before Graham therefore making it more powerful. What we got was fine but the ingredients to be better were right in the setup and weren’t taken advantage of.
A solid episode with a strong message, powerful performances and an effective mystery. The early part of the episode develops its mystery very well with the ominous location, mysterious mirror portal and threat of a monster. This is abandoned early on and the episode is a little too busy with different concepts being introduced but the theme of accepting loss is strongly developed through Graham and -to a lesser extent- Erik who are both tempted by manifestations of their dead wives. Ultimately they have to accept that their wives are gone which moves the plot forward and offers them a form of closure on Graham’s grief.
The Doctor offering the Solitract her experiences in exchange was an interesting enough idea and allows Jodie Whittaker to deliver two powerful speeches but the CGI Frog was too laughable to be taken seriously. If she had been faced with the manifestation of a lost loved one of her own it would have been far more effective instead of a distracting hilarious image. It still makes for a strong message about the acceptance of loss and it’s clever to flip that back around on the Solitract but the ingredients existed for a stronger delivery of that message.
- a well built mystery
- a strong message about the acceptance of loss
- a powerful performance from Bradley Walsh
- well written Doctor speeches
- too many concepts for one episode
- the CGI Frog coming across as being too laughable to take seriously
- ingredients for a stronger delivery of the message not being used
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