Doctor Who has always been apt at genre-switching; you think your getting one kind of story and you end up so very far from where you began. “It Takes You Away,” the penultimate episode of the season, is one of the better examples we’ve had of that particular trope in years.
The Doctor, Yas, Ryan, and Graham land in Norway in 2018, and find a boarded up house in the middle of nowhere. The Doctor breaks in and they find a blind girl named Hanne (Eleanor Wallwork). Her father Erik (Christian Rubeck) boarded up the house to keep her safe from some murderous monster; he left four days ago and hasn’t come back. Graham finds a portal through a mirror in the house, and the Doctor wants to go though it to find out if it has anything to do with Erik’s disappearance. She asks Ryan to stay behind with Hanne, claiming that she wrote a map of where the house was weakest on the wall, but they’re really instructions for helping Hanne. Ryan soon learns that there is no monster outside the house—Hanne’s father has rigged the house and surrounding area with speakers and such, to make it seem like there’s a threat outside and keep her indoors.
Yas and Graham go through the portal to a place that the Doctor realizes is an “anti-zone”; a place that forms to keep two pieces of time and space apart from one another. While there, they run into a creature named Ribbons (Kevin Eldon), who says that he will lead the group through the zone safely in exchange for the sonic screwdriver. On their way, he is attacked and killed by carnivorous moths. They find the other side of the zone, and it opens out onto a near duplicate of Hanne’s house. There they find Erik who is there visiting Hanne’s mother Trine (Lisa Stokke), and there’s someone else there waiting for them—Grace (Sharon D Clarke). Graham talks to her, and she does seem to be the real Grace, though she doesn’t understand how they got there. In the meantime, Hanne knows that everyone has been lying to her, and knocks Ryan out so she can head through the portal. Ryan goes to find her in the anti-zone.
The Doctor tells Yas about an old bedtime story that one of her grandmothers told her about something called the Solitract. The Solitract existed at the beginning of everything, but the universe couldn’t form while it was around because it interfered with universal laws. The Solitract had to be sectioned off as its own universe so that our universe could form. The Doctor thinks that they are in the Solitract, a conscious universe that has been lonely all this time, and desperate to touch the universe it is forbidden from being a part of. Trine and Grace were created to keep the humans it had lured there. When Hanne shows up, she instantly knows that the Solitract Trine is not her mother, and she’s sent back into the anti-zone. Yas and Ryan are also thrown out, and so is Graham when he rejects Solitract Grace, knowing she is not the real Grace when she doesn’t show proper concern for Ryan.
With only Erik and the Doctor left, the Doctor suggests that the Solitract take her in Erik’s place, as she has far more experiences to offer it. The Solitract takes her up on the offer, and takes the form of a frog with Graces voice to talk to the Doctor. The universe is still destabilizing with the Doctor there, though, and she begs the Solitract to do the right thing and release her before everything is destroyed. She promises that no matter how far they are from one another, they will always be friends. The Solitract agrees, and tells the Doctor that it will imagine her adventures from far away. The Doctor gets back and says goodbye to Hanne and Erik, who will move back to the city now that the illusion of Trine has been broken. Graham and Ryan have a talk, and Ryan calls Graham “granddad” for the first time.
There are some unfortunate messy bits in the episode, because without them, “It Takes You Away” is easily one of the best episodes of the season, on a number of fronts, the first being the casting of Eleanor Wallwork as Hanne.
Eleanor Wallwork is a blind actor, one of the few who has had the opportunity to play blind parts on television. (She has spoken candidly about the problems perpetuated by giving seeing actors blind roles, which you can find on Metro.) Showrunner Chris Chibnall reportedly set out to find a blind actress to play Hanne, which is an improvement over the show’s history—which has shown sighted actors portraying blind characters before, and even blinded the Doctor himself last season for a brief period. Wallwork’s casting is a major step toward portraying disabilities accurately on screen that Who will hopefully keep up, and inspire other shows toward.
The fact that various characters within the episode handle Hanne’s blindness poorly is a pointed bit of realism that Hanne herself gets the chance to call people out on it. Even the Doctor makes a critical error, assuming that Hanne can’t tell the difference between what words and drawings sound like when they’re being written out. While it’s understandable that the Doctor doesn’t want to scare a young girl, in that moment she does something incredibly patronizing, and Hanne makes sure to tell Ryan so. Yas’s ability to immediately put the girl at ease (due to training for handling traumatized kids) is wonderful to see because Yas is a boss, as is the bond Hanne eventually forms with Ryan once he stops panicking over his rapport with kids in general. It’s another great example of the Doctor’s stealth tutoring, putting Ryan in the situation that he’s least comfortable with while dragging Graham and Yas along with her.
The real disconnect with Hanne’s arc is that her father Erik deserved to be thoroughly dressed down for being a damned negligent parent. (Props to both Yas and Graham for saying that they at least wanted to rough the guy up, their anger was completely warranted here, even if violence obviously wouldn’t solve anything.) Grief aside, confining your blind daughter to your house by making her think something monstrous is waiting in the woods to kill her is straight-up abusive, and that’s on top of being horrifically ableist. At the very least, the Doctor could have volunteered to take Hanne with her after everything she suffered.
The opening half of this story is chock full of gorgeous horror movie beats. At the start, we have no reason not to think everything Hanne is going through is real, so it reads like a good monster yarn that has all the important atmospheric touches; remote location; creepy house; shed with dead animals; only one person available to make contact with the Doctor and crew; mirrors that people don’t appear in; freaky noises. We appear to be involved in a very different episode—before Doctor Who pulls one of its best and favorite tricks, upending the entire concept in favor of something that prioritizes empathy and love and understanding.
The main error happens in the middle, in giving way too much story time to Ribbons and the anti-zone. There is so much excellent story and emotional work that gets done in this episode, and there could have been even more if we hadn’t trudged along with a goblin-type alien who trades information for stuff, carnivorous moths creatures who only exist to pose threats when required, and a cut string that is clearly there to heighten tension but doesn’t prevent anyone from finding their way back to the correct universe. It’s a waste of time that detracts from the truly moving aspects of the episode.
One of those truly moving aspects is a glimpse of an entirely different universe, a conscious one that is alone and trying to reach out for what it cannot have. Erik is less understandable in this; while he may have been devastated over the death of his wife, leaving his child behind to visit someone who seems to be his dead wife in a picture perfect universe, never thinking that Hanne deserved to see this person who could be her mother, is incredibly hard to stomach. But then the Solitract creates Grace for Graham, and the crux of the story forms.
The only problem is this reunion brings us back around to Grace’s completely unwarranted death at the start of the season. It occurs to me that this could have potentially been done differently; it could have happened with Ryan instead, and maybe been his mother (since she is gone, but at least she wasn’t fridged within the timeframe of the show). But it’s also important in Graham’s arc for both he and Ryan to get some measure of closure, and Graham is the less elastic of the two. He’s the one who needs a chance to speak to Grace, to admit how much he needed her, and to let her go.
So on the one hand, it’s beautifully written and acted. On the other hand it brings up a mistake the series made, and also runs over an aggravating and overused trope: I Found A Simulacrum of Someone I Loved and I Would Never Leave Them Except They Made It Abundantly Clear That They Aren’t Really the Person I Loved By Making An Obvious Mistake About Someone We Both Love. We know Grace would never say “nuts to my grandson Ryan lololol,” so having that be the point where the fantasy breaks for Graham isn’t all that interesting, just lazy.
Even though this episode gives such great moments to Graham, Ryan, and Yas, even though we finally hear Ryan call Graham his granddad, even though Hanne shows herself to be brave and unstoppable, the real star of this episode is the Doctor. It’s not a given on Doctor Who—there are plenty of episodes that truly exist to showcase the companions and strange everyday heroes, but this isn’t one of those episodes. It’s an episode where the Doctor, out of a desire to save her friends and strangers she’s only just met, agrees to give her life to a conscious universe and prevent the destruction of her own. It happens in a recreation of a Hanne’s house, with only Erik as witness, no time left, and it may be one of the most powerful moments the Doctor has ever delivered in the show’s collective history. Thirteen offers the incredible sum of her life, her experiences, her love and loss and pain, to the Solitract in a bargain to save them all. And the Solitract accepts and brings her to a blank space with a frog (bearing Grace’s voice) as its avatar.
Some people might think this endgame is just too silly too be enjoyable. I would call it Whovian absurdity at its finest—this is the very sum of Doctor Who, down to the last particle. And what’s even more on point, the episode manages to wring genuine emotion from this. The Doctor, talking to a frog, trying to prevent the destruction of everything, still desperate to be friends with an alien consciousness she’s never before encountered.
For all this episode’s flaws, it is impossible to dislike a story sees the Doctor beg for the continuation of existence to a curious frog. It is impossible to hate a foe who is really just lonely, a universe who speaks with the voice of one of the bravest, kindest women our own universe ever knew. It is impossible to call foul on an episode that sees the Doctor victorious, but still sad—because she made a new friend, a miraculous friend, and had to say goodbye the moment they met.
Doctor Who is at its best when it challenges the very base conceptions that our reality is built from. When it makes friends of giant and terrible unknowns. When it forgoes fear and raises up wonder instead. And this episode gave us all that, and then some.
Asides for the week:
- Yas suggested that the Doctor “reverse the polarity” to try and break out of the solitract universe. The reason why the Doctor was particularly excited to hear her say it is because she used that piece of sci-talk liberally in previous incarnations, to the point where “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” was practically a catchphrase for certain Doctors.
- The Doctor claims that she had seven grandmothers, the fifth being the one who told her about the solitract as a bedtime story when she couldn’t get to sleep. (This is believable, given that Gallifreyan family units are something of a mystery within canon, and possibly not limited to blood relations.) She also claims that Granny Five said Granny Two was a spy for the Zygons—likely meaning that Granny Two wasn’t really who she claimed to be, seeing as the Zygons can shapeshift to look like anyone.
- Does anyone else find it hilarious that we have killer moths in this episode, given the moth meme that’s been going around the internet for the past several months?
- The Doctor gives a great deal of information about the area of Norway that they’ve arrived in by eating some soil. This might just be for show; the Doctor will often claim to know when and where the TARDIS has landed via sound, scent, or other senses, only to admit that there was another very obvious tell that really provided the information.
- Graham bringing sandwiches in his pockets because he knows the Doctor never stops for food is infuriatingly precious, how dare he.