The best thing about turning on Doctor Who every week is that you never know what you’re going to get. Maybe it’ll be a historical romp; maybe it’ll be a futuristic alien adventure. This show tries on genres the way a regenerated Doctor tries on clothes. Sometimes it’s horrifying, sometimes it’s hilarious, and sometimes it makes you question the very nature of your reality.
And then there are episodes like “It Takes You Away,” which try to be a little bit of everything all at once.
Written by Ed Hime, the season’s penultimate episode sets itself up as a modern-day Scandinavian noir, where unseen monsters stalk the countryside and a family has barricaded itself in an isolated cabin. Then, it takes a hard left into alien territory, with flesh-eating moths and creepy, dripping caves. And then it takes another left into alternate universes, meditations on grief, and dead doppelgängers. Also, there’s a talking frog who’s basically an entire sentient universe.
It’s enough to give you tonal whiplash. There are several misdirects throughout the episode, and “It Takes You Away” ends in a very different place than where it started. There are a lot of ideas and pieces to juggle, and some of them are inherently stronger than others. Still, that sort of shoot-for-the-moon ambition is what makes Doctor Who so special — and, in all honesty, it’s what this season has sort of been missing. So far, the Thirteenth Doctor’s run has been marked by fairly standard stories: Here’s a historical figure, here’s an alien planet, here’s some scary stuff the Doctor has to run away from. It’s been fun, but it hasn’t necessarily captured the sense of large-scale awe and wonder that makes Doctor Who unlike anything else on television. Which is why I’ll always applaud a strange, ambitious episode like “It Takes You Away,” even if it swings for the fences and falls a little bit short.
Initially, the episode seems fairly straightforward: The Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan have landed in modern-day Norway, where the trees are tall and the fjords are beautiful. Soon, however, they realize that something’s amiss: There’s a young blind girl named Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) living all alone in a boarded-up cabin, and she’s convinced that there are monsters lurking outside. Her mother is dead, her father’s gone missing, and when the Doctor and company hear strange, unearthly noises outside, they settle in for a showdown with these unseen creatures.
Or not. It doesn’t take long before Graham discovers a strange mirror in Hanne’s house, which doesn’t show reflections. (“We’d know if we were vampires, right?” Ryan asks.) Graham, Yaz, and the Doctor peek their heads through and discover a portal to another realm, a creepy cave system inhabited by flesh-eating moths and a grumpy alien named Ribbons (Kevin Eldon). Suddenly, what’s outside the cabin seems a lot less scary than whatever’s been hiding inside this mirror.
But then, Ribbons reveals that the cave is actually something known as an Anti-Zone, a sort of buffer area between two universes. So what’s in the other universe? Well, it looks like a fairly pleasant version of ours: This is where Hanne’s father Erik has been hiding out, tricking his daughter by pretending there are monsters outside to get her to stay inside the house while he’s away. He’s been sneaking away to this other universe because here, his late wife Trine is still alive. Sure, we’re meant to have some sympathy for Erik, but he also might be one of the worst dads in the Whoniverse. Not only does he abandon his blind daughter to think that he’s dead, but he traumatizes her and crafts this entire illusion of monsters to terrify her. Not your finest moment, Erik.
But the mirror universe has another trick up its sleeve — the return of Grace. Graham’s reunion with his dead wife is deeply moving, but everything still seems a bit off: Erik’s Slayer T-shirt is backward. The Doctor’s earrings are on her other ear. The whole thing feels a lot like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline: an all-powerful entity in a mirrored universe taking the form of a beloved family member and trying to convince victims to stay with her forever.
But this episode has a distinctly Whovian twist: The Doctor recognizes this universe as a Gallifreyan fairytale her grandmother once told her about. It’s called the Solitract, a sentient universe that longed to be a part of ours but couldn’t exist here in harmony. Instead, it was exiled and has been trying to find its way into ours ever since. It’s built this perfect mirror world to try to convince Erik and Graham to stay with it and help relieve its loneliness. There’s something deeply sweet about a sentient universe who so longs for connection that it creates an entire world just to attract a friend. And I love that Graham gets to be the emotional heart of this episode — Graham, who carries sandwiches with him on the TARDIS in case his blood sugar gets low. Going into this season, I was a little worried that the show was setting Graham up as pure comic relief, the guy only there to make quips or bumble around out of his element. But Graham has turned out to not only be one of the most charming companions but one of the most fleshed-out, too: His grief over losing Grace has been one of the most poignant aspects of this entire season, and his disbelief upon seeing her again is particularly powerful. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when the Doctor tries to make him see that this Grace isn’t real, that she’s just a Solitract creation trying to get him to stay. It isn’t until the fake Grace suggests leaving Ryan behind that he realizes she’s not who she says she is, and he’s ready to go back home. And if you weren’t crying already, when Graham returns home, Ryan finally acknowledges him and calls him “Granddad.” Cue the waterworks.
Eventually, Hanne, Yaz, and Graham all recognize the Solitract universe as the false creation it is, but Erik is still so blinded by his grief that he can’t bring himself to leave his wife. So, the Doctor sacrifices herself instead to save Erik, offering herself up to the Solitract. It’s then that the entire universe shifts and the Solitract presents itself as a talking frog with the voice of Grace. “My own form is endless, but this frog is a form that delights me as it once delighted Grace,” the frog says.
Hot take: I love the talking frog. I know a lot of critics have wondered why the Solitract wouldn’t take the form of one of the Doctor’s lost loved ones, such as Rose, Amy, or River, but the Solitract thinks it has her trapped and doesn’t need to convince her to stay. Why shouldn’t it take the form of a tiny green frog on a white kitchen chair? It’s here that the Doctor has a deeply moving conversation with a frog about the very nature of loneliness and the multiverse and convinces it to let her go. It’s emotional and distinctly weird, and the whole thing has a sort of anarchist Douglas Adams vibe to it. I love it.
“It Takes You Away” is far from a perfect episode; if I had my way, I’d excise the entire Anti-Zone and Ribbons section to actually flesh out Hanne and Erik’s story and give it a little more emotional resonance. There’s so much going on here that some side plots will inevitably feel rushed. But after a season of fairly straightforward episodes, I’ll never say no to a trippy, universe-hopping experiment like this — talking frogs and all.
Odds and ends
- Yet another mention of the Doctor’s family. This time, she talks about her seven grandmothers, and how her favorite told her stories about the Solitract. “She also said Granny 2 was a secret agent for the Zygons,” the Doctor adds.
- Yaz suggests “reversing the polarity or something” to try to get the mirror portal to open back up again, which makes the Doctor’s eyes light up. Love a reference to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor.
- Next week’s episode, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” is the season finale — at least before the New Year’s special airs. Interestingly, this season hasn’t had a true big bad or an overarching mystery running through all the episodes. It remains to be seen exactly what kind of foe the Doctor will be facing in the finale — and whether we’ll see the return of the first episode’s Tim Shaw.