James Whitbrook wrote the following about the Doctor Who episode “It Takes You Away”:
It was weird. And lovely? And messed up. And weird. It might be the most out-there episode of Doctor Who ever made, one that extrapolates some of the show’s key ideals (especially the one of finding beauty in the surreal and weird vastness of the universe we live in) to their farthest—almost definitely its most absurdist—extrapolation. And that’s saying something for a series with as bonkers a history, in ways good and bad, as Doctor Who has.
Me, I’m not even sure I know what to make of the title yet, never mind some of the other details. It is far more allusive, far less descriptive, than the stereotypical titles that have were parodied by “The Curse of Fatal Death.” But for someone like me who is fascinated by myth, creation, cosmology, and religion in science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, this is a fantastic episode.
Before digging into the meaty core of the episode, I don’t want to rush past the Doctor’s reference to the “Wooly Rebellion.” She nonchalantly mentions that, in 193 years from now, there will be a complete renegotiation of the human-sheep relationship. It will be, she says, a “total bloodbath.”
The episode is set in Norway, by a fjord that looks unreal, like a painting of mythical rather than real beauty.
One other striking feature of the episode is the fact that a girl who is blind, named Hannah, is a central character. The show brought disability into the fore with Ryan’s condition. This is further progress, precisely because the episode neither ignores or downplays the constraints of not being sighted, nor makes Hannah a less full-fledged character and participant in the dynamic of the narrative. Indeed, precisely because she is not as easily misled by appearances as others are, she will see through a deception more quickly than others do.
The Doctor and friends find Hannah boarded up and hiding in a cabin. We learn that her mother died some time previously, and that her father Eric has been missing for four days. She is wearing an Arctic Monkeys shirt which makes a connection with Yaz, while Ryan’s assumption that her father is like his own leads him to make a remark that sets him and Hannah at odds initially. As the conversation progresses, Hannah says that there are worse things out there than people. Yet once again, we will find that it is people – even if not always humans, then certainly humans and other conscious entities that are at least somewhat like us – that are the fearful things and the complicating factors in any given situation.
Soon, exploring the house, Ryan and Graham find a mirror in which they are not reflected. The Doctor comes and locks it with her sonic screwdriver, then pokes her head in and looks through. The mirror turns out to be a portal to another world, dimension, or something else. In this context, the Doctor uses the phrase “head wonk.” Asked if it is safe, the Doctor says, “I doubt it. It’s an interdimensional portal in a mirror in a house in a Norwegian forest.” Venturing through, the Doctor uses a roll of string in an effort to make sure they can find their way back. This is literally “through the looking glass,” and I recall multiple science fiction and horror movies and TV shows from my childhood that played on our fascination with mirrors and our penchant to imagine that they might be doorways rather than mere reflectors of light.
The realm immediately beyond the mirror is said to be an Anti-Zone, a region formed when the very fabric of spacetime is threatened. In there they find a mysterious being and some flesh-eating moths, because of course you have to have dangers in this in-between world. But those aren’t the focus.
On our world’s side of the mirror, Ryan discovers that the monster noises they heard came from speakers, presumably set up by Hannah’s father. Not long after, Hannah knocks Ryan out and goes through the mirror. Meanwhile, the Doctor, Yaz, and Graham have ended up on the other side of the mirror, beyond the Anti-Zone, in a realm that looks like their world. But there, they find Eric, who confesses that he deliberately scared his daughter to keep her safe in hiding while he went through mirror. There, on the other side, his dead wife Trina was apparently alive. But she cannot pass through the mirror and so he needed to keep coming to her there.
And it turns out that Grace is there too, much to Graham’s surprise.
The Doctor then finds herself recalling a myth, a bedtime story, that she heard as a child, about the Solitract.
(We also learn that the Doctor had seven grandmothers, and that granny five was her favorite. That’s the one who told her the story about this.) According to the story, in the beginning, pre-time, pre-everything, all the laws of the universe were there but they couldn’t fit together, because a consciousness was there, the solitract, that was somehow incompatible with them or kept them from coming together in a cohesive and rational fashion. Our universe proceeded to exile the Solitract to another plane. Then everything else fit together. The Solitract is described as a conscious universe. (This is reminiscent of the episode “The Mind Robber” from the Patrick Troughton era in some ways.)
The Doctor, in a manner reminiscent of “The Curse of Fenric” and “The God Complex,” the Doctor has to shatter the illusions, the desire to believe, of her companions, but in this case it is faith not in the Doctor but in illusions of dead loved ones. The Doctor says, “It’s her or the real world. You can’t have both.” And then a little later, “She’s not your wife. She’s furniture with a pulse.”
In a delightful nod to the show’s history, Yaz suggests that perhaps the Doctor can “reverse the polarity.” To that the Doctor says, “You speak my language.”
As the Doctor asks what the Solitract built this mirror image of their universe for, once again she manages to understand the motive and thus the personhood and worth of what might otherwise simply seem to be a deadly enemy acting out of malice. The Solitract misses our universe, and wants to reconnect with it, and so offered a world it thought we’d like. The Doctor offers the Solitract her own long life with its many stories and losses, in an effort to get it to relinquish its hold on Eric and the others. This offer’s wording struck me as reminiscent of the Doctor’s speech in the episode “The Rings of Akhaten.” That of course was an episode replete with religious elements.
In the end it is just the Doctor and the Solitract, who says “My own form is endless.” And so it appears in the shape of a frog that talks like Grace. The Solitract talks with the Doctor, wanting to hear about her universe. The Doctor makes friends with a whole universe in the form of a frog that talks like a dead human – you can see why so many people have been saying that the episode is surreal, or to use the Doctor’s own phrase from the episode, a “head wonk.” The Doctor says that friends help each other face up to their problems, rather than merely avoiding them. The Doctor tells the Solitract that, to survive, it is “going to have to keep on being brilliant by yourself…You and I will be friends forever.” Later the Doctor says, “Shame. Made a friend. A whole conscious universe. And had to say goodbye.”
The episode thus explores our desire for comforting illusions in the face of loss, but also explores the possibility that this is not merely a human feature, but that of a defining feature of our universe, even if one that has been exiled and driven out to make our existence possible. There are resonances with Gnosticism, but in many ways this is quite a unique cosmogony unlike any other I can think of.
Having plumbed the surreal and truly deep matters in an emotional way, Doctor Who almost always injects an element of comedy. This case is no different. The Doctor quips as they return to the TARDIS, “I see the sheep have moved on. Probably plotting. Come on.”
But it saves an emotional punch for last, as Ryan says something to Graham in the face of their shared loss that he had been unwilling to up until then: “At least we’ve got each other – granddad.”
Having mentioned monsters, let me also link to John Morehouse’s post about a new book about monsters, and a call for papers for a conference about monsters. Then on myth let me link to Steve Wiggins’ post about mythic truth, and a conference announcement related to the “mythosphere.”
It’s a powerful episode emotionally in many ways. It probably doesn’t make much sense on a literal level. Myth is like that. And so Doctor Who once again illustrates that sci-fi is where modern people turn for mythology.
What did you think of “It Takes You Away”? And why do you think the episode bears that title?