DOCTOR WHO Gets Weirder Than Ever When “It Takes You Away”

I’ve mentioned in previous Who reviews that this season seems to be cycling through familiar story formats as Jodie Whittaker settles into the role of The Doctor. And for the first ten or fifteen minutes, “It Takes You Away” seems to be going through a well-executed but somewhat rote riff on one of the most elemental story forms of the show.

But then…the episode pivots into something else.

And then it pivots again.

And then again.

By the time the episode climaxes with Whittaker sharing an emotional goodbye with a frog voiced by a dead recurring character that’s the personification of a lonely, sentient universe, I was looking around wondering how in the holy hell we wound up here. While I might quibble over individual narratives beats and choices by episode writer Ed Hime, the result is such a daffy bit of sci-fi, the kind of lunatic abandon that only Doctor Who is really capable of, that I can’t help but love it.

OK, let’s try and map this out together. At the episode’s start, Team TARDIS is taking a breather in present day Norway, The Doctor identifying the locale by chewing on the soil. Whilst admiring a fjord, as you do, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) notices a house by its lonesome in the wilderness with no smoke coming out of its chimney. As Scooby-Doo taught us, all things spooky exist to be investigated by ragtag teams of do-gooders, and so the gang heads over to see what’s what.

What’s what is a house that has been boarded up and locked down. Upon gaining entry (breaking in) The Doctor and crew discover a terrified, blind teenager, Hanna (Eleanor Wallwork) who has been living in the forest with her father, Erick, since her mother died, up until Erick vanished four days ago. Ryan suggests that maybe Erick ran off because Ryan has a whole heaping mound of his own daddy issues going on, but Hanna insists her father wouldn’t do that. No, the disappearance must in some way be linked to the monstrous roaring that shakes the trees every day around the same time.

Everybody gets to snooping, with Ryan and Yaz discovering loads of bear-sized traps in Erick’s shed. Everyone scurries back inside when the roars start sounding, but it’s as the group is in the relative safety of the house that Graham makes the discovery that sends the episode on an entirely different trajectory. While hiding in Erick’s room, Graham hears a strange sound and feels compelled towards a mirror in which he casts no reflection. The Doctor quickly determines that the mirror is actually a portal, and she leads an expedition including Yaz and Graham to the other side, leaving the child-phobic Ryan with the not-psyched-to-be-stuck-with-the-guy-who-said-her-Dad-just-fucked-off Hanna (Sidenote: In perhaps the first instance of 13 exhibiting some of the cold-blooded cunning of her predecessors, The Doctor tells the blind Hanna that she is drawing a map of the house for Ryan, when actually she is writing a set of instructions, number one of which is ‘Assume her Dad is dead.’)

On the other side of the mirror lies a labyrinthine network of caves lit like the insane sci-fi movie that Dario Argento never made because the world does not deserve such mad brilliance. Within the labyrinth is an alien scavenger who calls himself Ribbons (Kevin Eldon) who sounds just like Luke Goss as the bad guy in Blade 2, and also has his skull-bones on the outside which is just a rad, if somewhat, familiar alien design. Ribbons claims to have seen Erick and offers to help The Doctor and company in exchange for the sonic screwdriver (which he refers to as a “tubular”). As the group pushes through the maze, The Doctor identifies this strange land as an “Anti-Zone”, a sort of naturally-occurring buffer zone that forms in order to prevent different realms/worlds/times from colliding in disastrous ways.

Also it is filled with “flesh moths” that attack like piranha, just because.

Anyway, back in the regular world, Ryan continues to have no idea how to handle a teenage girl and the monster continues to roar. Honestly, the teenage girl seems the scarier option. But as Ryan is checking the doors, he notices a bit of wire running out the house and into the yard, where a speaker is set up to project the roars (this The Doctor can’t spot?). Yup, looks like Erick set the whole thing up to scare his daughter into staying inside the house (Sidenote: This dude invested a LOT of time and energy into setting up visual menace for his blind daughter).

But when Ryan rushes to tell Hanna that she’s in no danger, she knocks him unconscious and plunges into the mirror, putting her into…you know…danger.

Shocker of shockers, the untrustworthy-seeming Ribbons cannot in fact be trusted, and he leads the gang into a trap, only to be trapped himself when the flesh moths show up in a swarm. Ribbons tries to take off with the sonic screwdriver but is set upon by the cuddly little carnivores, who promptly eat him down to the bone (I have a special soft spot for any Doctor Who episode that goes out of its way to traumatize children, and the flesh moths feasting on Ribbons is the kind of moment that I imagine will send a number of juveniles into therapy. Or the arts. Or both). The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz flee through a portal and end up back in Hanna’s house. Only, it’s not Hanna’s house, it’s a reflected and reversed version on the other side of the mirror.

There, they discover Erick (Christian Rubeck) alive and well, cooking dinner. When confronted about abandoning his blind daughter in the wilderness for several days so he can gallivant to an alternate universe, Erick shrugs and insists that he left Hanna with plenty of food in the fridge and a scare-tactic to keep her indoors (Sidenote: FUCK Erick).

Erick’s abdication turns out to have a deeper motivation than being just…just absolutely the worst. Here in the mirror universe, his dead wife Trine (Lisa Stokke) is his not-dead wife. Trine admits that she remembers dying, but nothing else before waking up in mirror-mirror world. She can’t pass through the mirror, so the only way Erick can spend time with her is by visiting. He doesn’t necessarily have to abandon his child to do this, but Hime’s script and the disgusted reactions of the Companions underlines in bold why Erick would opt to live like a newlywed rather than deal with his responsibilities and his grief. The Doctor seems about three seconds removed from clogging Erick on the head and dragging him back through the mirror, but that’s when Trine reveals that a friend of theirs has just shown up.

Yup. Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) is waiting.

Ryan follows through the mirror and rescues Hanna from the flesh moths, though the swarm is fast after them.

Meanwhile, Graham is both horrified and entranced by this somehow-living Grace that has all her memories still in place, up-to and including the moment she died. When she notes that he seems to be having a grand time tripping through time and space without her, he admits that he is still lost since her death and none of what he has experienced or done has been able to fill that void.

The Doctor has enough experience with seeming-miracles to know that something is most definitely up, and with Yaz as a sounding board she works through to a solution. It seems that in Time Lord lore, there’s a story about an energy that existed before the dawn of reality. “Solitract” energy was living, even conscious, but its presence unmade reality. In order for the universe to being properly, the solitract energy was bundled up and exiled to its own pocket dimension. But the energy still wishes to be a part of creation and so it tried to make connections with our world, resulting in the Anti-Zone being created and the doorway opening up in Erick’s mirror.

Recognizing that A) the universe they are in is unstable and 2) the universe they are in is awake and alive, The Doctor hurriedly plans to fuck off as quickly as humanly (and etc.) possible. But neither Erick nor Graham is especially willing to leave their beloveds, and soon the world begins to shiver and shake as the combination of realities proves increasingly untenable.

Things reach a crescendo when Ryan sends Hanna through the portal to evade the flesh moths while using himself as bait. Trine tries to embrace Hanna but is rejected as a fake, and when Yaz gets fed up with the family drama and angrily castigates Erick for abandoning his daughter, she psychic-punches both Hanna and Yaz through the mirror and back into the Anti-Zone.

Grace begs Graham not to leave her, but her seeming disinterest in Ryan finally snaps Graham out of this Solaris-ian honey pot, with Grace’s form disappearing into nothingness as soon as the lure is no longer needed.

Erick still isn’t willing to leave because FUCK Erick, so The Doctor offers herself up as a replacement. Erick is “just an idiot with a daughter who needs him”, while The Doctor has seen all of time and space and experienced over a dozen lifetimes. Surely she’ll make terrific company for a lonely universe?

The solitract agrees and boots Erick out into the anti-zone. No longer needing the appearance of Hanna’s house, the space becomes a shining white throne room, and in the throne is…a frog. A talking frog. With Grace’s voice.

I don’t know, man. They took a swing on this one, that’s for sure.

(There is a sort of explanation for this: One of the Grace-copy’s memories was of Ryan and Graham both getting her a frog-necklace for a gift, because Grace loved frogs and the men failed at present-coordination [rookie mistake, fellas]. The Solitract takes this form because the frog ‘amuses’ it [her?] which suggests a level of whimsy that The Doctor might actually enjoy spending time with, even without the undead hostage situation going on.)

The Doctor is not displeased to buddy around with an entire universe, but even as a more-or-less willing guest, the discrepancy between the solitract and matter from the primary universe proves insurmountable, and The Doctor begins to sputter out of existence. Melancholy but understanding, the personification of an infinite universe’s sentience (who, again, is a talking goddamn frog) bids a reluctant but fond farewell to The Doctor. Whittaker (who, once more for the cheap seats, IS TALKING TO A FROG) brings genuine sorrow and regret to The Doctor’s goodbye, perhaps seeing something of her own long journey reflected in The Solitract’s lonely desire to share its magic with someone, anyone.

Everyone flees back through the collapsing Anti-Zone and makes it safely back to Hanna’s house, even Erick, which means we don’t get to see his idiot fucking face get ravaged by fluffy moths. A repentant Erick vows to finally let go of his grief and take Hanna back home, where I’m sure she won’t need decades of intensive therapy to recover from the fact that her father constructed an insanely elaborate, supernatural-tinged prison around her so he could pop over to another dimension and play house with the equivalent of an especially-realistic Real Doll.

Graham mourns the loss of Grace (again) but has his spirits perked up by Ryan, who unlike the others acknowledges that the Grace that Graham met in the mirror world was Grace. Ryan calls Graham “granddad”, and Graham (and me) gets all choked up over it. And then it’s time for the TARDIS to lift off once more, carrying us up into next week’s finale.

Episode Thoughts:

-Another very solid effort from the whole team. “It Takes You Away” ably establishes the sort of monster-of-the-week formula that Doctor Who often follows, only to demolish that typical structure at every turn. It’d be easy for the episode to feel slapdash and frenetic, but Hime’s script and the direction from Jamie Childs (who also helmed the premiere, “Demons of the Punjab”, and next week’s season finale) ably keep things humming along. Childs has the most fun with the Anti-Zone material, bathing the cast in deep reds and dark blues and generally making a three-course meal out of the atmospherics. Hime’s plotting is sloppy, relying a tad too much on The Doctor being caught off-guard in ways that The Doctor should never really be caught off guard (The Doctor can be whimsical and scatter-brained, but she comes off as flat-out dumb a couple times this week) but he’s less interested in the narrative mechanics of his sci-fi premise than he is in watching how Graham and the other characters grapple with it. With Walsh turning in his best work on the series to date, much more of it works than doesn’t.

-As Ryan, Cole is rapidly becoming the master of the understated punchline. Holding up a bear trap, he remarks, “He’s got a shed load of them in the…shed!” That pause in the middle there kills.

-Also Ryan, upon being faced with a mirror without a reflection: “We’d know if we were vampires, right?”

-Later, Graham demands to know why Erick had bear traps. “Because there are bears.”

-The Doctor is relieved when she realizes that they’ve arrived in Norway a century before the “Wooly Rebellion”, which apparently is when the sheep decided to rise up against their human masters. It sounds adorable, and was most likely gruesome beyond belief.

-Graham always takes a sandwich with him whenever he leaves the TARDIS, in case his blood sugar gets low. Best Companion ever.

-Jodie Whittaker hasn’t had too many opportunities to express The Doctor’s capacity for vengeance and destruction, but the way she snarls, “Let him go, because you do not want those words to be your last” suggests that everyone should think twice before crossing her.

-Not much for Yaz to do this week, but Gill works so well with Whittaker that it’s worth it just for the BFF energy between the two. You could power an entire city with the megawatt smile Whittaker flashes when Yaz tosses out “reverse the polarity” as a potential problem solve.

-Yaz is surprised to learn that The Doctor had a grandmother. In fact, she had seven. Granny 5 was her favorite. Granny 2 may have been a Zygon, but that’s just conjecture.

-Neat touch: Mega-douchnozzle Erick wears a Slayer t-shirt, but in the mirror world the letters on the shirt are reversed.

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