In one of the rare times since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, this week’s episode did not do what penultimate episodes of the show do nowadays: set up the finale.
Instead, “It Takes You Away” goes for something quieter and unexpected. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) land in 2018 Norway, where a young girl, Hanne (Ellie Wallwork), is holed up in her isolated home and living in fear of an unseen creature skulking about in the evenings. And when Team TARDIS discovers her hiding in a wardrobe, they learn it has been several days since her father Erik (Christian Rubeck) went missing.
The set-up is the first of many fake-outs contained within the story as it leads viewers on a path away from the showy spectacles of episodes like “Bad Wolf,” “Army of Ghosts,” “The Pandorica Opens,” or “Dark Water.” The story keeps banking left for an increasingly intimate tale. And that is remarkable.
In lieu of a creature lurking in the area – its noises turn out to be an audio tape Erik put on a timer to discourage the blind Hanne from going into the woods – we are introduced to another bit of Time Lord mythology: the Solitract. According to The Doctor’s fifth Nan, who spun a bedtime yarn about the Solitract, it was a sentient aspect of the pre-formed universe which prevented the conventional universe from forming. Once expelled to its own plane of existence, matter began to form and the universe coalesced into its early state. Unfortunately, the Solitract was left all alone in its own universe with nothing and no one to grow with.
As Yaz points out, Time Lord bedtime tales are not exactly docile or reassuring. They are, however, informative as The Doctor pieces together that the Solitract has somehow built a portal between its universe and the conventional one; which for the purposes of clarity, we’ll call “N-Space” (Thanks Chris Bidmead!). The portal takes shape in N-Space as the mirror in Erik’s bedroom.
Unfortunately, the portal contains trace amounts of the Solitract’s incompatible energy, which means an “Anti-Zone” has formed within the portal where flesh-eating moths and a deal-making alien called Ribbons (Kevin Eldon) make their home. As The Doctor explains it, the Anti-Zone is almost like an universal immune response to the extra-dimensional incursion. But for us, it ends up being the least inspired aspect of the episode. Visually, it’s a dull rock corridor. Thematically, it fails to deliver more than filler. And despite Eldon’s fabulous performance as Ribbons, his whole thread just eats time. Although, to be more charitable, it adds to the episode’s overall tendency to walk away from Doctor Who clichés and finale-establishing moments. The fact it takes place in an uninspired cave corridor – the biggest Doctor Who cliché short of a rock quarry – suggests there was level of intention to this.
On the other side of the mirror, The Doctor, Yaz and Graham discover Erik living a life in an idyllic version of his isolated home with his dead wife Trine (Lisa Stokke). Soon after, Graham discovers Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) is also there waiting for him. The episode takes a turn once more as Graham talks to his apparently dead wife and The Doctor tries to determine the real nature of where they landed.
And for once, the emotional content takes center stage over The Doctor’s brilliance. Walsh is a fantastic actor and Clarke brought such life to Grace in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” that it seemed the series would reunite them in some absurd science fiction way. Sadly, Grace turns out to be an aspect of the Solitract; which immediately ejects Graham back to the Anti-Zone when he rejects its simulation of her.
But the episode shifts again once The Doctor makes a bargain with the Solitract to release the others.
Instead of having malicious designs on N-Space, the Solitract turns out to be a very lonely conscious universe in and of itself. The Doctor volunteers to remain within it because it fascinates her and she recognizes its right to have a friend of its own. Now here, the episode could’ve ended and set up a cliffhanger for the finale. But it almost immediately walks away from that as The Doctor proves incompatible with the Solitract’s concept of matter. It ultimately sends her home, leaving the viewer with a greater sense of loss than one would anticipate.
It may be the biggest surprise of the episode. After being trained to expect a big cliffhanger or a shocking reveal over the last decade and change by a season’s penultimate episode, “It Takes You Away” emphasizes the smaller moments. The best parts of the episode center on the struggles Erik and Graham face by letting go of their wives again. Similarly, the genuine sadness The Doctor and the Solitract feel in splitting up is more effecting than, say, seeing a friend from The Doctor’s past or a bitter enemy like Omega show up; which may be why the end of this episode was the perfect moment for Ryan to finally call Graham “granddad.”
At the beginning of the season, I predicted it would occur when one or the other prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It was an expectation based on the way Doctor Who under Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat would pay off an idea like this. But in doing it during a quiet, contemplative moment, Chris Chibnall and his writers establish the rules of New Series Doctor Who no longer apply and key character moments will happen with little pomp and circumstance. Sometimes, that’s the right call.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.