The latest Doctor Who episode (S11.9), “It Takes You Away” doesn’t exactly have the most original central story idea to date, though a few heartstring-pulling (and genuinely bizarre) moments make it better than it could’ve been.
If one is a Star Trek fan, then tonight’s Doctor Who should be familiar to those who’ve seen “Star Trek Generations”, a movie which I’m actually quite fond of (though I sometimes feel as if I’m the only one…). “It Takes You Away” begins like a monster-in-the-woods tale, and (after a few twists and turns) ends up with Doctor Who encountering the nexus.
For those not down with the whole Star Trek thing, the nexus was a heavenly dimension which was only accessible through a violent, mobile ribbon of energy which traverses our galaxy every century or so. Once inside the nexus, one could summon any place, time or person (dead or alive) that they wished, and could spend the rest of their ageless life there. In short, the nexus was a stairway to heaven (not to get too Led Zepplin-y).
“It Takes You Away” sees Team TARDIS arrive in a quiet niche of the fjords of modern-day Norway, where they find a boarded-up cabin occupied by a frightened, sightless girl named Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) who is waiting for her missing father Erik (Christian Rubeck) to return. The reason for the barricades of her cabin are protection from a roaring unseen monster that supposedly comes around the cabin at regular intervals.
Upstairs, Team TARDIS find a mirror that leads to an ‘Antizone’; a buffer zone between two realities. Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) go in, while Ryan (Tosin Cole) stays behind to watch over Hanne. Ryan discovers that her dad (for reasons as yet unknown) has rigged up outdoor speakers to project roaring noises in order keep his frightened, sightless daughter indoors. As Ryan returns inside to tell Hanne, she knocks him out and accidentally slips into the mirror-Antizone mirror in search of her missing dad.
The Antizone is represented by a dark, winding, twisted cave, full of flesh-eating moths and occupied by a lone demonic creature (like an evil gatekeeper out of Norse mythology). The creature is a greedy, Freddie Kruger-ish looking chap incongruously named “Ribbons” (Kevin Eldon) who offers to take the Doctor and her team to Erik in exchange for her ‘tubular’ sonic screwdriver. The Doctor reluctantly agrees, but the alliance goes sour as Ribbons makes a premature grab for his reward, and is eaten by a horde of flesh-eating moths for his impatience. You’d think a being who’s lived his entire life in that place would understand the nature of its wildlife a little better, but okay. At any rate, the entire Antizone sequence serves as a distraction from the real piece de resistance of the story; the nexus-like “Solitract”.
The Solitract is a Gallifreyan myth told to the Doctor by one of her multiple grandmums. The Solitract is a sentient universe that existed before our own, where the laws of reality are governed only by the lonely universe itself. Turns out, the Solitract is desperately lonely and only wishes for a companion. It attracts a companion by offering them a virtual paradise…in this case, it has taken deadbeat dad Erik by offering a simulacrum of his dead wife, Hanne’s mother Trine (Lisa Stokke).
Hanne eventually makes it to the Solitract reality, where she is reunited with both of her parents. Unlike her father, she is less willing to accept the simulacrum of her dead mother.
Things take an even more complicated turn (both for Team TARDIS and the Solitract itself) when the nexu–er, Solitract also offers widower Graham a perfect simulacrum of his beloved late wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). Graham is initially resistant, until he is later convinced that the doppelgänger is indeed his late wife. Grace suggests Graham could stay, but the Doctor notices that the Solitract reality is becoming increasingly unstable to the presence of too many new conscious beings within it. Despite its own loneliness, the Solitract is inherently monogamous; apparently only able to accommodate only one fully realized fantasy realm at a time.
One by one, as they begin to reject the Solitract, it casts them back through the mirror into the Antizone, but Graham refuses. He is only persuaded when “Grace” seems willing to to leave her beloved grandson Ryan behind in our universe. This false note is enough to break the spell. The Doctor offers to take Graham’s place and be the companion the Solitract desires. Graham, Erik and Yaz are all exiled back into the Antizone. The Doctor is now alone with the Solitract…
It is at this point, the story takes its trippiest turn; the entire Solitract ‘alternate Norway’ reality is reduced to a single white room with a frog on a chair, speaking in Grace’s voice (Grace had an affinity for frogs, hence the new form). As the Solitract’s instability increases, the Doctor pleads with the Solitract that, for its own sake, she has to let her go. She vows to remain its friend…forever.
She returns. Hanne and her horrible, deadbeat dad are reunited, forced to live (for better or worse) in this reality. Graham is devastated at losing Grace yet again, but is comforted by the presence of his grandson Ryan and a sympathetic Team TARDIS.
The TARDIS takes flight, leaving Norway and the nexu–er, Solitract, behind.
— Loved the reversal of Team TARDIS as they arrive though the mirror into the Solitract reality; the characters’ hairline parts, clothing emblems and even hand-use preferences are all reversed (the right-handed Doctor holds her sonic with her left). A clever detail that subliminally reinforces the nature of a ‘mirrored’ reality.
— Nice line when Yaz suggests the Doctor try ‘reversing polarity’ on her sonic screwdriver to open the mirror portal again. Reversing polarity was a famous trope of the Doctor in the classic Doctor Who series (especially so with Doctor Three, Jonathan Pertwee)
— Wise choice to have blind actress Ellie Wallwork play the blind Hanne when they could’ve just as easily (and unfairly) given the role to a sighted actress. This reminded me of the recent horror film, “A Quiet Place”, which similarly employed a young, hearing-impaired actor. Such actors bring a realism that even the best actors can’t perfectly simulate; most actors tend to either over or underplay it… rarely delivering the right level of realism (and even nonchalance) that you only get from someone who lives it day-to-day.
— Graham’s ‘reunion’ with Grace was every bit the tear-jerker it should’ve been. I love how he tells her he’s been to another planet; it reminded me of head-conversations I’ve imagined with long lost loved ones all too often. Yes, the entire Solitract reality was perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Star Trek’s nexus, but for yielding such emotionally charged moments like this? It was kinda worth it.
— The white room and the frog… that was some cool freaky s#!t. The speaking frog (voiced by Sharon D. Clarke as well) reminded me of a passage from the novel “It” by Stephen King, where it was suggested that our entire universe was crapped into existence by a giant cosmic turtle. One of the single weirdest moments in New Doctor Who, and very welcome, in my book. The heaven/nexus certainly wasn’t the worst idea to homage (I rather like “Star Trek: Generations”, despite the hate it tends to receive), and having the Doctor talk to the universe directly was a bold, strange new step that GEN never took, so kudos to writers Hime and Wilkinson for that, at least.
— Hanne’s blindness could’ve been made more advantageous somehow, with just a bit more creativity in the writing (he episode was written by Ed Hime and a returning Joy Wilkinson, who also wrote last week’s “The Witchfinders”). I was a bit surprised that, other than knocking out Ryan, Hanne seemed very much a victim, and not the more empowered young person we typically see on modern Doctor Who. She could’ve been more inspirational to sightless children. Missed opportunity.
— The Antizone sequence, along with the padded dangers of Ribbons and the flesh-eating moths, seems entirely unnecessary. The real heart of the story was the Solitract, not the Antizone. Personally, I’d have much rather spent more time with Graham and Solitract-Grace than outrunning flesh-eating moths or negotiating with a greedy demon. Seemed like the whole ‘gatekeeper’ nature of the Antizone went on far longer than it had to, and took vital time away from what was truly the heart of the story.
— Once again, a wild mishmash of both tone and ideas that could’ve been pared down or streamlined into more efficient (and elegant) storytelling. So many ideas are thrown on-screen… the barricaded cabin (reminiscent of “A Quiet Place”), the protracted unnecessary Antizone sequence, the heaven/nexus Solitract, the reunions with the dead, and even the weird white room and frog, for chrissakes. These are a LOT of ideas and tones to cram into one episode.
Summing it up.
While enjoyable at times, “It Takes You Away” is a tonally mismatched and somewhat overstuffed bag. Some good ideas and nice character moments (a trademark of this season’s well-used companions) are overshadowed by an all-over-the-place story; elements (and tones) of which seem to be in direct competition with each other.
This season has been uneven overall, with a near-equal number of hits and misses (often within the same episode). Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner so far doesn’t seem to have the confidence of earlier showrunners, such as Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat; both of whom came into Doctor Who with very clear and cohesive visions for the show. Though in fairness, Chibnall’s background in police procedural series has given his season a slightly grittier look and feel to it that is appreciated. If nothing else, it’s a slightly different take on the Whoniverse, and fresh vision is vital to the show’s longevity (even if it staggers a bit). The optimist in me is hoping that the tonal, storytelling inconsistencies of this 11th year are only a shakedown, with a promise of a more confident series ahead.
Next week is the 11th series finale, with a New Years’ special taking the place of the more traditional Christmas special. “Who” knows what’s next…