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Doctor Who Recap: Pining for the Fjords

Doctor Who

It Takes You Away
Season 11 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****

Doctor Who

It Takes You Away
Season 11 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: BBC America

“It Takes You Away” is pretty far out there, even by the standards of a season that has rocked the Who boat time and again. After two viewings, the best I can offer up is that it mostly hangs together, based on the rules it sets up and plays by over the course of 49 minutes, and therefore it’s pretty solid. (I’m using words like “mostly” and “pretty” because with a story as nebulous and strange as this one, there’s always something to tear into depending on how much you buy into the concept.) Everything else is down to matters of taste, and there will surely be folks who won’t find it at all to their liking. Conversely, some folks will surely call it the best of the season. Personally, this is a slice of Doctor Who over which I suspect my feelings will morph in the coming years. It will mean different things depending on where I am in my life. It seems almost presumptuous to sit down and write anything definitive having experienced it for the first time a few hours ago.

Arriving at the top of a scenic hill overlooking a fjord, the Doctor deduces they’re in Norway, though not because of the fjord, but rather because of the taste of the soil. A stray sheep leads to her wondering if they’ve arrived in the midst of the Woolly Rebellion in 2211, in which there’s “a total renegotiation of the sheep-human relationship. Utter bloodbath.” If you don’t want to see that made into an actual Doctor Who episode, then we can’t be friends. Alas, they’re in 2018 … so no sheep wars. But there is a boarded-up house at the bottom of the hill, and someone is inside of it.

That someone turns out to be Hanne (Eleanor Wallwork), a young blind girl whose father seems to be missing while something nasty lurks in the woods. (Major props to the series for hiring a blind actress to play this character.) As we discover in due course, these isn’t anything lurking in the woods at all (except for, perhaps, a stray bear), so a great deal of the setup of Act I is a red herring. Probably the biggest problems this episode has have to do with the lack of exploration of the relationship between Hanne and her father, Erik, who moved to the middle of nowhere following the death of Trine, Hanne’s mother and Erik’s wife. At a certain point, the narrative sort of puts the entire story of this family on the back burner, and instead turns to Graham for its dramatic payoff. It’s an odd bait and switch that I’m not entirely sure works — not because the payoff with Graham doesn’t have heft (it does), but because we’re invested in the guest characters and their story until all of a sudden we’re not.

Everything begins shifting upon the discovery of a mirror with no reflection. Ryan’s reaction is priceless, and echoes what anyone raised on a steady diet of horror pop culture might immediately think: “We’d know if we were vampires, right?” No, they’re not the undead — not Ryan and Graham, anyway. Soon enough the Doctor, Graham, and Yaz go through the mirror and into a place that feels enough like Stranger Things’ Upside Down to warrant comparison. Much of Act II takes place in this dangerous “antizone,” which is inhabited by a Golem-like character called Ribbons (played under heavy, demonic-looking makeup by comedian and actor Kevin Eldon), who may or may not be able to lead the trio to Erik. In the antizone, floating red lanterns appear to be the only source of light. Rats have six legs. Massive flesh-eating moths tear the flesh from a person in seconds. What’s perhaps most fascinating about this section is that once again it’s all a bit of a red herring, having little to do with the eventual reveal of what’s going on.

So, at this point, it begs the question: If so much of the episode has almost nothing to do with the meat of the story, how can it possibly be any good? My only answer would be, “Well, they’re damn compelling deviations.” Part of me wants to compare “It Takes You Away” to a crazy sci-fantasy art film, which is apt. But another, far more fannish side of me is totally reminded of some comic strip that could have been published in Doctor Who Magazine. I can see this story spread out over three or four issues, with the “cliffhanger” for part two being a panel showing the moth-eaten carcass of Ribbons followed by the image of the Doctor standing in the portal looking back at the mass of moths in tow.

Once through the portal, everything is its mirror image, including the parts in the Doctor’s and Graham’s hairstyles, the arm the Doctor uses to wield the sonic, which ear her jewelry is in, and perhaps the most obvious example, the flipped Slayer logo on Erik’s T-shirt. Ah yes, the elusive Erik has finally been found, and he’s living in domestic bliss with his dead wife, who is, shockingly, alive. The episode could easily have made this ghoulish situation its dramatic crux (it might have even made more sense), but it goes a step further and brings Graham’s dearly departed Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) back to life, as well. Rather than simply address the storyline of the episode, it explores a thread of the season. Given that this is Doctor Who, the return of Grace always seemed likely, but more in a “let’s see her before she died” sort of way. This is a version of Grace who has not only died, but who actively recalls her own death. It’s a slyly played hand. Graham is gobsmacked. He’s seen so many unbelievable sights during his time with the Doctor in the TARDIS, but nothing prepared him for this.

Enter the concept of the Solitract, a fable from the Doctor’s childhood, which has turned into something very real — a consciousness that had been banished in order for our universe to even exist. Now it’s desperate to find out what it missed out on, so it’s created a tiny pocket universe that mirrors our own. Doctor Who often dances around stoner logic, but damn, this time around it does a full on waltz with it. Apparently too many people have now invaded the Solitract plane and it starts to collapse. To save itself, it starts sending them back one by one through the portal. The Doctor offers herself up to it, as someone it can learn from ad infinitum. The final meeting between the Doctor and Solitract will surely go down as the most bizarre moment of the season, and there are no doubt viewers who were “with” the episode all the way up to the point where the Doctor has a philosophical chat with a talking frog. When the episode establishes that the Solitract could have taken the form of literally anything, one wonders exactly why freshman Who writer Ed Hime chose a frog that sounds like Grace. I certainly don’t have an answer for you, and I have no idea if this is the worst ending for an episode ever or the most inspired. One thing I do know: None of us will forget it anytime soon.

The title of this recap refers to a line from the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch, a reference I initially worried might be too obtuse. Then I remembered what that sketch was all about: It’s a salesman desperate to make a customer believe a dead parrot is still alive and well, and he goes to absurd lengths to prove this lie despite the obviousness of the deceased bird. And it was then that I realized it was the perfect title for this recap.

Oh yeah, one last thing: Ryan finally called Graham “Grandad,” and just in time for the season finale next week. See you then!

Doctor Who Recap: Pining for the Fjords