“It Takes You Away” is the best story of season 11. It’s about a genuinely intriguing science fiction concept with some fascinating worldbuilding, but it’s trapped by the failings of this season as a whole – flat, uninteresting characters and far too quickly resolved threats.
Our setup is as barebones as usual – the TARDIS and company land in Norway (next to a lovely fjord) with no context or explanation. It’s not that we desperately need to know exactly why they’re in 2018 Norway, but there’s a distinct lack of cohesive flow here that’s becoming a staple of Chibnall’s season. There’s some of the usual banter – the Doctor alluding to an oncoming ‘wooly rebellion’ – and then we’re investigating a hut in the middle of nowhere. There’s a blind girl, Hanne, home alone, and she’s hiding from the monsters outside.
But the mystery here is a red herring – Ryan’s jarring and ill-spirited guess that Hanne’s father has walked out on her is half-right; he’s left speakers playing monster sounds while he escapes into a parallel mirror world. There’s a great scene where the Doctor writes an ominous message on the wall (instructions for Ryan) but lies to Hanne about what it says. This moment is one of the very few glimpses we’ve had into the darker, more cunning side of 13, and it’s a reminder that there’s more at stake than silly adventures through space.
The strongest aspect of the episode by far is what lies beyond the mirror – a honeypot trap, designed by a sentient universe to entice people (and more importantly the fundamental laws that comprise them) into staying. The idea of the Solitract is fascinating, even if it is a little odd that the Doctor has never mentioned it before. A fundamental element present at the birth of the universe, the Solitract is a consciousness that can’t coexist with gravity, time and matter as they exist in our universe. It’s a brilliant idea with tons of potential beyond this episode’s runtime, and I can only hope we’ve got more of it to come if Ed Hime returns to write for the show again.
The ‘buffer zone’ between the Solitract and our universe is a fun idea too, although it’s implemented poorly and the beings that exist within it – not to mention the odd Ribbons character – stand up to little scrutiny. There’s potential for a death zone of some kind here, but it ends up as little more than a cave with dangerous moths. The sentient Planet from season six’s “The Doctor’s Wife” was a much more unique take on pockets outside our own universe.
So here’s the trap – the Solitract has set up a universe offering anyone who enters the exact thing they need to keep them there. For Hanne’s father, it’s her dead mother, his wife. And for Graham, it’s Grace. The Solitract doesn’t conjure anyone for Yaz or the Doctor, which feels like a plot hole in retrospect. The Doctor sees through the ruse quickly and has to convince Graham that not only is this not the real Grace, but he’s got to say goodbye to her..again. Bradley Walsh once again shines here and offers the real emotional core to the episode. It’s great to have him realise that looking after Ryan takes president over staying trapped in his past, a realisation paid off at the episode’s climax with Ryan referring to Graham as ‘grandad’ for the first time.
The Doctor’s interactions with the Solitract itself are some of the strongest moments we’ve had this season. I personally loved the Solitract taking the form of a frog, it was a classic Hitchhikers moment and it would make sense for a sentient universe to enjoy being the form of a frog as much as any other. The Doctor’s wonder at the Solitract and disdain that she can’t stay to get to know and explore it is powerfully acted by Jodie, and felt like a truly ‘Doctor’ moment I could just as easily see shared by any previous incarnation. There’s a feeling that there’s so much more to learn, and being cut off from it is a true loss.
There’s a strong metaphor for dysfunctional/unhealthy relationships running throughout the entire episode (at least in my reading) and it’s an interesting study in exploring the complicated ups and downs of interpersonal relations – some people, like elements, simply do not work together, even if they wish they did. “It Takes You Away” has an absurdist core and will no doubt divide viewers. I personally have a feeling it’ll be remembered as one of season 11’s strongest. The characters are forgettable and the TARDIS team have the same issues as always (Yaz is once again mostly a sounding board for the Doctor) but there are some great ideas on display here, and it’s the only truly memorable sci-fi story we’ve had this season.
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