In this episode of Doctor Who, we travel to Norway, where the Doctor and her companions discover an isolated cabin, its doors and windows all barricaded. Its only inhabitant is a blind young girl named Hanne, who warns them that there’s some kind of monster in the woods outside, which broke into the house and stole her father away. When this episode opened, I hoped that we might be getting into some Norse monsters, which are awesome and terrifying. What I got instead was something far stranger.
Any thought that this would be a straightforward monster story vanishes when Graham discovers a mirror on the top floor that doesn’t reflect the room it’s in. The room on the other side of the mirror looks like the bedroom it’s found in, but none of the people in it appear in the image. And what’s more, the mirror acts as a portal to a dark and twisted cave system full of flesh-devouring moths. But what’s more interesting still is what lies on the other side of that – a mirrored version of reality, where all the people you’ve lost are waiting to spend the rest of time with you.
The concept at the heart of this episode is called the Solitract; a sentient universe that is fundamentally incompatible with our own. In the presence of the Solitract, none of the laws of our reality work, which is why it was cast out at the dawn of time. But like any sentient creature, the Solitract craves loving companionship, and so it’s reaching out to our universe, luring people in and recreating their lost loved ones. That’s where Hanne’s father went; there was no monster outside, that was a lie he made up to keep his daughter from wandering into the hills while he spent all his time in mirror-land with her dead mother. Graham finds himself face-to-face with Grace once again, and needs to decide whether to stay with her or return to reality.
Is this a weird concept? Absolutely. Is it maybe a bit more complicated than the actual plot of the episode demands? Arguably. But I think it’s good for Doctor Who to occasionally indulge in a bit of high-concept weirdness, even if it is for its own sake. This is by no means the only episode this series that has leaned heavily on exposition, but at least this episode earned it by making the exposited-upon topic sufficiently esoteric that explaining it more gradually would be difficult.
Above all, It Takes You Away is a meditation on grief. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t seem to have that much to say on the subject. It certainly is heart-rending to see Graham say his farewells to Grace all over again, and even the guest character Erik’s inability to move on after his wife’s death is moving. But Graham letting go doesn’t reflect any kind of character development or moving on on his part; rather, it’s because of the simulation of his dead wife is not sufficiently convincing. And when the Solitract is left alone with the Doctor, instead of taking on the form of someone she’d lost (and there’s no shortage of those!), it instead takes on the form of a frog. On the one hand, I love this bit of weirdness, and sort of wonder if it’s a roundabout Homestuck reference. But it certainly does undercut the theme of grief.
Ryan’s father issues get a spot of development here that’s a good deal more subtle than the time he stared straight into the camera in The Tsuranga Conundrum and informed the viewer that his dad ran off when he was a kid. When the team enters Hanne’s house, he immediately identifies what’s going on: the dad’s done a runner and left the kid behind. Maybe he was just acting out his own trauma in the form of cynicism, or maybe he was picking up on subtle clues that the others had overlooked, like the fact that there’s no sign of entry to the house; everyone else is too busy responding to the scenario as presented to notice the details that don’t make sense. Either way, it feels like a welcome nod to continuity in a series that has thus far mostly ducked it.
I’ve barely mentioned it in my summary, but I do love the idea of an anti-zone – a pocket universe that the real universe generates as a buffer between it and anything dangerous to it. That’s a great concept, and a great excuse to inject a bit of extra danger into a situation that would otherwise lack it.
Murray Gold’s ten-year tenure as Doctor Who composer ended this series, with the reins taken over by Segun Akinola. I haven’t mentioned this up to now, because, well, his work hasn’t been particularly memorable. Perfectly fine, to be sure, but Murray Gold’s work on the series was incredible, and merely fine seems rather pale by comparison. But in this episode, the music that plays over the confrontation with the Soletract is up there with any of Gold’s work. Credit where it’s due.
Finally, in this episode, the Whittaker’s Doctor is finally given an opportunity to step into her predecessor’s shoes and stomp around in them a bit. This season has been characterized in large part by a pulling back on the scale of the Doctor, deemphasizing her age and experience. In part that may be a counter reaction to Moffat’s tenure as Doctor, wherein the Doctor leaned on his reputation a little too much for many people’s tastes, but it’s definitely felt like an element was missing. In this episode, the Doctor finally gave us just the smallest taste of that, when she convinces the Soletract to release Erik against his will.
No, of course you can’t. Fine. Congratulations, Erik wants you. Just one thing: this world is falling apart. I reckon you can only keep one of us. You sure he’s your best option? Cause the Soletract doesn’t want a husband. You want a whole universe. Someone who has seen it all, and that’s me. I have lived longer, seen more, loved more and lost more. I can share it all with you, anything you want to know about what you never had. Because he’s an idiot with a daughter who needs him, so let him go. And I will give you everything.
It’s not the best bit of self-aggrandizement the Doctor’s ever performed, but it whets my palate decently enough, and demonstrates that Jodie has the chops for this aspect of the role. I just hope that Chibnall lets her show it off a bit more next series.
Ultimately, the problem with this episode is that it has precious little to say, but lots it wants to talk about. It spends so much time building up the scenario that there are only minutes available for the conclusion. It feels rushed; there ought to be something between the Doctor being trapped alone with the Soletract and them emotionally saying farewell, but there isn’t; there simply isn’t time for anything to be there. For all this episode’s lofty and bizarre ambitions, it undercuts them by having nothing definitive to say about grief, or isolation, or family. The result is emotional and even enjoyable to watch, but not particularly meaningful, and that feels like a missed opportunity here.
Not as bad as in previous episodes, but what is even the point of having fancy anamorphic lenses and shooting in gorgeous locations if you’re going to effectively smear vasoline over half the frame? The use of gaussian blurs in the background and the lack of contrast in the color palette make what should be beautiful nature shots look heavily processed and dull.