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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

It Takes You Away is perhaps the first time that the crew of the TARDIS actually feel like individuals rather than plot functions. This might be down to any number of factors. Introducing three new companions and a new Doctor in the same season was always going to be a big ask. The production team have often struggled with how best to construct stories with an ensemble that large, with only Arachnids in the U.K. and Kerblam! managing to keep all four regulars engaged with the plot.

It might also be down to the formulaic nature of some of the plotting, which leaves little room for character development. After all, there is ample room for character development in the episodes to date, but few of them really pushed past the surface. Ryan and Graham had to deal with their issues with Ryan’s father in The Tsuranga Conundrum, but not in any real depth. Similarly, Kerblam! found Ryan working a space-age version of a job that he hated, but never using that to generate any insight into Ryan as a character.

It Takes You Away is not exactly subtle in terms of its characterisation, but it is a little more nuanced than the earlier episodes had been. There is a quiet sense of continuity and development within the episode. Early in the story, Graham reveals that he travels with a packed sandwich. When his travelling companions question this, he explains, “I have learned the hard way. We do go a long time without eating.” It is a nice callback to his discussion with the Doctor in Rosa.

Similarly, It Takes You Away continues the morbid subtext that runs through so many of Graham’s interactions with the supporting cast. “Me and your nan use to talk about taking a holiday in Norway,” Graham tells Ryan. Ryan responds, “And what stopped you?” Graham sighs, “Just never got around to it, you know.” There are dark unspoken implications lurking beneath that seemingly innocuous exchange, the same reminder of mortality that underscored Graham’s discussions about concealing a diagnosis in The Tsuranga Conundrum or keeping secrets in Demons of the Punjab.

The writing is on the wall.

More to the point, It Takes You Away trusts the audience’s emotional investment in these characters to the point that it doesn’t feel the need to repeatedly reiterate their past traumas and core characteristics. Ryan’s absent father has been a lingering open wound; mentioned in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Arachnids in the U.K., The Tsuranga Conundrum. Here, however, the script trusts it to remain largely unspoken when he asks Hanna about her missing father. “How do you know your dad just didn’t pack up and go?” he wonders, a question that is very in-character to ask.

Indeed, one of the nicer touches of It Takes You Away is that it allows Ryan to be correct without explicitly stating that he was correct. Erik did abandon his daughter. He did run away from home. He sought comfort and security, forsaking his responsibility and obligations. Erik is another example of the eleventh season’s recurring fascination with flawed and damaging masculinity, men who presume to know better than the people around them and who cause untold destruction as a result.

Erik is the most sympathetic example that the season has offered, in comparison to the cheating political leaders Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Jack Robinson in Arachnids in the U.K., the sadistic race master Ilan in The Ghost Monument, the ineffectual and paranoid King James I in The Witchfinders, the nostalgic terrorist Charlie in Kerblam! or the murderous nationalist Mannish in Demons of the Punjab. Erik doesn’t want anybody to suffer. He is just so invested in his own desires that he would abandon his blind teenage daughter to pursue them.

There is a sense in which the Doctor herself is justifiably frustrated with Erik as a failure of a man. The Doctor argues passionately and vehemently to get Graham to abandon the romantic fantasy of life with Grace, understanding that Graham is a good man who could never surrender his devotion to Ryan. Graham understands that to be a man involves responsibilities, and those responsibilities must come before self-satisfaction. In contrast, the Doctor recognises Erik will never surrender his own comfort or his own fantasy, even for his daughter.

Father of the year.

When the Doctor asks Erik to give up on the fantasy to return home to his daughter, Erik sighs, “I can’t.” The Doctor is not surprised by the answer. She seems to have been expecting it. “Of course you can’t,” she concedes. As such, the Doctor then manages to save Erik literally in spite of himself, by forcing the soletract to eject Erik and send him home to the daughter that he neglected. It is a surprisingly proactive move from the Thirteenth Doctor, particularly given the passivity that defined her character in stories like The Ghost Monument or Rosa.

The penultimate episode of the season, It Takes You Away skillfully ties this condemnation of ineffective and dangerous masculinity into a season theme. Erik is just another iteration of Ryan’s absent father, the man who could not even be bothered to attend his own mother’s funeral in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and who dismissed the man who cared for his son as not part of his “real family” in Arachnids in the U.K. In fact, It Takes You Away even underscores this thematic overlap by repeatedly pairing Hanna and Ryan, mirroring them like the two worlds.

In a surprisingly abstract and metaphorical sense, given how literal-minded the eleventh season has been on this point in episodes like The Tsuranga Conundrum, Ryan’s father may be the season’s true villain. Of course, Tim Shaw is likely to make a return in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, and the Stenza are likely to be revealed as the true architects of various season-long disasters like those featured in The Ghost Monument or Demons of the Punjab. Still, there is an endearing poetic quality to the way in which failed masculinity is the eleventh season’s villain of choice.

Then again, there is a charmingly abstract quality to It Takes You Away which makes it a good choice as the season’s penultimate episode. (Reportedly, Demons of the Punjab was originally supposed to be the ninth of the season’s ten episodes.) It does not have to deal with any long-form plotting in the way that season finales traditionally have to wrap up season-long plot threads in a neat bow, instead having the freedom to explore the season’s recurring preoccupations in a more indirect fashion.

House of mist-ery.

The eleventh season of Doctor Who has been heavily preoccupied with issues of mortality and death. The Woman Who Fell to Earth closed with a funeral for a human character who died during the adventure, while The Tsuranga Conundrum closed with the regular cast joining a prayer for a hero who died protecting them. Demons of the Punjab consciously builds towards the unavoidable and inescapable death of Pem. Even the cobwebs in Arachnids in the U.K. suggest something gothic and funereal is stalking Sheffield.

This morbidity perhaps explains why, given conversations about concealing secrets from loved ones in both The Tsuranga Conundrum and Demons of the Punjab, there is a popular fan theory that Graham’s cancer is no longer in remission. Even in The Ghost Monument, there is an emphasis on a once living world that has been transformed into a toxic graveyard. The ninth season of Doctor Who offered an extended meditation upon grief and separation, but the eleventh is decidedly more preoccupied with death specifically.

It Takes You Away offers a thematic culmination of this theme, by inverting the traditional dynamic. Death is traditionally seen as something bleak and depressing, a force that creates an absence in an individual’s life. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed to suggest that a large part of the Doctor’s arc across the eleventh season would be in helping both Ryan and Graham to adjust to the absence created by Grace’s death, with everything down to the episode title mirroring the two women.

It Takes You Away suggests that death is inevitable, and that trying to cheat death is ultimately self-destructive. People die, and the people around them need to move on. The soletract creates what Yaz describes as “a trap” to lure in those people who have not made peace with their loss, who have not been able to move on. Erik is ensnared by a facsimile of his wife, a romantic fantasy of a world in which she is still alive. The soletract tries to tempt Graham with an approximation of Grace.

Ryan’s grandfather.

This is good thematic and character work, hinging on the earlier episodes of the season. It builds upon details already suggested and established in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and the episodes that followed. The Doctor and her companions have spent a lot of time with death this season, and so the desire to cheat it makes sense. Similarly, Graham and Ryan are still carrying around the trauma of Grace’s loss. It is great to hear the Doctor articulate this character beat, “I know deep down that you still blame yourself for what happened to Grace, but it was not your fault.”

There is a fairy tale quality to this story, with the soletract feeling like something plucked from legend. The magical alternate universe where travellers can lay down their burdens and be reunited with their loved ones evokes several sections of The Odyssey, the desire to retreat into fantasy suggested by the lotus eaters and the lure of a siren’s call across the ocean. This fairy tale quality is reinforced by the presence of the troll-like figure who stalks the “antizone.” Given the story unfolds in Norway, it is fitting that Ribbons looks like a creature from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

That said, Ribbons gets at one of the few issues with It Takes You Away. The episode is very awkwardly paced, effectively structured as three episodes stitched together within ninety minutes. The TARDIS crew arrive at a small house in Norway, only to discover that the blind girl who lives inside is being menaced by monsters in the wilderness. Shortly after that, they discover that there is a portal in an upstairs mirror that leads to a dark nightmarish dimension. After exploring that realm, the characters eventually get to the heart of the episode; a lonely, sentient dimension.

As with The Ghost Monument early in the season, there is a strange feeling that Chris Chibnall is trying to resurrect a particularly old-fashioned version of Doctor Who storytelling. The Ghost Monument felt a lot like an old Terry Nation script, a world sketched in almost sadistic detail that provided a series of episodic adventures that presented the characters with a series of obstacles which they had to overcome to reach their target. In classic Doctor Who, this format capitalised on the show’s half-hour multi-episode-serial structure.

Erik ol’ mess he’s gotten us into.

It is very easy to imagine It Takes You Away structured as an old series four-parter, possibly even during the Davison era. The first of those four episodes would focus on the house and Hanna. It would be relatively low budget and have a small guest cast, allowing for the sets and props to be built for the second episode in the “antizone” with the moths. The cliffhanger between the first and second episodes would be the Doctor going into the “antizone.” The third and fourth episodes, airing the following week, would be split between the hungry universe and the “antizone.”

This structure works less elegantly within the fifty-minute single-episode storytelling framework, where It Takes You Away feels like three stories sutured together to fill up the runtime. Is distracting and disjointed. This is most obvious in the way that the episode has to brush past the reveal that Erik just casually decided to re-stage the plot of The Village to keep his blind daughter busy while he snuck off into an alternate universe for some personal time. Nobody seems to properly acknowledge how weird that character decision was, because the episode is already past it.

Again, this plot point works relatively well in the larger context of the eleventh season, which is populated with monsters that aren’t really monsters. The monsters stalking around in the woods outside Hanna’s home are not really monsters, because they aren’t real at all. As such, they feel like a spiritual companion to the assassins-turned-observers in Demons of the Punjab and the hungry-critter’s-gonna-eat P’tinga in The Tsuranga Conundrum. Like Robinson is responsible for the monsters in Arachnids in the U.K., Erik creates the monsters here.

Part of the charm of It Takes You Away is the fact that it begins as a standard “base under siege” narrative. Although a staple of Doctor Who, the “base under siege” story has some troubling underlying political subtext. It is arguably particularly uncomfortable at a moment when the United Kingdom is caught in a xenophobic anti-immigration panic, which explains why The Tsuranga Conundrum made such an effort to construct a “base under siege” story without a monster.

Oh bother, O’Brien.

The opening act of It Takes You Away leans right into the troubling subtext of the “base under siege” template. It is about a family menaced by a monster outside their home. To add even more political subtext, the family is Scandanavian, which has its own connections to the current wave of hyper-nationalism sweeping the globe. Hanna very clearly outlines the stakes to the Doctor, “The thing my dad was defending the house from. It got in and took him.” At first glance, it looks like It Takes You Away will indulge the worst impulses of the “base under siege.”

However, the script very sharply and very cannily swerves away from those impulses with the reveal that there are no monsters. Erik has just been stirring up fear of monsters in order to keep Hanna afraid, much like media organisations and right-wing groups stoke fears about immigration to make people panic. Indeed, the real monster (and the real threat) is revealed to have been inside the house all along. It is a nice twist on the “base under siege” template.

Still, even allowing for the cleverness, there is an argument that It Takes You Away would work better if it jettisoned one of these three elements and streamlined the other two. It is the transition from one type of story through another type of story into a third and final type of story that makes the episode feel uneven. The end of the episode feels incredibly weighted, as if the actually story that is being told doesn’t properly begin until around the two-third mark.

This may be related to the other minor issue with the episode, the dependency on rather clunky exposition. It Takes You Away has a very strong emotional core, but the sequence leading into that emotional core has to cram in a lot of exposition and justification in order to make that emotional climax work. A lot of this is dialogue given over to the Doctor, who essentially provides an exposition dump about ancient Gallifreyian lore that provides a very detailed background on what the soletract is and what it wants.

Tree exciting.

Jodie Whittaker is a fine actor, and so the exposition sequences are not as painful as they might otherwise be. However, they still feel rather clunky and awkward. During the Moffat era, these sorts of exposition sequences were typically used as a springboard for big and insane ideas that were easy to articulate but outlandish in scale; the idea that “the moon is an egg” in Kill the Moon might be the best example, but the various conversations between the Doctor and Idris in The Doctor’s Wife also fit the bill.

The Chibnall era is less successful at exposition, tending to treat it as an excuse for nonsense technobabble and random pseudo-science. To be fair, there is an element of self-awareness in It Takes You Away, with Yaz wondering if the Doctor can’t just “reverse the polarity”, referencing the Third Doctor’s favourite get-out-of-jail-free card. Nevertheless, the sequence hinges on the Doctor explaining what the soletract is in extremely graphic detail so that even the least engaged members of the audience can follow along.

In the best case scenario, episodes like Arachnids in the U.K. assure audiences that they don’t really need to pay attention by allowing Ryan to make shadow puppets in the background. However, in episodes like The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum, there is a strong sense that the audience is supposed treat these nonsensical infodumps as an end of themselves, with the Thirteenth Doctor waxing lyrical about science-fiction propulsion technology that can never exist or articulating environmental details that never affect the plot.

It Takes You Away takes a great deal of pleasure in adding some explicitly Gallifreyan lore to explain the monster of the week, with the Doctor recalling bedtime stories told by “granny five” about “a consciousness, an element” that existed “pre-time, pre-everything.” The concept of the soletract is very Moffat-esque; a sentient self-aware universe that lures its prey in with a reassuring story like a cosmic venus flytrap.

“That’s pretty cold, Doc.”

However, the finer details recall the worst excesses of eighties Doctor Who. The Doctor’s exposition about the soletract recalls how the show’s internal mythology developed around figures like “Omega” or “Rassilon” during the John Nathan Turner years, feeding into the development of “the Other” and “the Looms” during the Wilderness Years. The soletract belongs to the insanely convoluted and unworkable-for-a-mainstream-audience Cartmel Masterplan.

This exposition scene evokes the insanely elaborate mythology which was just one reason that Russell T. Davies felt the need to do away with the Time Lords in the first place. It might have worked better if the idea had been seeded and developed, if the revelation had been set up or teased across the episode before the Doctor comes to her conclusion. This is one way in which dropping on the three sections of the episode might have allowed for some narrative streamlining.

This is particularly frustrating given the appealing simplicity of the concept itself. The soletract is “a separate exiled universe that is also a consciousness.” That should be enough to sustain an episode without wedding it to Time Lord mythology. After all, the “antizone” is very effectively explained as “a thing that the universe makes, wherever the fabric of space time is threatened. Like a protective buffer zone to keep threats at bay.” That is an efficient bit of exposition. Even just the similarity between “antibody” and “antizone” to suggest a cosmic immune system.

At the same time, there is a certain elegance to Ed Hime’s script. In particular, the structuring of the episode allows for an effective climax. The Doctor’s perilous journey through the “antizone” with Yaz and Graham handily outlines the dangers of the region to the audience; the moths drawn to the lantern and feasting upon the poor souls trapped within the zone. This means that when Ryan and Hanna venture into the “antizone”, the audience is already aware of dangers of which the two newest arrivals are ignorant.

Pushing fjord, not backwards.

The killer moths in the “antizone” provide a nice callback to The Web Planet, an oft maligned Hartnell era serial that embraces outlandish production design. A lot of the eleventh season has harked back to Hartnell’s tenure, from the crowded TARDIS to the Terry Nation scripting in The Ghost Monument to the emphasis on a purer breed of historical. It Takes You Away evokes the surreal nature of some of those early stories, especially in the climactic conversation between the Doctor and the soletract.

Despite all that laboured exposition, and despite the very restrained and very grounded contemporary Norwegian setting of the episode, the climactic scene of It Takes You Away features the Doctor talking to a frog that speaks in a Northern accent. “The soletract is a frog that talks like Grace?” the Doctor asks. This is perhaps the most Doctor Who beat within the entire eleventh season, a suitable surreal piece of television that plays as the climax of what began as a very conventional base under siege story.

It Takes You Away is a highlight of the season, even if it does suffer from some of the recurring narrative issues of the season around it. It is high concept, abstract and allegorical. It is good science-fiction and good Doctor Who.

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3 Responses

  1. Loved this one, glad that Ed Hime is returning next series according to nosy people who’ve checked his writing CV.

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