Doctor Who: “It Takes You Away”

“It Takes You Away” appears to change genre throughout the episode — from cabin-in-the-woods-style horror to dark fantasy to Solaris-esque SF, but really there’s only one overarching genre at work: the fairy tale. We’ve got a little girl lost in the forest (even if she’s in her own house); a magic mirror; a bridge with a troll demanding payment and speaking in riddles; a “breadcrumb” trail of string (see also Theseus); a talking frog; even a sorcerous stepmother who’s stolen away the girl’s father by wearing her dead mother’s face. If this pedigree weren’t already obvious, we learn the nature of the stepmother from a bedtime story.

Setting the fairy tale in a specific place (Norway) with specific details (the Arctic Monkeys and Slayer t-shirts) helps it feel far fresher than if it had been set in some quasi-medieval milieu, and it’s also what helps to disguise the genre. This helps smooth over some of the questions that don’t jump out on the first unspoiled viewing, like why Erik hatches such an elaborate plan to keep his daughter from leaving the house when almost any other story would have made her feel safer where she was and less worried about him. Or, indeed, why he doesn’t take her with him through the mirror; sure, it’s dangerous, but obviously he’s made the trip more than once and could escort her through? Perhaps he knows instinctively she’ll reject “Trine,” or maybe in addition to missing his wife he longs to escape the responsibility Hanne represents. You get the feeling he probably deserved those punches from Graham and Yaz.

No doubt some classic fan has noticed that the slightly Babadookish Solitract (not to be confused with the Isolus, or indeed with Han Solo), its situation vis-a-vis our universe, and its status as Gallifreyan legend basically make it a more congenial take on Omega, the Time Lord solar engineer trapped in an antimatter dimension, forever incompatible with “our” universe. If you squint, the general geography of the whole thing vaguely corresponds to that of “The Three Doctors.” Graham’s nervous question about whether the antizone is still in Norway calls to mind — for those of us with this sad kind of mind — the Brigadier saying of Omega’s realm “I’m fairly sure that’s Cromer.” Omega is of course concerned primarily with power and revenge, rather than a longing for friendship and a long-lost home, but both entities are prepared to pull the walls down when they can’t get their way.

“The Three Doctors” might have been more delightful if Omega had taken the form of a frog at the end, but “It Takes You Away” probably didn’t need that pothole in the road. The frog is a cute idea on paper, and plenty of special effects in Doctor Who have been at least this abysmal, but there’s no way around the fact that the frog just plain can’t act. A Kermit the Frog puppet would have looked more convincing, and had a more articulate mouth. It’s not that the frog should look real, exactly — maybe it’s emulating one of Grace’s toy frogs — but it’s distracting that it looks so wooden. It can’t have been easy for Sharon D. Clarke to act the part of the Solitract through voiceover only, and being able to act with her face as well would have helped sell that somewhat trite scene (how many times in New Who has the Doctor declared some hostile creature “the most beautiful” thing she’s ever seen?), and given more screen time to an actor who got woefully little of it this series.

On my first viewing, I thought it was a shame we had that long, unpleasant middle bit with “Ribbons” and the moths — first of all, ew, and second of all, it ate up a lot of screen time we could have been spending on exploring the more human themes. But on second viewing, I thought we probably got just about enough of Erik, Trine, Graham, and Grace (though poor Ryan never got to see his not-Nan) to fill in the rest for ourselves, and as irritating as Ribbons and his third-person-talking was, as unexplained as his presence still was, he fit perfectly with the fairy tale setup. Plus the flesh moths looked great, somehow both terrifying and adorable crawling out of a freshly flensed eyesocket.