It Takes You Away: interesting, and that’s worth something

For one reason and another, I just couldn’t gather the family to watch this one. After the attempts had dragged out long past the end of the series’ broadcast run, I eventually gave up on them and watched it with just my middle son (Matthew). As it happened, this was the first Series-11 episode he’d seen. It was interesting to see his reaction, coming to it cold.

Initial impressions: favourable. I liked the set-up, with the blind girl, Hanne, alone in the house. I like that Ryan — in one of the series’ very very few callbacks to the companions’ back-stories — assumed that Hanne’s father had deserted her. I liked that we were left to infer that this is because it’s what had happened to him, rather than having that spelled out. (Though it did remind me that Ryan’s plot strand has been completely dropped on the floor since the brief mention in Arachnids in the UK.)

Still, we were given a nice set of mysteries: the house, the lone girl, the vanished father, the mysterious beast that comes at the same time every evening.

But then … they find a mirror that’s a gateway to another world (OK), and that other world is, for some reason, basically a laser-tag arena only with an inexplicably covetous goblin (played by the actor Kevin Eldon) and a flock of carnivorous piranha-moths. For no reason. Nothing that happens in this red world makes much sense (e.g. sometimes staying still is the way to avoid the moths, and sometimes running away from them is the right thing); and, worse, none of it has the slightest relevance to anything that happens elsewhere.

And the reason this is a tragedy, rather than just a waste of time, is because there’s plenty else happening, and it all gets rather rushed through. It turns out that the laser-tag arena is just a Wood between the Worlds, and the real destination is a mirror world that you reach through it. But we don’t discover this until we’ve burned 20 minutes running around inside the red-lit maze, avoiding moths. It really is the most pointless digression.

And this matters because the mirror-world is interesting. It’s where Hanne’s father has disappeared to (I don’t think we ever find out how he got there). And the reason he’s been staying, rather than returning to his daughter, is because his dead wife is alive there. Now that is a situation with possibilities. Even more poignantly, Graham’s wife Grace is there, too, and we liked her back before she died at the end of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. (Ha! It only now occurs to me that that title could just as well apply to Grace as to the Doctor.)

What does this mean? Why is it happening? How will Graham handle it? How will her grandson Ryan handle it? How will the slowly growing Graham/Ryan relationship change as they each get to grips with the return of the person that relationship was founded on? Will Yaz feel left out as Graham and Ryan latch onto Grace as the restored centre of their lives? How will the Doctor react as she thinks of all the people she has loved and lost, and wonders if any of them might also be alive in the mirror world?

Well, we don’t know the answers to most of these questions, because all that time-wasting in the laser arena has left us without the chance to explore in more than the most perfunctory way. We learn almost immediately that the mirror world was created by a mythical being, the Solitract; that Hanne’s mother and Grace are simulations; and that all the real people need to leave immediately or the mirror world will collapse. Which they do, leaving the Doctor alone with the Solitract.

And as Matthew pointed out, it would have been so easy to fix this, just by dumping the red zone completely and making the mirror-portal go straight between our world and the mirror world. No goblin, no moths, no running around for no reason. Time to breathe, and to consider the possible interpretations and ramifications of the mirror-world. You know, like the way The Girl Who Waited took its time, and was brilliant.

What would a good writer have done with this premise? A Paul Cornell, say, who has been criminally underused in New Who. Well, he would have used the science-fictional conceit to make us think about how we all deal with loss — about whether we construct alternative worlds in our minds where our loved ones survived — and about what ways that is healthy and unhealthy. In other words, surface-level story would be saying something below the surface as well. Instead, we got: flocks of carnivorous moths in a laser-tag arena.

Aaanyway, with all the companions and supporting cast out of the way, we then see the Solitract for the first time. It manfests as: a frog.

I’ve got no real problem with this: a super-powerful mythical being can manifest however the heck it wants, in my book. After all, Zeus was constantly turning up in the guise of a bull or a swan or what have you. But I do insist on the frog’s lip-sync matching its speech. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

Anyway, the Doctor and the frog talk for maybe twenty-five seconds, the Doctor persuades the frog to let her leave, and it agrees to spend all eternity alone. The Doctor (rather smugly) congratulates herself on having made a friend, lightly skipping over the part where her very next act was to condemn that friend to a lonely eternity, and it’s as you were. Wham, bam, no thank you, ma’am.

I vaguely remember that Yaz was in the episode, too.

Look, please believe me when I tell you that writing all this gives me no pleasure. I really want to be able to come straight out and say “What a great episode of Doctor Who“; or even “That was, despite its very real flaws, a fine episode”. But nothing that’s happened this season has given me the material to say that. With only one opportunity left to redeem itself, Series 11 is on target to be not just the worst since the 2005 revival, but by far the least interesting. And whatever else it is, Doctor Who has to be interesting. You have all of time and space to play with: alien cultures, millions of years of evolution, scientific marvels beyond our imagining, scope for wonder upon wonder. Yet we are rarely touching on any of that. In the end, I give It Takes You Away a lukewarm positive assessment, on the basis that its set-up drew me in and its premise, though horrifically fumbled, was promising. But, really, if that’s going to be as good as it gets, then — I never thought I’d say this — I might give Series 12 a miss.

Tune in next time for thoughts not only on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos but on the series as a whole. I really really hope I can end on a positive note.



  • DOCTOR WHO: ‘IT TAKES YOU AWAY’ by Gavin Burrows, is more positive than I am: “the Solitract is simply lonely. It … genuinely just does want everyone to be together. Much like ’Demons of the Punjab’, ‘It Takes You Away’ is a title that gets reapplied as the story progresses.”
  • It Takes You Away Review by Elizabeth Sandifer. Wildly over-enthusiastic for me: I can’t even begin to get on board with the claim that “for the first time in her tenure Whittaker is unquestionably the Doctor, but in a way that no previous actor in the part ever could have been.”

19 responses to “It Takes You Away: interesting, and that’s worth something

  1. I may be typing this just to celebrate the fact we’ve found a recent ‘Who’ episode I’ve liked more than you, but I’m going to continue to insist there was no more mileage in the mirror world. It’s not just that we’d have known from the outset where this was going, something which is very often the case in popular fiction. It’s that it would have felt like it. We’d have been saying before long “get over the fake Grace and back through the mirror, dummy!” So the red zone, while filler, is necessarily filler. And it’s inserted well in terms of plot mechanics, even if it doesn’t add anything fo substance.

    Yes, Yaz was under-used (again).

  2. … though to be fair, Yaz did get the reverse-the-polarity line, which made me laugh out loud. But I genuinely can’t call to mind one single other thing that she did or said.

    I think you’re being strikingly unambitious about the mirror world. There’s any amount of interesting material to be had there, and it could easily have carried a whole episode, or even a two-parter, without any of the regular-world stuff, let along the laser-tag arena. In a Doctor Who multiverse there are any number of reasons, good and bad, why a dead character might be alive in a different universe — as for example Rose’s dad back in Age of Steel.

  3. In the Whoniverse perhaps, but we’re talking about this story in particular. Where it’s clearly going to be a false paradise. it’s a plot function is to be seen through and left again.

  4. In this story as it was presented, yes — it’s clearly going to be a false paradise. But that’s only because the story consistently muffed its opportunities to be something more. Had we not bothered with all the laser-tag, we could have got to the mirror-world much earlier in the episode and had plenty of time for it to be an interesting mystery; or for people to initially take it at face value and only subsequently discover that it’s not what it seems.

  5. It was always going to be a false paradise, but it didn’t have to be a self-destructing false paradise: what if while having half a dozen people there was making it fall apart imminently, with only one person and the entrance sealed off it could last, say, a hundred years before collapsing? So the father could choose whether to abandon his daughter in order to live out his natural life with a simulacrum of his dead wife. It could have been about the choice between happiness and duty as a father.

    You’d have to come up with some other conflict-engine, of course, but as the original doesn’t have much of a conflict-engine anyway (that’s why they have to pad it out) that’d have to be done for any rewriting.

    Hm— if you wanted to be really cutting, you could have him be hesitant over the fact that to stay in his paradise deulsion he’d have to abandon his daughter, only for the place to create a fake daughter as well, and then have him reject the real daughter in favour of the fake one who will allow him to stay. It could be a metaphor for all kinds of parents who put their own desires ahead of their childen. Or would that be too dark?

  6. All good ideas, which could have taken the episode much, much deeper than a swarm of flesh-moths.

  7. I suspect much of the difference of opinion here stems from my feeling this story was about accepting the inevitability of death. (Which is the fundamental division between the father and the daughter.) So something like the father saying “why can’t you be good like your duplicate in the false paradise mirror world?”, my immediate reaction is that it takes things away from the central premise.

  8. Right, but the father doesn’t get much choice about accepting the inevitability of death because as pretty much soon as the story gets to the fantasy-world (ie, his denial) it starts collapsing and he has to leave. He couldn’t continue to refuse to a. t. i. o. d. (symbolised by staying in the fantasy world) even if he wanted to.

    Whereas if more time had gone into that story strand, he could have been presented with an actual choice about whether to accept the inevitability of death, or to instead remain in denial and therefore be permanently cut off from his daughter, and possibly had to fight for whichever choice he made instead of it being forced upon him.

  9. I think that’s part of it, though. The impossibility of rejecting death is represented by the impossibility of the mirror world, of course it all collapses. The story’s about the Doctor convincing the Solitract of that impossibility. The Father’s not the centre of the story but an incidence of something. (Not that I’m suggesting the thing’s completely coherent. Or anyone else is obliged to go with me on my reading. But I do think it’s better than just better-than-Chibnall.)

  10. But it is possible to not accept the inevitability of death. It is possible to live one’s whole life in denial, and plenty of people do.

    And really, a story where there’s only one possible choice isn’t ever going to be very dramatic, is it?

  11. I think that might be why someone has to die before the story starts.

  12. Right, but the point is, almost as soon as the story reaches the mirror-world it becomes obvious whatnis going on, and then immediately after that the fantasy-world starts collapsing and so they have to leave. The challenge is simply to convince the father it is a fantasy and as soon as he realises what is going on he leaves with them in the nick of time.

    Which means what the fantasy-world means to the father, what he would be willing to do to stay in the fantasy, doesn’t have time to get developed. It ends as soon as it starts to get interesting.

    However, if the middle section had been ditched, then there would have been time to keep the story running past the bit where they work out what’s going on and explore the father’s reaction to finding out that the living wife is a fantasy, and do something more interesting, and with more conflict, than just ‘that makes him leave in the nick of time’. Like, he could have joined forces with the intelligent universe to try to expell the TARDIS crew and his daughter so that he could stay in his fantasy, for example. Or something else.

    Instead, they get to what should be the starting-point of the story, and then immediately go into the final act by starting a contrived countdown clock.

    I mean, if what you are saying is that you think spinning out the ‘what is this world and how is his wife alive?’ mystery would be tedious because it’s obvious she’s going to turn out to be a fake, I agree you you totally. But the point is that there is lots of milage in what happens in the fantasy world after it is discovered to be fake, lots of conflict that could generate, that just doesn’t get explored because it is declared that the fantasy world is collapsing and they have to get out now.

    But if they didn’t have to get out now, if it didn’t collapse, would the father and/or the game show host betray the Doctor in order to be able to stay in the fantasy, even knowing it was a fantasy, for example?

  13. I’m not sure ‘fake’ is the right term, which suggests the mirror world is a trap and the doubles of the dead are lures. Whereas the whole point of the Solitract it, it perceives death as a glitch in the system it can fix. So it makes something which is unsustainable. If there’s extra mileage in the final third, it would have to be between the Doctor and the Solitract.

  14. But the point is it doesn’t have to be unsustainable: that’s a writer’s choice. The writer could have instead chosen that the presence of one or two humans in the fantasy-world would have been perfectly sustainable (being a metaphor for how it’s perfectly possible to choose to live forever in denial, but if you do, you live there alone), at least for long enough for them to live out their natural lifespans. Then there would have been actual drama in the choice of whether to stay in the fantasy-world or not, which there isn’t if it’s just about to blow up.

  15. Just chipping in to say I am almost wholly in agreement with H; but I’ll butt out now, because I’m enjoying watching this unfold. Have at it, Gavin!

  16. I am almost wholly in agreement with H

    And I hope you find that one-third as disturbing as I do.

  17. Actually, I think we’ve hit the ‘agree to disagree’ point. It may be half a story (in fact that seems pretty unarguable), but IMHO I’m looking at the full half of the glass. It’s the difference between “big changes would need to be made to give this more mileage” and “let’s look at what’s in there already”. But, as ever, each to their own.

  18. Then I suppose I ought to get on with watching the season finale.

    (The very fact that I’m thinking in terms of “suppose I ought to” rather than “can’t wait to” tells its own story.)

  19. Pingback: Fugitive of the Judoon: that’s how it’s done! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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