Previously on Doctor Who, “The Witchfinders”
In this installment, Doctor Who returns to its Moffaty fairy tale roots, melding a psychological Norwegian forest thriller with interdimensional travel when the Doctor and her companions find a blind girl alone in a woodsy cabin where there may or may not be monsters. Haunted by the loss of her mother and his wife, her father Erik has discovered a portal where she seems to still exist and can’t bring himself to return to reality. Dogged by the mourning that has haunted them all season, Team TARDIS is lured into the portal, where Graham is confronted head on by Grace’s loss again, and Ryan confirms that Graham is true family to him. Yaz does genuine police work at critical points. And the Doctor, forever vulnerable to lonely powerful souls, races desperately to save them all from the collapsing alternate universe and to save the universe-maker itself by offering it her friendship, only for the two to be separated for eternity.
As a whole, the adventure has a few origin problems. We don’t know whether Erik discovered the portal or the cabin first. We don’t know when he found the portal or how often he came and went before devising his ill-conceived plan to keep Hanne trapped in the cabin while he gallivanted with his dead wife. We also don’t know how the creature picked this spot to cross over, or how the swindling buffer-zone alien “always” existed. But those details aren’t important to a fairy tale, are they?
Fairy tales caution against indulging in common human failings for too long. In this case, mourning “takes you away” from sanity and the universe itself. Passing through the solitary boarded cabin, the dark caves of flesh-eating moths, and emergence into a world that isn’t quite right, filled with false wishes and a desperate vacuum, is a symbolic undertaking of grief’s journey. The pyramid imagery on the other side represents need fulfillment and awareness. In the end, we’re left with the sad but hopeful images of Erik and Graham moving forward; a young woman coming-of-age after realizing that her father is a flawed human; and the Solitract playing alone in a body gleaned from Grace’s memories, the last it will ever experience again, if it can help itself.
Back after “Demons of the Punjab,” Jamie Childs directs this and the season finale. Joy Wilkinson returns as writer, joined by Ed Hime. Hime, like “Punjab” writer Vinay Patel, is primarily a playwright and radio dramatist, winning a Prix Italia and BBC A&M Award for his BBC radio dramas. Ellie Wallwork, who plays Hanne, is a blind actor, singer, and songwriter, previously appearing on Call the Midwife and in the Polish film, Imagine. Although she is British, the actors playing her parents are both Norwegian. Chibnall continues proving that it is possible and necessary to hire actors who intimately understand the demographics of their characters.
It Takes You Away
The TARDIS lands in a chilly modern day Norwegian forest, and they soon find a cabin with a young girl named Hanne (Ellie Wallwork) barricaded inside. Graham lures her out of hiding with the cheese and pickle sandwich he learned to carry after “Rosa”. Their introduction is simply beautiful, the Doctor and Yaz leaning in and out of filtered sunbeams as they learn her truths: Hanne is blind and her father was “taken by this thing” four days prior. The two moved here after her mother died. Hanne says the thing screaming in the woods hunts at the same time every day. While they hide, a a reflection-less mirror/portal appears. The Doctor forces herself into it, then pulls back out to retrieve Graham and Yaz, leaving Ryan with Hanne. Before leaving, she scribbles what she claims is a map of the most vulnerable points of the house, but it’s actually a poignant, practical message for Ryan so indicative of this Doctor’s concerns:
Assume her dad is dead.
Keep her safe.
Find out who else can take care of her.
Through the portal into a dark cave, the Doctor notes something is wrong because it doesn’t truly proceed to another world, but rather an Anti-Zone, a kind of buffer the universe creates when space-time is threatened. She questions a creepy Reman-like creature named Ribbons (comedy actor Kevin Eldon), who offers to trade information and a lantern for her screwdriver. He leads them on a wild goose chase, cutting their literal thread to the outside, and takes Graham hostage, but a flock of flesh-eating moths devours him when he’s unable to resist grabbing the sonic–an anti-greed allegory in a pit of dark impulses between stages of grief.
The team runs through another portal to a flipped version of Hanne and Erik’s cabin. Everything here is mirrored, including his Slayer shirt and the Doctor’s sonic hand, and he’s quite dismissive of their concerns–the freezer is full (it was nearly empty) and the monster noises are a trick that will keep Hanne from wandering after dark. So practical, right? Dude. Erik (Christian Rubeck) doesn’t want to leave because in this world his wife Trine (Lisa Stokke) is alive and so is Grace. Graham passes through a line of gauzy white sheets like the veil between life and death, the sun setting behind him, to find Grace demanding to know what’s going on. He tests her with her gold frog necklace he’s wearing, lamenting how unfair this is when she passes.
Ryan offends Hanne by saying her dad might have just left, a reasonable perspective since his own father just left, but he apologizes. When she busts him for hiding what the Doctor wrote, he locks her out of the room, only to find a cord on the wall… which leads to a speaker outside playing monster sounds. He rushes inside to tell her, but she knocks him out and takes the key, passing through the portal and into the cave. Fortunately Ryan gets to her just as she finds Ribbons’ body and leads her back to the portal, revealing her father lied.
The Doctor realizes that the Anti-Zone’s creation means this side of the portal is dangerous, created by a powerful Solitract–a mythical, primordial, chaotic, conscious universe that was exiled because it infected other realities and, as a result, is now lonely (Wow, ok). I don’t have to tell you who that resembles, right? Graham is convinced to stay by NotGrace’s memories, but the universe can’t retain cohesion and begins to fall apart. The Solitract tries to lock them out of the portal, but the Doctor adjusts the sonic screwdriver’s polarity at Yaz’s suggestion. It opens the portal just in time to let only Hanne through while Graham and Erik double down on staying. NotTrine throws Yaz through the portal to stop her questions, then Hanne when she rejects the reality. The Doctor pleads with Graham stop blaming himself. NotGrace’s dismissal of Ryan at last gets through to him, leaving the Doctor and Erik.
The Doctor tempts Trine/Solitract by offering herself and her millennia of experience as companionship. Erik finally relents, leaving just the Doctor in a pyramid universe of light. The Solitract appears on a white chair as a frog, Grace’s favorite creature, speaking with her voice. The Doctor, however, is still too much for the universe to hold. She praises the Solitract’s solitary beauty, saying they’ll be friends forever if it can just let her go to save itself. Minus the talking frog effects, the idea of this powerful yet fragile consciousness eternally dreaming of her is pretty gut wrenching. It agrees, and they all return to the forest, devastated by their experience, the Doctor included. Erik at last realizes he must move on for Hanne and his own sake. When Graham lingers, Ryan hangs behind and calls him Granddad at last. All in all, a visually gorgeous and textually deep episode that makes it easy to see why Himes is celebrated on stage and on air.
Quotes, Trivia, and References
- Something to look forward to: The Wooly Rebellion of 2211 – a total negotiation of the sheep/human relationship and “total bloodbath.”
- “Reverse the polarity” is a shoutout to the Third Doctor.
- New fact: The Doctor had seven grandmothers, “but Granny 5 was my favorite. She also said that Granny 2 was a secret agent for the Zygons…”
- “Erik, this woman is clearly and an alien force collapsing two realities and impersonating your dead wife. Time to move on, mate!”
- BBC America will offer a Doctor Who marathon of all previous Christmas specials starting at noon Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, followed by a marathon of all the Doctors starting with Capaldi, then Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith ending with a New Year’s Day special on January 1st.
Doctor Who S9E11 Review Score
"It Takes You Away"
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin cole, Sharon D Clarke, Kevin Eldon, Christian Rubeck, Lisa Stokke, Ellie Wallwork | Directed by: Jamie Childs | Written by: Ed Hime, Joy Wilkinson