Doctor Who is a surreal show. That’s sort of the point. It makes weird things happening in weird times, and weirder places, with existential crises and battles with bonkers alien beings, about as regular as you and I would breathe. But “It Takes You Away” might have pushed Doctor Who to one of its strangest extrapolations of itself.
From the Celestial Toymaker’s realm, to E-Space, to the walled-off world where Peter Capaldi spent the entirety of “Heaven’s Sent” punching his way through, Doctor Who has always trafficked in approaching esoteric sci-fi ideas with a whimsical surreality.
“It Takes You Away,” once it reveals itself (arguably about 10 to 15 minutes later than it should have), is much the same. It is not, as we’re lead to believe in the beginning, a creepy mystery about a monster lurking in lush-looking Norwegian woods. Nor, as we’re lead to believe in its middle, is it a monster-chase thriller. It is instead a cosmically-scaled, beautiful story about love and grief, a tale of not letting the loneliness that comes after losing someone consume you. It tackles such a huge idea through an alternate, sentient universe parallel to our own, while also keeping it rooted in the present of its characters by deftly dovetailing that story into Ryan and Graham’s ongoing character arc over losing Grace in all the way back in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”
After a quirk dirt dinner, the Doctor and her friends begin their traipse around Norway.
The idea might be presented in what is, on the surface, a completely bonkers way – between the Anti-Zone that blocks the gap between our universe and that’s filled with flesh-eating moths and one arsehole alien, and the mystery of why a blind girl named Hanne has been left abandoned to be stalked by monsters in a small house in the Norwegian wilderness, there’s a lot going on. When you start layering on the fact that the sentient universe (called the Solitract) is apparently one from Gallifreyan folklore – cast out at the dawn of creation due to its inherent incompatibility with the fundamental building blocks of our reality, and desperately seeking contact with the universe it was once part of – on top of that, “It Takes You Away” has a ridiculous amount of plot on its plate.
And that’s even before you get to what might be the breaking point of the episode for some, when, after masquerading as deceased loved ones in its attempt to lure humans into its existence, the Solitract bids farewell to the Doctor in the form of a talking frog.
It’s a moment that, as the emotional climax of the episode, is truly beautiful – there’s a sadness in the Solitract’s acceptance of its traumatic isolation from the reality it once came from, and the Doctor’s stirring speech about the power of friendship and having to let go is a remarkably well-delivered one from Jodie Whittaker. But...she’s earnestly delivering it to a frog that sounds like Sharon D. Clarke. It is, like a lot of this season, a moment that is so purely Doctor Who – paradoxically weird and beautiful – but one extrapolated so far beyond what we’ve come to expect from the show as we knew it before that it almost threatens to fall apart into nonsense.
But it doesn’t do so because it pushed Doctor Who’s penchant for weird surreality to almost its breaking point. It’s more down to the fact that we rush to that emotional conclusion and don’t really get to let it sit beyond the base level “oh my god, a talking frog,” because everything else in “It Takes You Away” feels like it’s spending too much time trying to throw a smörgåsbord of Doctor Who ideas at a wall, hoping that something will stick.
The Anti-Zone sequences have a few cheap thrills, but detract from the episode at large.
While the core idea around the Solitract’s intent really works, as odd as it is, unfortunately not everything else in the episode does. The opening focus on Hanne and her mysteriously absent father, Erik – missing for days as an unearthly creature seemingly stalks his daughter on a daily basis – sets up a suitably creepy tone, but once it’s revealed that Erik was actually establishing an almost absurdly in-depth lie for his daughter so he could spend time in the Solitract’s plane with his dead wife, the episode never actually has time to interrogate how deeply messed up that is. And the time spent in the Anti-Zone bridging reality and the Solitract together in the episode’s middle might have fleeting glimpses of the “traditional” aliens and scary monsters that Who fans have been craving for this season, but it feels so inconsequential to the wider thread of the episode – especially the dickish alien dealer the Doctor and her friends encounter there, Ribbons, who pretty much exists to be a jerk and then get eaten by the Anti-Zone’s killer moths – that the time spent there detracts from the loftier ideas the rest of the episode really wants to get into.
But when it finally does get into those ideas in the back half, “It Takes You Away” shines as a killer example of the character-driven heart this season of Doctor Who has taken on. Beyond the tragedy of the Solitract’s real desire – that it’s tempting humans over to its plane (risking destabilising both itself and our reality in the process) because it’s cripplingly lonely – and the Doctor’s initial misunderstanding of its intent, it’s a powerful moment for our companions, too, in particular, Graham. The struggle he then goes through when the Solitract presents him with a facsimile of Grace to tempt him with is heartbreaking, with another truly excellent performance from Bradley Walsh. The trauma is what finally allows him and Ryan to patch their relationship up, a brilliant endcap on a character thread that’s dangled in moments throughout the season.
Graham finds a tempting deception in the Solitract’s plane.
At its core, “It Takes You Away” uses the inherent weirdness of Doctor Who’s conceit to tackle a truly beautiful idea. But there is so much going on around that core idea, trying to chase other ideals of the show (the spookiness, the monsters, the atmosphere of it all) that it comes very close to collapsing in on itself, much like the two realities in play. Whether or not that core story works for you as a viewer rests on dancing around those elements – and, perhaps as a mirror to the episode itself, rests on you letting them go to appreciate the beauty of what was there at the heart of it all along.
And maybe it also rests on how much you’re willing to accept a universe that looks like a Frog with a Yorkshire accent, too. But it wouldn’t be Doctor Who’s universe if such a vast and profoundly romantic idea wasn’t presented in the most bizarre manner possible.
It’s a frog. But also a universe. It’s a whole thing.
- I still can’t believe that one shot of the Doctor bidding someone farewell with a kiss in the trailers for this season was actually to a frog. I love it.
- Eleanor Wallwork, who played Hanne, became the first blind actor to guest star in an episode of Doctor Who. There’s a sweet little interview she did with the BBC available here if you want to hear her discuss the need for roles for disabled actors.
- Seriously, how does no one call Erik out for his way of keeping Hanne isolated – and in a state of almost perpetual terror – so he can go wander off to spend days on end with his Solitract wife at the end? It’s super messed up, and made more so by the fact the Doctor doesn’t really take him to task for it. At least Yaz and Graham wanted to deck him.
- I’ve seen a lot of discussion about what form the Solitract should’ve taken to entice the Doctor to stay instead of...well, Grace the Frog. A past companion, River, someone like that. But I think the point is that while the Doctor carries memories of all these people with her, she’s let them go, unlike Erik and Graham. Hell, she’s let her past selves go! The Frog is something suitably weird enough to entice the Doctor’s curiosity far more than the face of someone she’s already accepted as gone, I think.
- Season 11 has been such an ideas-driven season of Doctor Who that it’s hard to wonder how the BBC could merchandise it beyond the basics, but if they needed to, I would be first in line to pre-order a plush frog that plays soundbites of Sharon D. Clarke when I squeeze it.