Doctor Who #1004: It Takes You Away

"It's her or the real world. You can't have both."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.2 2018.

IN THIS ONE... A mirror in Norway leads to another universe where you might be reunited with a loved one.

REVIEW: What new writer Ed Hime has done is write a story that works on several levels, some of which are highly dependent on interpretation. It's not Ghost Light, but it's at the outer edge of that vibe. On a plot'n'production level, it's a weird one, but definitely poignant. A mirror acts as a portal to a strange, hellish corridor that leads to a conscious universe to which we are inimical. Right there, we're in psychedelic cosmic SF, especially once the entity manifests as a talking frog. A controversial moment, to be sure, but very Doctor Who. Why a frog? The key word is "delight". The Solitract (a pretty terrible name) manifests as loved ones to the guest star and Graham - a nice way to bring back Grace without cheating - so many have wondered why Susan, or any past, dead companion couldn't have put in an appearance using this device. I can think of several reasons (and I hope one of them is that they don't want to blow a Doctor-Susan reunion because a real one is being planned). The Solitract was once part of our universe, misses it, and ultimately chooses the Doctor as the one part it gets to keep because it can only know what our universe is like through her (and her experience is the broadest - she pulled the same basic ploy in The Rings of Akhaten). It could literally take any form the Doctor has ever experienced, but too much to process, so it goes to something in Grace's (really, Graham's) experience. And by avoiding the Doctor's own "ghosts", it taps right into the theme of the episode. What draws you in is loss, grief, depression. Hanne's father has "never been the same" after his wife's death and so he gets lost in this mirror dimension. He abandons his daughter, but he did that months ago in spirit. We saw Graham's ghosts in Arachnids, and here he is tortured by a more physical manifestation, and he too is almost lured into staying, even if staying means destruction (literal and metaphorical). On a strict plot level, it would be redundant to give Ryan and the Doctor the same anguished dilemma, so he doesn't get to the Solitract plane and she gets a frog. But leaning into the metaphor for loss, what we have is the Doctor being able to move on, not just from the loss of family and friends, but that of self. She literally leaves herself behind with every regeneration. If the Time War's losses loomed large (yes, that's a pun) through most of New Who, it has certainly been purged by now.

So yes, Erik's anguish is unnecessary given Graham is the only one we care about, and his bad parenting, which Graham and Yaz comment on, goes unpunished exactly because we don't really care about him. It's there to get us into the story and that's really all. It's interesting that Hanne is blind - and a win for representation, the actress isn't faking it - but exactly how is open to interpretation. Metaphorically, blind to what? It's a bit of a muddle. On the one hand, she can't tell the monsters outside are pre-taped fakes (though note the cheat, as we've given a POV shot from the woods). On the other side of the mirror, she's NOT blind to the truth that her mother is a fake. It IS a reverse-reality, after all... I do give them props for subtly reversing the shots when in the Solitract plane, something I really only noticed on the second viewing. Sure, there's the mirrored Slayer t-shirt, but I thought it was a bit of costuming to sell the Looking Glass world. Actually, all the hair is parted in reverse, etc. The antizone that pops up between universes is another bit of strangeness, especially once you start asking questions like how Ribbons got there and survived in an ecosystem where he eats people(?) and deadly giant moths eat anything that makes a sound. If those sequences feel a lot like they're from an episode of Angel, it may owe a lot to the make-up effects, but the only way this makes sense is if he's a demonic manifestation of the demi-plane he's in. It exists, so he exists, and do the moths. On a thematic level, the moths are drawn to a flame/light, which is deadly to them in the real world, but not beyond the mirror, an image of the deadly lure beyond the antizone. The Solitract's trap - that "light" - was Erik's wife and Grace because as Yaz quotes from her police training, "you have to reinforce whatever makes them feel safe".

If the episode is ultimately poignant, it's because Graham comes out out on the other end of his grief, and is rewarded for it by Ryan finally calling him grandad. More subtly, it's the point at which Ryan admits that his gran is on his mind, that he misses her too, something he's been unwilling to do around Graham because it's an open wound. With Graham moving on and looking to his future (leaving Grace for Ryan in the literal narrative), he comes closer to the way Ryan is dealing with his own grief. And note the twin frog necklaces, part of the mirror leitmotif, but really an anecdote about the lack of communication between Grace's two boys. Ryan doesn't do well early on for the way he handles Hanne, but he's speaking from experience. His own father DID abandon him after his mother's death, and perhaps it informs his relationship with Graham, justifying their final moment here. But I get a bit misty before that. The final scene between the Doctor and the frog, as silly as it might seem, really got to me. The lonely universe dreaming of its counterpart, "I will dream of you out there without me"... That's cosmic-level pain right there, but sweet too. I don't know what it means for the Doctor to call it a friend, but it's a nice play on the dreamer/dream fable. The mirrorverse also allows for a fun joke about reversing the polarity, as Yaz accidentally speaks the Doctor's language. Yasmin's role in this is, as usual, fairly peripheral, but she's the one who exposes the false Grace, and is booted out of a false "paradise" for doing so, thus showing the way to true enlightenment.

Because there's certainly a theological level to all this. In the Whoniverse, the Solitract might be a Great Old One or something, but it's also God, isn't it? Part of the formless universe, it gave it a form that could only be sustained if it existed apart from it. God's love is a longing for His Creation, and as souls migrate to that other world, He feels more and more complete. As our heroes get there - through a tunnel, following a light, like astral selves connected by an umbilical - they are reunited with their loved ones in a paradise. The Solitract is real, but those lost souls appear not to be, or else the Solitract wouldn't describe itself as alone and try to "enrapture" the living. Then again, there's a certain cosmic irony to the transcendentalist thought that we join the Oversoul when we die, thus becoming one with God, at which point God is once again alone. Because this is the Chibnallverse, and if you remember your Torchwood, it featured a bleak, dark after-life, and at least one demon who lived there. If the after-life is an extra-dimensional place, then the Solitract plane may be where at least part of the self goes. No easy answers, but it's not the first time Doctor Who has been wonky with theological ideas - the Buddhist fables of the '70s spring to mind, and they weren't always easy to digest or strictly logical either.

Some have seen this episode as a metaphor for Brexit as well. Certainly, Series 11 has tried for "relevance" in a way that no other season before has, and given that this story takes place in Norway, as opposed to some backwoods in Wales, a wish not to be exiled from Europe may be part of the mix. A cosmic frog might jump the Channel/antizone, but isn't allowed to. Use that filter when watching the episode and see what it does to your understanding of it. But then, there's really no dearth of filters you can use instead. I've discussed a few, but even if you secularly stick to Doctor Who matters, you'll want to think of It Takes You Away in the context of Warriors' Gate, or the Key to Time, or e-Space, or Planet of Evil. Ed Hine gives us a lot to think about, though you're free to question whether his ambiguities are frustrating or liberating.

THEORIES: So the thing everyone's been talking about since the episode came out is the Doctor's seven grandmothers. What's up with that? Is it one grandmother with seven regenerations? If so, it's a bit weird that Granny 5 accused Granny 2 of being a Zygon agent (by which I understand she worked FOR the Zygons, not that she was a Zygon in disguise), though a couple things have to be taken into account. 1) Granny 5 may be trying to distance herself from a past incarnation and it's just a joke; and 2) this Doctor is always telling outlandish stories that we may or may not believe (the Sheep Rebellion, for example). There might have been seven separate individuals. We don't know how Time Lord families are structured (and then there are the looms...), nor whether the Doctor grew up in a traditional family. There is a way to read the barn scene in Listen, for example, where the Doctor is raised in a group home. Are those the voices of parents, or teachers? And are the teachers the "Grannies"? If a Grandparent isn't a term that necessarily references the blood line, in Time Lord society, what does that mean for the Doctor-Susan relationship?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Maybe it does too much, but it has a lot of balls, and I ultimately loved its melancholy cosmological conclusions.


snell said...

This is niggling, but I would have liked something--and just one sentence would have been enough--explaining why the Solitract chose this lonely cabin in Norway to manifest the portal. Drawn by Erik's grief? The location just happened to be a weak spot in the border between universes? Also, how did Erik manage to make it (multiple times, no less) through the antizone alone and unaided? Perhaps it grew more dangerous the longer it existed...?

And really, Erik's behavior towards his daughter was so monstrous and beyond the pale that it's hard for the audience to accept any redemption for him, as it turns out that Ryan was essentially right about him from the start.

Anonymous said...

One guess as to why the Solitract chose Norway: BAD WOLF BAY. There was already a weak spot in reality there, or perhaps the Solitract's presence is what made reality weak enough for that whole Rose business (in which case, the Solitract picked Norway at random, and we might just as easily have had the words "Fresno Corn Dog Palace" appear throughout season 1).

But I like to think that the Solitract has been operating in Norway for a long time. All those stories of trolls and elves / oafs and the like ... ? Ribbons and friends. (Side note, the word "oaf" basically means "elf". If your kid had mental and physical defects, the assumption way back when was that it was actually an elf-child swapped for your beautiful human child. So the elves had your kid and you got an oaf. Also, the German word for nightmare is "Albtraum", and you guessed it, that's an elf-dream.)

Anonymous said...

So, credit to Graham for contending with the duplicate-loved-one scenario as well as I've seen anyone do it. Usually characters go unreasonably stupid when that happens, but Graham ... ? He correctly spotted that Grace wasn't acting like she should, and it wasn't the deduction that was hard for him, but the dealing with it.

And, Ryan called it right: the dad DID leave Hanne. Graham, though ... ? He'll never leave Ryan.

So, this wasn't real Grace. Will we see real Grace at some point? I hope we do, and that Graham agrees to leave her for now, but will see her again someday. That's about as happy ending as I could imagine for the Grace arc.

Anonymous said...

Loved the frog simply because it's the kind of thing that's routinely second-guessed and excised from scripts during the production process. Weird, as in the end of Kubrick's 2001, is necessary at times to puncture bland, mundane explanations. :) It was of course, a neutral image, so the Doctor's own story didn't tamper with Grahame's own evolving story arc. It would have seemed churlish to make it all about the Doctor and Susan, Adric et al. I do hope that Chibnall gets around to reuniting the Doctor with Susan, properly. It would be a shame not to doff the cap towards Carole Ann Ford and William Russell's pivotal efforts in establishing the show's basic mythology before the inevitable. Nicholas Courtney to be fair had a number of send offs before the end, but making the final send off Cyber Brig wasn't exactly fitting. Mind you, the Doctor will have to come up with a cracking explanation as to why s/he shown little curiosity about her life for several hundred years, saying 'I was busy saving the universe' probably won't cut it. ;D Who knows, the Ryan father storyline just might be the prelude for the Doctor's own search during S12. And while we're at it, what happened to the search for Gallifrey? At this rate, future villains will carry about shiny things to momentarily distract the Doctor from defeating their evil plans. :)


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